Liberals, give mainline Protestantism another chance.
Do it for your political philosophy: More religion would make liberalism more intellectually coherent (the “created” in “created equal” is there for a reason), more politically effective, more rooted in its own history, less of a congerie of suspicious “allies” and more of an actual fraternity.
Do it for your friends and neighbors, town and cities: Thriving congregations have spillover effects that even anti-Trump marches can’t match.
Do it for your family: Church is good for health and happiness, it’s a better place to meet a mate than Tinder, and even its most modernized form is still an ark of memory, a link between the living and the dead.
I understand that there’s the minor problem of actual belief. But honestly, dear liberals, many of you do believe in the kind of open Gospel that a lot of mainline churches preach.
If pressed, most of you aren’t hard-core atheists: You pursue religious experiences, you have affinities for Unitarianism or Quakerism, you can even appreciate Christian orthodoxy when it’s woven into Marilynne Robinson novels or the “Letter From Birmingham Jail.”
Word on the street has it that Redeemer Presbyterian Church has given Marilynne Robinson its first Commission of Faith and Work. Doesn’t Robinson know that Tim Keller is kind of toxic? Has she no sense of solidarity with her mainline Protestant women and LBGT+ ministers and church members? (Or, didn’t Princeton’s president know that Keller was about to approve an award to Robinson?)
Better question: why is a church whose officers subscribe the Confession of Faith and Catechisms recognizing a woman who sometimes preaches and whose theological reflections, while thoughtful, hardly line up with the PCA’s confessional teaching?
Here’s the explanation:
The commission aims to address the tide of uncertainty that the humanities now face with distinctly Christian support. Historically, in times of uncertainty and transition, the humanities have provided reminders of hope and grace to combat our fear and doubt. They center us in the miracle of the Imago Dei, sounding the peal of God’s presence in our lives. As Robinson so wisely states in one of her many erudite essays: “I experience religious dread whenever I find myself thinking that I know the limits of God’s grace, since I am utterly certain it exceeds any imagination a human being might have of it. God does, after all, so love the world.”
The logic is that the humanities are on the ropes. The humanities need support from Christians. The humanities need such support because they testify to God’s “presence in our lives.”
Imagine the testimony to God’s presence if a pastor proclaimed that Jesus Christ died for sinners. Why clutter the gospel with the valuable though limited insights of the humanities?
Humanities are valuable. So are the social and natural sciences. But the humanities are not divinity — duh. The church doesn’t gain status by hanging out with celebrity writers. It reduces God’s saving power to human aspirations.
Which novelist can say she does this?
Remember this, at least — the things in which the world is now interested are the things that are seen; but the things that are seen are temporal, and the things that are not seen are eternal. You, as ministers of Christ, are called to deal with the unseen things. You are stewards of the mysteries of God. You alone can lead men, by the proclamation of God’s word, out of the crash and jazz and noise and rattle and smoke of this weary age into the green pastures and beside the still waters; you alone, as minsters of reconciliation, can give what the world with all its boasting and pride can never give — the infinite sweetness of the communion of the redeemed soul with the living God. (Selected Shorter Writings, 205)
Postscript: Do humanists of this sort need the support of a confessional Presbyterian church?
Do you believe in sin?
Well, it depends how you define the word. The way I would read Genesis is a phenomenon . . . what it describes is a human predisposition to what amounts to self-defeat — to be given a wonderful planet and find yourself destroying it. Or, to have a wonderful civilization and then engage yourself aggressively in ways that destroy your civilization and another besides. If you look at human history or practically any human biography, it’s very hard to say that people don’t incline toward harmful and self-destructive acts, whether they intend to or not.
You are talking about sin on a large scale as you talk about it now. What about cheating on your wife?
Definite sin. A big 10. I think that in a certain way I was perhaps taught that the Ten Commandments are like a lot of the law of Moses in the sense that they name as transgressions things that you might not derive by reason as being transgressive — things like keeping the Sabbath or not making idols. These are markers in reality that are divine in their origins in the sense that human beings might not necessarily have come up with them.
Aside from that, one of the things that is true of the Bible certainly — in the case like David, for example — is that people do things that are utterly prohibitive to them, evil even. And I am speaking here of David arranging the death of Uriah so he could marry Bathsheba. And yet, there is always a huge variable at play — how does God respond to this and the difference of what we could measure as projected transgressions, the difference between that and the same thing as seen through the eyes of love or grace. These are very different things.
So I believe in sin in the sense that people do harm. I believe in grace in the sense that we cannot make final judgments about the meaning or the effect of what we do.
What an odd question, but this group of Presbyterian women might help Princeton Seminary administrators not feel so bad about the kerfuffle over Keller and the Kuyper Prize:
Meanwhile, Todd Pruitt has found another sign of harmonic convergence between women on both sides of the mainstream/sideline Presbyterian divide. Pastor Pruitt writes this:
If you listen to the podcast what you will hear is typical boilerplate liberation theology which is fundamentally unbiblical and incompatible with the gospel and the church’s mission. Sadly this has been allowed a foothold in the PCA. Some of us have been warning about it, apparently to no avail. It is nothing more than the latest incarnation of the social gospel which ironically destroys the gospel by replacing it with something else.
During the discussion the hosts dismiss the biblical pattern of male leadership within the church as nothing more than a manmade rule. They also mock those who uphold that biblical pattern and join that mockery with crude language. Keep in mind that these men and women are members of and serve in churches whose standards uphold those biblical patterns of leadership.
Near the very end of the podcast one of the hosts gives a brief nod of legitimacy to transgenderism. This is not surprising given the radical roots of their categories.
I will not labor over every problem with the content of this podcast. You will be able to hear for yourself if you choose. But be warned. It is very tedious. It is something that would be warmly received in the PC(USA) for sure. What is so troubling is that it is being received by some within the PCA. This will not end well. Experiments in the social gospel never end well.
If Tim Keller had done more to warn Presbyterian urbanists and Neo-Calvinists about the pitfalls of making the gospel social (and political or cultural), he might have shielded himself from recent controversy. That’s right. If he had done that, he’d never have been nominated for the Kuyper Prize.
Did Machen found Westminster Seminary for nothing!?!
But you can’t take Presbyterianism out of the Curmudgeon.
The best priest we know serves up even more reasons for thinking New Calvinism is a sham:
Drs. Moore and Mohler have also been involved in another SBC fight. They are Calvinists in a denomination that has embraced evangelism and church growth of first of the Second Great Awakening sort (100 verses of “Just As I Am” waiting for one more sinner to be converted or one more backslider rededicate) and then of the church growth/contemporary church sort (rock bands, smoke machines, and preachers sitting on stools). But large number of Southern Baptists have embraced what they call “Calvinism” (How is a credo-baptist really a Calvinist?), or “the doctrines of grace” (“soteriological Calvinism, though one must also ask what kind of soteriological Calvinism denies a means of grace, baptism, to children?). The tension between traditional Baptists and the so-called Calvinistic Baptists is another fault line in the Convention, though a piece of plywood has been put over crack.
To keep it straight, the Gospel Coalition attracts and promotes Calvinists (think Tim Keller and the PCA) who do not minister as Calvinists, that is, Calvinists who look the other way when it comes to worship and the ministry of the word. To be sure, New Calvinists care about ministry, but their concern is for relevance, influence, size (matters). Their concern is not like Calvin’s or Bucer’s or Ursinus’ to make ministry conform to Scripture — Reformed according to the Word.
That is where tranformationalism goes. It sups with practices designed to be strategic, to win a hearing, to sit at the table. And all along, the freedom to minister word and sacrament, follow the regulative principle, administer church discipline is still overwhelmingly available. The problem is that the traditional means of grace and serious worship won’t rise above the hum drum of congregational life to amount to a movement, a following. Shouldn’t New Calvinists trust the God-ordained means of grace? Or do they know something God’s word doesn’t?
It reminds me of Hughes Oliphint Old’s point about contemporary worship:
In our evangelistic zeal we are looking for programs that will attract people. We think we have put honey on the lip of the bitter cup of salvation. It is the story of the wedding of Cana all over again but with this difference. At the crucial moment when the wine failed, we took matters into our own hands and used those five stone jars to mix up a batch of Kool-Aid instead. It seemed like a good solution in terms of our American culture. Unfortunately, all too soon the guests discovered the fraud. Alas! What are we to do now? How can we possible minister to those who thirst for the real thing? There is but one thing to do, as Mary the mother of Jesus, understood so very well. You remember how the story goes. After presenting the problem to Jesus, Mary turned to the servants and said to them, “Do whatever he tells you.” The servants did just that and the water was turned to wine, wine rich and mellow beyond anything they had ever tasted before.
Tim Challies needed support for his opposition to portrayals of God in film (think The Shack, I guess). So where did he go? He went to the Westminster and Heidelberg Catechisms, not to Tim Keller’s New City Catechism.
Notice the repudiation of images of God in Westminster and Heidelberg (from Tim):
Q. What is forbidden in the second commandment?
A. The second commandment forbids the worshipping of God by images, or any other way not appointed in his word.
Q. What are the reasons annexed to the second commandment?
A. The reasons annexed to the second commandment are, God’s sovereignty over us, his propriety in us, and the zeal he has for his own worship.
Q. What does God require in the second commandment?
A. We are not to make an image of God in any way, nor to worship him in any other manner than he has commanded in his Word.
Q. May we then not make any image at all?
A. God cannot and may not be visibly portrayed in any way. Creatures may be portrayed, but God forbids us to make or have any images of them in order to worship them or to serve God through them.
Q. But may images not be tolerated in the churches as “books for the laity?”
A. No, for we should not be wiser than God. He wants his people to be taught not by means of dumb images but by the living preaching of his Word.
On the basis of the information I’ve collected, I can make this determination: According to the Reformed tradition, the Bible forbids portraying God in any form, whether for worship or as a teaching aid.
But I shouldn’t stop there. The catechisms include Scripture references for each statement they make, so I should follow those references back to the Bible to ensure the writers of the catechisms properly interpreted the passages. Having done that, I can conclude I am on firm ground and consistent with Reformed theology when I say it is wrong for human actors to portray God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To reach a different conclusion would put me at odds with the established Reformed tradition.
That got me thinking. When Tim Keller wrote the New City Catechism, how did he parse the Second Commandment?
What does God require in the first, second, and third commandments?
First, that we know and trust God as the only true and living God. Second, that we avoid all idolatry and do not worship God improperly. Third, that we treat God’s name with fear and reverence, honoring also his Word and works.
Aside from raising questions about pedagogical strategy or showing proper regard for the moral law by covering three commandments in one question (that’s not Trinitarian), where does the New City Catechism put Keller and his Gospel Allies in relation to the established Reformed tradition? Do any of Keller’s fans or allies care?
How to be a Calvinist without subscribing the Three Forms of Unity (especially the Canons of Dort), Trevin Wax uses the same logic that allowed USA Presbyterians to be Presbyterian without subscribing the Confession of Faith:
I do wonder how David defines the contours of the Reformed heritage. At times, I get the impression that he is speaking of the Reformed tradition in its distinctively Calvinistic soteriological position. Certainly, one can speak of the “Reformed” in this way, but I suppose I come at this definition by considering the broader framework of the Reformation tradition.
For example, I don’t think of Os Guinness or Charles Colson as “Calvinists,” but as thinkers who have adopted and adapted the Kuyperian worldview and its distinctive approach to creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. Perhaps my concern with proper definition says more about my own placement in this tradition, as one who doesn’t line up exactly with Calvinist soteriology and yet appreciates the worldview emphasis one finds within this tradition. I would include John Wesley under the Reformed moniker, even though he was an Arminian with his own Wesleyan twist on the doctrines of salvation.
Interestingly, when David lifts up contemporary treatments of the atonement from N. T. Wright and Fleming Rutledge as preferable to the classical Reformed tradition, he is lifting up heirs to that broader tradition. That’s not to say there aren’t differences between Wright, Rutledge, and the classically Reformed. Still, these writers operate within the basic Reformed worldview and outlook. So, when David differentiates his perspective from the “Reformed,” he does so by appealing to one wing of the Reformed tradition over against another.
Wax never knew Machen:
Even if all this were true, even if a creedal Church were an undesirable thing, it would still remain true that as a matter of fact many (indeed in spirit really all) evangelical churches are creedal churches, and that if a man does not accept their creed he has no right to a place in their teaching ministry. The creedal character of the churches is differently expressed in the different evangelical bodies, but the example of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America may perhaps serve to illustrate what is meant.
It is required of all officers in the Presbyterian Church, including the ministers, that at their ordination they make answer “plainly” to a series of questions which begins with the two following: “Do you believe the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, the only infallible rule of faith and practice?” “Do you sincerely receive and adopt the Confession of Faith of this Church, as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures?”
If these “constitutional questions” do not fix clearly the creedal basis of the Presbyterian Church, it is difficult to see how any human language could possibly do so. Yet immediately after making such a solemn declaration, immediately after declaring that the Westminster Confession contains the system of doctrine taught in infallible Scriptures, many ministers of the Presbyterian Church will proceed to decry that same Confession and that doctrine of the infallibility of Scripture to which they have just solemnly subscribed! (Christianity and Liberalism)
Neo-Calvinism created this when it stressed culture over salvation, transformationalism over doctrine. Now we have cultural Calvinists, like cultural Jews and cultural Roman Catholics.
This should eliminate the “R” from R2K with help from the Gospel Allies. Trevin Wax mentions three matters where New Calvinists (posing as neo-Calvinists) can learn from Anabaptists (hint, it’s not how to build a gospel barn). If Mr. Wax had spent a little more time with 2K, he might have posed these theses better.
First, “What happens in the church matters more than anything that happens in the world.”
Reply: what have 2kers been saying but only to hear that Christianity must go beyond the church parking lot? And is it not a tad rich to hear about the importance of the church at a website that puts the RA in parachurch? In other words, a high church Calvinism would help Mr. Wax restore the visible church to its proper significance.
Second, “The church changes the world by being the church.”
Reply: don’t go empire building without referring to your Constantinian playbook. Heck, would the church even have a Trinitarian theology to wind up the complementarians without the emperor calling an ecumenical council? Don’t forget either that the conversion of emperors and kings gave a plausibility to Christianity that made the evangelization of medieval Europe more plausible than it would have been with Christianity as a minority and persecuted faith. Do remember as well that the number of Christians spiked in the first half of the fourth century — from 10% of the population in 300 to 50% in 350 — undoubtedly because Christian politicians made the faith respectable and even remunerative.
Meanwhile, as kind as it is to regard Anabaptists as making a difference, overlooking the enormous influence of magisterial Protestants in so many of the aspects of Christian life we take for granted is unfortunate. Whether you like Vacation Bible School, Sunday school, a Bible in every hotel room, or parachurch foreign missionary enterprises, the evangelicals who read and take heart from the Gospel Allies would have a dry and parched religious landscape if they had had to depend on Anabaptists who went before.
Third, “The church is strongest in its witness when it occupies the margins.”
Reply: another kind and generous assertion, but is anyone going to tell me that the OPC has been incredibly strong — compared to Tim Keller, the Gospel Allies, the hipper portions of the PCA, and the behemoth Southern Baptist Convention — because Orthodox Presbyterians have ministered on the margins? Please.
So before anyone tries to buy a farm next to an Amish family, take Mr. Wax’s recommendation of Anabaptism with a grain of salt. If you’re really Reformed, you can chase it with a shot of Rye.