Prexit

State sovereignty goes hand in hand with ecclesiastical sovereignty, or it sure looks like it.

Michael Lind explains the phenomenon of Trump and what it means for Democrats and Republicans:

The culture war and partisan realignment are over; the policy realignment and “border war” — a clash between nationalists, mostly on the right, and multicultural globalists, mostly on the left — have just begun.

***

For the nationalists, the most important dividing line is that between American citizens and everyone else—symbolized by Trump’s proposal for a Mexican border wall. On the right, American nationalism is tainted by strains of white racial and religious nationalism and nativism, reinforced by Trump’s incendiary language about Mexicans and his proposed temporary ban on Muslims entering the U.S.

But while there is overlap between nationalists and racists, the two are not the same thing. The most extreme white nationalists don’t advocate nationalism as a governing philosophy in our multiracial country; they hope to withdraw from American life and create a white homeland within the nation-state. Nationalism is different than white nationalism, and a populist American nationalism untainted by vestiges of racial bigotry might have transracial appeal, like versions of national populism in Latin America.

The rise of populist nationalism on the right is paralleled by the rise of multicultural globalism on the center-left.

For multicultural globalists, national boundaries are increasingly obsolete and perhaps even immoral. According to the emerging progressive orthodoxy, the identities that count are subnational (race, gender, orientation) and supranational (citizenship of the world). While not necessarily representative of Democratic voters, progressive pundits and journalists increasingly speak a dialect of ethical cosmopolitanism or globalism — the idea that it is unjust to discriminate in favor of one’s fellow nationals against citizens of foreign countries.

Now watch (thanks to our W. Michigan correspondent) how church affairs line up with temporal politics, with ecumenists (globalists) on the left opposing the constraints of denominationalists (nationalists) on the right:

Many who witnessed the continuing denominational imprisonment of the Lord’s body and blood experienced ecumenical agony. The late Emilio Castro, the WCC general secretary who hired me, was a Methodist pastor who yearned for eucharistic sharing. He would say, “I’m not even asking the Catholics (or Orthodox) to recognize the validity of the Lord’s Supper that we Methodists celebrate. I’m simply asking them to accept that I see the body and blood of Jesus Christ fully present in their Eucharist.”

In spring 1994 I sat in a restaurant with Castro and his longtime Orthodox friend and WCC colleague Ion Bria, a priest in the Romanian Orthodox Church. The two lifted their wine glasses and said to each other with tears in their eyes, “Someday, before we die, we shall be able to share the body and blood together, with our churches’ blessings.” But they never did. Nor, if they were still living, could they do so today.

So I returned to ecclesiastical disobedience. That became more complicated once I was elected general secretary of the Reformed Church in America. When I assumed that post, I didn’t know all that would be demanded of me as general secretary, but I knew I couldn’t go forward without retreating. I knew I needed regular times away, with a spiritual director, and the nourishment of Christ’s body and blood. A Carmelite retreat center near my home in New Jersey provided all this.

As a church official, I wanted more than ever to show absolute respect for my Catholic hosts. But their invitation to receive at the table was unambiguous. On my retreat days, I’d often be invited to read one of the scriptures at their eucharistic service.

Indifference to church polity and theology like this is why confessional Protestants exited from the modern ecumenical movement.

Arguably the most astounding aspect of contemporary ecumenical discussions is that the leader of the only true church is also apparently indifferent to ecclesiastical laws:

This tension in how we understand the Eucharist is one that, remarkably, Pope Francis himself has acknowledged. Last November he met with a Lutheran congregation in Rome and responded to one member, Anke de Bernardinis, who is married to a Catholic and who asked what it would take for them to receive the Eucharist together. The pope’s spontaneous ten-minute answer was revealing, unprecedented, and even stunning.

Francis said, “I ask myself the question. To share the Lord’s banquet: is it the goal of the path, or is it a viaticum (food or provision accompanying one on a journey) for walking together?” He posed that question rather than give the doctrinal response—that she could either become Catholic or continue to pray with her husband over the pain of a divided church.

Pope Francis went on to focus on baptism. “I ask myself. But don’t we have the same baptism? If we have the same baptism, shouldn’t we be walking together?” Then he went further. “The supper? There are questions that only if one is sincere with one’s self and the little theological light that one has, must be responded to on one’s own. See for yourself. This is my body. This is my blood. Do this in remembrance of me—this is a viaticum that helps us to journey on.”

And Francis didn’t stop there, going on to address the classic dividing line over the meaning of Christ’s “real presence.” The pope recalled a Protestant pastor and friend who told him, “We believe that the Lord is present there.” So he said to the Lutheran woman, “You believe that the Lord is present. And what’s the difference? There are explanations and interpretations, but life is bigger than explanations and interpretations.”

Having noted the trademark tension between official policy and actual practice, Pope Francis concluded by saying he would not “dare to give permission to do this” but then repeated, “One Lord, one faith, one baptism. Talk to the Lord, and then go forward. And I wouldn’t dare—I don’t dare say anything more.”

In ecumenism, as in diplomacy, ambiguity can be a helpful tool, allowing room for movement on issues where formal agreement is not yet possible. Pope Francis opened the door more than a crack.

Does the Tie that Binds Extend to Old Life?

I wondered after reading this:

Jevon is a Pastoral Resident and Church Planting Intern at Independent Presbyterian Church in Memphis, Tennessee. What that means is that Jevon is a Bible-believing Christian who has devoted his life to serving Jesus Christ vocationally within the same denomination that we’re a part of. Jevon and I have a whole lot in common. Though we’ve never met personally, I can say with a great deal of confidence that our fellowship would be sweet.

But there is one observable difference: Jevon is black, and I am white. Because of the color of his skin, Jevon faces fears that I don’t face. That fact alone is profoundly disturbing to me, and it should be disturbing to all Christians. For at the foundation of Christianity is the belief that ALL men and women (no qualifications) are made in the image of God and deserve the dignity and treatment consistent with that reality.

I too like to think (all about mmmmeeeeEEEE) that I am a Bible-believing Christian who serves Christ and who has fellowship with Pastor Shurden through ecumenical ties between the OPC and PCA. And yet I wonder if the sweet, sweet fellowship that he assumes he has with Jevon Washington also includes confessional, spirituality-of-the-church Presbyterians like moi.

Or in this post-Ferguson era does Pastor Shurden feel more affinity with Michelle Higgins than with Chortles Weekly? If the basis for fellowship among Presbyterians is biblical teaching summarized in the Confession of Faith, then creed matters more than blood. After all, it takes more than being human to belong to a Presbyterian communion (though being human is pretty good).

So Now the Covenanters are the Standard?

At the Shiloh Institute this week I (mmmeeeeEEEEE) played around with the question of center and periphery in conservative Reformed Protestantism in the United States. For some (not at the conference), the PCA is in the mainstream. One explanation is its size — it outflanks all of the other communions that belong to NAPARC. Another is that the PCA has anywhere between six and a dozen celebrity pastors (with none having the star power of TKNY). Another is that New Calvinism is popular and the PCA is in tune with that immature and attention-deficit-disordered (read young and restless) brand of Calvinism. Related is the Gospel Coalition factor. By virtue of encouraging and defending New Calvinism, PCA officers have seats at the table of a website parachurch endeavor that is seemingly big, popular, and influential.

If you want to put the OPC at the center of conservative or confessional Calvinism, you need to ignore the numbers and pay attention to history and language. The OPC has been around longer than the PCA. In 1937 the OPC coughed up a big wing of the PCA — the RPCES portion of the Bible Presbyterian Synod — that in turn equipped the PCA with its educational institutions, Covenant College and Covenant Theological Seminary. The OPC continues to draw upon the Reformed past as it attempts to understand God’s word. The variety of views on creation, the presence of two-kingdom theology, and the recent report on the doctrine of republication all indicate ways in which the OPC keeps alive expressions of Reformed Protestantism older and in many cases more substantial than twentieth-century conservative Presbyterianism.

As for language, English is the OPC’s native tongue, which means the OPC has never had to think of itself explicitly as an ethnic communion. And it is ethnicity in part that hurts the URC’s chances for defining the center and periphery in American Calvinism.

That leaves communions like the RPCNA (Covenanters) and ARPC (Seceders), both of Scottish extraction, on the margins of contemporary American Calvinism. They may be bigger or smaller than the other churches, but their histories are different from the OPC, PCA, and URC. All of the latter communions started in opposition to liberalism within an older denomination. The RPCNA and ARP don’t have the same dynamics and so don’t resonate as well with other NAPARC members.

But having said all that, shut my mouth. Now we hear from a PCA source that the RPCNA is at the center of contemporary Reformed church life:

The reason I know this is because the most Confessional denomination in NAPARC (North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council) is the RPCNA (Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America). The RPCNA is the most historically confessional church in this council (which the PCA is a member), and yet, those who are claiming to be the confessionalists in the PCA, would not join with this, the most confessional denomination. Why? It is because they ordain women to the office of deacon. Yes, that is right. The most confessional of all the denominations in NAPARC ordains women to the office of deacon. They have practiced this since 1888, and have done so because it was studied, and found to be biblical. They have kept their strong confessional nature all this time, while still ordaining woman to be deacons.

Those in the PCA who are claiming the moniker of Confessional, taking it from anyone else who doesn’t agree with them on the issue of women’s roles, should in fact stop being so disingenuous. Instead of confessional they are more closely identified as Old School Southern Presbyterians, which is fine. But, please stop using Confessional like you have something that no one else does. It’s disingenuous and you are making a non-confessional issue, the defining issue.

Speaking of disingenuousness, does Jon Price really want to embrace the National Covenant (1581) to which the RPCNA still swears allegiance, as ground zero of Presbyterian confessionalism? And is he ready to put away the hymnal and the swaybabes?

Hey now.

At least the PCA is not the PCUSA (at least until Michelle Higgins gets her way):

Followers of Jesus Christ know that no person can claim divine favor through personal merit, but only by the grace of God. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) acknowledges that actions we and our members have taken over the years have at times led God’s beloved children who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning to feel that they stand outside the grace of God and are unwelcome in the PC(USA). We deeply regret that, due to human failings, any person might find cause to doubt being loved by God. We affirm the God-given dignity and worth of every human being, and renew our commitment to ‘welcome one another, as Christ has welcomed [us], for the glory of God.’ [Romans 15:7]

We’re Supposed to Believe Evangelicals Care about Nicea?

While evangelical leaders and some of their critics debate the complexities of Trintarian theology (thanks, mind you, to prior considerations of the relations between the sexes – ahem), please keep in mind two points.

First, evangelical Protestants never — NEH VEH — cared about Nicea. If they knew about Nicea, they certainly didn’t know the Council of Constantinople of 381 (wasn’t that a Muslim city?). Just look at some evangelical statements on the Trinity:

God has revealed himself to be the living and true God, perfect in love and righteous in all his ways, one in essence, existing eternally in the three persons of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. (Fuller Seminary, flagship seminary of the neo-evangelical movement)

We believe that there is one God, eternally existent in three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. (National Association of Evangelicals)

By way of comparison:

In the unity of the Godhead there be three persons, of one substance, power, and eternity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost: the Father is of none, neither begotten, nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Ghost eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son. (OPC Confession of Faith 2.3)

Our Churches, with common consent, do teach that the decree of the Council of Nicaea concerning the Unity of the Divine Essence and concerning the Three Persons, is true and to be believed without any doubting; that is to say, there is one Divine Essence which is called and which is God: eternal, without body, without parts, of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness, the Maker and Preserver of all things, visible and invisible; and yet there are three Persons, of the same essence and power, who also are coeternal, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. And the term “person” they use as the Fathers have used it, to signify, not a part or quality in another, but that which subsists of itself. (Augsburg Confession)

So when Carl Trueman writes:

In light of the last few weeks, the American conservative evangelical movement as a whole has been exposed as theologically thin in its doctrine and historically eccentric in its priorities. As the war of words dies down, the subsequent peace must bring with it ecumenical consequences. It cannot simply involve papering over the obvious cracks in order to return to gospel business as usual.

Does he really mean to say “the last few weeks”? What about the last century does he not appreciate?

The second point to consider is how parachurch this entire debate is. As Jake Meador observes, evangelicals don’t debate well:

And so we continue to go around the maddening how-evangelicals-debate cul de sac: Dr. Trueman has long complained that evangelicalism is driven more by cultural concerns, like complementarianism, and a celebrity pastor complex than by sincere concern with faithful preaching and ministry. In the way he makes these critiques, he has sometimes been excessively aggressive, thereby making it far less likely that people will hear his real concerns or weigh whether or not there is any truth in them at all. He is, instead, easily dismissed as a crank.

One reason is that the means for conducting debate are parachurch institutions, not church assemblies, committees, reports, and debates.

So while evangelicals debate the Trinity — THE TRINITY!! — Orthodox Presbyterians were discussing the doctrine of republication.

Evangelicals really should join a confessional church. The water is warm.

Maybe He Needs MmmeeeeeEEEEEE

Scott Sauls may have spent too much time with Tim Keller, the author of Center Church, because Pastor Sauls seems to think that he is at the center of Presbyterianism. The reason for saying this is that he admits that he needs to hear from those with whom he differs. Here’s his list:

I don’t know where I would be without the influence of others who see certain non-essentials differently than I do. I need the wisdom, reasoning, and apologetics of CS Lewis, though his take on some of the finer points of theology are different than mine. I need the preaching and charisma of Charles Spurgeon, though his view of baptism is different than mine. I need the Kingdom vision of NT Wright and the theology of Jonathan Edwards, though their views on church government are different than mine. I need the passion and prophetic courage of Martin Luther King, Jr., the cultural intelligence of Soong Chan Rah, and the Confessions of Saint Augustine, though their ethnicities are different than mine. I need the reconciliation spirit of Miroslav Volf, though his nationality is different than mine. I need the spiritual thirst and love impulse of Brennan Manning and the prophetic wit of GK Chesterton, though both were Roman Catholics and I am a Protestant. I need the hymns and personal holiness of John and Charles Wesley, though some of our doctrinal distinctives are different. I need the glorious weakness of Joni Eareckson Tada, the spirituality of Marva Dawn, the trusting perseverance of Elisabeth Elliott, the longsuffering of Amy Carmichael, the honesty of Rebekah Lyons, the thankfulness of Anne Voskamp, the theological precision of Kathy Keller, and the integrity of Patti Sauls, though their gender is different than mine.

In the world of hipster Protestantism this is cool but not Snapchattingly trendy. If I were to assemble my own list of those with whom I disagree theologically but who have shaped my thinking in profound ways it would include: Orhan Pamuk, Joel Coen, Tom Stoppard, F. Scott Fitzgerald, H. L. Mencken, Aaron Sorkin, Wendell Berry, Michael Oakeshott, Edward Shils, David Simon, John McWhorter, Andrew Sullivan, Louis Menand, David Hackett Fischer, Henry May, Richard John Neuhaus, Joseph Epstein, and Ethan Coen. See what I did there? I went outside Christian circles with most of that list. Do I get points for being really cool and cosmopolitan?

The thing is, none of those writers really helped me understand the nature of the Christian ministry as Presbyterians understand it. I’ve learned greatly from these figures about being human, which comes in handy for overseeing a congregation or participating in a church assembly. But I don’t look to these people for my life in the church.

But here’s the kicker for Pastor Sauls: what if he learned from those with whom he disagrees about Presbyterianism like Old Schoolers? What might his ministry look like then?

My sense is that because Pastor Sauls via Keller thinks he is in the heart of Presbyterianism or conservative Protestantism or evangelicalism, he already has his Presbyterian bases covered.

And in that case, boy does he need to understand the nature of disagreement.

Less American Than Thou

Thanks go to Tommie Kidd for actually recognizing that confessional Protestantism may be a category distinct from evangelicalism (all about me alert):

The second group are Reformed/confessionalist Christians, often associated with traditional Presbyterian or Reformed denominations such as the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. This is the easiest category of the four, because many of these Christians would tell you that they are not evangelicals, even if the media would regard them as such. Some of these folks will tell you that they might be evangelicals, but that the doctrines and confessions of Reformed Christianity are the center of their faith, not the born-again feelings of typical American evangelicals. D.G. Hart is one of the preeminent examples of the Reformed critics of evangelicalism.

But Professor Kidd is not going to abandon evangelicalism. He merely wants to create space between evangelicalism and American nationalism (read exceptionalism):

there are many evangelicals who have reservations about the blending of American national history with their faith. Our faith needs to be focused on Christ, the paleos say, and rooted in the deep, wide tradition of orthodox church history. We do not base our faith, in any sense, on the personal beliefs of Jefferson, Washington, or Adams. Especially when viewed from the perspective of the global church, American civil religion looks peculiar, at best. Yes, Christianity played a major role in the American founding, but that fact does not place the founding at the center of Christianity. The paleos admire many of the founders, but do not wish to read the founders alongside Scripture, as Barton would have us do in his Founders’ Bible.

This concern would be a lot more forceful if Professor Kidd were to identify with a particular communion rather than a generic evangelicalism no matter how paleo (like Oleo?). He may so identify in his personal life, but he like a lot of historians who write in Conference on Faith and History (instead of a Conference on Church History) circles claim to belong to Christianity without actually being restrained by the shape and teaching of a particular church. And this is where Kidd’s description of confessional Protestantism could take a correction. Yes, the doctrines of Reformed Protestantism are important to confessional Presbyterians but that is at least because those doctrines are confessed by a communion and bind its officers and members together (in some way).

The alternative to an ecclesial Protestantism is the very sort of evangelicalism with which Kidd seemingly identifies. And part of the reason why evangelicals since Whitefield have held the visible church in low esteem is because it gets in the way of those cooperative endeavors from orphanages and Sunday school to solving world hunger and forming academic guilds. When the United States broke with Theodosius and disestablished religion, Christians did not give up national churches but they — evangelicals included — turned the nation into a church.

If paleo-evangelicals like Kidd want to disabuse evangelicals of their nationalism, a quick remedy would be to turn denominational or churchly by adopting a higher allegiance to the church (and letting it be tested by submission to ecclesiastical authority) rather than turning a critical eye to the nation. But the problem there for Protestants on both the evangelical “right” and the mainline left is that allegiance to a particular church and its teachings, liturgy, and government looks sectarian — sort of like attachments to states like Michigan or Pennsylvania look backward. The solution to one big, vacuous, and uncritical allegiance (American exceptionalism) is not another big, vacuous, and uncritical allegiance (evangelicalism).

Queen of the Sciences?

That’s the old phrase reserved for systematic theology when people regarded it as the culmination of human thought about special and general revelation. Charles Hodge, Benjamin Warfield and the Old Princeton faculty more generally regarded systematic theology as the telos of biblical and theological investigation.

Warfield worried, however, that biblical theology would displace systematics:

Systematic Theology may look on with an amused tolerance and a certain older-sister’s pleased recognition of powers just now perhaps a little too conscious of themselves, when the new discipline of Biblical Theology, for example, tosses her fine young head and announces of her more settled sister that her day is over. But these words have a more ominous ring in them when the lips that frame them speak no longer as a sister’s but as an enemy’s, and the meaning injected into them threatens not merely dethronement but destruction.

In that new environment, the queenly status of systematics might have more to do with sexual orientation and the politics of identity rather than with a hierarchy of knowledge.

After reading the exchange between Dick Gaffin and Clair Davis regarding recent faculty developments at Westminster Theological Seminary, I am still convinced that an important difference between Old Princeton and contemporary Westminster is the status accorded systematic theology. Gaffin and Davis both debate how best to interpret Geerhardus Vos and the proper hermeneutic associated with redemptive historical exegesis, but systematic theology is distant from their concerns.

Of course, faculty at the Reformed seminaries are supposed to subscribe the “system of doctrine” taught in the Westminster Standards and/or the Three Forms of Unity. But whether all faculty are equally willing to teach and defend that system of doctrine — say in Sunday school or even in their own non-ST classes — is another question altogether. I mean, are the advocates of a Christotelic or Christocentric reading of the OT prepared to teach and defend limited atonement or the eternal decree? And if all seminary faculty were willing to contend for those doctrines, would the disputes among the Vossians have taken on such magnitude?

I am well aware that it is easy and a bit of a cliche to quote Machen the way that political conservatives quote the American founders. (Here goes Machen boy again.) But I wonder how many seminary faculty would agree with this assertion from Machen’s first address about WTS?

. . . biblical theology is not all the theology that will be taught at Westminster Seminary, for systematic theology will be at the very center of the seminary’s course. At this point an error should be avoided: it must not be thought that systematic theology is one whit less biblical than biblical theology is. But it differs from biblical theology in that, standing on the foundation or biblical theology, it seeks to set forth, no longer in the order of the time when it was revealed, but in the order of logical relationships, the grand sum of what God has told us in his Word. There are those who think that systematic theology on the basis of the Bible is impossible; there are those who think that the Bible contains a mere record of human seeking after God and that its teachings are a mass of contradiction which can never be resolved. But to the number of those persons we do not belong. We believe for our part that God has spoken to us in his Word, and that he has given us not merely theology, but a system of theology, a great logically consistent body of truth.

That system of theology, that body of truth, which we find in the Bible is the Reformed faith, the faith commonly called Calvinistic, which is set forth so gloriously in the Confession and catechisms of the Presbyterian church. It is sometimes referred to as a “man-made creed.” But we do not regard it as such. We regard it, in accordance with our ordination pledge as ministers in the Presbyterian church, as the creed which God has taught us in his Word. If it is contrary to the Bible, it is false. But we hold that it is not contrary to the Bible, but in accordance with the Bible, and true. We rejoice in the approximations to that body of truth which other systems of theology contain; we rejoice in our Christian fellowship with other evangelical churches; we hope that members of other churches, despite our Calvinism, may be willing to enter into Westminster Seminary as students and to listen to what we may have to say. But we cannot consent to impoverish our message by setting forth less than what we find the Scripture to contain; and we believe that we shall best serve our fellow Christians, from whatever church they may come, if we set forth not some vague greatest common measure among various creeds, but that great historic faith that has come through Augustine and Calvin to our own Presbyterian church. (“Westminster Theological Seminary,” 1929)

Of course, Machen could be wrong about systematic theology. If so, a biblical theologian might want to step up and say so and explain why. Machen’s not the pope.

But if he is right about systematic theology being as biblical as biblical theology, if he’s right about it forming the center of the theological curriculum, and if he’s right about Calvinism (as the WTS affirmations and denials — see pp. 9 and 10 — suggest), then the debates about Vos and the proper way to read the Old Testament look less important than they have become. The real test is not whether you get Isaiah or Vos right, but whether or not your teaching and writing supports the system of doctrine taught in the church’s standards. If that were the criterion for appointment and promotion, the debate between Gaffin and Davis might be better left for the attendees at the Evangelical Theological Society.