Sectarians All (NTJ April 1998)

(The Fall 2022 issue is in production.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did Meredith Kline Believe in Paedo-Communion?

Steven Wedgeworth characterizes the first period of Federal Vision’s development this way:

The first stage worth discussing actually goes back to Westminster Theological Seminary in the 1970s. While the seminary had been founded as something of a continuing “old school” Presbyterian institution, the influence of Cornelius Van Til took it in a unique direction. John Murray and Meredith Kline also made interesting but often idiosyncratic theological contributions, and by the 1960s, Norman Shepherd, Richard Gaffin, Jay Adams, and John Frame added their own distinctives to the mix. The 1970s were a time of considerable controversy for WTS, mostly due to the Norman Shepherd controversy, but there was also a desire on the part of some of the leadership to make WTS more open to a broader and more evangelical landscape. This caused its own, rather different controversy, and certain critics claimed that the school’s legacy had been “sold out.”

Reading the literature coming out of WTS during the 1970s and 1980s, there arises the impression that various subgroups within the WTS were, at least unofficially, competing for the identity and vision of the school. Biblical Theology was certainly the dominant interest, but even here, there were opposing emphases. One writer has summarized the most prominent division between a “union with Christ” emphasis and a “Law and Gospel” emphasis.

It was during this time that many of the older FV thinkers attended seminary. Some attended WTS and were directly shaped by this era. Others attended elsewhere but paid attention to the controversies and read the literature. Most conservative Presbyterian and Reformed thinkers had looked to WTS as a guide during this time in the 20th century.

Another significant theological issue that came from this same background was the Christian Reconstruction movement, especially the Tyler branch. Christian Reconstructionism (very similar to “Theonomy”) refers to the idea that Christians ought to implement the Old Testament Scriptures and the Mosaic law code today, as much as possible. This movement began with the work of R J Rushdoony in 1960s, but the Tyler branch of Reconstructionism came to prominence in the early 1980s. They made key modifications to this project and put a new emphasis on ecclesiology, including the sacraments and the liturgy. The Tyler branch also broadened its vision from merely the Westminster Seminary legacy to include a certain sort of Continental Calvinism (pulling from the 16th cent. contributions of Martin Bucer, the 19th cent. German American Mercersburg Theology, and 20th cent. Dutch theologians like Klaas Schilder) and a contemporary liturgical renewal project inspired by Dom Gregory Dix and Alexander Schmemann (Mercersburg would also apply here). The most significant FV personality associated with Tyler Reconstruction stage is James B. Jordan, but Peter Leithart also shared some of this history. A few other names appear in this stage of the FV conversation but not in later ones, notably Peter Lillback and George Grant.

It is interesting to point out that Douglas Wilson did not share this same heritage. While he was certainly aware of these men and their writings, his own history comes from a broader Evangelical world. In fact, Douglas Wilson did not consider himself to be theologically Reformed until the late 1980s. He once wrote a booklet critique of the Tyler Branch of Christian Reconstructionism.

This pre-FV period history did not emphasize justification issues (other than in summaries of the older Shepherd controversy), nor did it argue that covenant theology needed to be significantly modified or reinterpreted. Instead, the men of this period claimed that their covenant theology was that of the Calvinistic or Reformed tradition, and they opposed it to the Baptistic or Evangelical theology of 20th cent. North America. The chief interests at this time were seeing families as covenantal units, showing the significance of paedobaptism for covenant theology and ecclesiology, and asserting an aggressive Christian social and political presence. Peadocommunion was already present among some of these men, though it was seen as a point of intramural disagreement. They also did reserve the right to part ways with the Reformation tradition, but this was always framed as a matter of incidental disagreement within their larger commitment to that legacy. James Jordan was also beginning to articulate his particular typological hermeneutics, a continuation and advancement of the redemptive-historical biblical theology taught by WTS. This period of FV development can be understood as starting during the late 1970s, and it reaches a definite transition point around 1990, when the Tyler church joined the Reformed Episcopal Church, James Jordan moved from Tyler, TX to Niceville, FL, and the Reconstruction movement began to fade in prominence.

This is the way I’ve seen other Federal Visionists or former Federal Visionists do historical theology. Because a diversity of voices were in the debates about the Westminster Confession of Faith, so today we should expect to see the same kind of breadth of views about different doctrines. In the same way, Federal Vision sprang from a diversity of voices at Westminster Seminary.

It raises a few questions. Is this why Federal Vision advocates were never very impressed with Machen? Wedgeworth’s history suggests that Federal Vision came from new directions at Westminster that took the school away from Machen’s vision.

Second, why did more people who aligned with Federal Vision go to Covenant or RTS Jackson than Westminster?

Third, does Meredith Kline belong to this history since the biggest critics of Federal Vision owed a great debt to Kline’s understanding of the Old Testament, covenant theology, and the relationship of cult to culture?

What If I Want Jordan Peterson instead of Wendell Berry?

The Gospel Allies are always peppering readers with guidance on contemporary culture without ever acknowledging that many Christians would be better served by reading secular publications (like The New Yorker, The American Conservative, Times Literary Supplement).

As the allies make their way through the haze of relevance, some may wonder what their criteria for evaluating writers, ideas, and cultural expressions are.

Take for instance Joe Carter’s estimate of Jordan Peterson (wherein comes a heavy dose of anti-thetical analysis thanks to a quote from Joel McDurmon):

For all of his toppling of great idols of humanism in our day, Dr. Peterson’s thought, from their presuppositions right through many of his conclusions, is as thoroughly humanist, autonomous, and thus ultimately dangerous, as anything any leftist every said. Christians need to be aware of the depths of this problem in Peterson’s thought, and the implications it has for their discernment of his teachings.

But when it comes to Wendell Berry, a writer much admired here but no font of Christian orthodoxy, the Allies print a positive estimate of the farmer-poet:

Reading Wendell Berry reminds us that one result of rooting ourselves in God’s Word should be that we root ourselves in our neighborhoods. These places are likely to be dark and polluted, but in belonging here while stretching toward the light of God’s love, we bear witness to John’s proclamation: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5). Berry’s fictional characters help us imagine what it might look like to be members of God’s household who live with faith, hope, and love—and so bless their neighbors.

Dare I observe that if TGC had given an assignment to a Van Tillian to write about Berry, the article would not be so charitable.

And then to round out the confusion comes a piece that recommends the film of P. T. Anderson (including one — don’t tell John Piper — that has nudity):

Phantom Thread feels like an especially instructive model of a film that I fully expect will be talked about and enjoyed by future generations, long after most 2017 films are forgotten. Director Paul Thomas Anderson is known for making movies (e.g., Magnolia, There Will Be Blood) that aren’t particularly “relevant” but are inarguably good. He is a master of the cinematic form, an auteur who has true, loving interest in the characters and settings he depicts, beyond their utilitarian value as fodder for the zeitgeist. Like Terrence Malick, Anderson makes the films he wants to make, pointing the camera on the things he finds beautiful and interesting, paying little heed to headlines or formulas or convention. Ironically this is often the formula for lasting influence. It certainly has been for Malick and Anderson.

At some point, don’t you wonder that the editors at TGC have less a coherent w-w than they do a desire to pose as up-to-date? And oh, by the way, what does any of this have to do with the gospel?

Religious Freedom — For Everyone

That is what Russell Moore says is one of his biggest policy priorities. Religious freedom certainly is on the lips of most U.S. Christians.

But when you hear someone like Peter Lillback, you begin to think that religious liberty is only for religious Americans (thanks to our Texas correspondent):

A careful reading of the First Amendment shows us that the concern that motivated our Founding Fathers was to protect the conscience from governmental encroachments. Twenty iterations of the language for the First Amendment ensued in the congressional debate before the final version was sent to the House on Sept. 24, 1789. Not once in any of those 20 attempts to write the First Amendment did the phrase “separation of church and state” appear. The word conscience, although it does not appear in the final form, occurs in 12 of these iterations.

Clearly, the drafters of the First Amendment wanted to protect conscience from government, not protect government from religion. This is where public theology comes in, calling for the application of religious principles to every area of life, including politics.

Washington called religion and morality “indispensable pillars” of America’s political happiness. In his farewell address, he noted, “experience has taught us that morality is impossible for a people unless it is brought to us through religious teaching.”

But what about freedom for gays and lesbians and trannies? And how in the world to you bring religion into politics and allow freedom for people to play football on Sunday, get a divorce on non-biblical grounds, or be exempt from police following home a guy who has just picked up a girl at the local bar?

In other words, lots of religious conservatives want protection from government so that they can use government to take away freedoms (okay, call it moral licentiousness) from other Americans.

That’s why the rhetoric of religious liberty is not simply hollow but disingenuous. If only Lillback and other anti-naked public square types were libertarians like J. Gresham Machen:

Against such tyranny, I do cherish some hope that Jews and Christians, Roman Catholics and Protestants, if they are lovers of liberty, may present a united front. I am for my part an inveterate propagandist; bu the same right of propaganda which I desire for myself I want to see also in the possession of others. What absurdities are uttered in the name of a pseudo-Americanism today! People object ot the Roman Catholics, for example, because they engage in “propaganda.” But why should they not engage in propaganda? And how should we have any respect for them if, holding the view which they do hold — that outside the Roman church there is no salvation — they did not engage in propaganda, first, last, and all the time? Clearly they ahve a right to do so, and clearly we have a right to do the same. (“Relations between Christians and Jews”)

I see right away that folks like Moore and Lillback will read Machen and think, exactly. We want freedom for religious groups. Seldom do religious conservatives admit, thought, that they are advocating freedom for that which they oppose, meaning, that I suppose Lillback and Moore do not favor Roman Catholicism but are on the side of Luther and Calvin.

So if they can advocate freedom for that with they disagree, then where do they stop? If freedom for the wrong religion, why not freedom for the wrong morality? (And get this, if everything starts from one’s presuppositions, isn’t LBGT really a religion? And so isn’t a case for religious liberty a case for LBGT on Van Tillian grounds?)

The test then is how wide are you willing to draw the circle of freedom. Here’s how wide Machen’s circle was:

Tolerance, moreover, means not merely tolerance for that with which we are agreed but also tolerance for that to which we are most thoroughly opposed. A few years ago there was passed in New York the abominable Lusk Law requiring private teachers in any subjects whatever to obtain a state license. It was aimed, I believe, at the socialists, and primarily at the Rand School in New York City. Now certainly I have no sympathy with socialism. Because of its hostility to freedom, it seems to me to be just about the darkest thought that has ever entered the mind of man. But certainly such opposition to socialism did not temper in the slightest degree my opposition to that preposterous law. Tolerance, to me, does not mean merely tolerance for what I hold to be good, but also tolerance for what I hold to be abominably bad. (Ibid)

Westminster II

Looks like (and we’ve known this for some time) that Protestants have as much trouble with hermeneutics of continuity and discontinuity as Roman Catholics. Something funny happened in the 1960s. Bishops met in Rome — was it hard to get a cab, a table at a trendy Italian restaurant? And at Westminster Seminary (Philadelphia) the second generation of faculty came along, most of whom had studied with the first generation. But the second generation decided it wouldn’t color within the lines drawn by the original faculty. Sounds like Vatican II, doesn’t it?

Evidence of the challenges of historical and institutional continuity comes from a post on Facebook at Tremper Longman’s page (made available at Greenbaggins). Tremper calls it Middle Westminster, an odd phrase if you think in historical categories of the West. Weren’t the Middle Ages also the Dark Ages? That surely is not what Tremper means to communicate since for him, Middle WTS is the good WTS. For support, he includes comments by Clair Davis:

The history of WTS divides itself naturally into three great epochs: before me, during me, after me. I came on faculty in 1966 at the same time that Ed became the first president, and retired as Sam was taken away as our leader. So Middle WTS is the same as My Time! Ed had a broader agenda than showing up liberals, so closely related to his own powerful work with the Word. He got around in the broader evangelical world and appreciated what we could give them. I give him so much credit along with Ed Clowney Redivivus George and Sam for broadening us up to look at the Bible itself, but I suspect that growing evangelical desire for more than the old WTS offered also played a large part.

Especially after Meredith moved on Ray Dillard became our leader, in OT and also in godly theology for life generally. The OT people had the only departmental prayer meeting! I am so glad they had room for Erik Davis too. Al led them and us all on after Ray’s early death. But what an amazing crew: add on Tremper Longman, Peter Enns, Bruce Waltke, Doug Green, and Mike Kelly, and so many great grad students.

It was all about learning more and more about God’s Word, with all that learning other Semitic cultures could provide. I hope my Church History big picture way of thinking doesn’t blur the uniqueness of our OT—but the rise of Jay Adam’s and David Powlison’s and Ed Welch’s biblical counseling was going on at the same time. Then add in Harvie Conn, with his provocative questions and deep answers. I see our Old Testament department leading the way, but so many “cultural” things were happening at the same time! We all knew our God-given calling was to be “relevant,” to push the evangelical and Reformed world to think bigger than it ever had, to go far beyond hassling liberals and getting the grammar right. I believe myself that we succeeded mightily. To God be the glory, with credit to Ed Clowney and George Fuller and Sam Logan and Harvie Conn and CCEF (the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation) and those amazing students, asking better and deeper questions of us and demanding answers.

Clair’s reflections come at the conclusion of Doug Green’s teaching career at WTS. As Tremper explains, Green’s departure is one more piece of the “Westminster Diaspora.” I agree with Clair and Tremper that it is sad to see Doug leave WTS. I consider him a friend, thanks in part of the placement of the coffee maker in the work room outside my office in Montgomery Memorial Library which allowed him and me to talk about any number of things. At the same time, I’m pretty sure Doug would concede that WTS in the 1990s was a shaky place where confessionalists like myself and envelope-pushers like him (and Tremper, and Pete Enns, and Clair Davis) co-existed but rarely found themselves on the same page.

The question I had then is the same question I have now: why did administrators and board members think you could sow the fabric of continuity onto the inherent discontinuity between Old School Presbyterian types and New Life folks who were in awe of Tim Keller (the elephant in this historical room)? As if TKNY would bring us all together.

If Clair can lament the loss of Middle Westminster, can’t folks who think as Machen did that the Reformed faith is grand bemoan the loss of Early Westminster? What exactly happened to make the convictions of the original faculty either wrong or irrelevant? And did anyone actually make a case for changing course, pointing out where the older generation was wrong or shortsighted, and chart a better way based both on Reformed heritage and biblical teaching? Of course, John Frame has picked his winners and losers among the original faculty and derided those (like mmmeeeEEE) who still see merit in Machen’s founding vision for Westminster and his forthright defense of Reformed Protestantism. But Frame was not at Westminster Philadelphia in the 1990s. He didn’t need to be. The clear sense was that the Machen thing was passe.

And as I often said to friends and wife during the 1900s, the Machen thing may well have been irrelevant. But that requires an argument especially at an institution that prides itself on intellectual achievement. And an argument requires some awareness of what Machen tried to accomplish, and the context in which he tried.

Above all, shrugging off Machen and the original faculty of Westminster required a degree of loyalty for those whose work took place in places like Machen and Van Til Hall. I mean, if students at Princeton University can insist on removing Woodrow Wilson’s name from all associations with the institution, can’t Westminster faculty and administrators come up with a way to rid themselves of the bad parts of their institution’s past (Machen was after all a racist by today’s standards and even a family friend of Wilson)?

Or could it also be that the same sort of candor that Machen demanded of liberal Presbyterians has been in short supply among those Middle Westminster types who benefited from the institution’s reputation but failed to acknowledge it — even worse, disparaged it?

I wish Doug all the best. But the history of Westminster demands more scrutiny and awareness than those from the Middle period have been capable of producing.

Why Not Reformed Anabaptists?

One of the inexplicable aspects of contemporary Reformed Protestantism is the indifference if not ridicule that some Vossians show for two-kingdom theology. This is odd because if any of the current options for living in this world capture the Vossian eschatology than 2k — with a sharp rejection of any immanentization of the eschaton — I have yet to see it. Neo-Calvinists don’t (even if Geerhardus Vos himself leaned neo-Cal). Theonomists? Are you kidding me? Transformationalists of whatever stripe abuse Christianity all the time to add a holy and spiritual lift to any number of earthly and temporal activities.

Nevertheless, 2k continues to fall well short of Vossianism’s stringent standards. Hence, the recent review of David VanDrunen’s Natural Law and Two Kingdoms by William Dennison in the current issue of the Westminster Theological Journal (75: 349-70). I will leave readers to find the rhetoric that surely pushes the plausibility envelope. But Dennison’s conclusion is downright odd:

. . . a number of Reformed and evangelical Christians will champion VanDrunen’s thesis since they continue to loiter in a consciousness shaped by the Holy Roman Empire when the institutions of church and state defined the core of Western human existence as one of the most persistent problems. For them, such a paradigm provides justification for their daily captivation with politico-cultural issues without acknowledging how they may be jeopardizing or compromising their Christian identity. Sadly, in this condition they refuse to deal honestly with the full-orbed eschatological fabric of biblical revelation that has now reached the “fullness of time” . . . . Instead, these believers are paralyzed as they hold on to the “flesh” (in this case, a fixation upon the political nature of a State outside the doman of Christ as mediator of redemption) while trying to live out of the “Spirit.” In other words, VanDrunen’s NL2K model gives a rationale for having one foot solidly in place in the civil culture, and the ohter foot solidly in place in the kingdom of heaven. . . . (369)

Unless I am mistaken, the Augustinian construction of the heavenly and earthly cities is about the only option for Christians who want to avoid the Federal Vision error of imitating Eusebius’ man crush on Constantine, the Benedictine option of leaving civil society for the monastery, or the Anabaptist path of renouncing the magistrate, the sword, and self-defense even as worthy of Christians. As long as the Lord tarries, human beings (saved and unsaved) will live on planet earth and need the magistrate to supply a modicum of social order — that’s why Paul wrote about magistrates being ordained by God. If Dennison wants us to live in the full-orbed eschatology of Scripture, where exactly should we tell the movers to put our stuff or where should we cook our meals? Apparently, behind the pearly gates.

VanDrunen has essentially removed the weapons of spiritual warfare out of the hands of the church with a passion upon the temporal order of two governments and, thus, constructed for believers a provisional model as the dominant paradigm to transport them as a pilgrim people. After all, it is no small task to call the Reformed and broader Christian world to face up to the essential character of biblical eschatology, to ask that all ministers and person in the pew, surrender, think, and live in the christocentric eschatological nature of biblical revelation. So instead of living out the full-orbed conditions of biblical eschatology seated with Christ in the heavenly places, VanDrunen’s NL2K paradigm has surrendered the essential eternal character of the progressive post-fall revelation of God — the seed of the woman versus the seed of the serpent — to focus the believer’s attention upon living in the realm of “commonality” that exists in the civitas permixta. Following such a path, however will only mean that the obsessions with politics which has crippled much of the history of the church will never find resolution, and, even more impoprtant, that believers will ignore their true eschatological freedom from bondage in the present and eternal reign of Christ.

Reading this makes me think we need to talk less about Reformed Baptists and more about Reformed Anabaptists since Dennison sure sounds a lot like the peasants who interpreted the gospel freedom declared by Luther (via Paul) to mean they should be liberated from their social rank as serfs. Would Dennison tell a Christian civil magistrate he is being worldly to think about local laws or policy proposals, that he should as a follower of Christ leave his day job? Does he even suggest that Christian parents are guilty of fleshly concerns to think about sending their children to a Christian college? (The New Testament does seem to have some instruction about life in this world, but maybe I too force a 2k reading on Scripture.)

Still, when Dennison faults VanDrunen for constructing “believers a provisional model as the dominant paradigm to transport them as a pilgrim people” because it is “no small task” to call Christians to live in the light of biblical eschatology, can’t Dennison see that 2k does better than any other option — aside from Reformed Anabaptist — to encourage Christians to live as pilgrim people who know that the affairs of the state are inconsequential compared to those of the kingdom of Christ. My favorite example of this rearrangement of priorities is to try to convince Orthodox Presbyterians that the news in New Horizons is really way more important than what the New York Times’ reporters cover. Most people chuckle because the notion seems absurd. But it is true and that is one of the major points of 2k — the church matters more than politics. Dennison, however, refuses to give credit to 2kers. He only sees threat.

So to show the advantages of 2k and that 2kers themselves may be doing more along the lines of the eschatology that Dennison promotes, here is one example of the two-kingdom doctrine applied to St. Abe, that is, Abraham Lincoln, the president whom most U.S. Protestants regard as the embodiment of Christian and American ideals:

In 1967, sociologist Robert Bellah launched the modern career of “civil religion” as a concept, a way to examine how, on the one hand, the state adopts religious language, ritual, holidays, and symbolism to bind a nation together and how, on the other hand, it elevates its own values and ideas to the status of holy doctrine. Regarding the first type, University of Toronto political theorist Ronald Beiner recently defined civil religion as “the appropriation of religion by politics for its purposes.” Lincoln had been doing this to the Bible since at least 1838. He ended his Lyceum Address by applying Matthew 16:18 to American liberty: “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” More famously, in 1858 he quoted Matthew 12:25 to characterize the precarious state of the Union: “A house divided against itself shall not stand.”

Such an appropriation of Christianity for politics dominates the Gettysburg Address, from its opening “four score” to its closing “shall not perish.” In the 1970s, literary scholar M.E. Bradford, in his essay, “The Rhetoric for Continuing Revolution,” identified the Gettysburg Address’s “biblical language” as the speech’s “most important formal property.” That is undoubtedly so. Lincoln drew from the King James Version’s archaic words and cadences, as he opened with the biblical-sounding “four score,” an echo of the Psalmist’s “three score and ten” years allotted to man on this earth. He continued with “brought forth,” the words in the Gospel of Luke that describe Mary’s delivery of Jesus—the first instance of what turns out to be a repeated image of conception, birth, life, death, and new birth, culminating in the promise of eternal life in the words “shall not perish”—a startling echo of Jesus’ words to Nicodemus in John 3:16 (“whosoever believeth in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life”).

Lincoln’s speech also engages the other side of civil religion—not the appropriation of the sacred for the purposes of the state but the elevation of the secular into a political religion. Early in his career, Lincoln had explicitly promoted this kind of civil religion. Again in his 1838 Lyceum address, he called for fidelity to “the blood of the Revolution” and the Declaration, the Constitution, and the laws to serve as America’s sustaining “political religion” now that the founding generation was passing away. In 1863, Lincoln filled the Gettysburg Address with the words “dedicated,” “consecrated,” and “hallow.” The cumulative effect of this sacred language was to set the American Founding, the suffering of the Civil War, and the national mission apart from the mundane world and transport the war dead and their task into a transcendent realm.

What Machen Should Have Said

About the value of Christian education (if he were a neo-Calvinist):

This, then, is the point. The war between Christ and Satan is a global war. It is carried on, first, in the hearts of men for the hearts of men. Through preaching and teaching in the church and in the home, through the witness borne individual men everywhere, the allegiance of men is turned away from Satan to Christ. But the warfare is also carried on where you might least expect it. It is carried on in the field of reading and writing and arithmetic, in the field of nature study and history. At every point Satan seeks boys and girls, as well as men and women to take the attitude that he got Eve and Adam to take at the beginning of history. Everywhere and at every point Satan’s theme-song is: “Let’s be broad-minded; at the beginning of our research your hypothesis about God’s creating and directing the course of history is as good as mine and mine is as good as yours. Now let’s
be open-minded and find out from the facts, whose hypothesis fits reality.”

And now the reason why we are willing as Christian believers in general, and as Christian parents in particular, to sacrifice so largely for the sake of having Christian schools is that we want our children with us to see the vision of the all-conquering Christ as he wrests the culture of mankind away from Satan and brings it to its consummation when the new heavens and the new earth on which righteousness shall dwell, at last appears.

We would have our young men and women become true soldiers under Christ as with him they go conquering and to conquer every domain of life for Christ. When they thus become good soldiers of Christ, they will be free and be truly themselves. They will share in the trophies which Christ wrests from Satan’s power: “For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death, or the present or the future, all are yours; and you are Christ’s and Christ is God’s” (1 Cor 3:22) (Cornelius Van Til, Essays on Christian Education)

Well, maybe Van Til would not have been so antithetical in testimony before Congress. But since neo-Calvinists keep telling us that religion must not be cordoned off behind the church parking lot fence, that dualism is anathema, that we need more religion in public, I wonder why it would wrong to think that Van Til would have said this in Congress. Not that there is anything with saying this in Congress. It is a free country. But this is clearly not the way Machen chose to address matters of public life, whether education or the Sabbath.

In which case, it is striking how Machen did address the Christian school teachers (in the quotation that neo-Calvinists love to cite). This is how the talk begins (no antithesis, just American politics):

The Christian school is to be favored for two reasons. In the first place, it is important for American liberty; in the second place, it is important for the propagation of the Christian religion. . . . In the first place, then, the Christian school is important for the maintenance of American liberty. We are witnessing in our day a world-wide attack upon the fundamental principles of civil and religious freedom. In some countries, such as Italy, the attack has been blatant and unashamed; Mussolini despises democracy and does not mind saying so. A similar despotism now prevails in Germany; and in Russia freedom is being crushed out by what is perhaps the most complete and systematic tyranny that the world has every seen.

But exactly the same tendency that is manifested in extreme form in those countries, is also being manifested, more slowly but none the less surely, in America. It has been given an enormous impetus first by the war and now by the economic depression; but aside form these external stimuli it has its roots in a fundamental deterioration of the American people. Gradually the people has come to value principle less and creature comfort more; increasingly it has come to prefer prosperity to freedom; and even in the field of prosperity it cannot be said that the effect is satisfactory.

The result of this decadence in the American people is seen in the rapid growth of a centralized bureaucracy which is the thing against which the Constitution of the United States was most clearly intended to guard.

Machen goes on for several pages to discuss various legislative initiatives at the state and federal level. Still no mention of God, theology, w-w, or the antithesis except the one between liberty and tyranny:

But someone will say, Congress will never in the world be so foolish as that; the amendment does give Congress that power, but the power will never be exercised. Now, my friends, I will just say this: when I listen to an argument like that, I sometimes wonder whether the person who advances it can possibly be convinced by it himself. If these stupendous powers are never to be exercised, why should they be granted? The zeal for the granting of them, the refusal of the framers of the amendment to word the amendment in any reasonably guarded way, show plainly that the powers are intended to be exercised; and certainly they will be exercised, whatever the intention of the framers of the amendment may be. I will tell you exactly what will happen if this amendment is adopted by the states. Congress will pass legislation which, in accordance with the plain meaning of the language, will be quite unenforceable. The exact degree of enforcement will be left to Washington bureaus, and the individual family will be left to the arbitrary decision of officials. It would be difficult to imagine anything more hostile to the decency of family life and to all the traditions of our people. If there ever was a measure that looked as though it were made in Russia, it is this falsely so-called “child-labor amendment” to the Constitution of the United States. In reality, it can hardly be called an amendment to the Constitution. Rather is it the complete destruction of the Constitution; for if human life in its formative period — up to eighteen years in the life of every youth — is to be given to Federal bureaucrats, we do not see what else of very great value can remain. The old principles of individual liberty and local self-government will simply have been wiped out. . . .

Against this soul-killing collectivism in education, the Christian school, like the private school, stands as an emphatic protest. In doing so, it is no real enemy of the public schools. On the contrary, the only way in which a state-controlled school can be kept even relatively healthy is through the absolutely free possibility of competition by private schools and church schools; if it once becomes monopolistic, it is the most effective engine of tyranny and intellectual stagnation that has yet been devised.

For Machen, education was primarily a family matter and it needed protection from the ever-reaching arm of the state:

I believe that the Christian school deserves to have a good report from those who are without; I believe that even those of our fellow citizens who are not Christians may, if they really love human freedom and the noble traditions of our people, be induced to defend the Christian school against the assaults of its adversaries and to cherish it as a true bulwark of the State. But for Christian people its appeal is far deeper. I can see little consistency in a type of Christian activity which preaches the gospel on the street corners and at the ends of the earth, but neglects the children of the covenant by abandoning them to a cold and unbelieving secularism. If, indeed, the Christian school were in any sort of competition with the Christian family, if it were trying to do what the home ought to do, then I could never favor it. But one of its marked characteristics, in sharp distinction from the secular education of today, is that it exalts the family as a blessed divine institution and treats the scholars in its classes as children of the covenant to be brought up above all things in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.

Kuyper too feared state overreach and on this they agreed (though I don’t think Machen would have cared for Kuyper’s progressive reforms as prime minister). But when thinking about public life Machen did not wield the antithesis the way that Kuyper and neo-Calvinists do. I suspect that a major difference on this score is that Kuyper, being European and therefore much more philosophical than Americans like Machen, looked at most things philosophically, or he tried to see things whole. Machen, whose background both at home (legal) and in the church (Old School), thought about matters much more as an attorney and so what was legal according to the constitution of something. The U.S. Constitution secured religious freedom. The church had a definite constitution that prescribed its functions and defined its ministry. American constitutionalism may have had a weak philosophical basis (or so I’ve been told since my mind doesn’t really work philosophically). That didn’t trouble Machen. He tried to play by those rules and those rules governed both God’s friends and enemies, at least within the borders of the greatest nation on God’s green earth.

Postscript: for those wondering where Machen defended communists, they need look no farther than his essay, “The Relation between Christians and Jews”:

Tolerance, moreover, means not merely tolerance for that with which we are agreed but also tolerance for that to which we are most thoroughly opposed. A few years ago there was passed in New York the abominable Lusk Law requiring private teachers in any subjects whatever to obtain a state license. It was aimed, I believe, at the socialists, and primarily at the Rand School in New York City. Now certainly I have no sympathy with socialism. Because of its hostility to freedom, it seems to me to be just about the darkest thought that has ever entered the mind of man. But certainly such opposition to socialism did not temper in the slightest degree my opposition to that preposterous law. Tolerance, to me, does not mean merely tolerance for what I hold to be good, but also tolerance for what I hold to be abominably bad. (Selected Shorter Writings, 418-19)

Interesting to see that Machen’s reason for opposition socialism is not the law of God, w-w, the cosmic contest between God and Satan oozing out of 1789, but a love of freedom. But of course, Machen is no libertarian.

We Are Making a Difference (even if Bill Evans Can't See)

The Ecclesial Calvinist tries to correct the historical record by claiming that Machen and Van Til are more transformational (and less 2k) than some think. I do believe that Van Til’s record is mixed since he drank so deeply at the well of neo-Calvinism. At the same time, Van Til’s involvement in the OPC, which was hardly a transformationalist church (just ask Tim Keller), and Van Til’s vigorous work for the church would certainly complicate Evans’ invocation. Not to mention that Evans does not seem to recognize that he is no transformationalist on the order of Van Til’s rhetoric. For instance, Evans features this quotation from Van Til:

He knows that Satan seeks to destroy his Christian culture by absorbing it into the culture of those who are still apostate from Christ. He knows that the whole course of history is a life and death struggle between the culture of the prince of the powers of darkness and his Christ, who has brought life and light into the world. He knows that he must fight the battle for a Christian culture first of all within himself and then with those who seek to destroy his faith and with it all true culture. He knows that the weapons of this warfare between a Christian and the non-Christian culture are spiritual. He would deny the norm of his own culture and be untrue to his own ideal if he descended to the coarse and the uncouth, let alone to the use of physical force, as he engages his foes whom he wants to make his friends and brothers in Christ.

But when it came to the 2012 election, apparently Evans didn’t have this same knowledge:

If human redemption ultimately depends on divine activity at the end of history, then one should not try, as some have put it, to “immanentize the eschaton” in the here and now. Both Jews and Christians learned that lesson long ago as the biblical holy-war tradition was eschatologically conditioned and spiritualized. Jews wisely decided to eschew the apocalyptic impulse of the Jewish Wars in the first and second centuries, and to wait for the messiah to come and set things right. Christians did much the same thing as holy warfare motifs were understood in terms of spiritual conflict in the present and the second advent of Jesus in the future (and yes, I’m quite aware of the post-millennial scenario that achieved some popularity in more culturally optimistic times or recently as an incentive to action among Christian Reconstructionists).

When it comes to theonomy, 2k sounds pretty good to Evans.

Nor was he so confident of what Van Til knew when Evans commented on homosexuality:

It seems to me that there is a lot of soul-searching to be done. To be sure, at this point even a low-key statement of biblical morality comes across as narrow-minded and intolerant, and there is probably not much that can be done about that in the short term. But the problems are more complicated than the substance of biblical morality. First of all, we have come across as hypocritical. American Evangelicalism is, by and large, thoroughly compromised on the issue of heterosexual marriage. . . . Second, we are often perceived as majoring on condemnation rather than compassion. Having lectured every year to undergraduates on the Apostle Paul’s view of homosexuality, I’m convinced that many Evangelicals have tended to misread him in two ways—on the moral status of homosexual behavior and the appropriate response of the church.

That doesn’t sound very every-square-inchish.

But what is oddest about Evans’ recent brief against 2k is the notion that somehow he represents the mainstream of the Reformed tradition (I am not sure one exists since so many different hands and so many different circumstances informed the Reformed churches in so many different lands):

In short, what seems to be emerging is a “Reformed” theology of culture tailored for deeply pessimistic times. Like most theological and historical revisionisms, it is worth discussing. But let’s just not confuse it with the mainstream of the Reformed tradition.

The gasp you may have heard was your vinegary writer when reading a man who is in a secession church — an immigrant one to boot — talking about mainstream Reformed. Evans teaches at Esrkine Theological Seminary, an institution with roots in the original Reformed secession — the Associate Presbytery of 1733 where Ralph and Ebenezer Erskine walked away from the mainstream of the Scottish Kirk (letting goods and kindred go in Luther’s words) for the sake of the gospel and the freedom of the church. Of course, the Reformers had already left the mainstream to pursue reform (and boy did the church need it — still does). But after 1733, secession, or exiting the mainstream, was what various Reformed heroes thought necessary to protect the ministry and integrity of the church. The Afscheiding among the Dutch in 1834 left the national church to be faithful to the Three Forms of Unity. Thomas Chalmers almost a decade later led another secession group out of the Scottish Kirk, this time the Free Church, again to protect the gospel and to reject infidelities in the mainstream churches. Abraham Kuyper in 1886 would reluctantly and mournfully do the same because of the compromises in the Dutch Reformed Church. Rounding out this list was J. Gresham Machen and the OPC’s 1936 break from the PCUSA.

The historical record once again shows that being outside the mainstream is not a bad thing but may actually be what conservative Reformed Protestants and Presbyterians do. It also shows that since the Reformation churchmen and laity have considered the task of the church to be more important than the kind of social good they could accomplish from inside the mainstream churches. They also believed that sacrificing cultural connections and influence was price to be paid for faithfully ministering God’s word.

Which is why Evans other point about 2k being the theology for pessimistic times is odd. Has he not heard? Christians have always lived in pessimistic times. That’s the nature of being aliens and exiles. That’s what happens when you worship in the church militant. Sure, Christians are optimistic about going home to be with their Lord. But they’re not optimistic about making their home here, this side of glory.

And that is why Evans does not seem to be able to recognize that 2kers do want and try to make a difference in this world. The difference is what constitutes difference. 2kers are not impressed, the way Evans appears to be, with political engagement or attempts to win the culture war. 2kers, in fact, know that we are always in a battle and that culture wars often distract from the real warfare which is spiritual and that can only seen by faith and not by sight. But for some reason, the efforts of 2kers to remind the church of its higher calling, to avoid identifying the cause of Christ with “conservative” politics or Western Civilization or the politics of identity, do not impress Dr. Evans.

But maybe J. Gresham Machen will and the words he spoke to future ministers:

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)

When the transformationalist can say that about the ministry of the word compared to the temporal blessings of this life, we can have a conversation.

Being Reformed and Avoiding Landmines

I don’t want to discourage the young and restless from growing in their understanding of Reformed Protestantism but sometimes even the best of intentions cannot prevent stepping in it. Over at the allies blog John Starke encourages readers to spend more time with Cornelius Van Til — The Most Important Boring Thinker You Should Read (whose birthday happens to be today tomorrow). Starke goes on to ask three leading apologists to recommend sources for readers who know not presuppositionalism — Mike Horton, Scott Oliphint, and John Frame, in that order.

Is it impolite to notice that hard core Van Tillians would likely take umbrage at this order since I’ve often heard comments that Horton is light in his presuppositional loafers? And what would John Frame think to read that he comes in third behind Horton and Oliphint? Maybe Horton’s recommendation of Frame’s Apologetics to the Glory of God as “a readable apologetic from Van Til’s perspective” will take some of the sting away. Also, since the critics of 2k often invoke Van Til against the likes of VanDrunen and Horton, and since VanDrunen and Horton appear to have more of a following among the young and restless than the hard core Van Tillians (despite the congenital defect of transformationalism that afflicts the Gospel Coalition), Starke may have unwittingly aggravated those who invoke the antithesis to divide the world between 2k and R2k.

Sometimes you need a score card to keep track of all the players.

Update: and sometimes you need a clue and can’t take TGC’s word on dates. My comrade in arms informs me that Cornelius Van Til’s birthday is tomorrow. That gives me time to stock up.

Das Machen des Van Til

Or roughly, “The Making of Van Til.”  Camden Bucey builds a case that Machen is the principal historical reason for Cornelius Van Til becoming the influential reformed apologist he became.  Darryl Hart and John Muether have written on the subject.  Their article Why Machen Hired Van Til is available through the OPC.

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