A modest cake for the OPC’s 81st birthday.
A modest cake for the OPC’s 81st birthday.
As progressive as the founding pastor of New City Fellowship in Chattanooga is, Andrew Exum thinks this mixed race, multicultural church still fails to pass the Democratic/mainline Protestant litmus test:
Last weekend, I happened to be back in Jackson’s Tennessee, and my wife and I used the opportunity to go to a church we have long admired. New City Fellowship in Chattanooga was founded by a young interracial couple who grew up in housing projects in Newark, New Jersey, and started a ministry focused on racial reconciliation in my hometown in the 1970s. Today, it is a vibrant cross-cultural ministry and was one of the few places I remember growing up (that wasn’t a sporting event) where black and white Tennesseans would regularly gather together. I cannot imagine the courage it must have taken for a young white pastor and his black wife to have started that church just a few years after Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down on the other end of the state.
Like most Protestant churches still thriving in the United States, New City follows a pretty orthodox—in this case, Presbyterian—theology. Most of the men and women with whom my wife and I were worshipping would also probably identify as evangelicals, that same group of people who have been Trump’s most committed supporters.
Now, may the Lord have mercy on me for this, but perhaps because I have lived in Washington, D.C., for the past several years, as I worshipped last weekend, I also saw something else in the pews: voters. These people—God-fearing Christians committed to racial reconciliation and social justice—should be among the voters for whom a multicultural Democratic Party is competing.
But one thing that shines through among many evangelical voters—as well as other, non-evangelical Trump supporters with whom I have spoken back home—is how turned off they are by the smug self-righteousness of contemporary progressive discourse.
Don’t support abortion rights? Well, obviously you hate women (even if you happen to yourself be a woman), and the late-night comedians are going to be merciless with what is left of your reputation.
Still believe marriage is a Biblical institution between a man and woman for the purposes of procreation? Be prepared to be mocked relentlessly on social media and shunned by peers and employers.
Last week, the Democratic Party debated whether it was even still possible to be pro-life and a Democrat before Nancy Pelosi—that arch-pragmatist who, so unlike her GOP successors, put a string of wins on the board for her party while speaker of the House—put an end to the debate by affirming that the answer remained yes.
These debates over doctrine and policy positions are exactly what the party should be doing in the aftermath of its 2016 debacle. But when paired with the self-righteous tone so characteristic of contemporary progressive discourse, it is potentially toxic to attempts to broaden the electorate for which the Democratic Party is competing. It replicates the mistakes of Alexander Hamilton’s own political writings before his own party collapsed.
Only the current configuration of national politics could make New School Presbyterians look like J. friggin Gresham Machen. Which might also make the people who voted for Trump (I did not) look a little more reasonable than Stephen Colbert.
This piece is making the rounds, one about the sorts of public intellectuals that now sound off at TED talks and other such progressive forums. And it got me thinking about differences between Presbyterians and Princeton Seminary:
Early on, [Drezner] he makes a crucial distinction between old-fashioned “public intellectuals” and the now-trendy “thought leaders.” The latter model is one that sells itself less to an identifiable “public”—something that has become increasingly difficult to define in a society continually segmenting itself according to ever-more-narrow criteria—than to plutocratic patrons. Once upon a time, we relied on intellectuals to “speak truth to power,” as the saying goes. Of course, real life was never so simple. But the adversary culture that arose in the bohemia of Greenwich Village in the early 20th century and among the (mostly) Jewish intellectuals who founded the independent Partisan Review in the 1930s offered at least a basis from which both to critique capitalism and to imagine alternative systems that might one day replace it.
Today, our most famous purveyors of ideas sell themselves to the wealthy much like the courtiers of the Middle Ages. Drezner notes that these ideas are therefore shaped by the “aversion” that plutocrats share toward addressing the problems we face. Inequality? Global warming? Populist nihilism? An explosion of global refugees? From a Silicon Valley perspective, Drezner notes, such things are not a failure of our system but rather “a piece of faulty code that need[s] to be hacked.” Examining data from a survey of Silicon Valley corporate founders, Drezner notes their shared belief that “there’s no inherent conflict between major groups in society (workers vs. corporations, citizens vs. government, or America vs. other nations).”
So is Machen more like the old Jewish intellectuals who spoke truth to power, while Keller is more like the “famous purveyors of ideas”? Does that explain why Princeton repudiated Machen altogether but still made a place for Keller who still went there to speak about planting churches?
Just an obsession.
Word on the street has it that Redeemer Presbyterian Church has given Marilynne Robinson its first Commission of Faith and Work. Doesn’t Robinson know that Tim Keller is kind of toxic? Has she no sense of solidarity with her mainline Protestant women and LBGT+ ministers and church members? (Or, didn’t Princeton’s president know that Keller was about to approve an award to Robinson?)
Better question: why is a church whose officers subscribe the Confession of Faith and Catechisms recognizing a woman who sometimes preaches and whose theological reflections, while thoughtful, hardly line up with the PCA’s confessional teaching?
Here’s the explanation:
The commission aims to address the tide of uncertainty that the humanities now face with distinctly Christian support. Historically, in times of uncertainty and transition, the humanities have provided reminders of hope and grace to combat our fear and doubt. They center us in the miracle of the Imago Dei, sounding the peal of God’s presence in our lives. As Robinson so wisely states in one of her many erudite essays: “I experience religious dread whenever I find myself thinking that I know the limits of God’s grace, since I am utterly certain it exceeds any imagination a human being might have of it. God does, after all, so love the world.”
The logic is that the humanities are on the ropes. The humanities need support from Christians. The humanities need such support because they testify to God’s “presence in our lives.”
Imagine the testimony to God’s presence if a pastor proclaimed that Jesus Christ died for sinners. Why clutter the gospel with the valuable though limited insights of the humanities?
Humanities are valuable. So are the social and natural sciences. But the humanities are not divinity — duh. The church doesn’t gain status by hanging out with celebrity writers. It reduces God’s saving power to human aspirations.
Which novelist can say she does this?
Remember this, at least — the things in which the world is now interested are the things that are seen; but the things that are seen are temporal, and the things that are not seen are eternal. You, as ministers of Christ, are called to deal with the unseen things. You are stewards of the mysteries of God. You alone can lead men, by the proclamation of God’s word, out of the crash and jazz and noise and rattle and smoke of this weary age into the green pastures and beside the still waters; you alone, as minsters of reconciliation, can give what the world with all its boasting and pride can never give — the infinite sweetness of the communion of the redeemed soul with the living God. (Selected Shorter Writings, 205)
Postscript: Do humanists of this sort need the support of a confessional Presbyterian church?
Do you believe in sin?
Well, it depends how you define the word. The way I would read Genesis is a phenomenon . . . what it describes is a human predisposition to what amounts to self-defeat — to be given a wonderful planet and find yourself destroying it. Or, to have a wonderful civilization and then engage yourself aggressively in ways that destroy your civilization and another besides. If you look at human history or practically any human biography, it’s very hard to say that people don’t incline toward harmful and self-destructive acts, whether they intend to or not.
You are talking about sin on a large scale as you talk about it now. What about cheating on your wife?
Definite sin. A big 10. I think that in a certain way I was perhaps taught that the Ten Commandments are like a lot of the law of Moses in the sense that they name as transgressions things that you might not derive by reason as being transgressive — things like keeping the Sabbath or not making idols. These are markers in reality that are divine in their origins in the sense that human beings might not necessarily have come up with them.
Aside from that, one of the things that is true of the Bible certainly — in the case like David, for example — is that people do things that are utterly prohibitive to them, evil even. And I am speaking here of David arranging the death of Uriah so he could marry Bathsheba. And yet, there is always a huge variable at play — how does God respond to this and the difference of what we could measure as projected transgressions, the difference between that and the same thing as seen through the eyes of love or grace. These are very different things.
So I believe in sin in the sense that people do harm. I believe in grace in the sense that we cannot make final judgments about the meaning or the effect of what we do.
Another difference between New Calvinists and Reformed Protestants — sentimentality. Tim Challies does his best to present J. Gresham Machen as — we used to call them mama’s boys — the godly Christian son:
Because Gresham was a lifelong bachelor, his mother would remain the closest woman in his life until her death in 1931. This was the most grievous event he had experienced, for no one had held him in greater esteem than his mother. No one had been so unswervingly loyal to him. Perhaps no one had been so impacted by him. She once wrote to him: “I cannot half express to you my pride and profound joy in your work. You have handled in a very able manner the most important problem of the age, and you have given voice to my own sentiments far better than I could myself.” On the day the family laid her to rest, Gresham wrote, “My mother seems—to me at least—to have been the wisest and best human being I ever knew.”
God used Minnie’s powerful intellect and warm kindness to raise up a man who would benefit generations of Christians by his stalwart defense of the faith. And he continues to use such mothers to this day. Mothers, as you struggle to instruct your children in the Word and in sound doctrine, learn from Minnie that your labor is setting a strong foundation for years to come. As you strive to show steadfast love to your faltering children, learn from Minnie that God often uses such compassion to draw his children back to himself. Through your training and your tenderness, you are displaying the love of the Father.
Minnie had been her son’s first teacher and, with her husband, the one who led him to Christ. “Without what I got from you and Mother,” he would tell his father, “I should long since have given up all thoughts of religion or of a moral life. . . . The only thing that enables me to get any benefit out of my opportunities here is the continual presence with me in spirit of you and Mother and the Christian teaching which you have given me.” At his time of deepest need, she had comforted him with love and counseled him with the Word of God. She had remained loyal to him in that crisis and through every other controversy he endured. In his greatest and most enduring work, Christianity and Liberalism, it is fitting that its opening page bears this simple dedication: “To my mother.”
Tender. Warm. Kind. Compassion. Love. Loyalty. Those are all appealing words and they no doubt capture some of the relationship that Machen had with his mother, Mary Gresham.
But that portrait of the close relationship of mother and son (which those skeptical of Machen’s virtues have used to raise questions about his sexuality) doesn’t prepare New Calvinist admirers for the Warrior Children side of Machen. And to keep the spread sheets properly balanced, the New Calvinists (at least) need to remember how John Frame described the less than appealing side of Machen’s controversial proclivities:
The Machen movement was born in the controversy over liberal theology. I have no doubt that Machen and his colleagues were right to reject this theology and to fight it. But it is arguable that once the Machenites found themselves in a “true Presbyterian church” they were unable to moderate their martial impulses. Being in a church without liberals to fight, they turned on one another.
One slogan of the Machen movement was “truth before friendship.” We should laud their intention to act according to principle without compromise. But the biblical balance is “speaking the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15). We must not speak the truth without thinking of the effect of our formulations on our fellow Christians, even our opponents. That balance was not characteristic of the Machen movement.
Fighting for the sake of contention is one thing. Fighting for a Reformed church according to the word is another. Many of Machen’s warrior children think they fight for the sake of God’s word. New Calvinists tend to be skeptical, as Frame is, about the extent of battle fronts. They even call Old Calvinists mean and ornery.
As long as New Calvinists also know that Machen had critics who called him mean and ornery, they might avoid sentimentalizing Machen. If they want to sanitize him, they need to explain how Minnie Machen ever let her son become such a controversialist.
What an odd question, but this group of Presbyterian women might help Princeton Seminary administrators not feel so bad about the kerfuffle over Keller and the Kuyper Prize:
Meanwhile, Todd Pruitt has found another sign of harmonic convergence between women on both sides of the mainstream/sideline Presbyterian divide. Pastor Pruitt writes this:
If you listen to the podcast what you will hear is typical boilerplate liberation theology which is fundamentally unbiblical and incompatible with the gospel and the church’s mission. Sadly this has been allowed a foothold in the PCA. Some of us have been warning about it, apparently to no avail. It is nothing more than the latest incarnation of the social gospel which ironically destroys the gospel by replacing it with something else.
During the discussion the hosts dismiss the biblical pattern of male leadership within the church as nothing more than a manmade rule. They also mock those who uphold that biblical pattern and join that mockery with crude language. Keep in mind that these men and women are members of and serve in churches whose standards uphold those biblical patterns of leadership.
Near the very end of the podcast one of the hosts gives a brief nod of legitimacy to transgenderism. This is not surprising given the radical roots of their categories.
I will not labor over every problem with the content of this podcast. You will be able to hear for yourself if you choose. But be warned. It is very tedious. It is something that would be warmly received in the PC(USA) for sure. What is so troubling is that it is being received by some within the PCA. This will not end well. Experiments in the social gospel never end well.
If Tim Keller had done more to warn Presbyterian urbanists and Neo-Calvinists about the pitfalls of making the gospel social (and political or cultural), he might have shielded himself from recent controversy. That’s right. If he had done that, he’d never have been nominated for the Kuyper Prize.
Did Machen found Westminster Seminary for nothing!?!
Owen Strachan is at a loss to explain why Princeton Seminary has decided to withdraw the Kuyper Prize from Tim Keller:
How odd that this fracas has happened at Princeton. Princeton Seminary is the ancestral home of Charles Hodge, B. B. Warfield, J. Gresham Machen. For a good long while, Princeton was one of the staunchest defenders of orthodoxy in all its gleaming brilliance, turning out thousands of Bible-loving, gospel-preaching pastors in days past. Princeton has long had ties to Abraham Kuyper, who delivered his famous “every square inch” Stone Lectures at the school in 1898. The Princeton-Kuyper-evangelical connection is alive and thriving at schools like Westminster Seminary, which produced sterling graduates like Harold John Ockenga.
Beyond thriving Westminster, as just one humble example, I will be teaching a July PhD seminar with my colleague John Mark Yeats at Midwestern Seminary on “Biblical Theology and Culture.” We will be discussing Kuyper’s Lectures on Calvinism. Baptists like me are thankful for our brother Abraham and his insights. Over 115 years later, the Kuyperian tree yet blooms, and on numerous campuses, the “Princeton Theology” yet lives.
But mark the irony: today, Kuyper could not receive his own award, as Michael Guyer noted. Nor could Hodge or Warfield or Machen—strong complementarians all—win such an honor, or perhaps even teach at the school they did so much to establish and strengthen.
Does Strachan not see the irony that Machen had to leave Princeton for Old Princeton’s theology to thrive? Doesn’t he understand the irony of the anti-Machen Princeton awarding (the pro-Machen?) Keller with a prize associated with the Calvinist orthodoxy of Abraham Kuyper?
Strachan interprets this episode as another indication of how deep the antithesis goes:
Don’t be confused: this world hates the gospel, hates God, and hates Christ (Romans 8:7). It calls faithful men and women of God to sit down and fall silent. But, in love for fellow sinners, we graciously refuse to do so. We will preach the whole counsel of God, including biblical sexual ethics, which glisten with divine craftmanship. We will rise to praise Tim Keller, a man who received a weighty charge from God, a man entrusted with much, a man who did not drop the baton.
That’s pretty arch for a defender of Keller since that world-hating-Christ meme has never been prominent in Keller’s we-can-redeeem-this approach to the big apple.
But if the world is all that, why would Keller recommend Gotham the way he does? And if the world hates Christ as Strachan says, why would Tim Keller not look at Princeton’s effort to award him as an indication that he may not have been as clear in his communication of Reformed orthodoxy? After all, when E. J. Young received an invitation merely to serve on Christianity Today‘s editorial board, he refused to identity institutionally with the church for whom Princeton Seminary is the theological flagship:
As you well know, Carl [Henry], there was in the Presbyterian Church a great controversy over modernism. That controversy was carried on by Dr. Machen in part. There were many who supported Dr. Machen in his opposition to unbelief. On the other hand there were many who did not support him. When matters came to a showdown and Dr. Machen was put from the church there were those who decided it would be better to remain within and to fight from within. . . . Since that time I have watched eagerly to see what would be done by those who remained in the church. They have done absolutely nothing. Not one voice has been raised so far as I know to get the church to acknowledge its error in 1936 and to invite back into its fold those who felt constrained to leave, or those who were put out of the church. . . . What has greatly troubled me has been the complete silence of the ministers in the church. They simply have not lived up to their ordination vows.
If Keller had been holding out for confessional Presbyterianism, Princeton never would have paid him attention. And if Princeton Seminary had ever checked Keller’s curriculum vitae, they’d have seen Westminster Seminary, the school founded by Machen, and wondered, “what were we thinking?”
If only the New Calvinists paid a little more attention to Old Calvinists, they might know that Calvinism is never sexy. As Mencken said for many mainstream media members, “Calvinism is but little removed in the cabinet of horrors from Cannibalism.” But instead, New Calvinists listened to Keller and thought, if he can make it in New York City, so can we.