The purpose of this book is not to decide the religious issue of the present day, but merely to present the issue as sharply and clearly as possible, in order that the reader may be aided in deciding it for himself. Presenting an issue sharply is indeed by no means a popular business at the present time; there are many who prefer to fight their intellectual battles in what Dr. Francis L. Patton has aptly called a “condition of low visibility.” (Patton, in the introduction to William Hallock Johnson The Christian Faith Under Modern Searchlight, , p. 7.) Clear-cut definition of terms in religious matters, bold facing of the logical implications of religious views, is by many persons regarded as an impious proceeding. May it not discourage contribution to mission boards? May it not hinder the progress of consolidation, and produce a poor showing in columns of Church statistics? But with such persons we cannot possibly bring ourselves to agree. Light may seem at times to be an impertinent intruder, but it is always beneficial in the end. The type of religion which rejoices in the pious sound of traditional phrases, regardless of their meanings, or shrinks from “controversial” matters, will never stand amid the shocks of life. In the sphere of religion, as in other spheres, the things about which men are agreed are apt to be the things that are least worth holding; the really important things are the things about which men will fight. In the sphere of religion, in particular, the present time is a time of conflict; the great redemptive religion which has always been known as Christianity is battling against a totally diverse type of religious belief, which is only the more destructive of the Christian faith because it makes use of traditional Christian terminology. (1-2)
Princeton University and the University of Pennsylvania could do a better job of teaching the public about the significance of historical monuments, the reasons behind them, and how to sort through the defects and achievements of figures that past generations esteemed.
The church has a different and better tool kit. Unfortunately, First Presbyterian Church, Columbia, South Carolina, did not use it. The officers there have decided to remove the names of James Henley Thornwell and Benjamin Morgan Palmer, two southern Presbyterian theologians who defended slavery, from lecture series, walls, and publications. In the pastoral letter sent to congregation members, Dr. Derek Thomas wrote the following:
Some, seeing the wanton destruction meted out by mobs elsewhere in our society, may worry that we, too, are effacing our history. I do not think that is the case. There is much more to learn from Thornwell and Palmer in
their writings. Thornwell’s four-volume Collected Writings is still available in our church library and for purchase on the internet. His works on the nature of God, creation, the Scriptures, and justification will continue to be taught and read, whatever the names of our buildings may be. The same is true of Palmer’s works, in particular his superb The Life and Letters of James Henley Thornwell. In any case, I doubt very much whether either man would wish his name assigned to a church building.
I have been an admirer of both James Henley Thornwell and Benjamin Morgan Palmer ever since I was introduced to their writings at seminary in mid-1970’s. To mention but one issue, Thornwell’s contribution to the understanding of the office of ruling elder shaped my direction into Presbyterian convictions (I was a Baptist) and continues to be important. Palmer’s The Broken Home and Theology of Prayer are two very fine works. I fully intend to read them again.
For years, I believed that we could honor the good while conceding to the bad. But their views on slavery and race were not just bad and wrong, they are fundamentally at odds with Scripture. I recall a black preacher, some forty years ago at a Banner of Truth conference in England, saying, “I love Thornwell on this issue, but he was horribly wrong on race and slavery.” That narrative does not work anymore. The names now are a “stumbling block” to our ability to witness to our African-American brothers and sisters. They are an impediment to enable us to witness on college campuses. And they are hurtful to our African-American members.
I can only imagine the pressure a congregation like this one senses in the current climate and do not intend to pile on from one side when they are likely receiving lots of pressure from the other. But I still have trouble understanding how you recommend Thornwell and Palmer as theologians while also declaring they are stumbling blocks. Who will pick up their works now? Even more, who is better situated to defend the value of their theology despite their objectionable political views and the doctrine they used to support them? If not officers and members at congregations at First Presbyterian Church, Columbia, don’t expect the folks at Redeemer New York City or Christ Presbyterian Nashville.
Another puzzle is the timing. The names of Thornwell and Palmer are objectionable now? They haven’t been since the Civil Rights’ movement? Or since 2016 when the ARP General Synod confessed “the sinful failings of our church in the past in regard to slavery and racism”? As in the case of Princeton and Penn, the action of removing a name or a statue does not make up for the years that your institution was content to live with those names and figures. Simply admitting your fault does not create a new institution with new officers and staff. It’s the same people today making apologies who yesterday were unmindful of anything wrong.
The thing is, the defense of good theologians who got social institutions wrong is not all tricky since it involves the very word of God. Christians who read their Old Testament, maybe not as large as they once were, know that Jacob, the grandson of Abraham, was not necessarily the man most fathers desire as a spouse for their daughters. He deceived his own father to acquire Esau’s birthright, and later deceived his father-in-law about livestock (for starters). He played favorites with his sons and should have exerted more control in the unseemly retribution for Shechem’s sexual infidelity with Jacob’s daughter Dinah (Gen. 34). The patriarch was no saint as some communions evaluate sanctity.
And yet, the Old Testament authors did not cancel Jacob. His name occurs over and over again throughout the Hebrew Scriptures — thirty-four times in the Psalter alone.
If any Old Testament figure qualified as a stumbling block, it was Jacob, not to mention that if you were looking for parts of the Bible over which to stumble, the Old Testament has to be considered.
All of which is to say that Christianity, even the very Word of God, has lots of challenging material for contemporary believers. In our time of safe spaces, certainly the likes of Thornwell and Palmer have little appeal. But if you start to jettison figures long regarded for their insights and contributions, how do you protect the Bible itself?
Evangelical Protestants suffer from a tic. It is an unwillingness to identify with a political party. Evangelical writers about politics can spot the defects of both the left and the right, though they don’t often calculate which side has the most flaws. They act as if Christians really are above politics. When believers follow the Bible, they will not have to settle for either what liberals or conservatives propose.
A couple examples: the first on race.
The danger is that Christians who rightly reject the first (conservative) view as sub-biblical will merely pick up the second (progressive) view uncritically and use the terminology that it provides. But both are secular, reductionistic and simplistic. The Bible’s account of justice includes both individual and systemic dimensions—and more. We are not merely individual and social, but also soul and body. Indeed, the term “world” (kosmos) in the New Testament has not only a material reality (as in God loving the world of human beings, John 3:16), but also a spiritual reality, an inevitable tendency to make counterfeit gods out of good created things (1 John 2:15-16). “Doing justice” on the basis of the biblical view will include extraordinary prayer and evangelism along with everything else. The biblical view of justice gives full weight to both personal responsibility and social structures while based on a rich understanding of human life that goes well beyond the world’s reductionistic alternative views.
The second on communism.
Liberation theology, which puts a Christian face on Marxist social analysis, retains an enormous mystique on the Christian left. This isn’t because left-leaning Christians admire Stalin but because they are profoundly skeptical of the alternative to communism: economic systems built on property and contract rights protected by the rule of law. These systems produce economic growth, but as wealth has grown we’ve also seen a growing worldliness and materialism in our cultures. Christians on the left (most famously Gregory Paul) point to the radical economic community of the church in Acts 2–5 and ask if this doesn’t implicitly delegitimize market systems of price and exchange.
Right-leaning Christians, meanwhile, often seem indistinguishable from secular conservatives. They rail against communism, yet almost none of them seems to have read serious theological analysis of communism—not even from anti-communist Christians like Chambers. In almost every case, their top priority is to protect free markets and economic growth rather than oppose the atheistic inhumanity of the communist worldview. And their zeal to defend free markets often leads them to downplay, or even celebrate, the worldliness and crass materialism that have been associated with economic growth.
Why is the church haunted by communism, even though in Christ crucified we already possess the real answer to the world’s suffering and injustice? Because the church hasn’t put a Christian economic ethic into practice systematically. We need, but don’t know how to develop, an organized and operational Christian economic life.
Actually, the Amish have developed an economic system by some measures. But even their herculean efforts to retain Christian solidarity depends on the “English’s” society of property, currency, a legal system, and the political process that functions in, with, and around economic systems. Talk about systemic.
This does not mean that Christian academics should refrain from connecting dots between revelation (general and special) and politics or economics. What it does mean is that Christians trying to be Christian about everything, including politics and economics, separate themselves from the institutions most responsible for those areas of society. Christian w-w thinking is really a product of a ghetto that is isolated from bodies of learning and institutional structures in which political and economic decisions are made.
It is functionally Amish. Is that where New Calvinists want to be? Sectarians on the margins?
I have not read the PCA report on sexuality, but from reading and listening to comments about it, I am inclined to think that leadership in the PCA thinks about racism differently from same-sex attraction, that one is something the church needs to condemn vigorously, the other is a condition around which the church needs to tread delicately.
Consider the following expressions of repentance:
As an organization, we need to more deeply self-examine and change. While there have been some strides over the last eighteen months, we haven’t been sufficiently aggressive in pursuing, supporting and developing Black and Latino leadership in the US. We repent. Though we have aspired to be a trans-denominational ministry, our training materials and events in the US have lacked the rich presence and leadership of Black and Latino theologians and are still largely distilled through a majority culture theological lens and ministry practices. We repent. A significant portion of our time, expertise and resources in the ministry have been focused on educated white leaders in center cities, and we could have done more as it relates to the historic and systemic segregation in the American church. We repent.
be it resolved, that the 44th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America does recognize, confess, condemn and repent of corporate and historical sins, including those committed during the Civil Rights era, and continuing racial sins of ourselves and our fathers such as the segregation of worshipers by race; the exclusion of persons from Church membership on the basis of race; the exclusion of churches, or elders, from membership in the Presbyteries on the basis of race; the teaching that the Bible sanctions racial segregation and discourages inter-racial marriage; the participation in and defense of white supremacist organizations; and the failure to live out the gospel imperative that “love does no wrong to a neighbor” (Romans 13:10); …
In humility, we repent of our ongoing racial sins. We repent of past silence in the face of racial injustice. We repent of a negligent and willful failure to account for our unearned privilege or to surface the unconscious biases that move us to protect our comfort rather than risk speaking against racial injustice. We repent of hearts that are dull to the suffering of others.
If, as the Confession of Faith has it, sanctification is “imperfect in this life” and part of “a continual and irreconcilable war” (13.2), these repeated expressions of repentance make sense. Less plausible is how they fit with the idea of private confession of sin, as in, “he that scandalizeth his brother, or the church of Christ, ought to be willing, by a private or public confession, and sorrow for his sin, to declare his repentance to those that are offended, who are thereupon to be reconciled to him, and in love to receive him.” (15.6)
Posted at Juicy Ecumenism today and then not:
Calvin vs. Wesley: A Review of the Presbyterian Church in America’s Report on Human Sexuality, Part One
The Rev. Karen Booth is a graduate of Drew Theological School and an ordained elder in the Peninsula-Delaware Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church. She is the author of “Forgetting How to Blush: United Methodism’s Compromise with the Sexual Revolution.”
Disclaimer: Please bear in mind that my views are based on my background as a seminary trained, local church pastor who has had some additional experience working with ministries of sexual sanctification. I am not a professional theologian, nor do I have access to specific archival material that would have been relevant. I do thank Dr. David Watson and Dr. Scott Kisker of United Theological Seminary for helping me think through some of the Wesleyan theology.
In June 2019, the conservative Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) faced a General Assembly that included more legislative petitions about LGBT issues than any other subject. The concerns stemmed from a provocative conference called Revoice, which was co-sponsored by the denomination’s Covenant Seminary and hosted by a local PCA church in St. Louis.
Though there are nuances, Revoice (the conference and movement that followed) generally affirms a traditional Christian sexual ethic while tolerating, accepting or even celebrating homosexual orientation and/or LGBT identity as long as there is a concurrent commitment to celibacy. This stance is sometimes referred to as “Side B,” with “Side A” being LGBT-identified persons who do not consider same-sex intimacy to be essentially immoral. There is also a “Side C” for those who are unsure and a “Side X” for those who believe that BOTH desire and behavior can be transformed through the power of Jesus Christ.
Though one writer suggested that the PCA controversy was mostly about “language” and “terms,” another recognized that there were serious underlying theological and pastoral issues at stake: “another way of describing the debate is whether homosexual orientation/desire is sinful and therefore must be mortified or if it is a natural inclination that can just be kept in check through celibacy.”
Fearful that endorsing Revoice could ultimately lead to more progressive positions on sex and marriage, delegates sought further clarity. As a result, the General Assembly voted to affirm the more traditional Nashville Statement, a document developed by the complementarian Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, and to establish a study commission.
The seven-member Ad Interim Study Committee on Human Sexuality (hereinafter “Committee”) included pastors, theologians, Christian educators, and professional counselors who had diverse opinions about Revoice. This caused even more controversy, raising doubt that they would ever be able to reach biblically faithful consensus.
Nonetheless, the Committee completed its work within a year and officially released its Report on May 28. After wide distribution and study, the Report will be perfected and then accepted or rejected at the rescheduled General Assembly in June 2021.
The Report primarily consists of Twelve Statements that summarize the Committee’s findings, with longer essays explaining the underlying theological and doctrinal foundations. There are also suggestions for pastoral care and apologetics, an annotated resource list, and an exhortation to maintain unity amidst the diverse legislative proposals that will surely follow.
The first two Statements deal with marriage (the monogamous union of one man and one woman) and the binary nature of male/female creation (a unique expression of God’s image and His perfect will). Neither issue is currently up for debate; the former is explicitly addressed in both the Westminster Confession and the PCA Book of Church Order and the latter is implied. Both are referred to multiple times to defend other portions of the report.
The remaining material concentrates on four sets of related topics:
The moral nature of same-sex attraction, desire and temptation,
The compatibility (or not) of the concepts of homosexual orientation and gay Christian identity with Scripture and doctrine,
The significance of redemption, sanctification, Christian community and pastoral care for same-sex attracted persons, and
An apologetics strategy for sharing God’s truth and grace about human sexuality with an unbelieving world.
The Study Committee recognized that the first topic was key to all else that followed:
What do we believe the Bible teaches us about our condition as fallen human beings? What does it mean to be saved from this state?
How does regeneration affect our experience of fallenness?
How we answer these questions will determine how we answer the more specific questions about our experience of sexuality.” (Report, Page 14, lines 17-41)
So, the Calvinistic theological reasoning (Statements 3-6 and essay #1) goes something like this:
Original sin is a comprehensive (total) depravity and corruption that humans have inherited as a result of the Fall and for which they are held culpable/guilty. This essential corruption remains to some degree even after justification and regeneration. The outworking of this original corruption results in ACTUAL sin, which includes not only evil/immoral behavior but also impulses, feelings, desires and internal temptations, even those that are not agreed to by a conscious act of will (concupiscence). Both original and actual sin must be repented, grieved and hated.
Bottom line: “the experience of same-sex attraction is not morally neutral; (it) is an expression of original or indwelling sin that must be repented of and put to death.” And “these desires within us are not mere weaknesses or inclinations to sin but are themselves idolatrous and sinful.” (Report, page 8, lines 6-8, 20-21)
The second claim was the Committee’s unambiguous answer to Revoice leaders who argued that same-sex attraction is not in-and-of-itself sinful, but rather a sort of “disability” or “handicap.” As already noted, this understanding of the sinfulness of same-sex attraction will shape the Committee’s conclusions on sexual orientation/identity, Christian life from unbelief to sanctification, discipleship and community, pastoral care and apologetics.
Obviously, this theological understanding is quite different from the official stance of The United Methodist Church (UMC). The denomination morally prohibits same-sex behavior, by stating that the “practice of homosexuality” is “incompatible with Christian teaching.” But it doesn’t even mention, let alone condemn, the experience of same-sex attraction.
This policy was initially adopted into our Social Principles at the 1972 General Conference almost by accident. (See here and here.) It was reaffirmed after our first official study (“Committee to Study Homosexuality,” 1989-92) and endorsed yet again in more recent legislation and proposals regarding amicable separation. After almost fifty years of squabbling over sex and marriage, it’s pretty much become “conventional wisdom” in the UMC.
But is this conventional wisdom rooted in Wesleyan thinking? Providentially, yes.
Though it wasn’t originally conceived by Albert Outler or Georgia Harkness or any of the other “heavy hitters” that drafted proposals for our post-merger Social Principles, it nonetheless accurately reflects our Wesleyan heritage. As John Trinklein noted in his dissertation, Wesley’s discussion with his pastors at the 1759 Conference
clarified that there was a difference between sin “properly so-called” and sin “improperly so-called”. In his understanding, only that which is a “voluntary transgression of a known law” is truly a ‘sin’; any “involuntary transgression of a divine law, known or unknown” is “naturally consequent on the ignorance and mistakes inseparable from mortality”—and therefore not a ‘sin’ … Total corruption and the irresistible inclination to sin have indeed been passed on to us, but only our own voluntary (“proper”) sins can damn us. (pages 123-126)
Although humans are not damned for Adam’s transgression, Wesley nonetheless believed that the corruption of original sin left them stained, broken and hopeless – categorically unable to escape their inherited sin nature or do anything good on their own. (See here, here and here.) The hope, for Wesley and his followers, would be found in his manifold understandings of God’s grace.
This will be explored more fully in Part Two of the blog post. For now, here are a few of my personal observations.
Even though I disagree with its Calvinist underpinnings, I think the major strength of the PCA Report is its solid grounding in theology and doctrine. Once it is approved, the denomination will have not only a brilliant tool for teaching, but a firm foundation to fall back on if its traditional sexual ethic is ever challenged in the future. When the UMC decided (even if by default) to deal with sexuality issues from a “social concerns” perspective, it set the stage for almost constant struggle over terms and definitions. How I wish we had begun with something like this PCA document. How I yearn for something like it in the future.
I have not yet studied the entire PCA document, but I hope that their initial finding – that same-sex attraction itself is sinful – will be somewhat mitigated later on. Because, unless it is presented, taught and preached with great compassion and sensitivity, it can be soul crushing to those who struggle against SSA. If it only adds to their already heightened sense of personal shame, they will be less inclined to seek any kind of help from the church. I think we’ll discover in Part Two that the Wesleyan way of grace offers a more hopeful and potentially more transformative approach.
From the July 2000 Nicotine Theological Journal:
The prefix “post” has any number of proper usages. And most of those – postscript, postlude, posterior – clearly fix its meaning. Whatever is “post” comes after the main thing, such as after the letter, after the liturgy, or after the rest of the body.
The usage of this prefix in such words as postmodernism and postliberalism, however, is more ambiguous. Postmodernism suggests a period and intellectual sensibility that has moved beyond the age and mentality of being modern, though some argue that the intellectual and cultural fads going under the name, “postmodern,” are actually a heightened form of modernity. Postliberalism is even harder to explain. And part of the reason stems from whether those advocating postliberalism have actually moved beyond liberalism into a theology that is clearly “after” the sort of teaching that has characterized twentieth-century mainline Protestantism.
JAMES GUSTAFSON, FOR MANY years a professor of ethics at Emory University, raised questions about postliberalism for the mainliners who read the Christian Century (March 24-31, 1999). Gustafson himself may not be the best inquirer since his survey of the theological landscape is about as nuanced as the famous New Yorker poster of the world where everything west of the Hudson River dissolves into Walmart and Disneyland. For instance, Gustafson wonders if there is any difference between postliberal affirmations of “divine personhood and activity” and “the virtually magical expectations of divine interventions that one hears proclaimed by television evangelists.” In Gustafson’s universe, Karl Barth is next to Jerry Falwell. (And we thought liberals were supposed to be the rocket-science party in American Protestantism.)
Notwithstanding Gustafson’s fundamentalist-like version of liberalism, his article does help to expose the limitations of postliberalism. In many ways, Gustafson’s piece has a stale smell to it. If he is any indication, liberals are still spooked by world religions and natural science, and so adjust the claims of Christianity in order to avoid giving offense either religiously, culturally or intellectually. But the big question, and one that he acknowledges comes from Ernst Troeltsch, concerns Christian particularism. Did God “choose to reveal Godself in a unique and exclusive way in a single historical event, Jesus Christ?” If postliberals answer “no” to that question, then they are really liberals, according to Gustafson. And so after 150 years of theological development in the United States, liberalism still boils down to being uncomfortable with Jesus only. (Could it be that the origins of not keeping score in Little League baseball games may reside in liberal Protestant timidity – wouldn’t want those little tikes scarred by the exclusive brands of “winner” and “loser”? Mind you, losing in baseball is a lot less painful than losing eternal life. But the good news of the gospel is that Christ made his exclusive salvation available to all people through the ministry of the church – something liberals gave up when they replaced the gospel with culture, and the church with institutions of cultural transformation.)
WILLIAM PLACHER, WHO teaches theology at Wabash College, was the only suspect the editors at the Century could round up to respond to Gustafson’s questions (April 7, 1999). And we must give him credit for answering Troeltsch’s big question pithily and Christianly. “Do postliberals claim that God chose to reveal Godself in a unique and exclusive way in a single historical event, Jesus Christ?” Placher’s unequivocal response is “yes.” To be sure, Jesus Christ’s ministry involved more than one event as the various stages of his humiliation and exaltation indicate. Still, Placher deserves credit for not blinking.
HE ALSO MADE SOME interesting observations along the way which suggest just how hard it is to move beyond liberalism. For instance, when Placher was in grad school in the early 1970s, Schubert Ogden, Gordon Kaufman and David Tracy were at the center of American mainline academic theology. He adds that Barth tended to be dismissed “out of hand.” Which raises an interesting question – what kind of mark did neo-orthodoxy make in the United States? Placher’s recollections, along with other impressions, suggests that the brothers Niebuhr, Tillich and Barth were far more of a fad that allowed the mainline denominations to absorb an existentialist form of Christianity than any kind of movement that righted the ship of American Protestantism.
Placher’s own positive comments about the gospel imply as much, and suggest that postliberalism may reach a similar outcome. As much as he is willing to affirm the particularity of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, his affirmation carries all the baggage of liberal Protestant timidity and turns Christ into a strange brew of abstract particularity. “Jesus Christ reveals and anticipates,” Placher writes, “the culmination of God’s will for creation, and in that sense Christianity is uniquely right about what is most important in the ultimate purpose of things.” How’s that? The real question isn’t just whether Christ is unique but whether what he did makes him unique. Did he die, rise from the dead, and ascend into heaven for sins, and will he one day return to judge the world? To be sure, that is a whole lot more exclusive than anything Gustafson is prepared to accept. But it also makes the uniqueness of Christ much more lively (and efficacious) than the neo-orthodox-inspired maneuvers Placher executes.
In the end, the Gustafson-Placher exchange is eerily reminiscent of an essay Harry Emerson Fosdick wrote also for the Century, sixty-five years ago when the theological grenade-thrower took back some of what he had said in his inflammatory sermon, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” Fosdick’s topic was “Beyond Modernism” (Dec 4, 1935), and the reasons he gave for being a postliberal stemmed from liberalisms’ over-intellectualizing of the faith, sentimental belief in progress, and watered down theology. But the worst feature of modernism, according to Fosdick, was its loss of nerve. “We cannot harmonize Christ himself with modern culture,” he declared. “What Christ does to modern culture” is not accommodate but “challenge it.”
THIS MAY BE WHY IT IS impossible to go beyond modernism. If liberals and postliberals can’t figure out that Christ’s work of redeeming and judging sinners is more challenging than simply being the moral compass of the culture, then both groups, whether followers of Troeltsch or Barth, miss the point. Christianity is not about culture, whether cheerleading for it or self-righteously condemning it. It’s about sin, grace, and preparing for the world to come. For that reason, the only way we will be convinced that significant theological developments are afoot in the mainline churches and seminaries is when the prefix “pre” comes into vogue, as in preliberalism.
Henry M. Lewis
From the January 2000 issue of the Nicotine Theological Journal:
On June 24, 1936, the Christian Century reported that with the founding of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, J. Gresham Machen had finally come “very close to the place where he will find peace in no church except one of his own making.” Among the reasons for the Century’s condescension was the fact that the OPC had been formed because of modernism in the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A.’s Board of Foreign Missions. According to the Century, anyone who could possibly detect apostasy in the “operations of a missions board administered by such men as Robert E. Speer [and] John Mackay” should finally have done with the PCUSA. The point being that the likes of Speer and Mackay were so honorable and men of such character that they could never countenance the apostate views that Machen deemed modernist.
Surprisingly, the verdict of modern day conservative Presbyterians is similar to that of the Century two generations ago. Of course, today’s conservatives, if they know who Speer and Mackay were, would not judge them to be as good and decent as the editors of the Chicago religious weekly. But they do evaluate liberals in remarkably similar terms: if someone is a moral and decent Christian he can’t be a liberal or apostate. This line of reasoning is especially evident when contemporary Reformed believers conclude that a liberal must have a character on the degenerate order of William Jefferson Clinton because any decent person (who doesn’t beat his wife, gives to the poor, picks up trash) must be a conservative. In other words – to put it succinctly in the parlance of rabid Presbyterianism – liberals are scoundrels. (Which is the flip side of the modernist argument against conservatives – fundamentalists are un-American. Talk about ad hominem.)
THEN HOW DO WE EXPLAIN THE pro-family, love-thy-neighbor tone of the liberals who suspended Machen from ministering in the PCUSA? The very same report in the Century that summarized the proceedings of the General Assembly were Machen was suspended (June 17, 1936) also carried word that with the conclusion of the fundamentalist controversy the Presbyterian Church could turn to more pressing issues of social welfare. Among the items on the PCUSA’s agenda were the “evils” of Hollywood and alcohol. The church’s standing committee on social welfare was particularly alarmed that the movie industry “seems to have joined hands with the liquor traffic in portraying drinking scenes which tend to give young people the impression that these practices have general social approval.” The church also reaffirmed its commitment to “abstinence from the use of alcoholic beverages as the Christian ideal” and to “the progressive control and eventual elimination of the liquor traffic.”
BUT WHILE THE POWER OF liquor interests was “brazen” and “unparalleled,” at least the Century could find a few good words about Hollywood, which it supplied regularly in its weekly column, “The New Films,” which rated the latest movies and made recommendations for family viewing. For instance, here’s the capsule summary of “Border Flight,” a 1936 thriller, starring John Howard and Frances Farmer: “Crudely portrays coast guard’s heroic airplane fights against smugglers. Much thrill, mediocre acting, absurd character values. Villain, completely obnoxious throughout, becomes heroic suicide and wins what sympathy is left.” For “intelligent adults,” the Century’s reviewer deemed it “crude. For ages 15 to 20, “Poor.” And for children under 15, “Poor.” Later in the column the author recommended for family viewing “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,” “Show Boat,” and “Dancing Pirate.” Villains must not be so bad if their nimble on their feet.
To change the old adage, with liberals like this, who needs friends? So ingrained is the habit of thinking defective theology and loose morals go together that many contemporary conservative Presbyterians would be shocked to see how family-friendly institutions the Century and PCUSA were and still are. That’s because some conservatives have never thought carefully about the relationship between theology and practice. Instead, they have assumed that right practices automatically follow from orthodoxy and hence that anyone with questionable doctrine is invariably wicked. Which is only another way of saying that conservative Presbyterians fundamentally misunderstand liberalism. Hence the need for some remedial instruction.
THE BEST BOOK ON LIBERALISM in the United States is still William R. Hutchison’s Modernist Impulse in American Protestantism (1976). And Hutchison gives a handy definition that should be particularly useful for conservative Presbyterian types. Simply put, liberalism is any modification of received orthodoxy. Typically, the doctrinal changes advocated by liberals run along the lines of divine sovereignty, human depravity, and Christian exclusiveness. But in America, liberalism made its biggest splash when Unitarians denied the deity of Christ. This is why Hutchison begins his study of modernism with a chapter on Unitarianism.
But for Hutchison liberalism does not equal modernism, and here is where this introductory course becomes tricky. Modernists advocated the self-conscious adaptation of Christianity to modern society by appealing to the doctrine of God’s immanence and by locating God’s presence in the unfolding of western civilization, which for them was the kingdom of God. Though modernism and liberalism clearly overlap, one need not believe in adapting Christianity to culture to be a liberal. Some liberals, Hutchison points out, were deeply suspicious about developments in modern society. Modernism, then, is a subset of liberalism. And as Hutchison also shows, the sorts of liberals that J. Gresham Machen was battling in the 1920s were actually modernists. They were not doctrinaire liberals. Instead, they were intent on being all things to all people (well, at least all WASPs ) for the sake of maintaining a Christian culture.
JUST AS SUBTLE AS THE distinction between modernism and liberalism is the apologetical nature of liberalism. Typically conservatives think that a liberal is someone who has denied the faith and that such denials are easy to spot. Having grown up in a fundamentalist home, I can well remember visiting preachers haranguing liberals for denying the deity of Christ, the virgin birth – the list goes on – the way that Hell’s Angels did. Liberals came across as scary people, sort of like witches or Democrats, folks who not only could not be trusted but were vicious, mean and calculating. But the classic work on liberalism, Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism, assumes the best, not the worst, about the Protestant left. Modern science, technology, and culture had all made historic Christian teaching implausible. And so liberals, seeking to save Christianity, rescued “certain general principles of religion,” the so-called “essence of Christianity.” This was the same verdict of H. L. Mencken who wrote, modernists, “no doubt with the best of intentions,” have “tried to get rid of all the logical difficulties of religion and yet, preserve a pious cast of mind.” The Baltimore sage thought it a “vain enterprise.” But it was still an attempt to defend Christianity against its culture despisers.
AND IT IS THIS APOLOGETICAL side of liberalism that confounds so many conservatives. If liberalism is pernicious – which it is ultimately – how can it be credited with doing anything honorable? The answer to that question is fairly obvious when you keep in mind that there is another option available – it is to reject Christianity outright and become an atheist or pagan. But typically conservatives treat all non-conservatives as if they are atheists or pagans, forgetting that there is a middle ground, no matter how flawed, inconsistent or dishonest it is. Which is just to say that there is a huge difference whether you have a member of a Satanic cult, a member of the Dallas Cowboys, or a member of the Episcopal church living next door. Eternally all three persons may be heading for the same place, but here and now the Episcopalian would be more likely to take in the mail when you’re out of town, let the gas meter reader in without stealing the high fi, or feed the cat without strangling her. So the question, “how can people deny orthodoxy with good intentions?” invites the obvious answer, “well, duh.” Everyday when we cross intersections, balance check books, or buy bread, we assume that other drivers, bank clerks, and bakers, who may not hold orthodox views of the atonement or the inscripturation of God’s word, will not try to destroy us, our property or our reputations. Why would liberals be any different?
The decent and honorable intentions of liberals also helps to explain why liberalism is hard to spot. In his book on the Presbyterian controversy of the early twentieth century, Presbyterian Pluralism (1997), the sociologist William Weston claims that the PCUSA contained no full-blown modernists. Instead, the church only had the milder sort, evangelical liberals. And this was the same conclusion that the Special Commission of 1925, appointed to study the cause of the fundamentalist controversy. No one in the church was denying Christianity outright. But whoever said that liberals did that? It’s as if Madeline Murray O’Hair defines liberalism and since Harry Emerson Fosdick was not an atheist he must have been evangelical, though a little light in the divinity-of-Christ loafers. Liberalism, like life, is a lot subtler than that. Liberals try to have it both ways – being Christian without being orthodox. But they don’t want to abandon Christianity.
OF COURSE, THE HARD PART IS determining whether they have left the faith. This is hard because a liberal affirmation of the faith usually employs evasive language. But ethical considerations will not yield any greater clarity because liberals are generally such upright people, the kind who see villainy everywhere, from tobacco to racism.
J. Gresham Machen had no trouble recognizing the high ethical standards of liberal Protestantism. In fact, that is how he explained their inability to account for the apostle Paul’s invective against the Judaizers. “What a splendid cleaning up of the Gentile cities it would have been,” Machen could hear a run of the mill liberal saying, “if the Judaizers had succeeded in extending to those cities the observance of the Mosaic law, even including the unfortunate ceremonial observances.” But this excessive interest in making people moral is also what prompted Machen’s devastating critique. Instead of taking comfort in the Golden Rule or the Sermon on the Mount as liberals were wont to do, as if successful Christian living hinged on determining what Jesus would do, Machen thought Christ’s ethical teaching only produced despair. “In reality, if the requirements for entrance into the Kingdom of God are what Jesus declares them to be,” Machen wrote, “we are all undone; we have not even attained to the external righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees.” The problem with liberals, then, wasn’t their disregard for Christian morality. It was that their high regard of human nature.
BUT IF MACHEN WAS HARD ON liberals for denying historic Christian teaching about sin and grace, he did not stoop to calling them villains. He believed it a Christian duty to sympathize with anyone who had lost their “confidence in the strange message of the cross.” What is more, despite their deep and abiding differences, he thought conservatives still shared “many ties – ties of blood, ties of citizenship, of ethical aims of humanitarian endeavor” with those who had abandoned the gospel. Believers even had a good deal to learn from non-believers and should treat those who differed from them with respect. Socrates and Goethe were not Christians but still towered “immeasurably above the common run of men.” And the reason for this respect was the gospel. “If he that is least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than [non-believers], he is certainly greater not by any inherent superiority, but by the virtue of an undeserved privilege which ought to make him humble rather than contemptuous.”
So instead of piling on liberals and attributing all manner of wickedness to their theological equivocation, a basic lesson is in order: to paraphrase Neuhaus’ Law, Where Orthodoxy Is Optional, Righteousness Will Sooner Or Later Be Proscribed.
Brett McCracken tries to rally the gospel allies under the banner of the the notion that church is essential. Of course, as a mild-mannered evangelical, he refuses to to give offense: “I’m not suggesting churches should defy government directives, deeming themselves “essential” even if authorities say otherwise. To do so would only inflame existing culture wars in unhelpful ways.” Can you inflame culture wars in helpful way?
But he does want to push back on a form of privatized Protestantism that encourages Christians to think that the church is non-essential to genuine faith:
Even though Scripture makes clear the church (ekklesia) occupies a central place in God’s eternal plan (e.g. Eph. 3:7–12), our anemic ecclesiology often relegates church to a decidedly non-essential place. If church is just a nice-to-have part of our self-styled spiritual journey—but only insofar as it enhances rather than undermines our expressive individualism—then of course it’s something we can go without for prolonged periods. Church is not essential, we assume, because Christianity is just as easily practiced solo at home. Give me a Bible, some inspiring worship music, and maybe a few spiritual podcasts, and I’m good. Do we really need church to be spiritually healthy?
Maybe this is obvious, but the irony here is yuge! The publisher of this essay, The Gospel Coalition, is an organization that relies largely on the notion that fellowships like theirs are at least as more important for advancing the kingdom of grace as the denominations that actually believe and affirm that the visible church is the institution God has ordained to carry out the plan of salvation. In fact, TGC mainly refuses to take sides on matters that pertain to the health and well-being of the denominations that comprise most of their fellows and board members. That makes sense since weighing in on a doctrinal or disciplinary controversy in, say, the PCA (four of its nine board members and its president are PCA ministers) could hurt TGC’s effort to secure the attention and following of a certain kind of Protestants.
Here, worth remembering is TGC’s original understanding of its work in relation to “the church.”
We are a fellowship of evangelical churches in the Reformed tradition deeply committed to renewing our faith in the gospel of Christ and to reforming our ministry practices to conform fully to the Scriptures. We have become deeply concerned about some movements within traditional evangelicalism that seem to be diminishing the church’s life and leading us away from our historic beliefs and practices. (Preamble)
From the very get go, TGC was a fellowship designed to remedy deficiencies of churches. When it came to the organization’s doctrinal affirmations, their statement on the church also indicated that the particular teachings and practices of specific communions — Baptist, Anglican, Reformed, Presbyterian, independent — were beyond the organization’s scope:
The church is the body of Christ, the apple of his eye, graven on his hands, and he has pledged himself to her forever. The church is distinguished by her gospel message, her sacred ordinances, her discipline, her great mission, and, above all, by her love for God, and by her members’ love for one another and for the world. Crucially, this gospel we cherish has both personal and corporate dimensions, neither of which may properly be overlooked. Christ Jesus is our peace: he has not only brought about peace with God, but also peace between alienated peoples. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both Jew and Gentile to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. The church serves as a sign of God’s future new world when its members live for the service of one another and their neighbors, rather than for self-focus. The church is the corporate dwelling place of God’s Spirit, and the continuing witness to God in the world. (God’s New People)
As generic statements go, that one is not too bad. But it leaves up in the air the differences over doctrine, worship, and discipline that divide the communions (Baptist, Presbyterian, independent, and Anglican) where board members are members. If the church were truly essential, why wouldn’t TGC try to bring all of those evangelicals from the Reformed tradition into a single church body where they could be more than a fellowship — a true communion? Or could it be that fellowship at conferences, video interviews, and in collections of essays is as good as the communion supplied by a church? Your denomination may bring you news about evangelism in East Asia, but the Gospel Coalition gives you Nine Things You Need to Know about Human Cloning.
According to the confession that several board members affirm:
The visible church, which is also catholic or universal under the gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.
Unto this catholic visible church Christ hath given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world: and doth, by his own presence and Spirit, according to his promise, make them effectual thereunto. (Confession of Faith 25)
If the church does all that, why is a fellowship necessary? Why do you “need” to know about human cloning?
Odd then that McCracken describes the value of churches this way:
Personal spirituality becomes an incoherent mess when it has weak ties to a robust church community. Society at large suffers when local churches aren’t fully functioning. Among other things, churches serve critical needs in their communities (food banks, homeless assistance, educational support, orphan care, counseling, among much else) and contribute to the mental and spiritual health of the larger population.
Churches, accordingly, are good for social capital and community development.
Actually, without “the” church, TGC would not have its council or board members. It is, after all, the PCA that ordained the likes of Tim Keller and Kevin DeYoung, that calls these pastors to churches that provide a platform for their standing in their denomination and TGC, that oversees their ministry and holds them accountable (sort of). Without denominations like the PCA and other communions represented by council members, TGC would not exist.
So, yeah, the church is essential. The Gospel Coalition is not.
During the blizzard-like conditions of COVID-19’s spread, Christian writers have been thinking about ways to minister during a plague. Some appeal to Luther. Some about the ongoing urgency of preaching the gospel. Some discuss the tension among commitments to love neighbors, serve God, and obey civil magistrates. Some compare COVID-19 to an atomic bomb (seriously). And some describe at great length and with much unction how the church needs to respond redemptively.
Ed Stetzer may be the best example of evangelicals’ historical imagination during a major, worldwide illness. His is exclusively post-canonical:
Sociologist Rodney Stark explored one such one example where during a plague AD 251 swept through the Roman Empire decimating the population. In his Easter letter around AD 260, Dionysius wrote a tribute to the believers whose heroic efforts cost many of them their lives during the plague.
Pagans tended to flee the cities during plagues, but Christians were more likely to stay and minister to the suffering. According to Dionysius: “Most of our brother Christians showed unbonded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Needless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy.”
Dionysius added: “The best of our brothers lost their lives in this manner, a number of presbyters, deacons, and laymen winning high commendation so that death in this form, the result of great piety and strong faith, seems in every way the equal of martyrdom.”
In Christians in the Age of Outrage I offered a more recent example of sacrificially living out the gospel in the midst of suffering. During the Fall of 1793, yellow fever gripped the city of Philadelphia. Historian Richard Newman writes that, “from the moment it began, the yellow fever epidemic was a public-health crisis. Thousands of citizens fled, hospitals became overwhelmed, and dead bodies rotted in homes.”
Within this crisis, it was the emerging black church under the leadership of Richard Allen which entered into the suffering. Some assumed that persons of African descent were immune to Yellow Fever, and the free black community was approached to provide help. Spurned by the church they had served and slandered by others, Allen and his church served the sick when others isolated themselves for fear of catching the disease.
…Through both examples, we are reminded that the gospel calls us to live sacrificially in the face of crisis.
If these Christian authors had the Old Testament background to the New Testament more in mind, what might they say about the mother of all plagues, the one that forms the background for the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, even the Mass. That plague, as Psalm 78 has it, was also at the center of the Exodus, the Old Testament redemptive historical event that inspired many of the modern world’s social justice activists:
42 They did not remember his power
or the day when he redeemed them from the foe,
43 when he performed his signs in Egypt
and his marvels in the fields of Zoan.
44 He turned their rivers to blood,
so that they could not drink of their streams.
45 He sent among them swarms of flies, which devoured them,
and frogs, which destroyed them.
46 He gave their crops to the destroying locust
and the fruit of their labor to the locust.
47 He destroyed their vines with hail
and their sycamores with frost.
48 He gave over their cattle to the hail
and their flocks to thunderbolts.
49 He let loose on them his burning anger,
wrath, indignation, and distress,
a company of destroying angels.
50 He made a path for his anger;
he did not spare them from death,
but gave their lives over to the plague.
51 He struck down every firstborn in Egypt,
the firstfruits of their strength in the tents of Ham.
52 Then he led out his people like sheep
and guided them in the wilderness like a flock.
53 He led them in safety, so that they were not afraid,
but the sea overwhelmed their enemies.
54 And he brought them to his holy land,
to the mountain which his right hand had won.
If Christians identified more with Old Testament saints than with modern humanitarians, then, would they be more inclined to view COVID-19 as God’s judgment on a neo-liberal, morally indifferent, systemically unjust society and a hypocritical evangelical church? You could even turn in this into God’s judgment on a nation’s president who is entirely without a moral compass.
Then again, invoking God’s righteous judgment on a wicked society is so Pat Robertson (though anti-Trump prophets are hardly Mr. Rogers).
Remember when two-kingdom theology was the easy and quick explanation for Reformed churches friendly to homosexuality? Steven Wedgeworth clarifies what everyone knew when anti-two kingdom folks were using Meredith Kline as the whipping boy for moral relativism. The folks at Memorial Presbyterian Church in St. Louis who sort of oversaw the production, “Transluminate: A Celebration of Transgender, Agender, Non-Binary, Genderqueer and Genderfluid Artists,” are not two-kingdom proponents:
To understand how the Transluminate event could happen within the PCA, readers should see it as an extreme but perhaps predictable ramification of a certain philosophy of ministry, common in our day. Evangelical and particularly “missional” churches routinely advocate for various kinds of parachurch ministry in the world of arts and culture. Some call for an aggressive or confrontational approach, while others say that mere “faithful presence” is a more effective strategy. This term, “faithful presence,” was originally coined by James D. Hunter in his book To Change the World, but has become a shorthand way, not unlike the term “common good,” to express the concept of Christians interacting with the secular public realm, not in overtly distinctive ways, but simply according to basic morals and friendly manners. This posture is frequently described as winsome or hospitable. It argues against direct criticism or evangelism, at least in any public way, in favor of building more long-term relationships. After these relationships of trust are sufficiently built, opportunities for evangelism may make themselves apparent. Some proponents of this philosophy even deny that specifically evangelistic activity, arguing that the relationship itself or the image and reputation such faithful presence creates will itself be a sufficient Christian testimony. Memorial Pres. certainly seems to promote this view of evangelism and outreach.
Jake Meador partly agrees:
Our outreach to the world cannot simply be a gesture of welcome, but must also include a call to repentance and to adopt the practices of Christian piety in grateful response to God’s offer of grace in the Gospel. What conservatives fear is that this inherently confrontational aspect of Gospel proclamation is lost or watered down by some on the church’s progressive side. And this is not a wholly groundless concern.
Parachurch ministry in the realm of arts and culture, welcoming congregations, “faithful presence” — these are all features (not bugs) of Redeemer New York City and its spin offs. And yet, the Gospel Coalition has not clarified the missional approach to ministry. In fact, they have benefited from Tim Keller’s presence and stature.