Why Bavinck?

Would readers exist for Herman Bavinck’s writing, increasingly available thanks to the good work of translators, without the ground already fertilized by evangelicals trying to overcome “the scandal of the evangelical mind” through w-w? James Eglington’s biography prompted a think:

The much more common Dutch theological heavyweights were Abraham Kuyper (positive estimate), Klaus Schilder (negative), and G. K. Berkhower (mixed but mainly positive). Then came the names, much more widely known, of Dutch-American scholars at Westminster and Calvin seminaries, such as Cornelius Van Til and Louis Berkhof (respectively), and before them, the one blazing the trail between Dutch and American theological circles, Geerhardus Vos, the biblical theologian at Princeton Seminary from the 1890s to the 1930s.

Many of these names, however, will be unfamiliar to pastors and church members without some link to the Christian Reformed Church or the United Reformed Churches. This is only to say that the main thread of Anglo-American theology largely runs through New England and Presbyterian sources, beginning with the Puritans and Jonathan Edwards, through to Old Princeton (from Charles Hodge to J. Gresham Machen), and down to professors who taught at Westminster, Fuller, Gordon-Conwell, and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. To that lineage, adding another Dutch theologian is a stretch.

But this does not mean Bavinck’s time in any way has passed. As Eglinton explains in answer to his own question, Bavinck, who was “brilliant theologian” and “household name” in the Netherlands, taught at Kampen Theological School and the Free University in Amsterdam, wrote a four-volume dogmatic theology in addition to books on child education, psychology, women’s rights, and a host of ethical topics.

Bavinck was also known in the United States. He gave the Stone Lectures at Princeton Seminary in 1908 ten years after Abraham Kuyper had given them, and on his visit to the States president Theodore Roosevelt, a Dutch-American of some remove from colonial migration, welcomed the Free University theologian to the White House.

That may sound like old news and readers may be wondering what Bavinck has done for American readers lately. The answer here is a lot of thanks to the efforts of the Bavinck Institute which over the past decade sponsored the translation of Bavinck’s corpus in English, such as God and Creation (2004); Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation (2008); Reformed Dogmatics, 4 volumes (2004-2008); Essays on Religion, Science, and Society (2008); The Christian Family (2012).

Eglinton himself, a lecturer in theology at the University of Edinburgh, has overseen dissertations by several graduate students on aspects of Bavinck’s thought. In some ways, the answer to Eglinton’s question – why a Bavinck biography – owes as much to the recent output of Bavinck’s writings as to the circumstances that made Bavinck one of the Netherland’s greatest theologians of the first half of the twentieth century.

Another reason for appreciating Bavinck and Eglinton’s biography is the importance of neo-Calvinism among American evangelicals for at least the last fifty years. For doctrinal and devotional inspiration evangelicals have drawn heavily from usual suspects like the Banner of Truth, seminaries like Westminster, Gordon-Conwell, and TEDS, and popularizers like R. C. Sproul and John Piper.

At the same time, evangelicals have also undertaken what may be called worldview analysis. That inelegant phrase stands for trying to understand all of creation, not just redemption, from a perspective informed by biblical teaching and theological fundamentals. This way of thinking has inspired Protestants to venture into fields in the humanities and sciences in the name of Christ. Sometimes they even repeat Kuyper’s famous phrase, that Christ claims “every-square inch” as his own. Francis Schaeffer may have first made this outlook popular, with help later from Chuck Colson. But even more important were scholars at Calvin College and Calvin Seminary who set the bar high for professors at many evangelical colleges and attempted to pursue scholarship from a Christian outlook.

Bavinck fits in this line of endeavor since he himself wrote on political and cultural topics from a Reformed perspective. But what is often missing from the American Protestant appropriation of neo-Calvinism is the serious theological underpinning on which it rested. Bavinck is as good an example of serious theological investigation in the neo-Calvinist tradition as anyone can find. Eglinton’s biography in turn may be news to many readers that the neo-Calvinists were no slouches when it came to doctrine, worship, and the church.

Here’s A Test for Cons and Progs in the PCA

What is wrong with this understanding of all-of-life Christianity if anything? What does it leave out? Where do you draw the line at some forms of lumping and the need for certain kinds of splitting?

. . . emphasize the wholeness and the unity of life, and protest by implication against “Sunday Christians” and “pulpit ministers.” Christianity being involved in the whole of life, it was important to break down artificial sacred and secular distinctions. From there it was a natural step to break down a distinction between secular and sacred teaching, and even between secular and sacred writings. A series of lectures on modern poets supported the conclusion that God, revealing himself in many ways, might Queen’s speak through the modern poet as well as through the Bible and that too sharp University a distinction between sacred writings and others might be harmful. There was a tendency also to break down the sharp distinction between the “Christian” and the “non-Christian” and therefore to challenge the traditional concepts of “conversion” and “the new birth.” There was an inclination to shift from the assumption of man’s inherent wickedness to the assumption of the Enlightenment that most men wish to be good and that the task of the church was to get them more and more involved in doing good. There was a shift away from the assumption that the kingdom of heaven must come through spiritual change in the individual, to the suggestion that the millenium could be approached, at least, by voluntary social work and also by legislation promoted by men of goodwill. This concept appeared very early in the proceedings of the conference, and was developed throughout the years when eminent Canadians. . . came to lecture on “The New Nation,” the nation in which intellectual enlightenment would be matched by social righteousness.

Where do you draw the line?

  1. The Unity of the Christian life
  2. Sacred-Secular distinction
  3. Bible and non-canonical books
  4. Believer-non-believer distinction
  5. Human nature (inherent goodness vs. the fall)
  6. The advance of the kingdom through spiritual ministry and social activity
  7. Social (or national) righteousness

You may not draw it between the US and Canada.

What Could Have Gone Wrong?

Has American evangelicals’ love affair with Dutch Calvinism (in its w-w forms) finally run out of steam?

Remember back to Francis Schaeffer who popularized Kuyperianism for figures like Jerry Falwell (the elder) and Tim LaHaye. In Christian Manifesto (1981), Schaeffer wrote:

The basic problem of the Christians in this country in the last eighty years or so, in regard
to society and in regard to government, is that they have seen things in bits and pieces
instead of totals. They have very gradually become disturbed over permissiveness,
pornography, the public schools, the breakdown of the family, and finally abortion. But
they have not seen this as a totality—each thing being a part, a symptom, of a much
larger problem. They have failed to see that all of this has come about due to a shift in
world view—that is, through a fundamental change in the overall way people think and
view the world and life as a whole. The shift has been away from a world view that was
at least vaguely Christian in people’s memory (even if they were not individually
Christian) toward something completely different—impersonal matter or energy shaped
into its present form by impersonal chance.

W(orld)-(vie)w analysis basically had free reign among evangelicals for the next thirty-five years thanks to its comprehensiveness. Everything became spiritual or religiously meaningful because everything was under the Lordship of Christ. Even if you raised questions about the differences between the spiritual and the temporal, or the ecclesiastical and civil, such “dualism” was in denial of Christ’s sovereignty.

That explains why even Baptist English professors drank Kuyper with gusto:

Within the North American context, Mouw explains, these core points can be boiled down to “an appreciation for the ‘not-one-square-inch’ manifesto regarding the kingship of Jesus, a broad acceptance of the idea of sphere sovereignty, and a commitment to the integration of faith and learning.” Mouw’s examination of these essentials—fleshed out and applied with varying levels of specificity within the thirteen essays which cover topics including public theology, education, and baptism, as well as more esoteric intra-reformed issues—reveal just how great an influence Kuyper has wielded, even among those of us caught unaware. The reading leaves me with awe and gratitude in the recognition that even my own quintessentially Baptist and evangelical educational institution would not be what it is without Kuyper and his fellows. After all, our university catalog promises in its “Statement on Worldview” that students will “receive an education that integrates [a] Christian and biblical worldview,” and the institution increasingly equips, expects, and holds accountable faculty for doing just that—even more noteworthy considering that the memory of a time when “Christian education” was understood there and elsewhere to consist of opening class in prayer has not quite faded into the past.

Even as late as two years ago, Kuyper drew appreciation from the likes of the Muslim-American political theorist, Shadi Hamid, though a non-Christian appropriation of the Dutch statesman would lean toward the pluralism (and the pillarization that went along with it in twentieth-century Dutch society) in Kuyper’s thought:

Christian pluralism sees the city of man as inherently broken and fallen from sin, which, in turn, means that politics must be acknowledged as a site of uncertainty, rather than certainty. The solution, then, wouldn’t be walling off one’s Christianity from the domain of Caesar, but rather applying it in a more self-conscious manner.

That was not how evangelicals read Kuyper. Pluralism went with secular humanism and watch out if you have a diversity of views among Christians about the actual structures of Christ’s Lordship.

But now that many know (what they always knew) about the true nature of Donald Trump and now that the likes of Betsy De Vos and Josh Hawley, Trump supporters of different degrees, have made positive references to Kuyper — now, Trump has finally revealed the problems of Kuyperianism:

we who inherit the legacies of white Christianity are called to acknowledge and seek to repair harm that has been committed on behalf of our traditions. Kuyper’s notion of the lordship of Jesus, articulated in the famous “square inch” quote, has more problems than it being used to baptize a wide range of questionable endeavors or to convey that Christians are the arbiters of the kingdom of God. The very notion of Jesus’ ownership of all things has imperialistic overtones, reflecting Kuyper’s Victorian-era white/European Protestant Christian triumphalism. While Kuyper celebrated cultural “pluriformity,” he maintained that outside of Europe and North America, most cultures had not benefited humanity as a whole. . . .

Even when taken on his own terms, there is much in Kuyper’s legacy to repudiate. And while it would be unfair to label Kuyper a white Christian nationalist, it is easy to see how his ideas could be employed in the service of white Christian nationalism, with its grievance ethos, its “color blindness” as a cover for its racism, its paternalism, its patriarchy, and its “populism” favoring white working-class interests.

What I don’t understand, once again, is why the flip-flops among evangelical scholars — evangelicalism used to be good but now its bad, Kuyper used to inspire but now he’s troubling — don’t raise more questions about the flops. Isn’t it obvious that the change of perception is largely a function of opposition to Donald Trump? If part of the Protestant world showed an attachment to Trump and we are dissecting those Protestants to see what ideas they held so we can purge those notions (and Trump) from our midst, is this really very deep? Isn’t it just another indication of the hold that Trump has on the minds of his biggest foes (and supporters)?

But if not for Trump, evangelicalism and Kuyper would be salvageable, right?

Thompson to Dreher: “Say it Better”

Greg Thompson’s review of Rod Dreher’s new book in the Neo-Calvinist publication, Comment, should be good news to those worried about progressive PCA pastors (if Thompson fairly qualifies as such). Thompson agrees with Dreher that America is undergoing a disturbing number of changes:

[Dreher’s] argument is this: The liberal order of America and of the West is currently under attack from a progressive, illiberal, and anti-religious ideology rooted in the Marxist tradition. While the core claims of this ideology have long menaced American culture, it is currently taking on a new and more dangerous shape. Cultivated in the classrooms of our universities, embraced by the elites of our institutions, enabled by the moral malaise of our therapeutic culture, and empowered by the technological ubiquity of surveillance capitalism, this ideology will harden—indeed has already begun to harden—into an entire cultural order. In this cultural order, best understood as “soft totalitarianism,” liberal ideals of individual freedom will give way to tribal collectivism, cultural memory will be replaced by utopian dogma, and civic dissent will be met with firm reprisal. Indeed, the evidence that this has already begun is everywhere around us, and of all citizens swept up into these waves of illiberalism, faithful Christians are among those most at risk. 

Thompson is also concerned:

I am, for instance, concerned about the illiberal ways in which cultural and political perspectives increasingly serve as justification for dehumanization and malice. I am concerned about our increasing default to exclusively identitarian accounts of ourselves and our neighbours, and the potent tribalism this nurtures. I am concerned about a preening civic moralism that feels more performative than principled, and for the plague of self-righteousness that blooms around it. I am concerned about the contradictions of a therapeutic culture that venerates self-expression even as it normalizes self-harm. I am concerned about the ways in which our extraordinary technologies invite exploitation and obstruct wisdom. I am concerned about economic and cultural actors whose power places them beyond the reach of any practicable form of accountability. I am concerned by the ubiquity with which each one of these tendencies manifests itself on both the cultural left and the cultural right and in so doing threatens the health, indeed the very possibility, of our common life.

So why does Thompson write that Dreher’s book is “egregious” and “dangerous”? The reason has to do with the way Dreher expresses his alarms:

While in the world of entertainment punditry such a transparently reductive manner of speaking about one’s cultural enemies may be indulged and even celebrated, in a work that claims the intellectual mantle of liberalism and the moral mantle of the Christian church, such an account is a disgrace. Why? Because in characterizing progressivism in this way, Dreher tacitly claims the powerful heritage of liberalism for himself and places his cultural enemies outside of it, all while either unaware of or indifferent to both the moral incoherence and social consequences of doing so.

Sweeping claims about good guys and bad guys may not be the first strike against a writer for anyone ministering in a communion that has some regard and attachment to Francis Schaeffer.

Observing the deficiency of Dreher’s (he is a journalist, after all) prose may also prompt a writer to think about lines like this:

Dreher’s gauzy invocation of liberalism is reflective not of the rigorous complexities of history but of the simplistic nostalgia of Cracker Barrel.

“Simplistic,” “nostalgia,” or “Cracker Barrel,” each on their own would have made the point. Throwing them all into the sentence is either redundant or piling on.

This Would be Transformationalist(izational)

Imagine if Christmas songs started this way in the eighteenth century:

Oh, the weather outside is frightful
But the fire is so delightful
And since we’ve no place to go
Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow

Man it doesn’t show signs of stoppin’
And I brought me some corn for poppin’
The lights are turned way down low
Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow

When we finally kiss good-night
How I’ll hate going out in the storm
But if you really hold me tight
All the way home I’ll be warm

And the fire is slowly dying
And, my dear, we’re still good-bye-ing
But as long as you’d love me so
Let it snow, let it snow, and snow

When we finally kiss good-night
How I’ll hate going out in the storm
But if you’d really grab me tight
All the way home I’ll be warm

Oh the fire is slowly dying
And, my dear, we’re still goodbye-ing
But as long as you’d love me so
Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow

Then, two hundred years later, most English-speakers were singing (or hearing in the convenience story, for example) this:

Come, Thou long expected Jesus
Born to set Thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us,
Let us find our rest in Thee.
Israel’s strength and consolation,
Hope of all the earth Thou art;
Dear desire of every nation,
Joy of every longing heart.

Born Thy people to deliver,
Born a child and yet a King,
Born to reign in us forever,
Now Thy gracious kingdom bring.
By Thine own eternal Spirit
Rule in all our hearts alone;
By Thine all sufficient merit,
Raise us to Thy glorious throne.

By Thine all sufficient merit,
Raise us to Thy glorious throne.

That would be something on the order of taking a song with reference only to the affects of a holiday and giving them serious Christian significance.

Why, though, does transformationalism so invariably go the other way? Leigh Schmidt had a theory. It was commerce and no one did it better than (sort of) New School Presbyterian, John Wanamaker, founder and owner of Philadelphia’s great department store, Wanamaker’s (now Macy’s):

The store’s holiday slogan in the 1950s was “Christmas Isn’t Christmas without a Day at Wanamaker’s,” and the slogan contained a grain of ethnographic description along with its advertising hype. A Catholic nun and schoolteacher, for example, wrote warmly to the store in 1950: “I made a special trip, as many of us do, just to ‘see Wanamaker’s.'” These excursions to behold the Grand Court each year at the holidays had become, she said, part of her “Christmas ritual.” (167)

Schmidt added:

For more than a century, the American marketplace has displayed a striking capacity for consecration at Christmas. Christian symbols have been repeatedly brought into the public square and made a matter of public recognition through commercial institutions. . . . At no other time in the year have the tensions over religious pluralism been more evident: Christmas has been set up as an all-embracing cultural celebration often with only passing sensitivity to those whom the holiday marginalizes. (169)

That was 1996.

Sight-Seeing with Kuyper at Hagia Sophia

The idea that a building like Hagia Sophia, which had been a Christian cathedral, then became a mosque, and then under a secular state committed to neutrality became a museum — the idea that Hagia Sophia should remain a site free from religion seems odd for neo-Calvinists to embrace. David Koyzis, a political philosopher who identifies with Neo-Calvinism seems to be ambivalent about what’s happening to this ancient building:

Last month it was reported that a Turkish court has cleared the way for the historic Hagia Sophia, an ancient Roman church built by the Emperor Justinian in the 6th century, to return to its former use as a mosque. Known as Ayasofya to the Turks, it functioned as a Muslim place of worship between 1453, when the Ottoman armies of Mehmed II, the Conqueror, conquered Constantinople, and 1934, when Mustafa Kemal Atatürk turned it into a museum.

Since then this architectural wonder has seen millions of tourists file through its interior, which once echoed with the sounds of Byzantine chant and Muslim prayers but now houses the ancient artefacts of two civilizations and two religions. Because Islam prohibits the presence of images in worship, the status of the building’s Byzantine mosaics, uncovered in recent times, remains uncertain.

This development is consistent with the efforts of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to move his country away from the secularizing Kemalist legacy towards a more Islamic identity.

When Koyzis concludes that his hope is for the cathedral to return to Christian worship, he avoids having to side with either Ataturk or Erdogan:

It’s possible that the authorities will come up with a compromise for Hagia Sophia. The mosaics may be covered temporarily during the Muslim prayer hours but will be visible at all other times for the benefit of the tourists, whose preferences Turkey cannot afford to ignore. However, given my paternal Greek heritage and my Christian faith, I cannot but hope that one day the praises of the God who revealed himself in the person of Jesus Christ might again echo through the cavernous space of what was once the largest church in Christendom.

What might help Koyzis and other Protestants (not to mention Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox) is to remember what Abraham Kuyper experienced when he visited Istanbul during the first decade of twentieth century. To introduce his series on the Lordship of Christ (published as Pro Rege), Kuyper invoked his time at Hagia Sophia, according to James Bratt:

Kuyper introduced [the Lordship of Christ] from his fresh memory of observing prayers in Hagia Sophia. A faithful Muslim venerated the Prophet about 10,000 times a year, he computed. To kindle a lie devotion among Christians, it was necessary for them to understand their Master anew. (339)

In other words, visiting Hagia Sophia as a mosque was not something of which Kuyper disapproved.

In fact, Kuyper had respect to the point of envy for Islamic civilization:

Islam was the object of his supreme envy — a faith that, adapting itself to every culture, steeped its adherents in the conviction that the will of God was supreme over everything from the personal to the political, from the deep roots of time into the everlasting future, and under that conviction had spread a common worldview [w-w] from Gibraltar to the Philippines. This was Kuyper’s dream for Calvinism, the Dutch Golden Age times ten. As to particulars, he admired Muslim achievements in architecture . . . and he rhapsodized about Al-Azhar University in Cairo, where progressive scholarship had once flourished for seven hundred years in organic connection with religion and life. He noted the rise of pan-Islamic consciousness as a kind of liberation theology against colonial rule. It grounded independence in religious unity and ethical purification. If the “fanaticism” this produced worried him as a European, it echoed all his tales of heroic Beggars in the Dutch war for independence. (332)

Anyone tempted by Kuyper’s thoughts on Islam should obtain a copy of On Islam.

Liberalism 201

From the April 2000 Nicotine Theological Journal:

What does it mean to be conservative in the United States? According to Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, being conservative has to do with the maintenance of “existing views, conditions, or institutions.” Conservatism’s synonyms are “traditional,” “moderate,” and “cautious” with respect to older norms of “taste, elegance, style, or manners.” This is all well and good, but such a definition, from an American dictionary no less, does not help much with the American form of conservatism. The reason is that, American exceptionalism aside, the United States is a novel phenomenon in the course of human history. Of course, antecedents for our form of government exist in ancient Greece and Rome. But the United States as they (anti-federal emphasis ours) emerged in the late eighteenth-century were hardly conservative since they abandoned the two institutions that had preserved some semblance of cultural and political order in the West since at least the fifth century, namely, crown and church. What is more, the freedoms won in the American colonies’ war for independence were also fairly novel from a European perspective – hence the Old-vs.-New-World rhetoric.

THE UNITED STATES GRANTED incredible intellectual, political and economic freedom to its citizens (slavery notwithstanding) and these freedoms were so unusual that in 1899 the papacy, one of those traditional institutions of European social order, condemned Americanism as fundamentally incompatible with Roman Catholic teaching and practice. What Pope Leo XIII regarded as hostile to Catholicism was not so much theological novelty, but the liberal ideology that advocated representative forms of government, free markets and the separation of church and state, an ideology that Pius IX had already condemned in his Syllabus of Errors. In other words, the very old and very traditional institution of the papacy condemned ideas and sentiments that today’s conservatives ironically regard as old and traditional.

THIS IS ANOTHER WAY OF saying that conservatism in the United States is something of an oxymoron. From a historical perspective, our conservatism is really liberalism since it is on the side of the things that nineteenth-century liberals championed – limited government, individual freedom and economic opportunity. This means that watching conservatives trying to deny their liberalism can be very confusing or very amusing.

No doubt, J. Gresham Machen would be another example of American conservatism’s strange ways. In 1926 he testified before the Congress of the United States against the formation of a Federal Department of Education. Machen’s reasons for opposing the proposal stemmed from his politics which were decidedly liberal. They may not have been all that unusual for a southern Democrat, which Machen was. But they must have sounded odd coming out of the mouth of a fundamentalist who during the same month that he appeared before Congress also testified before a committee of the northern Presbyterian Church and there did exactly what he criticized Congress of doing. In his remarks before the church Machen blamed liberalism for the controversy that was dividing Presbyterians and argued that preachers who could not affirm such doctrines as the virgin birth be barred from the Presbyterian communion. For Machen, liberalism was an entirely different religion. But before Congress, instead of blaming liberalism for America’s woes, he did the liberal thing of telling government officials to leave the American people alone.

SO WAS MACHEN GUILTY OF contradicting himself? Does ideological consistency, for instance, require theological conservatives to be conservative in all walks of life, including politics, economics, and culture? Could it even be that Machen’s apparently double-minded performance in 1926 is simply the dark side of conservatism in the United States? What, in fact, Machen’s apparent inconsistency shows is that political and religious liberalism are not synonymous. What is more, it suggests lessons for religious conservatives who think they are political conservatives. Whether the philosophy of limited government is liberal or conservative, it is not the easy road to the good life that many political conservatives think.

Machen’s reasons for testifying before Congress would likely delight the fans of Rush Limbaugh. The Princeton professor opposed the creation of a federal department of education because he opposed any increase in Washington’s powerful bureaucracy. The issue wasn’t education; it was politics. “Let us be perfectly clear about one thing,” he stated, “if liberty is not maintained with regard to education, there is no use trying to maintain it in any other sphere. If you give the bureaucrats the children, you might as well give them everything else.” Machen thereby established his political identity as a liberal, that is, as one fundamentally committed to the principle of limited government.

Machen’s politics started with the idea that government was a necessary evil. The state’s purpose was not “to produce blessedness or happiness” but rather to prevent “blessedness or happiness from being interfered with by wicked men.” The aim of government, then, was to sustain the good life of individuals and families, rather than making a people into a great nation. In a lengthy passage from an address given before Christian day school teachers and administrators, Machen outlined the political creed of all genuine liberals.

There are certain basic rights of the individual man and the individual family which must never be trampled under foot – never for any supposed advantage of the whole, never because of the supposed necessity of any emergency – certain basic rights like the right of personal freedom, the right of property, the right of privacy of the home, the real freedom of speech and of the press. I believe in the specifically American idea in government – not a nation divided for purposes of administrative convenience into a number of units called states, but a number of indestructible states, each with its inalienable rights, each with its distinctive features, with its own virtues to be cultivated by its own citizens, with its own defects not to be remedied at all unless remedied by its own citizens, and, on the other hand, a Federal government not in possession of any general and unexpressed sovereignty but carefully limited to powers expressly granted it by a Constitution which was not of its own making.

Machen’s commitment to limited government was his chief reason for opposing the proposed federal department of education. Governmental control and regulation of education implied that children “belong to the State, that their education must be provided for by the State in a way that makes for the State’s welfare,” an assumption that undermined the legitimate authority of parents. Protecting the rightful authority of local powers, what Protestants used to call, lesser magistrates, was the other piece of Machen’s commitment to limited government. In other words, he opposed federal intrusion into the affairs of other duly constituted authorities, from families, neighborhoods, and counties, up to the state governments that comprised the United States of America. For this reason, Machen saw in federal programs like a department of education or the Child-Labor Amendment, the same sort of centralization and consolidation of political power that Germany was exhibiting under National Socialism and the Soviet Union under Communism. The American alternative to such efforts was not to centralize and consolidate power in a more progressive fashion, but to avoid centralization altogether and limit national government by dispersing power to a host of local authorities.

OF COURSE, DECENTRALIZING power – what we today call devolution – would mean less uniformity and even less efficiency. But Machen would not blink in the face of these negative consequences. He even went so far as to say that inefficiency and diversity were good things in and of themselves. Although Machen was not at all happy with many of the individual states’ policies, he was far more comfortable with forty-eight governments having a spoon in the pot rather than allowing the federal government to be the sole chef. In fact, he thought there was “a great safeguard” in the multiplicity of local governments. What is more, Machen believed that such multiplicity would foster greater competition, another benefit of decentralization. He held that “there ought to be the most unlimited competition – competition between one state and another.” If such competition led to inefficiency so much the better. Efficiency was no magic wand. Instead, if directed to harmful ends it was equally destructive. As he told senators and congressmen, “a more uniform and efficient system of public common school education . . . is the worst fate into which any country can fall.”

THIS IS A PLACE WHERE contemporary conservatives would likely be uncomfortable with political liberalism since many on the right not only want to reduce the hold of the federal government on educational policy and funding, but also think they know what a good education looks like and desire to see the blessings of such a curriculum extended to all of America. But Machen did not flinch from the consequences of limited government. Local control in the service of liberty meant all people having a say in the way they lived their lives. And this meant a greater chance of diversity in all walks of life. Of course, the distribution of power to local authorities would not work out automatically for the good of the nation. What Machen thought to be in the best interests of America was a wide spectrum of families and local communities determining their own affairs, not the dissolving of familial and regional idiosyncracies for the sake of national interest.

Today, Machen’s views would not make sense to many Calvinists. That’s because they follow the older Puritan view that insists on commonly held convictions being the best way to preserve social harmony, and on true religion as the bedrock for good government. Machen clearly departed from this tradition, and this is partly explained by the legacy of the Puritan conception of government in postbellum America. Ever since the end of the Civil War, northern Protestants had been advocating various ecumenical and interdenominational endeavors in order to work together more efficiently, establish a united Protestant front against the centralized and uniform power of America’s growing Roman Catholic population, and extend the virtues of Anglo-American morality to all classes, races, and regions. But even if such uniformity and power were in Protestant-friendly hands, Machen’s liberal instincts resisted.

If some would accuse Machen of leaving religion out of politics, his defense was that injecting morality into public debates is not the only form religious influence can take. Machen appealed to aspects of theology other than the Decalogue, such as liberty of conscience, the limits of church power, Presbyterian polity, and sphere sovereignty. The Westminster Confession’s teaching on liberty of conscience supplied a hermeneutic of suspicion ever watchful for abuses of power. Even in cases where authority was legitimate, such as in the spheres of the home, church and state, the doctrine of sphere sovereignty implied that these authorities had limits and could not go beyond them. State control of education was a flagrant violation of sphere sovereignty. But so was parochial or church-based schooling since the family was the sole institution responsible for the training of children.

PRESBYTERIAN POLITY WAS another piece in Machen’s political liberalism. Unlike episcopal forms of government, Presbyterians and Reformed locate church power, not in the hands of one officer or bishop, but rather vest it in a series of graded courts, the membership of which consists of pastors and elders holding equal rank. Presbyterian polity protects the rights of lower courts against those of the higher, and contributed to Machen’s wariness of higher courts usurping the powers of local bodies. In other words, Presbyterianism is the form of church government most compatible with such sociological notions as mediating structures or the Roman Catholic doctrine of subsidiarity. The idea behind both concepts is that large structures like those of centralized government are clumsy if not ruthless in addressing the variety of circumstances and problems of ordinary individuals, families, congregations and communities. Accordingly, the state should not perform tasks which other institutions and communities can perform for themselves. In the words of Pius XI’s Quadragesimo anno, “Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do.”

IRONICALLY, IT HAS BEEN Roman Catholics in the twentieth century, those who affirm an infallible centralized authority, who have done the most to explore the political implications of subsidiarity. In contrast, twentieth-century American Protestants, whose very denominational diversity vindicates the principle of subsidiarity, lament their lack of uniformity and pine for a Protestant pope who will give them the order and stability necessary for greater influence.

Be that as it may, a commitment to liberalism in the classic political sense need not mean an equal commitment to individualism. One of the reasons why Machen’s liberalism fails to resonate with contemporary Calvinists is that they do not see how his politics are rooted in the notion of legitimate authority. It was not that Machen believed all governmental power was always harmful. Rather, it was when government overreached its proper bounds that Machen expressed alarm. The real problem with the growth of the centralized power is that it breeds individual rights. The tension of modern politics is not between individuals and the compelling interest of the state. Instead, as Mark C. Henrie argues, the power of the state has risen in direct proportion to growth of individual rights. “For the rights that have been ‘recognized’ by the modern liberal state are not so much rights against the state as they are rights against other social bodies that used to have some measure of authority in the lives of men and women.” Machen’s plea for liberty, in fact, was an argument for the freedom of legitimate authorities to exercise power in their proper spheres. For him it was the essence of paternalism to let government do good things that involved it in spheres where it should not go.

THE LESSONS OF MACHEN’S liberalism are many. But the one that sticks out during a presidential primary season when neo-Calvinists are jumping on the George-W.-Bush bandwagon because of his born-again experience and their own biblical convictions is that it’s okay for religious conservatives to be liberal. This is another way of saying that theology does not determine politics, especially if we keep in mind that theology is a little more than morality. World magazine recently received the brush off from the Times’, William Safire, for the publication’s hatchet-job of John McCain. Marvin Olasky, who edits World and serves as an advisor to Bush, lamely responded that World covers the news from a “biblical perspective.” This means, “among other things, that we take personal morality seriously.” But so does William Safire who thought World’s coverage was immoral. Could it be that a biblical perspective on politics would attend to such matters as scale, power, economics, and self-interest, not just the Sixth Commandment (i.e. abortion) and the Seventh Commandment (i.e. drunkenness and Cindy McCain’s stock in Anheuser Busch)? Machen’s politics would surely indicate so. But as long as religious conservatives continue to evaluate candidates and issues simply through a moral squint, they provide positive proof, contrary to their own assertion, that religion is irrelevant to all areas of life. Morality may, but the doctrines of the Trinity, creation, providence, and eschatology do not have much to say about NAFTA, HMO’s or NATO.

IRONICALLY, BY REDUCING Christianity to ethics, today’s religious right turns out to offer little more than the old religious left which performed a similar reductionism in its effort to shape American public life and show the relevance of Christianity.

Liberalism is a hard subject to learn.

Townsend P. Levitt

A Side of Dutch Calvinists You Don’t See Anymore

This anonymous interlocutor who reads Rod Dreher’s blog, sells real estate, and sometimes preaches may be a member of a Christian Reformed Church congregation in Canada:

Why would you bring guns to a state legislature in protest?

Because the meritocracy are a bunch of gun hating pussies that’s why. It’s a show of “strength.” It’s a statement, “You may have all the levers and instruments of political power, but we have all the guns.” It has been my belief for a several years now that the politicization of our society and its radicalization are only going to get worse. I also believe that if de-escalation is going to happen, the first steps must begin with the left and with the meritocracy. They must begin walking back the Alinsky-ite attitude of the left. They need to show “respect” to those that differ with them, who disagree with them and will not join them in the “climb” up the social ladder. Calling them selfish morons and jerks only fuels the fires and widens the divide.

Why would people be willing to vote for and continue to support Trump? Why, when there many more qualified and better people who could do the job and were willing to do the job?

If I were an American, I would have voted for Ted Cruz. But the movers and shakers in the Republican Party hated him so much that they were willing to allow Trump to get the nomination rather than see Cruz win the nomination. Why are so many people willing to vote for Trump? It’s not just the red meat rallies. It is not just that he thumbs his nose at the press and constantly battles with them. Every other candidate was obviously a part of the meritocracy. Even though Trump is super rich and was born with a silver spoon, he is gauche enough to be thought of as having a common touch. He connected with people and made them believe that whatever he is, he isn’t one of “them.” “Them,” the meritocracy, are so reviled and so hated that his supporters would vote for anyone, as long as they had no stench of “them” on themselves. Anyone but a member of the meritocracy. Trump understands this instinctively. So, as long as he is seen as “not one of them” his base will follow. And there is a large segment of the population willing to die of coronavirus than listen to the dictates of the meritocracy. They are that hated and reviled. But the leadership class in both parties do not see it, will not see it and wouldn’t believe it even if they did. Nobody likes them. There is no one other than Trump. Tucker? Name someone other than Trump who can or is willing to lead the fight against the growing hegemony of the meritocracy? Do you think that the meritocracy is willing to stand down and end its war against the common people, the deplorables, to make peace and once again earn the trust of the people? The common people know that they will do anything to destroy them. Send their jobs overseas, flood the market with illegal aliens, wreck their families and towns and so forth. There is already a war going on and people are starting to wake up to that reality. Guns in the state house is only the beginning. Who will fight for the common man? Fight hard enough to win? Right now the perception is that Trump is all they got.

What is your only comfort in life and in death?

This is the question that opens the Heidelberg Catechism, an amazing document and one of the core confessional teachings in the Dutch Reformed stream of the Christian faith. Most of us who grew up in a church with roots in this tradition can give the answer of “The Catechism” from heart. And it is this answer that makes me not afraid. At the same time, I am also conscientious enough and polite enough to wear a mask, sanitize and stay home. I also have two university degrees, am regularly asked to speak as an “expert” (preach from the pulpit), make a six figure income, send my kids to private (Christian) grade school and high school and we are on swim team. By all metrics I should be a happy and contented member of the meritocracy. But I just can’t do it. I just can’t embrace it. A big part of it is my Christian faith. But I think a larger part of what turns me off from the meritocracy is that so many of them – people, who, on their own, seem like nice people – behave in way that reminds me of treatment I received in high school from the “cool kids.” I see it at church. I see it at swim team. I see it on Facebook, Twitter and almost every time I turn on the TV. Good looking “cool kids” telling me how to live my life and admonishing me to “stay safe.” I don’t want to stay safe. I want to live life. I want to challenge myself in my faith journey to be as honest with myself as I can stand it and more. I don’t want to be afraid. I am not. Why am I not afraid? Because I share in a reality that is more real than the empty material world of the elites. I don’t need to figure out what the world means to me, because it is already deeply imbued in its very fabric and foundation with meaning. Truth, Beauty, Justice, and so forth are all out their waiting to be discovered, pondered and embraced. Its not “safe” to pursue these things. But I can do so knowing:

That I am not my own,

but belong –

body and soul

in life and in death—

to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.

He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood,

and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil.

He also watches over me in such a way

that not a hair can fall from my head

without the will of my Father in heaven:

in fact, all things must work together for my salvation.

Because I belong to him,

Christ, by his Holy Spirit,

assures me of eternal life

and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready

from now on to live for him.

For many in my community, these words are the ordering principle and foundation for their approach to life. Why would I be afraid to live if I know that my life belongs to Christ? Can a virus take away my salvation? Can it separate me from the love of God that is in Jesus Christ?

Even though I am not afraid, I know others are, and so I try to respect that as best I can. I wear a mask and other than trips to the grocery store and a few house showings, I have allowed myself to be kept prisoner. But I would much rather be living life.

First Evangelicalism, Now W-w, but Still Hope for U.S.A.

Thabiti Anyabwile concludes his interaction with agitated Southern Baptists over social justice by making some odd concessions. If race relations started to unravel big eva in 2014, with a major goose from the 2016 election, it now looks like racism is making Neo-Calvinist w-w diagnosis look like nonsense.

How? Anyabwile faults Tom Ascol’s evidence for the influence of critical race theory (aka cultural Marxism) in evangelical circles as insufficient or anecdotal:

Sometimes people note a correlation or a suspicion and pronounce with certainty that a movement or an infiltration is there. I think that’s largely what’s happening when people claim a “movement” exists. Some look at the number of followers on Twitter or the number of returns on a search as “evidence.” But raw numbers tell us nothing about whether those Twitter followers agree with the one they follow or whether the followers were even purchased. Raw numbers of “hits” on searches tell us nothing about whether the content of the hits were for or against the subject searched.

The entire discussion is being built on an inadequate evidentiary approach. We have a low bar that actually breaks the rules of evidence in most every field, and it proves too much.

It used to be in New Calvinist and Neo-Calvinist circles that w-w was sufficient to spot a problem. You did not need to rise to the level of a movement to show that an idea or practice was sinful or destructive. Now, Anyabwile wants Ascol to show the institutional apparatus seemingly if he is going to prove that critical race theory is present in evangelicalism. Would that also mean that we need evidence of a movement to prove that sexual infidelity is making some gains in American society and the church?

Oddly, though, Anyabwile concedes that critical race theory is behind one of Truth Table’s hosts’ recent comments:

On the first point, consider Tom’s listing of Ekemini Uwan’s comments at the Sparrow Conference. He offers it as proof of secular social-justice ideologies infiltrating evangelical spaces. It’s true that Ekemini’s comments have much in common with the fields of whiteness studies and CRT. She uses “whiteness” not as a reference to skin color or even race but to a social ideology rooted in power and greed. But that’s a view at least as old as Frederick Douglass’s writing, well before CRT/IS, cultural Marxism, or today’s social-justice trends.

As long as Frederick Douglass argued that way, the ideas must be okay. So much for Abraham Kuyper.

But Anyabwile leaves room for hope. He argues that just because the founders of the SBC held slaves, we do not throw out their entire theology:

Tom leads an organization called “Founders Ministries.” It’s a reference to the theology and ministries of the founders of the SBC. Founders is dedicated to calling the convention back to the theological commitments (doctrines of grace) of those founders, among whom were men like Basil Manly Jr, who owned 40 slaves. Manley would not be the only early leader of the convention who owned slaves. In fact, the convention was formed following a split on the question of slave owning. You could say the SBC was the pro-slavery denomination. Its flagship seminary, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, recently issued a report documenting that institution’s history on the question of slavery and racism. The report indicates that the seminary’s founding faculty—James P. Boyce, John A. Broadus, Basil Manly Jr., and William Williams—all held slaves and, in some cases, actively defended the practice. Yet such men are cited in books and sermons as heroes of the convention and of evangelicalism.

Now, here’s the question: Are we to attribute all the beliefs and commitments of the founding leaders of the SBC and Southern Seminary to Tom as a leader of “Founders Ministries”? If a person expresses indebtedness to Boyce, Broadus, Manly, or Williams for their writing on some subject, are we to attribute to that person anything or everything we find repugnant in Boyce and company or their writings on that subject? I would answer an emphatic “No” to both questions.

By way of analogy, the same point applies to Americans who defend and memorialize the American Founding. Just because Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin owned slaves, we do not reject all that they did, especially the institutions and political rationales they left behind.

If Anyabwile is willing to entertain that sort of sifting of the American past, he needs to write a letter to the New York Times (and maybe send an email message to Jemar Tisby).

Fascism and Modern Roman Catholic Societies

Can anyone point to an example of a society that went with the Protestant side of the Reformation producing a fascist government? Donald Trump does not count because the U.S. has yet to adopt a fascist government (that is, if you don’t read the paleo-conservatives on Abraham Lincoln).

This is not meant to tar Rome with the fascist brush (mainly), but it is to ponder what Michael Walzer wrote about liberalism and the “art of separation.” Peter Meilaender summarized it this way (from a golden oldie):

The “separation of civil society and political community creates the sphere of economic competition and free enterprise, the market in commodities, labor, and capital” (Walzer 1984, 316). It is true, of course, that “market freedom entails certain risks for consumers,” but, as Walzer points out, “so does religious freedom” (Walzer 1984, 316). Similarly, the “abolition of dynastic government separates family and state” and in this way creates the possibility for people to pursue careers according to their talents, opening up the “sphere of office and then the freedom to compete for bureaucratic and professional place, to lay claim to a vocation, apply for an appointment, develop a specialty, and so on” (Walzer 1984, 316-17). Finally, Walzer writes, the same process, by separating “public and private life” (Walzer 1984, 317), enables new forms of domestic intimacy that are profoundly important to most of us. In the privacy of our homes we become free to pursue “a very wide range of interests and activities…: reading books, talking politics, keeping a journal, teaching what we know to our children, cultivating (or, for that matter, neglecting) our gardens” (Walzer 1984, 317). Raising our own chickens, we might add, or not raising them! “Our homes are our castles, and there we are free from official surveillance” (Walzer 1984, 317).

The virtue of Walzer’s analysis is to correct the one-sided portrayal of modernity as a story of decay, fragmentation, and alienation, the loss of a pre-modern, pre-liberal Eden. The story of modernity is also one of increasing richness and diversity, of freedom and pluralism, of a world in which, to borrow a line from C. S. Lewis, “Everything is getting more itself and more different from everything else all the time” (Lewis 2003, 281). Lewis was not describing the spheres of society—family, work, church, state, and so on—but his point is analogous to Walzer’s. As he writes in the preface to The Great Divorce, “life is not like a river but like a tree. It does not move towards unity but away from it and the creatures grow further apart as they increase in perfection” (Lewis 2001, viii). A new, richer, and redeemed form of community will one day arise—can arise—only as the outcome of that increasing process of differentiation.

Indeed, Christians are especially well placed to understand the characteristic forms of modernity not simply as examples of fragmentation and loss but rather of differentiation and enrichment, as a process in which the various spheres of society gradually become more and more themselves and less and less something else.

In contrast to differentiation and separation, Roman Catholics — perhaps thanks to the neo-medievalism that lurks in all nostalgia for Christendom — prefer integration, hence the current appeal of integralism. David Frum picked up on this in his poignant piece about D-Day. At the end of the war:

France did enter Germany as a victor. French armies, supplied by the United States, subordinate to U.S. command, were stood up in 1944–45. France was allotted an occupation zone in Germany and awarded a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. (Italy was not even invited to join the United Nations until 1955.) Allied officialdom agreed to believe de Gaulle’s story that the France that fought Nazi Germany was the only real France.

But everyone understood the story was not true. The French military defeat in 1940 had torn apart social wounds dating back decades and longer. Conservative and Catholic France reinterpreted the battles of 1940 as a debacle only of the liberal and secular France that had held the upper hand since the founding of the Third Republic in 1871 and especially since the Dreyfus affair that began in 1894. When the reactionary French writer Charles Maurras was sentenced to life imprisonment for collaboration, he supposedly replied, “It’s the revenge of Dreyfus.”

Most French business leaders and civil servants collaborated out of opportunism or necessity. The Germans held hundreds of thousands of captured French soldiers as hostages for years after 1940. But more than a few leading French people, including many intellectuals and churchmen, collaborated out of a species of conviction. A French cardinal led the recruitment of French volunteers to fight alongside the Germans in Russia in 1941. “How can I, in a moment so decisive, refuse to approve the common noble enterprise directed by Germany, dedicated to liberate Russia from the bonds that have held it for the last twenty-five years, suffocating its old human and Christian traditions, to free France, Europe, and the world from the most pernicious and most sanguinary monster that mankind has ever known, to raise the peoples above their narrow interests, and to establish among them a holy fraternity revived from the time of the Christian Middle Ages?” Cardinal Alfred Baudrillart wrote, in his endorsement of the Anti-Bolshevik Legion.

Frum then notices the anti-liberalism that lurked in those French who wanted a return to throne and altar (some differentiation but not the Anglo-American separation of powers):

The loss of the war against Germany enabled such people to launch a much more congenial culture war at home, to purge France of “liberty, equality, and fraternity,” the slogan of 1789, and establish in its place “work, family, fatherland,” the slogan of Vichy. Since 1905, France had been defined as a secular state. The Catholic Church had been reduced to one sect among others: Protestant, Jewish, even Muslim. (In 1920, the French government had subsidized the building of a grand mosque in thanks for the First World War service of Muslim troops. The great military cemetery near Verdun has a special section for Muslim soldiers, their graves angled away from the others in order to face Mecca.)

Vichy put an end to all that. The defeat of France by Germany was ideologically reinterpreted as a victory of “deep France” over a shallow liberal metropolitan veneer. Subjugation was reinterpreted by Vichy ideologues as redemption. Enmity was shifted from the occupying Germans to the liberal commercial “Anglo-Saxons.” Vichy propagandists produced cartoons in which Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Popeye were depicted dropping bombs on France at the behest of Jewish masters.

The point is not that DeGaulle but that the Roman Catholic urge for order and unity often manifests itself in a certain kind of anti-liberalism.

And so integralism returns (and don’t forget the appeal of integration to those neo-Calvinists who bang the gong hard for the Lordship of Christ over every square inch without thinking very hard about sphere sovereignty.