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)
Let the record show, Princeton University, during the last wave of heightened aesthetic consciousness about public art, had a chance, just like Mayor James Kenney in Philadelphia (with the Frank Rizzo statue), to get rid of Woodrow Wilson’s name at its School of Public and International Affairs. The university, with the same president as today, Christopher Eisgruber, decided to keep the Wilson name. Here is part of Princeton’s reasoning:
The challenge presented by Wilson’s legacy is that some of his views and actions clearly contradict the values we hold today about fair treatment for all individuals, and our aspirations for Princeton to be a diverse, inclusive, and welcoming community. On the other hand, many of his views and actions – as faculty member and president of this University, as governor of New Jersey and a two-term President of the United States, and as an international leader whose name and legacy are still revered in many parts of the world – speak directly to our values and aspirations for our school of public and international affairs and for the first of our residential colleges.
… There is considerable consensus that Wilson was a transformative and visionary figure in the area of public and international affairs; that he did press for the kinds of living and learning arrangements that are represented today in Princeton’s residential colleges; and that as a strong proponent of education for use, he believed Princeton should prepare its students for lives in the nation’s service. These were the reasons Wilson’s name was associated with the school, the college, and the award.
The question that immediately comes to mind is how do the people who punted on Wilson in 2016 get to keep their jobs and positions? They looked at the evidence, and even heard from scholars who were decidedly negative in their estimates of Wilson, such as this one from the University of Richmond’s Eric S. Yellin:
Far from being merely ignorant “men of their times,” Wilson and his administration sought to do something new when they delegitimized public objections to segregation by marking any protest as both insubordinate and fallacious. African Americans and some allies never accepted this argument, of course, but the vast majority of white Americans did not question it. In this way, federal discrimination, including administrators’ explanations of it, played its part in the national institutionalization of white supremacy in the United States in the early twentieth century.
Again, for the record, Princeton’s president and board of trustees read these words and decided to keep Wilson’s name. Why don’t they too need to vacate Princeton the way Wilson has? Could you have a better indication of racism according to 2020 standards?
By the way, it was a curious group of advisors to Princeton who commissioned reactions from historians and issued a report that kept Wilson’s name. It had nary an academic on it except for a retired president of Brown University. Otherwise, the ten member committee, chaired by an African-American attorney, Brent L. Henry, consisted of executives, financiers, lawyers, leaders of non-profits, and one writer (five men, five women — cisgender I presume; five whites, five non-white). Anyone of a social justicey inclination might well wonder whether these people too need to be cancelled.
Princeton’s administration did see in 2016 the ripple effects of Wilson’s reputation. In 1948, when the school of government took Wilson’s name, Harold Willis Dodds was president (a Grove City alum). Instead of removing Wilson’s name in 2017, the University decided to move Dodds’ name within the Robertson Hall (the modernist building from 1961 designed by the same architect behind New York City’s World Trade Center. What the University did was to rename Dodds Auditorium in Robertson as the Arthur Lewis Auditorium. Dodds’ name was downsized to Robertson Hall’s Atrium.
Relatives of Dodds were not happy. John A. Dodds, a nephew of the former president, and member of the class of 1952, wrote to the alumni magazine:
it appears to me that my uncle has been inadvertently affected by some of the fallout over Woodrow Wilson 1879. This change was planned to go into effect as of July 1.
Now it appears that Princeton is even more interested in fulfilling its mission of amplifying diversity and political correctness than honoring a man who served longer as president of Princeton University (1933–57) than any other Princeton president in the 19th or 20th century. He brought the University through some difficult times during World War II, and his longevity as president attests to his inherent skills.
What next, a potted plant with his name on it?
These odd details amplify what Ross Douthat wrote about the name change as being more ephemeral than substantive:
the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs wasn’t named for Wilson to honor him for being a segregationist. It was named for him because he helped create precisely the institutions that the school exists to staff — our domestic administrative state and our global foreign policy apparatus — and because he was the presidential progenitor of the idealistic, interventionist worldview that has animated that foreign policy community ever since.
Which means, in turn, that the school will remain his school, whatever name gets slapped upon it, so long as it pursues the projects of enlightened progressive administration and global superpowerdom. Obviously there are people, right and left, who would prefer that one or both of those projects be abandoned. But they aren’t likely to be running the renamed school. Instead, it will continue to be run by 21st-century Wilsonians — who will now act as if their worldview sprang from nowhere, that its progenitor did not exist, effectively repudiating their benefactor while accepting his inheritance.
Like Nike’s turning Colin Kaepernick into an emblem of social justice while also turning a profit, so Princeton maintains its standing among the nation’s elite institutions, in a Vanna White way, by changing a few letters.
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)
Aside from being Machen’s nemesis, Charles Erdman was the son of a premillenialist and holiness Presbyterian evangelist who had close ties to Dwight Moody and the Keswick Conference (which stressed holiness as the biblical norm for sancification). Charles was also one of the editors of the series of pamphlets that historians associate with the origins of the fundamentalist movement. The Fundamentals were published between 1910 and 1915 and promoted some of the emphases that became associated with the 1920s opponents of theological liberalism. From all appearances, Erdman had “conservative” credentials. For historians who know very little about Old School Presbyterianism or the Princeton Theology, the spat between Erdman and Machen made no sense and so must have been the product of personal differences (read Machen’s idiosyncrasies). Why Princeton hired a premillennial professor of practical theology is another question.
For the pamphlet series, Erdman drew the straw to write on “The Church and Socialism,” not what you’d expect from a PT prof or a premillennialist. Here is part of what Erdman wrote:
This protest of Socialism is a call to the Church to proclaim more insistently the social principles of Christ. This does not mean the adoption of a so-called “social gospel” which discards the fundamental doctrines of Christianity and substitutes a religion of good works; but a true Gospel of grace is inseparable from a Gospel of good works. . . .
This protest of Socialism demands of the Church a more consistent practice, on the part of her members, of the social teachings of Christ. It is easy to bring false charges against Christians; it is even customary today to hold the Church up to ridicule and scorn as a society of hypocrites untrue to their professions and their Lord. It is not necessary to even consider these accusations which spring from ignorance or prejudice or spite. The great masses of Christians are striving to be faithful and seeking to live well-pleasing to their Master. However, it is true that there are some in the Church who are consciously guilty of sins against society, and others who, because of the difficulty of the questions involved, excuse themselves on the ground that their wrong practices are necessitated by the industrial system of the age. Some are quite comfortable under w what they regard as orthodox preaching, even though they know their wealth has come from the watering of stocks and from wrecking railroads, and from grinding the faces of the poor. . . .
The protest of Socialism is a distinct call to the Church to define anew to herself her function, and to interpret anew the prophecies of her Lord.
There are many who, in the name of Christianity, have been promising a new social order, a kingdom of God, which they declare the Church will
introduce. The long continued failure to realize these promises has led to criticisms of the Church, and has done not a little to increase the bitterness of socialistic attacks upon her. The Church is now being held responsible for social sins and injustice, for the wrongs and grievances of the age; and for this unfortunate position she must largely blame herself. She has arrogated functions which are not her own; she has made promises for which there is no written word of Scripture. It should be remembered, for instance, that the state is quite as purely a divine institution as is the Church. It is for the state to secure social reconstruction when necessary; it is for the state to punish offenders, and to secure by legal enactments and legislative processes the abolition of abuses, and the establishment of justice. When the Church assumes functions belonging to the state, she involves herself in needless difficulties and places herself in a false position before the world. . . . but the real blessedness of the Church and of the world awaits the personal return of Christ. The hope of the world is not in a new social order instituted by unregenerate men; not a millennium made by man; not a commonwealth of humanity organized as a Socialistic state; but a kingdom established by Christ which will fill the earth with glory at the coming of the King.
That is an odd mix of progressive politics, spirituality of the church, and premillennialism.
That contrasts with what Machen wrote about socialism for the Christian Reformed Churches, The Banner, in an exchange about the Child Labor Amendment:
What, at bottom, is the difference between the ethics of socialism and the ethics of Christianity? In some ways the two look very much alike. Both are seeking to relive creature distress; and both require men of wealth, at least under certain circumstances, to give up their wealth and become poor. But the socialist seeks to accomplish that by force, and the Christian seeks to accomplish it by love. There lies the profound difference. The socialist says to the man who possesses this worlds’s goods: “We intend to compel you to distribute your wealth as we see fit: we should regard ourselves as degraded if we received it from you as a gift, but we intend to take it from you by force.” The Christian, on the other hand, says to the man of wealth, or rather to the man who has any amount, large or small, for this world’s good: “the Lord loveth a cheerful giver; will you not have compassion upon those less fortunate than yourself; and will you not take any possible sting of degradation from the receivers of such a gift by letting your gift be prompted truly by love?” I think there is a deep-seated conflict between these two views of life; I do not think that that conflict between them can permanently be concealed. (“Voices in the Church,” 391-92)
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
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.
L. Roy Taylor’s retirement as stated clerk of the PCA’s General Assembly prompted a few questions about a Reformed church’s understanding of its responsibility to minister to “the culture.” Taylor himself sounded remarkably antithetical about the relationship between church and culture even while affirming the need to reach out to the wider world:
Few would disagree that our postmodern culture is morally, epistemologically (dealing with knowledge and facts), and theologically relativistic. After the 1960s, the worst thing one could do was to be certain or intolerant. Postmodernism and the sexual revolution of the 1960s have corroded our culture and even our churches. As we deal with modernity, we can either 1) accept the culture’s norms, 2) isolate ourselves from the culture, or 3) bear biblical witness to culture.
For Bible-believing Christians, accepting the culture’s norms is not an option because we believe in absolute moral standards, objective truth, and definite theology based on the Bible. Throughout history, some Christians have sought to isolate themselves from the culture either physically (monastics or hermits) or socially (having few or no non-Christian friends). Given the downward spiral of our culture, isolation is attractive for some Christians. For believers with a biblical worldview, however, we must bear witness to our culture.
Disagreeing with that assessment would require a Reaganesque invocation of “Morning in America” and could sound as naive now as it did then. Taylor suggests that if the church is going to “speak” to the culture, the words will be largely confrontational.
A similar theme was in the incoming stated clerk, Bryan Chapell’s assessment of the PCA from five years ago:
The issue that dwarfs our doctrinal squabbles and our persistent concern of how to treat issues of sexuality and gender is the issue of pluralism. Nothing comes close to that issue in being a challenge to our church’s future. The social stigma that is already attached to us for claiming that “Jesus is the only way” will be magnified many times for our children in a society increasingly willing to identify minority opinions as “bigotry” and “hate speech.” Pluralism will threaten not simply our orthodoxy, but the willingness of many to remain in this church.
If we do not see pluralism for the enemy it is, then we will not make appropriate alliances, link arms for necessary purposes, or allocate resources and align priorities for the greater ends required. If we do not recognize how seductive pluralism will be for all of us (and all we love) with its promises of societal approval and acceptance, then we will not embrace the means, manner, and message that will communicate the true beauty of grace that is the power of the Gospel.
The word “beauty” perhaps takes the edge off an antithetical relationship to the culture, but the threat Chapell identifies in the broader society leaves no sense that a little elbow grease is all you need to get the job of cultural transformation done.
To find a more positive less adversarial understanding of the PCA’s relationship to “the culture” you need to go back to Tim Keller’s 2010 remarks about what he “likes” about the PCA:
The culturalist impulse is like the doctrinalist in that it values theological reasoning and is suspicious of the individualism and pragmatism of the pietists. Culturalists emphasize community and the corporate in ways similar to the doctrinalists. However, culturalists are more like the pietists in their openness to social adaptation. Indeed, they usually are more open to the ‘new’ than the pietists. And the culturalists pay the most attention to what goes on outside the church in the culture. In particular, they usually give more heed to modern scholarship. Culturalists may show less concern with ‘church growth’ and overt evangelistic programs than either of the other two branches. Also feel more affinity to ‘the Great Tradition’—the Anglican, Catholic, and Eastern churches—than do the doctrinalists and the pietists.
This is a view of the culture that is open, willing to entertain novelty, and learn from secular scholarship, whether about religious matters or society. It is not antithetical but friendly.
If you had to guess which of these outlooks was most predictive of the PCA’s future and you looked at the age of the authors, you might say that Chapell who is the youngest (and not retired) reflects the communion’s posture for the next decade or so. From another angle, Keller’s own stature as successful New York City pastor and author of many books suggests that his outlook will carry the most weight, at least for a while.
But when it comes to cultural transformation, the wrench that gums up the works is the ministry of social justice. Those most concerned about racism, inequality, and structures of exclusion and privilege likely have no trouble seeing the church at odds with cultural structures that are systemically unjust. These Presbyterians could well agree with Taylor and Chapell’s warnings about cultural captivity. And the social justice Presbyterians could well think that Keller’s estimate of the modern world, from scholarship to big cities and the economies that make such urban centers possible, is naive. Missing from the social justice outlook, though, is an awareness that lots of people who have no Christian profession adopt the same causes (more like the other way around) that believing progressives do. In other words, the antithesis for social justice Christians has much more to do with politics than regeneration.
All of which makes a cultural ministry anything but simply the gospel.
Henry Sloane Coffin was a leading liberal minister in the Presbyterian Church USA during the 1920s. When the General Assembly of 1925 was ready once again to affirm the virgin birth as an essential doctrine of Christianity, Coffin threatened to lead an exodus of liberals (mainly from New York) outside the denomination. This vote was so threatening because the Presbytery of New York City had ordained two ministers (one of them Henry Pit Van Dusen, president of Union Theological Seminary during the Niebuhr era) who could not affirm the virgin birth.
A separation was what J. Gresham Machen had wanted because liberals and conservatives were in such conflict:
A separation between the two parties in the Church is the crying need of the hour. Many indeed are seeking to avoid the separation. Why, they say, may not brethren dwell together in unity? The Church, we are told, has room both for liberals and for conservatives. The conservatives may be allowed to remain if they will keep trifling matters in the background and attend chiefly to “the weightier matters of the law.” And among the things thus designated as “trifling” is found the Cross of Christ, as a really vicarious atonement for sin. (Christianity and Liberalism)
But Coffin’s reply was to stand upon “the constitution of the Church,” not the provisions that included an affirmation of the virgin birth in the Confession and Catechisms, but that part that prevented General Assemblies from changing or adding “to the conditions” for ordination.
Coffin, after all, was an liberal evangelical:
We are first and foremost evangelicals . . . to the core of our spiritual beings. Any attempt to belittle Jesus, to reduce Him to a mere Teacher, a sage superior to other sages, but one among many, not the unique Saviour of the world; to substitute any other standard for the Bible as the authoritative express of God’s life with men. . . is to depreciate the Christian religion and to rob it of its vital force. (quoted in Longfield, Presbyterian Controversy, 88)
That evangelicalism came with a catch. According to Longfield:
In the Presbyterian conflict Coffin would fight for doctrinal liberty in the church, for the freedom to rethink Christian convictions in present-day categories. This was essential if the church was to survive in the modern world. But beyond that, Coffin was fighting to preserve the hope of a social and economic order redeemed through the people of God. The church existed “to embody and create the world-wide community of God,” “to conquer all the kingdoms of this world — art, science, industry, education, politics — for God and for His Christ. . . . The attacks of fundamentalist like Machen and Macartney on liberal evangelicals therefore threatened both the freedom of Christians and the future of the world. Only a universal church, a “re-united world-wide Church of Christ, supernational,” could marshal the power to remake the world according to Christ’s mind. (Longfield, 99)
Twenty-five years later, William F. Buckley, Jr. ran up against that sort of progressive (and still evangelical?) Christianity when he published God and Man at Yale, a book that blew the whistle on the lack of Christianity and friendliness to collective economics in the instruction at the school from which Buckley had just graduated. The book created a great controversy and was arguably the first installment of the conservative movement that would soon make a dent on the Republican Party.
Yale appointed a committee (like the way Charles Erdman appointed the Special Commission of 1925 to investigate the Presbyterian conflict) and the chairman of the commission was Henry Sloane Coffin. In a letter to a Yale alumnus, a copy of which went to Buckley, Coffin wrote that the book’s author was “distorted by his Roman Catholic point of view.” Buckley should have known that Yale was a “Puritan and Protestant institution by its heritage.” He also should have “attended Fordham or some similar institution.”
So in 1925 Coffin rejected a separation in the Presbyterian Church. But for Yale, he had no problem thinking that Roman Catholics should take their endeavors elsewhere. The separation of the church? No. The separation of the university? No problem.
Machen may have been able to warn Buckley had he lived beyond 1937:
Such obscuration of the issue attests a really astonishing narrowness on the part of the liberal preacher. Narrowness does not consist in definite devotion to certain convictions or in definite rejection of others. But the narrow man is the man who rejects the other man’s convictions without first endeavoring to understand them, the man who makes no effort to look at things from the other man’s point of view. For example, it is not narrow to reject the Roman Catholic doctrine that there is no salvation outside the Church. It is not narrow to try to convince Roman Catholics that that doctrine is wrong. But it would be very narrow to say to a Roman Catholic: “You may go on holding your doctrine about the Church and I shall hold mine, but let us unite in our Christian work, since despite such trifling differences we are agreed about the matters that concern the welfare of the soul.” For of course such an utterance would simply beg the question; the Roman Catholic could not possibly both hold his doctrine of the Church and at the same time reject it, as would be required by the program of Church unity just suggested. A Protestant who would speak in that way would be narrow, because quite independent of the question whether he or the Roman Catholic is right about the Church he would show plainly that e had not made the slightest effort to understand the Roman Catholic point of view.
The case is similar with the liberal program for unity in the Church. It could never be advocated by anyone who had made the slightest effort to understand the point of view of his opponent in the controversy. (Christianity and Liberalism)
The lesson could very well be, beware the tranformationalists.
The subject of confessionalism in relation to the Gospel Coalition has again come up, this time with a charitable defense of the organization from Ligon Duncan. The article that elicited this response is not at issue here. I have not read it nor is that as pertinent as what Duncan says about confessionalism:
None of us are a part of TGC because we don’t care about our ministerial vows or because we don’t really believe our Confession.
We are a part of TGC because TGC beautifully promotes certain important things in the wider Christian and evangelical world that are needed, vital, true, good, right, timely, healthful, and which are also perfectly consistent with our own confessional theological commitments, so we want to be a part and a help. We also think that we have a thing or two to learn from our non-Presbyterian friends in TGC that “sweetly comport” with our vows and our church’s doctrine and practice. And we love the friendship and fellowship we enjoy with like-minded brethren from and ministering in settings denominationally different from our own, but committed to the same big things.
Just as Charles Hodge of Princeton (not one shy of his confessional Presbyterian commitments), for similar reasons, was happy to participate in the Evangelical Alliance in the nineteenth century, so also I am happy to participate in TGC.
This is an important historical matter that deserves more attention. What was the relationship of Hodge’s Old School Presbyterianism to interdenominational endeavors like the Evangelical Alliance? And how did Hodge’s own opposition to the 1869 reunion of the Old and New School churches relate to endeavors like the Evangelical Alliance?
One way of answering that question is to notice that the sorts of cooperation in which mainline Protestants engaged after the Civil War, with the 1869 Presbyterian reunion paving the way, fueled ecumenical and social gospel endeavors that produced conservative opposition in the 1920s and 1930s. The Evangelical Alliance was the Moral Majority of its day, wanting immigrants to conform to Protestant norms, opposed to Romanism and communism (for starters), and it provided the vehicle for Protestants to unite to defend a Christian America. Those ecumenical impulses eventually produced the Federal Council of Churches in 1908 and the Plan for Organic Union in 1920, a proposal that would have united all mainline Protestants into one national church — the way Canadian Protestants at roughly the same time formed the United Church of Canada (1925).
What the period of interdenominational cooperation meant for Presbyterians was a 1903 revision of the Confession of Faith. That revision enabled the PCUSA to receive the Cumberland Presbyterians. Revision softened the Confession’s Calvinism to make room for a body that had left the church almost one hundred years earlier over objections to election and limited atonement. Presbyterians going along for the ecumenical ride included the president of Princeton Theological Seminary, J. Ross Stevenson, who presented the Plan for Organic Union to the 1920 General Assembly. J. Gresham Machen was a first-time commissioner to that Assembly and Princeton’s faculty’s opposition to that plan was start of a denomination wide controversy that forced the 1929 reorganization of Princeton Seminary (to make it tolerant of diversity) and the simultaneous founding of Westminster Seminary.
According to Lefferts Loetscher, who wrote a book with a title that frightened conservatives in the PCUSA and the PCUS, The Broadening Church (1954), the reunion of Old and New School in 1869 touched off developments that saw the PCUSA recover its historic breadth:
Once again in 1869, as in 1758, the Presbyterian Church was restoring unity not by resolving its differences, but by ignoring and absorbing them. Men who had been denounced as “heretics” in 1837 and who had professed no change of theological viewpoint in the interim were welcomed in 1869 as honored brethren. The result was, of course, that the theological base of the Church (especially of the former Old School branch of the Church) was broadened and the meaning of its subscription formula further relaxed. The gentlemen’s agreement of 1869 to tolerate divergent types of Calvinism meant that clear-cut definitions of Calvinism would not be enforceable in the reunited Church, and that it would be increasingly difficult to protect historic Calvinism against variations that might undermine its essential character. (8)
No one actually doubts whether the Old and New Schools were liberal. By almost every measure, both sides would come out as evangelical today (especially if you don’t apply the category of confessionalism). And yet, the breadth necessary for combining both sides also made room for a range of theological ideas that spawned liberalism.
In other words, breadth is not a good thing. Broadening churches are usually ones that become liberal.
So why is an organization that tolerates a diversity of “evangelical” convictions going to avoid that problems that usually surface when you recognize you need to be broader than your own communion is? The answer is not that the Gospel Coalition is going liberal. But an objection to the Gospel Coalition is that it does not have built in transparent mechanisms for identifying and disciplining liberalism.
And here are a couple ways that the Coalition’s breadth could collide with my own Presbyterian confessionalism. If I am a member of the Council and an officer in a confessional Presbyterian church, and my communion has a controversy over someone ordained who does not affirm the doctrine of limited atonement, will I receive support for my opposition to this erroneous officer from my friends and colleagues at TGC? Or what about the Federal Vision? If my church decides that Federal Vision is a dangerous set of teachings that need to be opposed, will my friends and colleagues at TGC support my church in its decision? Will people who write for Gospel Coalition even be clear about the covenant theology that is clearly taught in the Confession of Faith? Or will some of them think that my communion is too narrow in its understanding of Reformed Protestantism? Will they think that the proper response should be one to include a breadth of views in denominations because that is the norm for the Coalition? I could well imagine feeling some pressure to weigh matters before a presbytery or Assembly with my peers in the Coalition in mind? Will I disappoint them? Maybe that’s the wrong way of asking the question. What if they don’t care about the affairs of my communion the way I do? (Why should they care since they are not members or officers of my denomination?)
These are real dilemmas for anyone who has subscribed the Confession and Catechisms and been ordained in a Presbyterian communion while also belonging to an evangelical organization with standards different from the church. They are concerns that have been around for almost 160 years. The Gospel Coalition has not brought an end to church history.
From James Burtchaell’s history of Christian colleges and universities, The Dying of the Light:
Originally Davidson tied its identity to the Presbyterian church and required that the church serve as the guarantor of the college’s fidelity. When that became outdated the college undertook to vouch for its own fidelity. With the 1972 bylaws it fairly well disengaged itself from any norm or authority for faithful discipleship — Calvinist fundamentals, church, Westminster, Scriptures, or Jesus. The president and twenty-two of the forty voting trustees had to be members of the PCUS. No one else at Davidson College, including the educators, had to be in communion with that church. The only entity binding them together was a statement of purpose, which both Clarence Darrow and H. L. Mencken could perhaps have found their way to embrace. At this very time the moderator of the General Assembly was lecturing the church on their need to learn to live with the new onset of pluralism within their fellowship. . . .
There seems to be a problem in the bloodstream of the Presbyterians that has affected their colleges. The church was, from the beginning, largely composed of an industrious bourgeoisie. They were already well educated, and their Calvinist consciousness of public polity had from the beginning made Presbyterians instinctively supportive of the American civil authorities (as distinct from the British authorities, who had awarded them a hedged citizenship). Over here the Presbyterians were culture-friendly, and from the beginning they marketed their colleges openly: not simply to attract students and income, but because they saw the nation as a divinely blessed commonwealth. In this mood their educators were wholly undisposed to see their colleges as intellectually set apart. For moral purposes they were prepared to make their campuses defensive havens against a threatening environment, but not for intellectual purposes. Marsden and Longfield see this:
In 1935 H. Richard Niebuhr had warned that “if the church has no other plan of salvation . . . than one of deliverance by force, education, idealism or planned economy, it really has no existence as a church and needs to resolve itself into a political party or a school.” By the latter half of the twentieth century most mainline Protestant church schools had resolved themselves into being simply schools. . . Twentieth-century mainline Presbyterians, assuming that they were part of the cultural establishment, have seldom seen American culture as a threat and so have trusted in education. (221, 234-35)