Category: New World Presbyterianism
It May Not be April, But it is Still Spring (in time for NTJ)
The second issue of the resurrected NTJ is out and available below. Lots of Presbyterianism and especially the PCA in this issue. Not to be missed are the parallels between objections to masks and jaywalking laws.
NTJ Is Risen!
The “journal” has not suffered another stroke but is simply delayed. The essay below appeared in the Winter 2012 issue and is a possible foretaste of what readers may enjoy in the next number. Consider this post the Old Life Theological Society variation on Advent.
More Scruton, Less Trueman
One of the advantages of reviewing a book several years after its publication is that the evaluation yields early returns on the test of time that book reviews written at the time of a title’s releases don’t. Which is to say, a new title demands attention simply because an author, editor, and publisher pooled resources to bring out a set of reflections that have not been seen before. After a couple of years when the newness wears off, perspective emerges on whether the author’s arguments were worthy of culling those resources. Obviously, since the marketing and publicity of books is tied to the review process, writing a book review three years after a book’s publication will not become a trend.
Still, Carl Trueman’s Republocrat may fail time’s test since it comes from an author who has increasingly collected thoughts originally produced on-line in books. In some ways, blogging and book writing is similar. Both use words, paragraphs, arguments, and depend on a measure of coherence. At the same time, blogs are to books what the sit-com “Friends” is to Shakespeare’s As You Like It. A blog post is like a letter to the editor of a magazine or newspaper. It is here today and though not necessarily gone tomorrow thanks to the comments that posts provoke, it does not achieve the coherence that comes with a series of reflections that an author determines to take the form of a book. Simply stringing together posts and slapping them together in a book would be even less satisfying than a collection of George F. Will columns since the former likely have many arguments that are closer to notes for a book than an example that an author might use for a portion of a chapter. In other words, blogging is ephemeral; book writing is substantial. Readers may go to an old blog post to understand an opinion, but they go to books generally expecting to find arguments that endure beyond the window of a month or two.
The genre and style of blogs are arguably worthwhile considerations for understanding Trueman’s book on evangelicals and American politics since it has the feel of his previous compilations of on-line essays (The Wages of Spin and Minority Report). The style is generally breezy. The tone is often cutting and sarcastic – the word bloggers use is snark. And the arguments feel more off the cuff than systematic. It is in other words, like his other short books, Republocrat is a collection of personal reflections about the way that evangelical Protestants politicize the Christian faith and baptize partisan politics. This may explain why a book that both criticizes evangelical Protestantism and resembles the two-kingdom theology – themes close to the heart of the Old Life Theological Society – does not please as much as it should have. To his credit, Trueman brings an Englishman’s perspective to American-style religion and politics and the chance to see ourselves as outsiders observe us is almost always valuable. Even so, if the book fails to engage even those who are sympathetic, the reason may be that Trueman has fallen prey to writing books based on on-line reflections. The usually personal and occasional arguments of a blog do not translate well into the less subjective and more measured medium of pages between book covers.
Obviously, this is a long-winded way of pointing out the personal nature of Republocrat. Despite his disavowal at the beginning – “Despite the title of this book [Confessions of a Liberal Conservative], I do not plan to spend much time talking about myself” – the book turns into a fairly long series of rants about the heavy-handedness of Fox News, the silliness of the Republican Party, and the scandalous political theology of the Religious Right. These are all subjects worthy of a blog post given its op-ed character and immediacy. But readers of books want sustained arguments. For that reason, Trueman struggles mightily to organize his observations into a coherent whole. The best he can do is by bringing similar topics within chapter designations. This is not to say that Trueman’s punchy and witty reflections on American politics lack merit. If Protestants in the United States had to consider more than we do how Christians from other parts of the world see us, and particularly whether the worries we have really stand up as matters about which Christians worldwide might agree in the name of Christ, American Protestant appeals to faith or doctrine in the public square might be much more circumspect.
Still, Republocrat is not without substance. For starters, Trueman is, as the title suggests, critical of both the Left and the Right. For instance, in the chapter on the Left, Trueman observes astutely how the New Left, particularly in the writings of Herbert Marcuse, shifted the notion of oppression from economic realities to psychological neediness. In the process, an older quest for greater equality among the classes morphed into the politics of identity and the demand for affirmation of race, gender, and sexual orientation. What is odd about Trueman’s discussion of the Left is how much it revolves around European (even British) categories of liberalism and conservatism without explaining what the Right and Left in Europe have to do with Democrats and Republicans in the United States.
Trueman also lands punches when he mocks the partisan nature of television cable news and wonders why evangelical Protestants are so loyal to Fox News and so suspicious of MSNBC when both networks manipulate politics to drive up ratings and generate advertizing revenue. Though again, part of what accounts for Trueman’s critical eye is the back story of his own experience as a British citizen and upbringing in England where Rupert Murdoch (the owner of Fox) has turned sensationalist journalism and raunchy programming into a highly lucrative formula. But Trueman’s point implicitly is that detecting Murdoch’s scheme should not take a European sensibility. American Protestants, especially Calvinists, should be able by virtue of what they know about human nature to see that the Fox media empire does not measure up well on the scale of family values and traditionalism.
A further useful point concerns the uncritical embrace of free market capitalism by American Protestants, a hug that for Trueman yields a piety that is not exactly characterized by the otherworldliness of the New Testament and that all too easily becomes a prosperity gospel, as in, wealth must be a sign of God’s blessing or favor. He argues effectively that capitalism creates wealth well but it is not a firm foundation for Christian morality or nurture. Capitalism, Trueman writes:
. . . can focus minds on economic prosperity in a way that is not biblical. Nobody wants to be poor — I certainly do not. There is no virtue in poverty considered in itself. But we need to be careful about simplistically identifying either wealth with divine blessing, or the impact of the gospel with economic prosperity. Neither is biblical. The story of Job makes it clear that there is no mechanistic connection between being right with God and enjoying earthly, material bounty. The life of Paul speaks to precisely the same thing. To read of his sufferings in the book of Acts, or his own description of his ministry, especially in 2 Corinthians, is to enter a world where it is not wealth and ease but rather hardship and poverty that flow from his fidelity to the cross.
Trueman also makes the point effectively that for all of political conservatives’ talk about ties between capitalism and personal virtues (such as responsibility, industry, thrift), market economies are also premised on the necessity of consumption. And reliance upon the desires of consumers communicates an ethic very different from, if not hostile to, the Christian religion:
. . . consumerism is good to the extent that it drives our economies and helps in the creation of wealth; but it is always going to tend toward the message that the meaning of life is found in the accumulation of property — a vain exercise, as the Preacher makes clear in Ecclesiastes 2. This is simply another form of idolatry — an ascribing of divine power to things that in themselves do not possess such power.
Yet, for all of these insights into the mind of the Religious Right, Trueman has little to say about an alternative outlook. The best he can do is to observe that Christians should not be so gullible. Trueman’s conclusion is littered with the words, “thoughtful,” “critical,” and “realistic.” He adds to these words the language of imperatives, as in Christians should be wise. This point is not wrong. It is actually correct. But it seems obvious, one that social conservatives would hardly dispute. Still, instead of offering an alternative political outlook, Trueman simply bases his shoulds on the notion that Christians have an obligation to model good citizenship. His biblical rationale for this is the idea that believers must maintain good reputations with outsiders:
. . . a basic New Testament requirement of church leadership, and that general principle should surely shape the attitude of all Christians in whatever sphere they find themselves. Indeed, I look forward to the day when intelligence and civility, not tiresome clichés, character assassinations, and Manichaean noise, are the hallmarks of Christians as they engage the political process.
Had Trueman written less about the conceits of the Religious Right and more about the authors from whom he has learned about politics (or added a section of political reflection), he might have produced a more substantial book. In the introduction, Trueman mentions William Hazlitt, George Orwell, Arthur Koestler, Edward Said, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Terry Eagleton, Nat Hentoff, P. J. O’Rourke, Christopher Hitchens, John Lukacs, Charles Moore, and Roger Scruton as writers from whom he has learned how to think about the world of politics and economics. Exposing these authors and their political perspectives to an audience addicted to Fox News and Rush Limbaugh would have been a worthwhile endeavor. Unfortunately, Trueman missed his chance.
As it stands, that audience will likely dismiss Trueman as little more than a British contrarian, not someone to be taken seriously. In fact, the book’s foreword gives a good indication that this will be the response of American evangelicals addicted to Fox News and Glenn Beck. Written by Peter A. Lillback, to whom Trueman dedicates the book, the foreword attempts to be “suitably contemptuous” for a book with an “oxymoronic” title. First, Lillback notes with good natured glee the self-contradictory qualities of the author:
Here is a man who has memorized the lyrics of Bob Dylan and Led Zeppelin, but prefers to sing only the Psalms on the Lord’s Day. Here’s a dean who only under coercion reluctantly walks the 26.2 steps to the president’s office from the dean’s office for fear of being asked to do some extra work, but regularly delights in running 26.2 miles, even if it means there will be icicles hanging from his running shorts and oozing wounds from his ice-nicked ankles. Here is a scholar who relishes the writings of Karl Marx, but who is inherently, instinctively, and immutably committed to the Reformation spirit of Martin Luther and John Calvin. Here is a man who refuses to go to counseling to address these oxymoronic traits, but who nevertheless is soon psychoanalyzed by all who associate with him.
When Lillback turns to the substance of Trueman’s book, he concedes that the British historical theologian’s “unmasking of the well-camouflaged foolishness on all points of the political spectrum elicit chortles and deserve admiration.” But that does not mean that Trueman succeeds. According to Lillback, Trueman’s opponents may fall “to his wit, words, and wallop,” but just because “Bill O’Reilly is illogical at times and Glenn Beck’s histrionics are more stage than sage, that doesn’t mean there aren’t good reasons to avoid the socialization of medicine and the limitation of the Second Amendment rights.” So Lillback indicates that he will wait for another occasion to “tear apart the straw men” lurking in Trueman’s arguments and for the moment will pick up on a problem that stands out, namely, Trueman’s own admission that he uses “outrageous overstatement to make a point.”
In other words, evangelicals committed to the Republican Party and prone to be persuaded by Sean Hannity will likely react the way that Lillback does – dismissal. Perhaps if Trueman had avoided the popular writing he traffics in on-line and instead applied the considerable intellectual skills he reserves for theology and church history to the subject of politics in the United States, he might have engaged in a significant teaching moment. As it is, Republocrat will inflame more than it instructs, thus leaving the Reformed wing of the Religious Right confirmed in their prejudice that Europeans don’t get us because they are simply jealous of “the greatest nation on God’s green earth.”
Would Moderates Let Slavery Split the PCA?
Maybe it was a different time. It was at least before Mike Brown, Carter Paige, “both sides” in Charlottesville, Robert Mueller, Volodymyr Zelensky, Brett Kavanaugh, Nikole Hannah-Jones, and Anthony Fauci — June 2010 to be precise. But it is hard to imagine any moderate or progressive in the PCA today, after George Floyd, describing the place of slavery in the Old School vs. New School Presbyterian split (1837) the way Tim Keller does. This is from his essay about his positive regard for the PCA:
There is a third reason that we should learn to live together. Because we are brethren, we need each other. Let’s recount a sad case study that illustrates this–the issue of 19th century African slavery. The New Schoolers lacked doctrinal robustness but they were strongly abolitionist. The Old Schoolers saw the danger of the New School’s intense campaigns to reform society—they saw how they could distract from the ministry of the Word, evangelism, and the sacraments. They saw how the New School’s cultural accommodation was leading to doctrinal decline. As a consequence, much of the Old School, especially in the South refused to denounce African chattel slavery as being the evil that it was. Mark Noll has shown in The Civil War as a Theological Crisis and America’s God that the church’s inability to agree that slavery was evil directly led to the disaster of the Civil War and that was the reason that evangelicalism has never again had the cultural credibility in the U.S. that it had before the 1830s. Old School leader Charles Hodge was caught in the middle of this, perhaps because he was one of leaders who tried to achieve a balance of confessionalism and revivalism in the Presbyterian church. On the one hand, he saw what poor theological reasoning lay behind the arguments of the abolitionists and the New School. On the other hand, he rightly sensed the danger that ‘the spirituality of the church doctrine’ could lead to cultural captivity in the other direction—the conservative one. Noll points out that Hodge began to criticize slavery too late to have brought about unity within Presbyterianism on the subject. In short, the Old School’s fear of cultural engagement caused it to fail this great test. And yet the New School’s overinvolvement in politics and social reform did indeed lead it later to doctrinal compromise. So both schools were right in their criticism of the other.
Can anyone imagine a PCA pastor today arguing that opposition to slavery resulted in theological decline? For that matter, has anyone but a few conservatives recently worried out loud that Christian support for defunding police, wearing masks, or mocking elected officials could actually be at odds with biblical teaching and church conviction? To his credit, Tim Keller did.
But eleven years later, that same argument against splitting the PCA is part of the set of convictions that run along with Revoice. If slavery shouldn’t have split Presbyterians, surely Presbyterian pastors who identify as homosexual in orientation (not in practice) will never break up the PCA.
Broadening Churches Break, Will the PCA?
The Broadening Church was the word the title of Lefferts Loetscher’s book about the Presbyterian controversy of the 1920s and 1930s. It was not the epithet of conservatives like J. Gresham Machen. The question was whether a church should attempt to be broad. Perhaps, the better way to put it is whether the church should oppose breadth. Breadth happens. It may be tolerable (Loetscher’s position), it may be objectionable (Machen’s), or it may be welcome (various modernists’). Whatever you think of a broad church, it pretty much goes without saying that conservatives seek communions that maintain doctrinal, liturgical, and ecclesiastical standards, a desire that generally does not go with breadth. On the other hand, those who either accept passively or celebrate broad communions are not conservative.
To look for parallels between the PCUSA and the PCA and raise the question of whether PCA is following a similar set of trajectories as did the PCUSA during the so-called fundamentalist controversy is to assume that the PCA itself is a broad church. If someone leads with the idea that broad and trending liberal go together throughout church history, then some PCA folk who have spoken positively about the denomination’s breadth may pause their identification with a broad church. They want to be conservative. They also want to be broad. So how do you square breadth with conservatism? Maybe the best you can do is Tim Keller‘s “Why I Like the PCA,” an essay which concedes that the New York City pastor’s communion is broad:
I believe that the only way for the PCA to be a place where we own each other is for us to re-affirrm the original boundary markers that the founders set up.
The founders’ drew very specific boundaries at certain points. One that has always been very important has been a high view of Scripture, with a robust, traditional belief in inerrancy. Another has to do with the core of Reformed theology and soteriology—there are to be no “four point Calvinists” in our church. In many other areas where some Reformed denominations have drawn narrower lines—Sabbath observance, worship (e.g. Psalms-only,) eschatology—the founders left room for diversity.
That sounds very different from what happened in the PCUSA where the church actually tried to do an end run around the PCUSA’s boundary markers. Here it may be useful to recall that the controversy started in 1920 with a plan to unite all Protestant denominations into one American church, like the model that informed the formation of the Presbyterian Church of Canada (1925). The president of Princeton Seminary, J. Ross Stevenson, chaired the committee of Presbyterians who approved the plan Stevenson’s faculty opposed the plan strenuously (including B. B. Warfield during the last year of his life). It was a classic instance of “we should be broad” vs. “we want to maintain Presbyterian standards.”
The next phase of the controversy played out in 1922 when congregations in New York City were behaving very broadly. This became common knowledge when Harry Emerson Fosdick, a liberal Baptist preaching as stated supply in a Presbyterian pulpit, gave his famous sermon, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” For Fosdick, the church was divided between those who wanted the church to be narrow and intolerant and those who like himself wanted it to be broad and open to all good souls. Fosdick’s sermon launched judicial proceedings that forced Fosdick out of the Presbyterian pulpit and the New York Presbyterian to explain the anomaly of a Baptist pastor functioning as pulpit supply as a misunderstanding.
Meanwhile, that same presbytery was ordaining ministers would not affirm (nor did the reject) the doctrine of the Virgin Birth. New York’s breadth prompted overwhelming support from officers at the 1923 General Assembly to reaffirm the famous five points of essential and necessary doctrines — which included the virgin birth (which had been affirmed in 1910 and 1916). Some might construe them as boundary markers. But liberals in New York countered with the Auburn Affirmation, which was a plea for liberty in the church (breadth), an interpretation of the essential doctrines in a less than literal manner, and an assertion that the General Assembly lacked power to insist on essential doctrines.
From there it was largely downhill for liberals. The Special Commission of 1925, which had the task of explaining the tensions in the church, blamed conservatives for making unfounded assertions outside the orderly mechanisms of Presbyterian church government. Those un-Presbyterian activities included (by implication) writing books like Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism. The General Assembly followed up with an investigation of Princeton Seminary, again to discover the source of the controversy between Stevenson and his faculty, and between Charles Erdman and Machen. That committee found again that conservatives were the problem and in effect issued a warning that if conservatives continued to criticize liberalism in the denomination those critics could face church discipline. The committee also recommended administrative changes at Princeton that diluted conservative voices (which had been in the majority). Readers should remember that PTS was and remains an agency of the General Assembly (as opposed to independent ones like Westminster, Fuller, and Reformed, or Union Richmond which I believe was founded by a Synod).
Seven years later Machen led in the founding of an orthodox, narrow, and tiny church, the OPC (name to come in 1939). Meanwhile, the PCUSA had managed to remain unified even as it encompassed a spectrum of positions in the church.
Here is how the contemporary broadening of the PCA differs from the PCUSA. You could argue it begins with Good Faith Subscription. According to “Looking Forward – Together,” the determination of the General Assembly twenty years ago was pivotal:
Good Faith Subscription (GFS) was formalized into our Constitution almost twenty years ago to put an end to such unfounded assertions. Two back-to-back General Assemblies and two-thirds of our presbyteries came to a previously and since-unprecedented level of unity to make this Constitutional formulation that allows for meaningful and biblical adherence to our Standards (acknowledging where the Bible allows good men to differ according to a very careful system of checks and balances, where every difference is recorded, approved by entire presbyteries, and submitted for examination to the General Assembly)! The adoption of GFS made recording confessional exceptions mandatory for presbyteries, and has been extraordinarily effective in strengthening our confessional commitments.
Somehow this revision in church life allowed the PCA to do exactly what the denomination had done twenty-five years earlier without the advantages of GFS: “The latitude that our denomination has allowed for, within the bounds of our orthodoxy, protects us from the kind of centralized control or hidden compromise that brought peril to the denomination the PCA left in 1973.”
In other words, GFS accomplished what the PCA had always stood for — latitude (which is synonymous with breadth) even though the PCA in 1973 was formed precisely because the sort of broad church that the PCUSA had achieved in the 1930s was also occurring within the PCUS.
GFS is not what the Auburn Affirmation was. But it is a form of subscribing that is compatible with breadth. GFS is also an action of a General Assembly. The Auburn Affirmation was merely a statement in search of signatures. That is why “Faithfully” can sound sort of threatening to conservatives the way that PCUSA turned out to be with Machen and other critics of liberalism.
Online blogs, Facebook posts, online news agencies, and emails have generally been the modes of much attack, innuendo, and ridicule, with little or no personal interaction with those attacked and cited. In the process, specific brothers in good standing have been labeled – and hurt, but even more frequently, “straw men” are erected without proof. These communications assert that large segments of our church are abandoning Scripture and our Confessional standards. Every sin does violence to God’s world and forsakes his Word, whether the sin of homosexuality, the sin of slander, the sin of compromise, or the sin of divisiveness.
In fact, “Faithfully” implies that conservatives in the PCA are engaged in a power play:
We disagree with digital and social media characterizations that turn suspicions into speculations that become accusations without proof – to achieve political ends within our church. Where compromise or sin is true and can be proven, we have sessions, presbyteries, and judicial processes to engage. We are wrong to presume that all of these are populated by brothers who are less committed to our faith than those ringing alarm bells in internet discussions and news agencies.
That explains why this letter’s appeal to GFS is an important part of the argument. GFS is the law of the church. Anyone who challenges it is running contrary to the settled practice of the PCA. In which case, while the Auburn Affirmation was a plea for liberty in the church, “Faithfully” is a threat against those who challenge the existing breadth in the PCA.
One other important difference between the PCUSA’s becoming broad and the PCA’s current breadth is the degree to which the broadists talk about the relationship between church and society (or hint at a Social Gospel). The Auburn Affirmation was generally silent about society. Progressives in the PCUSA had to worry more about carving out space for themselves in the church than they did about their role in social reform. This is not the case for the PCA, at least by one reading of “Faithfully.” Here are some of the ways, according to the authors of the letter, the PCA has shown it’s commitment to “biblical integrity, ecclesiastical polity, and gospel focus” (none of which sounds very confessional or subscriptionist):
We are seeing a healthy, biblical consciousness for issues that were previously unaddressed in the denomination, including racial reconciliation, refugee care, domestic violence, the vital role of women in advancing the mission of the church, the gospel-centeredness of all Scripture, the importance of mercy ministries and crisis care in the advancement of Christ’s message of hope, and the precious power of God’s covenant care in a society of sexual and family brokenness. For example, without sacrificing our commitment to biblical integrity, the involvement of godly women has been sought for insight on difficult issues affecting children, churches, and families, as evidenced in the recent PCA study committees on the role of women and domestic violence.
Say what you will about those matters and whether the doctrine of the spirituality of the church, which is in the Westminster Confession (ch. 25), was part of the PCUS (and explains why it took until 1983 for the Southern and Northern churches to reunite), and was clearly part (not the whole) of the PCA’s founding, that is not a list of endeavors that would characterize a non-broad or strictly confessional Reformed church. For “Faithfully” to mention these as pretty much obvious signs of the PCA’s health is also to indicate a measure of confirmation bias that in turn construes one sector of a diverse church for the whole.
A similar confusion of broad consensus with actual disagreements is evident in “Faithfully”‘s discussion of the elephant in the PCA room — namely, Side B (or same-sex attracted) Christianity. To avoid that particular matter, “Faithfully” renders the issue as whether or not to ordain practicing homosexuals:
You may have heard that there are PCA pastors who desire to ordain practicing homosexuals – This could not be further from the truth, and is an example of using extremes to ignite alarm and enflame passions among brothers. We agree that any unrepentant sinner or sinful lifestyle makes ordination not only impossible, but also reprehensible. We know of no pastors or elders in the PCA who in any way desire for practicing homosexuals to be ordained.
Fine. But what about pastors who identify as homosexual (though non-practicing) Christians? Would anyone object to a pastor calling himself an adulterous Christian because he is sometimes attracted to women other than his wife? Are these questions ones that agreeing on a basic set of “gospel” commitments while allowing for diversity on variety of indifferent matters will be easily answered? What if basic gospel commitments about sin, human nature, repentance, regeneration — all matters covered under Pastor Keller’s “Reformed theology and soteriology” — actually bubble up into questions about church and society? And what if Side B Christianity is a way to project that the PCA is a tolerant sort of place for residents of large metropolitan areas where people are generally uncomfortable expressing opposition to homosexuality?
Again, breadth seems to be afflicting the PCA. The affliction is certainly different from the broadening of the PCUSA roughly one hundred years ago. But in one way it is similar. “Evangelicals” like Charles Erdman, professor of practical theology at Princeton and opponent of Machen within the seminary and the church, believed a denomination could be broad and committed to the essentials of the gospel. The progressives in the PCA seem to be in a similar position. They are not making the church safe for pastors who question the Virgin Birth. But they, like Erdman, want to avoid being part of a restrictive church.
“Presbyterian” by definition means not Lutheran, not Anglican, not Baptist, not Congregationalist, not Quaker, not Methodist. Of course, someone can be not a Baptist in a disagreeable manner. But if the metric for offensiveness is calibrated to the ethos of cosmopolitan urban centers, the bar for giving offense was just set really low.
How Liberal Protestantism Happens (and it’s even worse when it claims to be conservative)
When you ask the church to do something that it can’t, you have a problem.
Here is the premise for Mark Tooley’s brief for churches building community: Matt Yglesias.
Left leaning commentator Matthew Yglesias, who’s Jewish, tweeted today: “Think I’m becoming a Straussian/Putnamist who instrumentally wants to get everyone to go to church again.” Columnist Ross Douthat, who’s Catholic, responded: “Be the change you seek.” Yglesias retorted: “Not gonna sell out the chosen people like that! But I’m gonna go neocon and root for the Christians vs the post-Christians.”
Tooley then goes on about how much Protestant churches civilized America:
Churches and denominations were central to building America’s democratic ethos. They civilized and socialized the early frontier. They created a wider civil society supporting politics, education, charity and community building. Regular church goers have never been a majority in America. But churches as institutions were foundations and pillars of wider society that benefitted all. Typically savvy non religious people have recognized their centrality to American culture and civic life.
He even defends civil religion:
What critics of civil religion fail to see is that Christianity has a duty to society to help create the language and architecture for constructive civil life that benefits all. Christianity wants all to be fed, clothed, housed, provided health care, treated with dignity, given security, and equipped with the political tools to live harmoniously in peace. Christians seek the common good for all society, not just what directly benefits themselves. But this promotion of the common good certainly benefits Christians and itself witnesses to the power, grandeur and truth of the Gospel.
This is out of the playbook of Tim Keller on the church and social capital.
Tooley thinks that evangelicals and secularists fail to see the value that churches add to civil society:
Nondenominational Christianity and evangelicalism often lack this long history and self-understanding as cultural stewards. They often focus more exclusively on individual faith and spiritual needs sometimes from a consumerist perspective. Sometimes their adherents see themselves more as a tribe or a subculture than as parcel to wider society with wider responsibilities.
That could be the reason for some. But for others, the problem is that the social mission of the church is not only hard to find in Peter or Paul or Jesus (is that bar too high?), but also that when Protestants were best at creating social capital, they forgot about Jesus and the world to come. That’s why Machen was important. He saw what the social purpose of the church was doing to stuff like doctrine, preaching, evangelism, and missions.
The rejection of the Christian hope is not always definite or conscious; sometimes the liberal preacher tries to maintain a belief in the immortality of the soul. But the real basis of the belief in immortality has been given up by the rejection of the New Testament account of the resurrection of Christ. And, practically, the liberal preacher has very little to say about the other world. This world is really the center of all his thoughts; religion itself, and even God, are made merely a means for the betterment of conditions upon this earth.
Thus religion has become a mere function of the community or of the state. So it is looked upon by the men of the present day. Even hard-headed business men and politicians have become convinced that religion is needed. But it is thought to be needed merely as a means to an end. We have tried to get along without religion, it is said, but the experiment was a failure, and now religion must be called in to help. (Christianity and Liberalism)
How does Tooley think the mainline churches went off the rails? Some conservatives believe it happened because pastors let this world become as important as the world to come, not to mention that talking about otherworldliness with members of Congress and professors at Yale produces cringe.
But if you want to see Tooley’s argument salvage a Protestant liberal as a conservative, look at Geoffrey Kabaservice’s rendering of William Sloane Coffin, Jr., who according to the New York Times combined the social gospel with 1960s activism (at Riverside Church, “an institution long known for its social agenda — he used his ministry to draw attention to the plight of the poor, to question American political and military power, to encourage interfaith understanding, and to campaign for nuclear disarmament”). But liberal Protestantism can become conservative when it supplies social glue:
In doctrinal terms, Coffin was indeed a conservative, even an orthodox one. He retained the traditional Protestant liturgy, from the opening prayer to the confession to the benediction, resisting the wave of reform that swept over most denominations in the 1960s. His congregation sung the powerful old New England hymns. . . . The civil rights and antiwar activism of the 1960s seemed part of a much older American history when set to the hymn’s ominous, rolling cadences and the spine-tingling words of McGeorge Bundy’s ancestor, the nineteenth-century poet James Russell Lowell: “once to every man and nation / Comes the moment to decide, / In the strife of truth with falsehood, / For the good or evil side; / Some great cause goes by forever / ‘Twixt that darkness and that light.”
If social ministry can turn Coffin into a conservative, even doctrinally orthodox Protestant, Tooley has some work to do.
Here’s maybe not the but a thing: civil society does not depend on Christians. Believers often make good neighbors, though you’d never know from evangelical scholars these days. Invariably, Christians take out the trash, support Little League, donate books to the public library’s book sale fund raiser, approve of taxes to support police and fire departments. They also vote, which can be an anti-democratic form of social behavior if the ballot goes for the wrong candidate. If civil society has declined in America, it is not because of churches or their members. Rotary, the Elks, and Odd Fellows have also faded in the fabric of American society. For a host of reasons, Americans don’t join a host of voluntary organizations any more. One hunch is the social world that the internet has created. Another factor may be the outgrown size of national politics in the attention of journalists, teachers, and even radio talk show hosts.
But even if the path to a health America went through the social capital generated by churches, the question remains: is this what Scripture teaches?
Can The PCA Turn Back the Clock to 2001?
James Kessler doesn’t think so:
The PCA is not going back to 2001. Rewriting our constitution is not going to happen, not only because no party has sufficient numbers to accomplish that, but also because there are too many men and women committed to a biblically defined Confession and the great commission who are located in contexts that are more diverse, more agnostic and apathetic, more questioning and less steeped in a church tradition while being more hospitable to Gospel conversations than ever. Every year we plant dozens of new churches in an age of de-churching. When I began in ordained ministry in 2006, in Columbus Ohio, outside the traditional region of the PCA, we had three churches in a city of more than two million. Now we have seven, with more on the way. Every year RUF takes on scores of campus ministry interns seeking to learn how to minister the Gospel in a pluralistic society. The Unity Fund produced 48 minority ordination scholarships last year. Even the places where the PCA was born have been changing, and there is no going back because the harvesters in the white fields are not who they once were. Friends, this PCA is not going away as long as you are on mission. But preserving it will not only require your good will, it will require your work.
The odd thing is, the group responsible for that change in the PCA, the Presbyterian Pastoral Leadership Network, doesn’t seem to exist. It has zero assets and zero income.
But PPLN was responsible for the shift in the PCA that Pastor Kessler celebrates. This is how the Nicotine Theological Journal (July 2002) rendered the 2002 PCA General Assembly:
The defection of the Briarwood associate pastor [to First Baptist Birmingham] hardly reduced the ranks of its delegates to the 30th General Assembly of the PCA. Briarwood sent 21 delegates to the GA that met in Birmingham last month, more than many presbyteries sent. These commissioners were not merely availing themselves of a home court advantage, but they were on a mission, representing a portion of the Presbyterian Pastoral Leadership Network’s effort to stack the Assembly with votes. The PPLN voter turnout drive proved enormously successful. Though we did not attend the PCA Assembly, we have struggled to read some reports about its deliberations. Our struggle has mainly to do with working through the awful “TE”/“RE” nomenclature. (A compelling case against the two office view can be made simply on the basis of English prose.)
REPORTS WE READ HAVE varied from denial – “things went much better than anyone had ever expected,” gushed Clair Davis in pcanews.com – to disaster – “we were more than just defeated, we were routed,” wept Andy Webb on his Warfield elist. Of course, post mortem rhetoric of this sort is typical, and we should forgive exhausted commissioners who lapse into hyperbole.
But there is one aspect of PCA analysis that we cannot abide. It is the recurring habit to link the denomination’s fragmentation with the struggles of youth. The PCA is a young church, so goes this line of thinking, and its indiscretions will naturally accompany the awkwardness of childhood. World magazine displays the most recent example of this reasoning. Its July-August 2002 issue euphemistically described the victory of PPLN juggernaut under the heading, “Growing Pains in the PCA.” This toddler of a denomination is still growing, and the PPLN initiatives were helpful means of promoting further growth in the young church. As the old commercials put it for Wonder Bread, PPLN builds strong bodies.
HOWEVER ONE INTERPRETS THE struggles in the PCA, one cannot distort them into the pains of youth. Rather, they more closely resemble the symptoms of an old and dying church. Pre-Assembly caucusing, bussing in votes, stifling the voice of the minority, establishing competing websites – these are not the indiscretions of the young and the naïve. Indeed the actions of the last Assembly have even prompted some TE’s and RE’s (see, now we’re doing it) to propose that PCA presbyteries redesign themselves along ideological rather than geographical lines. This is not a novel idea within American Presbyterianism. It is generally floated as the desperate attempt to maintain a semblance of unity in worn out and creaky denominations, and ideological presbyteries are often predecessors of church divisions.
Curiously, Clair Davis argued, contrary to the claims of World magazine, that the PPLN initiatives were wise precisely because the PCA was not numerically growing. 80% of the PCA had not shown any growth during the previous year. Whether or not the church is growing numerically, at least this much is clear: the PCA is a thirty-something denomination that shows all the indications of premature aging.
Will the National Partnership to which Pastor Kessler belongs have a fait similar to PPLN? If the past is not as important as the current, if what Presbyterians used to fight about no longer make sense in pluralistic, urban, and socially aware settings, what will come of the National Partnership by 2040? Chances are they will be as relevant then as Charles Erdman is to the PCUSA today — not much.
That’s not the fault of Pastor Kessler or his colleagues. It is the function, though, of updating the church to contemporary developments. The flower fades. So do the headlines.
By the way, what does “good faith subscription” do to confessionalism? What is the point of having a long, scholastic, and elaborate confession when all you want are the fundamentals of the confession and catechisms? Why not switch from the Westminster Standards to the Gospel Coalition’s Confessional Statement? Presbyterian nostalgia?
Imagine if the Presbytery of New York Had Apologized for Fosdick
Readers may have heard that Max Lucado, who seems to have avoided controversy until now in the post-Ferguson state of American evangelicalism, preached at the National Cathedral. And then he became for the Cathedral was Tim Keller was for Princeton Seminary. Lucado had preached a sermon in 2004 in which he asserted that homosexuality was sinful. (The people who run the Cathedral don’t have computers with search engines?). He issued a clarification after this news came to light and apologized for hurtful words. (This is a fuller account.) But that was not enough and so the Dean of the Cathedral and the Episcopal Church’s D.C. bishop have issued an apology for letting this evangelical pastor preach in their pulpit:
I would like to apologize for the hurt caused in inviting Max Lucado to preach at Washington National Cathedral, and for not heeding the appeals that came to Dean Hollerith and me prior to Sunday, February 7 asking us to reconsider. I didn’t take the time to truly listen to your concerns. In a desire to welcome a wide variety of Christian voices to the Cathedral pulpit and on the assumption that Max Lucado no longer believed the painful things he said in 2004, I made you feel at risk and unwelcome in your spiritual home. I am sorry.
In the days since, I have heard from those who were not only wounded by things Max Lucado has said and taught, but equally wounded by the decision to welcome him into the Cathedral’s pulpit. I didn’t realize how deep those wounds were and how unsafe the world can feel. I should have known better.
More than apology, we seek to make amends. As a beginning, we invite all who wish to speak of their experiences in the church as LGBTQ+ persons and their allies to join Dean Hollerith and me for a listening session on Sunday, February 21 at 7:00 p.m. EST.
Back in the day, liberal Protestants were not so squeamish about giving offense:
In response to the assembly mandate of 1923, Coffin and his modernist allies in the New York Presbytery addressed the Fosdick situation. In February the Presbytery adopted a report that essentially exonerated Fosdick of any wrongdoing and proposed no change in his status. If this were not enough to ruffle conservative feathers, two other events further agitated the situation. First, in June 1923 the New York Presbytery voted to license two Union students, Henry P. Van Dusen and Cedric O. Lehman, who refused to affirm the truth of the virgin birth. Then, on 31 December 1923, Dr. Henry van Dyke, former pastor of the Brick street Church in New York and then a professor at Princeton University, publicly relinquished his pew at First Presbyterian Church, Princeton because of disagreement with the preaching of Machen, who was serving gas stated supply preacher of First Church. (Bradley J. Longfield, The Presbyterian Controversy, 100)
The rest is history. Van Dusen went on to preside over Union Seminary in New York City during the heady days of Reinhold Niebuhr’s greatness.
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)
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.