First Princeton, Now Yale

The PCA keeps coming up short (the OPC is not even on radar).

Remember Craig Barnes, president of Princeton Theological Seminary? Here was how he stood in opposition to the PCA at the time that women objected to Tim Keller receiving the Kuyper Prize:

Our seminary embraces full inclusion for ordained leadership of the church. We clearly stand in prophetic opposition to the PCA and many other Christian denominations that do not extend the full exercise of Spirit filled gifts for women or those of various sexual orientations. We know that many have been hurt by being excluded from ministry, and we have worked hard to be an affirming place of preparation for service to the church.

I wonder which prophets Dr. Barnes goes to to oppose the PCA. But at least it’s an ethos.

Now comes a Yale Divinity School graduate and PCUSA pastor who puts the differences between the PCUSA and PCA this way:

I am a Presbyterian (PCUSA) pastor who has family members who attend PCA (Presbyterian Church of America) churches. The best (and simplest) way to differentiate between the two is that the PCA asserts that the Bible is inerrant, or without error. The PCUSA believes that the Bible is authoritative, or guided by God, but actually written by human beings, influenced by their culture, time, and limited knowledge of the world.

You might not notice this while visiting either churches, except that the PCA, because of their stance on the Bible, read Paul’s writings that prohibit women from participating in the leadership of worship as what God intended. So you will not see a female pastor (like myself) at a PCA church, or indeed, any women ruling elders (the governing body within each congregation).

The order of worship for both denominations is essentially the same; both are part of the Reformed movement. However, the preaching will likely be quite different, with a PCUSA pastor emphasizing the broad love of God for all of God’s people, and a PCA pastor leaning more towards evangelism and conversion.

No mention of the alt-right, Confederate Monuments, or even LBGT. Maybe the lesson is that resolutions are overrated.

Where Do You Go When You Leave Progressive Presbyterianism?

Certainly not to the OPC.

The PCUSA last year lost the equivalent of three OPC’s:

Updated statistics made available today by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Office of the General Assembly (OGA) show a denomination continuing a steep, uninterrupted decline in 2016. The U.S.-based denomination shed 89,893 members in 2016, a decline of 5.7% percent, dropping below 1.5 million members for the first time. A net 191 congregations closed or were dismissed to other denominations, bringing the denominational total to 9,451 congregations.

I’ll do the math. The OPC has roughly 30,000 members (I hear chortles), the PCUSA lost almost 90,000 members. Ergo, the PCUSA lost three OPC’s last year. The thing is, these mainliners didn’t show up in OPC congregations. The OPC lost roughly 250 members last year.

This brings back memories of Orthodox Presbyterian hopes from 1936 to 1967 that members of the PCUSA would awaken (#woke?) to the ways in which liberalism had infected their denomination and lead them to join with the OPC. Here’s an excerpt from Between the Times (for UPCUSA think PCUSA):

In a remarkable display of responding to the moment, the Assembly appointed the Committee on the Confession of 1967 to address the recommendation from its two standing committees. Typically, study committees appointed by the Assembly have a year or several to reflect on the matter and report back to the body. But the Committee on the Confession of 1967 had the task of responding by the end of the Assembly. This explains another unprecedented development – the Moderator’s decision to appoint this committee rather than receiving nominations and casting ballots. In this case, Robert W. Eckardt, the moderator, appointed John Galbraith, Calvin Cummings and Edward Eyres to consider the recommendation from Home Missions and Christian Education. The Committee on the Confession of 1967 ended up following closely the original recommendation from the standing committees. It encouraged the Assembly to reach out to conservatives in the UPCUSA, to remind them of a common heritage, and to recommend the OPC as a “logical choice” for those concerned to maintain historic Presbyterianism. The Committee also followed the basic elements of the program suggested by the standing committees for outreach. To show that the OPC was serious about these measures, the Committee also recommended a resolution, again that followed the standing committees, designed to clarify exactly the kind of church the denomination was: “the Orthodox Presbyterian Church is completely committed to the Bible as the written Word of God, the only infallible rule of faith and practice, and to the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms as faithfully and fully setting forth the teachings of Holy Scripture.” In addition, the Committee recommended that the OPC resolve that it “express its desire to serve those in the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. who wish to continue adherence to the historic Christian faith as summarized in the Westminster Standards.” After some minor editing of the resolution’s language, including changing it to read that the OPC was committed to the Westminster Standards as “faithfully setting forth” (instead of “faithfully and fully”) the teaching of Scripture, the Assembly approved.

One of several curiosities of devoting so much OPC energy to another denomination, and especially a mainline one at that, was that after the first decade or so many Orthodox Presbyterian leaders resigned themselves to the determination of conservatives in the mainline not to leave but to stay. The Presbyterian Guardian had run a number of articles giving reasons for conservatives to exit and affiliate with the OPC. Once that did not happen by 1947, many in the OPC readjusted and conceived of the denomination as a small continuing remnant of conservative Presbyterians. Now, with substantial evidence of liberalism in the UPCUSA, the old hopes for a mass exodus of conservatives into the OPC found life.

The one factor that explains the OPC’s hopefulness was a letter from Edward Kellogg, then a minister at San Diego OPC in Paradise Hills. Only a week before the Assembly – written on the national holiday of July 4th – Kellogg alerted commissioners to rustling among United Presbyterians in California. Bruce Coie, Robert Graham, and he had met a number of conservatives in the UPCUSA who were alarmed over the influence of modernism in their church. These interactions led to a rally held at the Grant Hotel in downtown San Diego where close to three hundred packed a room designed to accommodate 250. Kellogg conceded that the normal channel for his letter was through presbytery but, he explained, “the events that caused me to feel that assembly action was important were too recent for the normal course of procedure.” What Kellogg proposed was the formation of a Presbyterian Covenant akin to the Presbyterian Constitutional Covenant Union that had been the organizational chrysalis for the OPC. The new covenant would enlist Presbyterians from all denominations to stand for the true faith and to oppose the Confession of 1967. It would also involve a pledge from United Presbyterians who entered it to leave the UPCUSA if the denomination adopted the new confessional standard. Kellogg’s letter was not the only impetus for the resolution adopted by the 1965 General Assembly; the standing committee recommendations actually contained more of the substance of the OPC’s response to the Confession of 1967 than did Kellogg’s letter. But the encounter between Orthodox and United Presbyterians in Southern California led some to believe that an outreach to conservative mainline Presbyterians might lead to the kind or realignment for which some had hoped in the 1930s. (93-94)

Of course, a defection to the OPC didn’t happen then and it still isn’t happening. Why?

The OPC has many afflictions, but its bark is much worse than its bite. Most congregations have a degree of autonomy that outsiders likely find perplexing. Ordination exams are rigorous and each presbytery has its own short list of non-negotiables, but the OPC doesn’t require exclusive psalmody, affirming the National Covenant, or sending children to Christian day schools. In fact, what characterizes the OPC, aside from fairly strong adherence to the Confession of Faith and Catechisms, is a commitment to Scripture and a high view of preaching. If you are a Reformed Protestant and want to sit under the ministry of the word, you can reasonably rely on finding that in the OPC.

But if you want a certain “style” of ministry, or if you want to send specific signals about the kind of Calvinist you are, chances are the OPC will not scratch your itch.

So that raises a question, if matters proceed in the PCA such that conservatives there want to find another ecclesial home, where will they go? I have heard some say that the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church is one option. Being southern apparently matters. On the other side of the coin, if the PCA doesn’t become as progressive as some want it to be, where will the relevant wing of the denomination go? The likely destination is the Evangelical Presbyterian Church.

But don’t forget what happened to The Village Church. If urban sort-of Presbyterianism is your preference, you could wind up in the Reformed Church in America. At that point, the difference between you and the PCUSA would vanish.

If we had a state church, we wouldn’t have this problem opportunity.

Liberalism Does Not Frame 2k

When I read Jake Meador’s index of political theologies, I was generally in agreement and thought he accurately describe 2k. I guess my biggest disagreement was over his definition of liberalism:

When I speak of liberalism, I am referring to something broader than just left-wing politics or even some brand of liberalism realized in a single discipline, such as theological liberalism.

At its heart, liberalism is concerned with how human beings know things. As a system, it is suspicious of knowledge not derived from empirical observation. Thus it is suspicious of the claims of religious faith as they inform social life. Religious practice is fine for individuals, but any attempt to enforce a set of religiously based moral norms beyond the religious individual or maybe a voluntary religious community is suspect because the knowledge is not sure enough to justify political application. Indeed, this skepticism goes beyond a skepticism toward religious faith and goes so far as a skepticism toward any kind of comprehensive moral system that claims to be true in anything beyond a particular, local sense. We simply do not trust our moral judgments enough to think they can be binding in anything beyond an individualistic, voluntaristic sense. When this epistemological agnosticism becomes pervasive in a social order, you basically have some species of liberalism.

In an odd way, these instincts can make liberalism like a more traditional Christian sort of social order. It tells us that men should be persuaded rather than coerced into belief. It tells us that there is, as one friend put it, a “just area of sovereignty,” that each person possesses. However, the way that liberalism arrives at these ideas is not necessarily through the belief in a God who rules over creation and endows his creatures with dignity, honor, and freedom. Rather, they arrive at it through a lack of confidence in the ability of anybody to wield coercive authority justly or to infringe upon a person’s autonomy.

I don’t understand why you conceive of a political order in epistemological or philosophical categories. For mmmmmeeeEEEE, liberalism was mainly a way to overcome divine right monarchy that extends from Hammurabi through to those audacious claims for the papacy by canon lawyers in the thirteenth century down to French and British kings (among others) who objected to checks upon their power. The question that liberalism (classical) tackled was not how we know but what authority is legitimate. I guess you could push that back to epistemology. But why unless you privilege philosophy?

Meador went on to describe 2k’s relationship to liberalism this way:

The best way to get at the key difference between this group and the Radical Anabaptists is to highlight the differences in how they see the church’s relationship to civil society. For these thinkers, there is no problem with Christians participating in civil society. Indeed, such participation is inevitable. That is why Dr. Moore heads up an organization dedicated to protecting religious liberty and why Dr. Leeman and a number of his colleagues with 9 Marks pastor in Washington D.C. and support church planting efforts in the capitol city.

However, the good that these thinkers hope to achieve in all societies outside of the institutional church is purely natural while the goods they hope to achieve within the church are supernatural. The institutional church is, in Leeman’s understanding, an embassy for the Kingdom of God. Thus the institutional church as such is an institution of a qualitatively different sort than any other physical, visible institutions in the world. Likewise, Drs. VanDrunen, Hart, Clark, and Trueman have all at various times gotten very nervous about what they see as an attempt to sacralize work that is rightly understood as secular.

Thus there are two core pieces that unite the Post-Liberal Retreatists:

First, they have what I take to be a realistic and appropriately sober assessment of our cultural state.

Second, they see the work to be done in non-ecclesial institutions as being primarily defensive not only in our current moment, but in principle.

The positive work of taking hold of supernatural goods happens primarily in the institutional church. Thus the Post-Liberal Retreatists are suspended, as it were, between the Post-Liberal Protestants and the Radical Anabaptists. They share a similar read of the current cultural moment with both groups. Like the Post-Liberal Protestants, they still have a place for Christian participation in civil society. Like the Radical Anabaptists, they see the work of the institutional church as being qualitatively different than the work Christians do outside the church and essentially constructive in a way that civil society participation cannot be. So they would say, with the Anabaptists, that the church is a polis, but that it is not a comprehensive polis in the way that the Anabaptists use the term.

That sounds fair enough. But it locates 2k too much within the categories of the pre-modern and modern West. In fact, much of the blow back that 2k receives comes from Protestants who have a soft spot for Christian establishment in the form of the confessional state, whether Geneva’s City Council, Scotland’s monarch, or the Netherlands’ republic. Most critics of 2k want a Christian society of some kind. 2k is suspect, then, because it won’t support such a desire or programs to achieve such a society.

But what if Christendom or post-Christendom are not the only options? What about pre-Christendom? Here the idea is not that the time before Constantine was ideal but that a religiously diverse or even a religiously hostile environment is normal. It’s what Jesus and the apostles faced. Those are the conditions under which the church emerged and the canon established. For that reason, modern Christians should not think that either Christendom or a Christian friendly liberal government (like the U.S. before 1965) are the default settings for the church. Christianity can persist in any number of circumstances. It can be like the Old Testament promised land, like the Israelites in exile, like the early church under the domination of Rome, or even like Scottish Presbyterians in covenant with a divine-right monarch. Christianity is flexible. It’s not tied to one political order.

This perspective seems to inform Proto-Protestant in his assessment of political liberalism. Notice that he starts by identifying the way that Rome used to regard liberalism and the United States:

Classical Liberalism so poignantly represented by the United States was viewed as poison and a triumph of the secular over the sacred. Rome sought to protect its flock from the influences of American ideology. Classical Liberalism was the spawn of the Reformation’s triumph of the individual. The lone man was allowed to challenge and cast down all authority. This is the sociological aspect to Luther that many Protestants have failed to grasp. The individual gets to decide what is right and wrong and the Reformation unleashed epistemological uncertainty and the social chaos which began the long process of dismantling Christendom.

The Reformation led to Modernism and as a consequence Post-Modernism and now Nihilism.

Undoubtedly there is some truth to this narrative and the post World War II period has brought about a time of intellectual reconsideration on the part of Evangelical Protestants and not a few defections to both Rome and Constantinople. The political Papacy utterly defeated by the late 19th century reformed its teaching and came up with a new paradigm for the industrial secular age. Consequently it allied first with Fascism then with the West (in general) at the conclusion of the war. It began to build a new empire, one wed to the Capitalist forces so dominant in the Protestant world and joined the fight (real or imagined) against world Communism. Today Rome no longer rules a geopolitical realm but instead reigns over a vast financial empire and has regained a little of its lost ground.

Evangelicals have been forced to reckon with the problems of Christianity wed to Classical Liberalism and as I’ve written elsewhere there are tendencies both toward revisionist history and increasingly in the direction of abandoning Liberalism for a more Roman Catholic-friendly Throne and Altar type paradigm.

So if Protestants don’t follow Roman Catholics, where do they turn? The Bible and in so doing they abandon the sufficiency of Scripture. Protestants have made Scripture do more than it was supposed to:

There is undoubtedly much that is valid in the critique of Classical Liberalism and in what the Reformation unwittingly unleashed. And for this reason the glorification of Protestantism which is at its zenith in this 500th anniversary year, ought to be weighed carefully if not rejected.

But the truth of the critique is limited to the sociological realm.

The true problem is not individualism (which can indeed work to destroy society) but the attempt to formulate Sola Scriptura into a comprehensive societal worldview. That was a rival philosophical project rooted in speculation and dependent on speculative philosophical coherence… thus it fragmented.

The Reformers only began to toy with this question. Luther, perhaps the more conservative of the Reformers was content to sustain the Medieval-Renaissance order and sit under the protection of a so-called Christian prince. Calvin’s Geneva moved in the direction of Authoritarian Republican government. Zwingli took up the sword (so to speak) and died by it on the battlefield.

It was in the 17th century that Protestant Scholasticism began to earnestly reckon with the implications of the Reformation applied to society. It was at this point that Sola Scriptura as a social organising principle failed. Rightly so I would add, as the New Testament nowhere even envisions a Christian State/Christendom project. In fact it repudiates the very notion of it.

In wedding Reformation theology to the Christendom project the Protestant Reformers and certainly the Scholastics after them undermined their own vision and sowed the seeds for epistemological collapse. They employed (and even exploited) the Scripture for something it was not meant to be used for. In the end their project exploded into the 17th century Wars of Religion and ultimately undermined not only their social vision… but their theological and ecclesiastical hopes as well….

But even granting the narrative that Liberalism and Modernism were the natural outgrowth of Protestant theology applied to society, then such a notion must be condemned as sub-Biblical. It does not represent New Testament doctrine either in its concepts of values. Confidence in reason? I think not. Rights? The individual? Progress? None of the concepts are found in the New Testament. Only deformed Judaizing hermeneutics can locate them through distorted readings of the Old Testament.

If liberalism is not the basis for evaluating politics or its reaction to Christendom, the proper starting point for political theology is as Paul Helm recently observed Christ’s teaching that his kingdom is not of this world. Proto-Protestant explains what that means for 2k (even if he does not self-identify as 2k):

Speaking generally if both paradigms were and are wrong, what then are we to make of the so-called and very misnamed Judeo-Christian West? Not much. As a society it has some very good things about it and many that are rightly condemned. Christian it is not. And the more it is associated with Christianity the more problematic it becomes.

As pilgrims we understand that this world is not our home. We look for a city to come, a new heavens and new earth. We can live and function as the salt and light Oracular Church in any culture and civilisation. That said, some will be more pleasant than others. But pleasant isn’t always better, especially if it leads to laxity, complacency and confusion. Though not pleasant the most spiritually vivacious times of my life have been during periods of hardship and opposition. It’s not pleasant to live that way but the antithesis becomes razor sharp which spiritually speaking is healthy. It’s a good place to be. If goods, lands, and prosperity are set aside and no longer important to me, then hardship becomes certainly less hard. The yoke of suffering, the burden of Christ to which we are called, becomes a little lighter.

And though on a practical level I lament the downfall and paganising trajectory of the West … spiritually speaking it’s probably the best thing that could happen. The widespread apostasy is like a forest-burn. In the end it will make for a healthier forest. The forest to which I refer is not society, but the Church. Don’t ever confuse the two.

While on the one hand I celebrate the fact that the Protestant Classical Liberal narrative is being exposed as a lie… both doctrinally and historically, I am concerned that many Protestants are quickly succumbing to an equally problematic lie… the Pre-Liberal Throne and Altar vision of Medieval Roman Christendom.

If Jake Meador had started with the church in exile and Christians as pilgrims as the frame for his index, he might have used a this-worldly (immanentize the eschaton) vs. an otherworldy (don’t immanentize the eschaton) division. That one even pits 2k against Anabaptists since the latter regard (as I understand it) the company of believers as an outworking of “the perfection of Christ.”

TKNY Even in UK

Even while in Ireland, I could not evade Tim Keller. One morning while reading the magazine Standpoint, I read a column which contained this:

As well as being one of the great delaying mechanisms of modern times, YouTube is one of the great gifts of our age. It not only allows us to watch videos of cats and people falling over, but also serious discussions like the recent one between Tim Keller and the sociologist Jonathan Haidt at NYU. What a model discussion it was. Haidt (whose book The Righteous Mind is one of the best explanations of modern politics I know) is respectful towards religion while being an atheist. Keller is a deeply learned reader of philosophy and sociology, and a pastor. Perhaps most striking was the agreement from both speakers over not only what is broken in our culture but what might be done to fix it. Particularly interesting was the observation that our society’s rewarding of outrage (fuelled by social media) means that we are ever less-inclined to give people what we used to call “the benefit of the doubt”. Increasingly, we put the worst possible gloss on people’s words and intentions so that any discussion across boundaries (believers versus non-believers, Left versus Right) becomes almost impossible. Can the urge be resisted? Perhaps, but we would have to have the right role models. Haidt and Keller are certainly two such.

A deeply learned reader of philosophy and sociology? That does not sound like Machen’s “specialist in the Bible.” But how would the op-ed writers and journalists know whether a pastor was properly explaining God’s word?

In the same issue, though, I read a review of Rodney Stark’s book about anti-Catholic myths:

Few now believe in the teaching of Luther or Calvin on Justification, or sola scriptura, but, as we see in the case of Sir Simon Jenkins, the myths of Catholic iniquity are embedded in many a Briton’s sense of who they are. Just as the French do not like to admit that their philosophes paved the way for totalitarianism, or Americans that the founding fathers of their Land of the Free owned slaves, so no amount of historical research will persuade today’s sceptics and secularists that, from the fall of the Roman Empire to the rise of the nation state, the Catholic Church was the source of most that is best in our civilisation; and that death camps and gulags are only to be found when Christianity lost its hold on the conscience of Europeans.

Imagine if Tim Keller had spent as much time defending the imputed righteousness of Christ as making belief in God plausible. Would he be as popular as he is? One reason for asking is that all the hype about New York City has not put a dent in the Roman Catholic apologists’ argument that the future of western civilization hangs on the fortunes not of the Big Apple but The Eternal City.

In the hierarchy of cities, New York may have to get in line behind Rome. Doh!

Which Matters More, Branding or Order of Precedence?

Old Life took a wee vacation last week thanks to (all about) my trip to Belfast which included delightful discussions with a historian who must remain anonymous for the sake of his good name and sightseeing with an old (not as old as mmmmeeeeeeEEE) friend who also deserves protection from tawdry associations with this blog.

I had the privilege of speaking informally with folks from the Presbyterian Church in Ireland and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. Those communions are not in fellowship thanks to the split in 1927 over liberalism in the PCI, a debate that has all the earmarks of the so-called fundamentalist controversy in the U.S. In fact, W. J. Grier, who studied at Princeton Seminary with J. Gresham Machen, took some inspiration from conservatives in the U.S. to oppose the teaching of J. E. Davey, who taught church history and theology at Union College (in effect the seminary for Irish Presbyterians). When the trial against Davey failed, Grier led the formation of a new Presbyterian communion.

That parallel suggests that PCI is to the EPC what the PCUSA is to the OPC. But such reading of American dynamics into Ireland misses how different American Presbyterianism is. If anything, the U.S. equivalent to the PCI is the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (the American one that had Tim Keller speak at its GA). The PCI is more evangelical than the PCUSA and does not go out of its way to be inclusive. Whether it will ever go out of its way to discipline erroneous views is another matter.

Another difference is that the PCI’s moderator is tenth in the Orders of Precedence in the United Kingdom.

I have no idea how to reconcile the Wikipedia chart with the church’s website about political status in Northern Ireland. But I do suspect the matter has something to do with the Regium Donum, a “royal gift” from Charles II to dissenting Protestants (outside the Church of Ireland — Anglican) to support their ministry. In fact, the royal recognition of the PCI’s moderator means that he receives invitations to affairs in London held by the British government. I suspect it also means some sort of royal representative at PCI General Assemblies the way that the Queen still sends a delegate to the Free Church of Scotland.

This difference with the USA is striking. The federal government or POTUS never sends representatives or invitations to moderators of Presbyterian communions in the U.S. Not even the Presbyterians in the “Protestant establishment,” the PCUSA, have the standing that Presbyterians do in the UK. American Presbyterians are pikers compared to Presbyterians in the British Isles.

But we American Presbyterians compensate with celebrity.

Which raises the question whether a brand like Tim Keller has more influence in national (or urban) life than a royal gift. I am asking because inquiring minds want to know.

If It’s Any Consolation, Princeton Seminary Would Not Have Awarded Randy Nabors Either

As progressive as the founding pastor of New City Fellowship in Chattanooga is, Andrew Exum thinks this mixed race, multicultural church still fails to pass the Democratic/mainline Protestant litmus test:

Last weekend, I happened to be back in Jackson’s Tennessee, and my wife and I used the opportunity to go to a church we have long admired. New City Fellowship in Chattanooga was founded by a young interracial couple who grew up in housing projects in Newark, New Jersey, and started a ministry focused on racial reconciliation in my hometown in the 1970s. Today, it is a vibrant cross-cultural ministry and was one of the few places I remember growing up (that wasn’t a sporting event) where black and white Tennesseans would regularly gather together. I cannot imagine the courage it must have taken for a young white pastor and his black wife to have started that church just a few years after Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down on the other end of the state.

Like most Protestant churches still thriving in the United States, New City follows a pretty orthodox—in this case, Presbyterian—theology. Most of the men and women with whom my wife and I were worshipping would also probably identify as evangelicals, that same group of people who have been Trump’s most committed supporters.

Now, may the Lord have mercy on me for this, but perhaps because I have lived in Washington, D.C., for the past several years, as I worshipped last weekend, I also saw something else in the pews: voters. These people—God-fearing Christians committed to racial reconciliation and social justice—should be among the voters for whom a multicultural Democratic Party is competing.

But one thing that shines through among many evangelical voters—as well as other, non-evangelical Trump supporters with whom I have spoken back home—is how turned off they are by the smug self-righteousness of contemporary progressive discourse.

Don’t support abortion rights? Well, obviously you hate women (even if you happen to yourself be a woman), and the late-night comedians are going to be merciless with what is left of your reputation.

Still believe marriage is a Biblical institution between a man and woman for the purposes of procreation? Be prepared to be mocked relentlessly on social media and shunned by peers and employers.

Last week, the Democratic Party debated whether it was even still possible to be pro-life and a Democrat before Nancy Pelosi—that arch-pragmatist who, so unlike her GOP successors, put a string of wins on the board for her party while speaker of the House—put an end to the debate by affirming that the answer remained yes.

These debates over doctrine and policy positions are exactly what the party should be doing in the aftermath of its 2016 debacle. But when paired with the self-righteous tone so characteristic of contemporary progressive discourse, it is potentially toxic to attempts to broaden the electorate for which the Democratic Party is competing. It replicates the mistakes of Alexander Hamilton’s own political writings before his own party collapsed.

Only the current configuration of national politics could make New School Presbyterians look like J. friggin Gresham Machen. Which might also make the people who voted for Trump (I did not) look a little more reasonable than Stephen Colbert.

The World Is Turning Rod and Leaving Tim Behind

The piece on Rod Dreher and the Benedict Option in the New Yorker was remarkable on several levels. It was generally positive, respectful, and long. This was the case despite Dreher’s tendency to sound a tad hysterical about sexual irregularities and deviance. This quote by Andrew Sullivan, a gay man who has gone head to head with Rod over the years, was telling:

Sullivan has a long-standing disagreement with Dreher over same-sex marriage, but he believes that the religiously devout should be permitted their dissent. “There is simply no way for an orthodox Catholic to embrace same-sex marriage,” he said. “The attempt to conflate that with homophobia is a sign of the unthinking nature of some liberal responses to religion. I really don’t think that florists who don’t want to contaminate themselves with a gay wedding should in any way be compelled to do so. I think any gay person that wants them to do that is being an asshole, to be honest—an intolerant asshole. Rod forces you to understand what real pluralism is: actually accepting people with completely different world views than your own.”

In “The Benedict Option,” Dreher writes that “the angry vehemence with which many gay activists condemn Christianity” is the understandable result of a history of “rejection and hatred by the church.” Orthodox Christians need to acknowledge this history, he continues, and “repent of it.” He has assured his children that, if they are gay, he will still love them; he is almost—but not quite—apologetic about his views, which he presents as a theological obligation. He sees orthodox Christians as powerless against the forces of liquidly modern progressivism; on his blog, he argues that “the question is not really ‘What are you conservative Christians prepared to tolerate?’ but actually ‘What are LGBTs and progressive allies prepared to tolerate?’ ” He wants them to be magnanimous in victory; to refrain from pressing their advantage. Essentially, he says to progressives: You’ve won. You wouldn’t sue Orthodox Jews or observant Muslims. Please don’t sue us, either.

“What I really love about Rod is that, even as he’s insisting upon certain truths, he’s obviously completely conflicted,” Sullivan said. “And he’s a mess! I don’t think he’d disagree with that. But he’s a mess in the best possible way, because he hasn’t anesthetized himself. He’s honest about a lot of the questions that many liberal and conservative Christians aren’t really addressing.”

Notice that Dreher, who is outspokenly anti-gay marriage, did not receive the chorus of criticism that Tim Keller did at Princeton Seminary even from such mainstream organs and figures as the New Yorker and Andrew Sullivan.

To be sure, the PCUSA is not the New Yorker, but at a time when the magazine has identified President Trump and his supporters as an alien force in national life, a fair piece about Dreher is not what readers would have expected.

So why does Dreher receive more acclaim than Keller? The reason could be that the former promotes a thick (as he understands it) Christian identity, complete with communitarian obligations, while Keller stands for a Christianity that is chiefly reasonable and appeals to the mind. In other words, Dreher is appealing to a larger conception of Christianity that encompasses more of one’s identity than intellect while Keller is largely about defending the Apostles’ Creed (as he explained a while back in an interview at First Things) — or a Christian minimum. Rod is maximalist where Tim is a minimalist.

Naomi Schaeffer Riley picked up on this difference when she contrasted Dreher and Keller:

Keller sees an integral part of the church’s mission as being present in the big cities — no matter how culturally degraded they may seem. “Christians ought to be present and engaged everywhere that there are people. But across the world people are flocking to cities at the rate of millions per year.

“Christians don’t all need to live in cities, but they should at least be moving there in the same proportions as the people whom they want to serve.”

His approach may be falling out of favor among some more orthodox believers. Last month, the Wall Street Journal reported on a small but growing number of Christians who, “feeling besieged by secular society . . . are taking refuge” in small, often isolated communities away from negative cultural influences and surrounded by other believers.

This “Benedict Option” was named in honor of St. Benedict, who fled the moral degradation of Rome. It’s also the title of a new book by Rod Dreher, who, writing in Christianity Today, calls it a “strategic withdrawal” by “serious Christian Conservatives [who] could no longer live business-as-usual lives in America.”

Though Dreher doesn’t say Christians should all flee to isolated enclaves, those are where such withdrawal would be easiest.

Keller believes Christians in New York cannot retreat into homogeneity. They’ll be regularly faced with people who fervently disagree with them. Keller’s church is a multi-ethnic one and even if the believers have a similar religious outlook, they hail from a variety of different backgrounds.

That fear of homogeneity and retreat also explains, by the way, while Keller is somewhat uncomfortable with going all in on Presbyterianism (from his interview at First Things):

I don’t believe you can reach New York with the gospel if you only plant Presbyterian churches. There are all kinds of people who’ll never be Presbyterians. It just doesn’t appeal to them. Some people are going to be Pentecostals, some people are going to be Catholics. I mean, I know that sounds¯I’m not talking about that certain cultures reach certain people. It’s much more complicated than that. Even though there’s something to that. We all know that certain cultures seem to have more of an affinity toward a certain kind of Christian tradition than others, but I wouldn’t want to reduce it to that at all. I would just say that I only know that God seems to use all these kinds of churches to reach the whole breadth of humanity, and so that’s why we give money to start churches of other denominations, and give free training to it. And we’ve done about a hundred in the New York area, where we’ve helped people. It’s very important to us.

For Keller, apparently, Christianity resists taking overly specific and particular forms (think ecclesiology, liturgy, even creed). His ministry can transcend different cultures and expressions of Christianity. That comes up short against those Christians that Schaeffer identifies as wanting a more than “business-as-usual” faith.

But the Allies at Gospel Coalition back Keller over Dreher when they say they want both a Christianity that is meaty and one that is mainstream:

The Benedict Option is named for Benedict of Nursia, a 4th century monk who launched a monastic movement that preserved Western civilization. Today, writers like Rod Dreher enjoin Christian​s​ to take similar steps to “develop communities based on a shared sense of orthodoxy (right belief) and orthopraxy (right practice), for the sake of forming ourselves and the next generation in the Christian faith.”

The New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has called Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, where Tim Keller serves as senior pastor, an effective example of the Benedict Option for our twenty-first century, post-Christian context. Like other TGC-inspired communities, Redeemer aims to blend countercultural biblical faithfulness with a Christ-exalting, city-embracing vision.

That dual commitment to faithfulness and cultural affirmation did work for the post-World War II world. It was precisely the vision of the Neo-Evangelicals who formed the National Association of Evangelicals, founded Christianity Today, and cheered and prayed for Billy Graham. It was and is a faith that harmonizes well with a nationalism confident of its role in the world, and generally progressive in its estimate of where history is going or at least who the good guys are in that narrative.

But at a time when that post-war internationalist order is under serious strain (think Brexit, Scottish Independence, Trumpian nationalism), the appeal of a rational, enlightened Christianity may have hit a wall. What Christians seem to understand is that they need a faith little more “deep-down diving and mud upbringing,” that can withstand a social order that is not congenial to their religious convictions. It is a faith that bears more resemblance to the politics of identity than to United Statesist Christianity. This faith does not go along but separates. It makes more claims on adherents than a faith that primarily relies on mental exercises demanded by w-w. It recognizes that the world is more hostile than previous generations supposed and that Christians need to be more intentional about their convictions.

Why someone living in New York City, the place that cultivated the boorish Donald Trump, doesn’t see that cities (from culture to economics) may be a problem for the practice of demanding Christianity is a real mystery.