Liberalism 201

From the April 2000 Nicotine Theological Journal:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Liberalism is a hard subject to learn.

Townsend P. Levitt

Do Churches Need Alliances to Say that Churches are Essential?

Brett McCracken tries to rally the gospel allies under the banner of the the notion that church is essential. Of course, as a mild-mannered evangelical, he refuses to to give offense: “I’m not suggesting churches should defy government directives, deeming themselves “essential” even if authorities say otherwise. To do so would only inflame existing culture wars in unhelpful ways.” Can you inflame culture wars in helpful way?

But he does want to push back on a form of privatized Protestantism that encourages Christians to think that the church is non-essential to genuine faith:

Even though Scripture makes clear the church (ekklesia) occupies a central place in God’s eternal plan (e.g. Eph. 3:7–12), our anemic ecclesiology often relegates church to a decidedly non-essential place. If church is just a nice-to-have part of our self-styled spiritual journey—but only insofar as it enhances rather than undermines our expressive individualism—then of course it’s something we can go without for prolonged periods. Church is not essential, we assume, because Christianity is just as easily practiced solo at home. Give me a Bible, some inspiring worship music, and maybe a few spiritual podcasts, and I’m good. Do we really need church to be spiritually healthy?

Maybe this is obvious, but the irony here is yuge! The publisher of this essay, The Gospel Coalition, is an organization that relies largely on the notion that fellowships like theirs are at least as more important for advancing the kingdom of grace as the denominations that actually believe and affirm that the visible church is the institution God has ordained to carry out the plan of salvation. In fact, TGC mainly refuses to take sides on matters that pertain to the health and well-being of the denominations that comprise most of their fellows and board members. That makes sense since weighing in on a doctrinal or disciplinary controversy in, say, the PCA (four of its nine board members and its president are PCA ministers) could hurt TGC’s effort to secure the attention and following of a certain kind of Protestants.

Here, worth remembering is TGC’s original understanding of its work in relation to “the church.”

We are a fellowship of evangelical churches in the Reformed tradition deeply committed to renewing our faith in the gospel of Christ and to reforming our ministry practices to conform fully to the Scriptures. We have become deeply concerned about some movements within traditional evangelicalism that seem to be diminishing the church’s life and leading us away from our historic beliefs and practices. (Preamble)

From the very get go, TGC was a fellowship designed to remedy deficiencies of churches. When it came to the organization’s doctrinal affirmations, their statement on the church also indicated that the particular teachings and practices of specific communions — Baptist, Anglican, Reformed, Presbyterian, independent — were beyond the organization’s scope:

The church is the body of Christ, the apple of his eye, graven on his hands, and he has pledged himself to her forever. The church is distinguished by her gospel message, her sacred ordinances, her discipline, her great mission, and, above all, by her love for God, and by her members’ love for one another and for the world. Crucially, this gospel we cherish has both personal and corporate dimensions, neither of which may properly be overlooked. Christ Jesus is our peace: he has not only brought about peace with God, but also peace between alienated peoples. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both Jew and Gentile to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. The church serves as a sign of God’s future new world when its members live for the service of one another and their neighbors, rather than for self-focus. The church is the corporate dwelling place of God’s Spirit, and the continuing witness to God in the world. (God’s New People)

As generic statements go, that one is not too bad. But it leaves up in the air the differences over doctrine, worship, and discipline that divide the communions (Baptist, Presbyterian, independent, and Anglican) where board members are members. If the church were truly essential, why wouldn’t TGC try to bring all of those evangelicals from the Reformed tradition into a single church body where they could be more than a fellowship — a true communion? Or could it be that fellowship at conferences, video interviews, and in collections of essays is as good as the communion supplied by a church? Your denomination may bring you news about evangelism in East Asia, but the Gospel Coalition gives you Nine Things You Need to Know about Human Cloning.

According to the confession that several board members affirm:

The visible church, which is also catholic or universal under the gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.

Unto this catholic visible church Christ hath given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world: and doth, by his own presence and Spirit, according to his promise, make them effectual thereunto. (Confession of Faith 25)

If the church does all that, why is a fellowship necessary? Why do you “need” to know about human cloning?

Odd then that McCracken describes the value of churches this way:

Personal spirituality becomes an incoherent mess when it has weak ties to a robust church community. Society at large suffers when local churches aren’t fully functioning. Among other things, churches serve critical needs in their communities (food banks, homeless assistance, educational support, orphan care, counseling, among much else) and contribute to the mental and spiritual health of the larger population.

Churches, accordingly, are good for social capital and community development.

Actually, without “the” church, TGC would not have its council or board members. It is, after all, the PCA that ordained the likes of Tim Keller and Kevin DeYoung, that calls these pastors to churches that provide a platform for their standing in their denomination and TGC, that oversees their ministry and holds them accountable (sort of). Without denominations like the PCA and other communions represented by council members, TGC would not exist.

So, yeah, the church is essential. The Gospel Coalition is not.

The Wrinkles of Cultural Ministry

L. Roy Taylor’s retirement as stated clerk of the PCA’s General Assembly prompted a few questions about a Reformed church’s understanding of its responsibility to minister to “the culture.” Taylor himself sounded remarkably antithetical about the relationship between church and culture even while affirming the need to reach out to the wider world:

Few would disagree that our postmodern culture is morally, epistemologically (dealing with knowledge and facts), and theologically relativistic. After the 1960s, the worst thing one could do was to be certain or intolerant. Postmodernism and the sexual revolution of the 1960s have corroded our culture and even our churches. As we deal with modernity, we can either 1) accept the culture’s norms, 2) isolate ourselves from the culture, or 3) bear biblical witness to culture.

For Bible-believing Christians, accepting the culture’s norms is not an option because we believe in absolute moral standards, objective truth, and definite theology based on the Bible. Throughout history, some Christians have sought to isolate themselves from the culture either physically (monastics or hermits) or socially (having few or no non-Christian friends). Given the downward spiral of our culture, isolation is attractive for some Christians. For believers with a biblical worldview, however, we must bear witness to our culture.

Disagreeing with that assessment would require a Reaganesque invocation of “Morning in America” and could sound as naive now as it did then. Taylor suggests that if the church is going to “speak” to the culture, the words will be largely confrontational.

A similar theme was in the incoming stated clerk, Bryan Chapell’s assessment of the PCA from five years ago:

The issue that dwarfs our doctrinal squabbles and our persistent concern of how to treat issues of sexuality and gender is the issue of pluralism. Nothing comes close to that issue in being a challenge to our church’s future. The social stigma that is already attached to us for claiming that “Jesus is the only way” will be magnified many times for our children in a society increasingly willing to identify minority opinions as “bigotry” and “hate speech.” Pluralism will threaten not simply our orthodoxy, but the willingness of many to remain in this church.

If we do not see pluralism for the enemy it is, then we will not make appropriate alliances, link arms for necessary purposes, or allocate resources and align priorities for the greater ends required. If we do not recognize how seductive pluralism will be for all of us (and all we love) with its promises of societal approval and acceptance, then we will not embrace the means, manner, and message that will communicate the true beauty of grace that is the power of the Gospel.

The word “beauty” perhaps takes the edge off an antithetical relationship to the culture, but the threat Chapell identifies in the broader society leaves no sense that a little elbow grease is all you need to get the job of cultural transformation done.

To find a more positive less adversarial understanding of the PCA’s relationship to “the culture” you need to go back to Tim Keller’s 2010 remarks about what he “likes” about the PCA:

The culturalist impulse is like the doctrinalist in that it values theological reasoning and is suspicious of the individualism and pragmatism of the pietists. Culturalists emphasize community and the corporate in ways similar to the doctrinalists. However, culturalists are more like the pietists in their openness to social adaptation. Indeed, they usually are more open to the ‘new’ than the pietists. And the culturalists pay the most attention to what goes on outside the church in the culture. In particular, they usually give more heed to modern scholarship. Culturalists may show less concern with ‘church growth’ and overt evangelistic programs than either of the other two branches. Also feel more affinity to ‘the Great Tradition’—the Anglican, Catholic, and Eastern churches—than do the doctrinalists and the pietists.

This is a view of the culture that is open, willing to entertain novelty, and learn from secular scholarship, whether about religious matters or society. It is not antithetical but friendly.

If you had to guess which of these outlooks was most predictive of the PCA’s future and you looked at the age of the authors, you might say that Chapell who is the youngest (and not retired) reflects the communion’s posture for the next decade or so. From another angle, Keller’s own stature as successful New York City pastor and author of many books suggests that his outlook will carry the most weight, at least for a while.

But when it comes to cultural transformation, the wrench that gums up the works is the ministry of social justice. Those most concerned about racism, inequality, and structures of exclusion and privilege likely have no trouble seeing the church at odds with cultural structures that are systemically unjust. These Presbyterians could well agree with Taylor and Chapell’s warnings about cultural captivity. And the social justice Presbyterians could well think that Keller’s estimate of the modern world, from scholarship to big cities and the economies that make such urban centers possible, is naive. Missing from the social justice outlook, though, is an awareness that lots of people who have no Christian profession adopt the same causes (more like the other way around) that believing progressives do. In other words, the antithesis for social justice Christians has much more to do with politics than regeneration.

All of which makes a cultural ministry anything but simply the gospel.

The Steel Trap of the Liberal Presbyterian Mind

Henry Sloane Coffin was a leading liberal minister in the Presbyterian Church USA during the 1920s. When the General Assembly of 1925 was ready once again to affirm the virgin birth as an essential doctrine of Christianity, Coffin threatened to lead an exodus of liberals (mainly from New York) outside the denomination. This vote was so threatening because the Presbytery of New York City had ordained two ministers (one of them Henry Pit Van Dusen, president of Union Theological Seminary during the Niebuhr era) who could not affirm the virgin birth.

A separation was what J. Gresham Machen had wanted because liberals and conservatives were in such conflict:

A separation between the two parties in the Church is the crying need of the hour. Many indeed are seeking to avoid the separation. Why, they say, may not brethren dwell together in unity? The Church, we are told, has room both for liberals and for conservatives. The conservatives may be allowed to remain if they will keep trifling matters in the background and attend chiefly to “the weightier matters of the law.” And among the things thus designated as “trifling” is found the Cross of Christ, as a really vicarious atonement for sin. (Christianity and Liberalism)

But Coffin’s reply was to stand upon “the constitution of the Church,” not the provisions that included an affirmation of the virgin birth in the Confession and Catechisms, but that part that prevented General Assemblies from changing or adding “to the conditions” for ordination.

Coffin, after all, was an liberal evangelical:

We are first and foremost evangelicals . . . to the core of our spiritual beings. Any attempt to belittle Jesus, to reduce Him to a mere Teacher, a sage superior to other sages, but one among many, not the unique Saviour of the world; to substitute any other standard for the Bible as the authoritative express of God’s life with men. . . is to depreciate the Christian religion and to rob it of its vital force. (quoted in Longfield, Presbyterian Controversy, 88)

That evangelicalism came with a catch. According to Longfield:

In the Presbyterian conflict Coffin would fight for doctrinal liberty in the church, for the freedom to rethink Christian convictions in present-day categories. This was essential if the church was to survive in the modern world. But beyond that, Coffin was fighting to preserve the hope of a social and economic order redeemed through the people of God. The church existed “to embody and create the world-wide community of God,” “to conquer all the kingdoms of this world — art, science, industry, education, politics — for God and for His Christ. . . . The attacks of fundamentalist like Machen and Macartney on liberal evangelicals therefore threatened both the freedom of Christians and the future of the world. Only a universal church, a “re-united world-wide Church of Christ, supernational,” could marshal the power to remake the world according to Christ’s mind. (Longfield, 99)

Twenty-five years later, William F. Buckley, Jr. ran up against that sort of progressive (and still evangelical?) Christianity when he published God and Man at Yale, a book that blew the whistle on the lack of Christianity and friendliness to collective economics in the instruction at the school from which Buckley had just graduated. The book created a great controversy and was arguably the first installment of the conservative movement that would soon make a dent on the Republican Party.

Yale appointed a committee (like the way Charles Erdman appointed the Special Commission of 1925 to investigate the Presbyterian conflict) and the chairman of the commission was Henry Sloane Coffin. In a letter to a Yale alumnus, a copy of which went to Buckley, Coffin wrote that the book’s author was “distorted by his Roman Catholic point of view.” Buckley should have known that Yale was a “Puritan and Protestant institution by its heritage.” He also should have “attended Fordham or some similar institution.”

So in 1925 Coffin rejected a separation in the Presbyterian Church. But for Yale, he had no problem thinking that Roman Catholics should take their endeavors elsewhere. The separation of the church? No. The separation of the university? No problem.

Machen may have been able to warn Buckley had he lived beyond 1937:

Such obscuration of the issue attests a really astonishing narrowness on the part of the liberal preacher. Narrowness does not consist in definite devotion to certain convictions or in definite rejection of others. But the narrow man is the man who rejects the other man’s convictions without first endeavoring to understand them, the man who makes no effort to look at things from the other man’s point of view. For example, it is not narrow to reject the Roman Catholic doctrine that there is no salvation outside the Church. It is not narrow to try to convince Roman Catholics that that doctrine is wrong. But it would be very narrow to say to a Roman Catholic: “You may go on holding your doctrine about the Church and I shall hold mine, but let us unite in our Christian work, since despite such trifling differences we are agreed about the matters that concern the welfare of the soul.” For of course such an utterance would simply beg the question; the Roman Catholic could not possibly both hold his doctrine of the Church and at the same time reject it, as would be required by the program of Church unity just suggested. A Protestant who would speak in that way would be narrow, because quite independent of the question whether he or the Roman Catholic is right about the Church he would show plainly that e had not made the slightest effort to understand the Roman Catholic point of view.

The case is similar with the liberal program for unity in the Church. It could never be advocated by anyone who had made the slightest effort to understand the point of view of his opponent in the controversy. (Christianity and Liberalism)

The lesson could very well be, beware the tranformationalists.

How Broad Can Confessional Presbyterians Be?

The subject of confessionalism in relation to the Gospel Coalition has again come up, this time with a charitable defense of the organization from Ligon Duncan. The article that elicited this response is not at issue here.  I have not read it nor is that as pertinent as what Duncan says about confessionalism:

None of us are a part of TGC because we don’t care about our ministerial vows or because we don’t really believe our Confession.

We are a part of TGC because TGC beautifully promotes certain important things in the wider Christian and evangelical world that are needed, vital, true, good, right, timely, healthful, and which are also perfectly consistent with our own confessional theological commitments, so we want to be a part and a help. We also think that we have a thing or two to learn from our non-Presbyterian friends in TGC that “sweetly comport” with our vows and our church’s doctrine and practice. And we love the friendship and fellowship we enjoy with like-minded brethren from and ministering in settings denominationally different from our own, but committed to the same big things.

Just as Charles Hodge of Princeton (not one shy of his confessional Presbyterian commitments), for similar reasons, was happy to participate in the Evangelical Alliance in the nineteenth century, so also I am happy to participate in TGC.

This is an important historical matter that deserves more attention. What was the relationship of Hodge’s Old School Presbyterianism to interdenominational endeavors like the Evangelical Alliance? And how did Hodge’s own opposition to the 1869 reunion of the Old and New School churches relate to endeavors like the Evangelical Alliance?

One way of answering that question is to notice that the sorts of cooperation in which mainline Protestants engaged after the Civil War, with the 1869 Presbyterian reunion paving the way, fueled ecumenical and social gospel endeavors that produced conservative opposition in the 1920s and 1930s. The Evangelical Alliance was the Moral Majority of its day, wanting immigrants to conform to Protestant norms, opposed to Romanism and communism (for starters), and it provided the vehicle for Protestants to unite to defend a Christian America. Those ecumenical impulses eventually produced the Federal Council of Churches in 1908 and the Plan for Organic Union in 1920, a proposal that would have united all mainline Protestants into one national church — the way Canadian Protestants at roughly the same time formed the United Church of Canada (1925).

What the period of interdenominational cooperation meant for Presbyterians was a 1903 revision of the Confession of Faith. That revision enabled the PCUSA to receive the Cumberland Presbyterians. Revision softened the Confession’s Calvinism to make room for a body that had left the church almost one hundred years earlier over objections to election and limited atonement. Presbyterians going along for the ecumenical ride included the president of Princeton Theological Seminary, J. Ross Stevenson, who presented the Plan for Organic Union to the 1920 General Assembly. J. Gresham Machen was a first-time commissioner to that Assembly and Princeton’s faculty’s opposition to that plan was start of a denomination wide controversy that forced the 1929 reorganization of Princeton Seminary (to make it tolerant of diversity) and the simultaneous founding of Westminster Seminary.

According to Lefferts Loetscher, who wrote a book with a title that frightened conservatives in the PCUSA and the PCUS, The Broadening Church (1954), the reunion of Old and New School in 1869 touched off developments that saw the PCUSA recover its historic breadth:

Once again in 1869, as in 1758, the Presbyterian Church was restoring unity not by resolving its differences, but by ignoring and absorbing them. Men who had been denounced as “heretics” in 1837 and who had professed no change of theological viewpoint in the interim were welcomed in 1869 as honored brethren. The result was, of course, that the theological base of the Church (especially of the former Old School branch of the Church) was broadened and the meaning of its subscription formula further relaxed. The gentlemen’s agreement of 1869 to tolerate divergent types of Calvinism meant that clear-cut definitions of Calvinism would not be enforceable in the reunited Church, and that it would be increasingly difficult to protect historic Calvinism against variations that might undermine its essential character. (8)

No one actually doubts whether the Old and New Schools were liberal. By almost every measure, both sides would come out as evangelical today (especially if you don’t apply the category of confessionalism). And yet, the breadth necessary for combining both sides also made room for a range of theological ideas that spawned liberalism.

In other words, breadth is not a good thing. Broadening churches are usually ones that become liberal.

So why is an organization that tolerates a diversity of “evangelical” convictions going to avoid that problems that usually surface when you recognize you need to be broader than your own communion is? The answer is not that the Gospel Coalition is going liberal. But an objection to the Gospel Coalition is that it does not have built in transparent mechanisms for identifying and disciplining liberalism.

And here are a couple ways that the Coalition’s breadth could collide with my own Presbyterian confessionalism. If I am a member of the Council and an officer in a confessional Presbyterian church, and my communion has a controversy over someone ordained who does not affirm the doctrine of limited atonement, will I receive support for my opposition to this erroneous officer from my friends and colleagues at TGC? Or what about the Federal Vision? If my church decides that Federal Vision is a dangerous set of teachings that need to be opposed, will my friends and colleagues at TGC support my church in its decision? Will people who write for Gospel Coalition even be clear about the covenant theology that is clearly taught in the Confession of Faith? Or will some of them think that my communion is too narrow in its understanding of Reformed Protestantism? Will they think that the proper response should be one to include a breadth of views in denominations because that is the norm for the Coalition? I could well imagine feeling some pressure to weigh matters before a presbytery or Assembly with my peers in the Coalition in mind? Will I disappoint them? Maybe that’s the wrong way of asking the question. What if they don’t care about the affairs of my communion the way I do? (Why should they care since they are not members or officers of my denomination?)

These are real dilemmas for anyone who has subscribed the Confession and Catechisms and been ordained in a Presbyterian communion while also belonging to an evangelical organization with standards different from the church. They are concerns that have been around for almost 160 years. The Gospel Coalition has not brought an end to church history.

How Smart are Presbyterians?

From James Burtchaell’s history of Christian colleges and universities, The Dying of the Light:

Originally Davidson tied its identity to the Presbyterian church and required that the church serve as the guarantor of the college’s fidelity. When that became outdated the college undertook to vouch for its own fidelity. With the 1972 bylaws it fairly well disengaged itself from any norm or authority for faithful discipleship — Calvinist fundamentals, church, Westminster, Scriptures, or Jesus. The president and twenty-two of the forty voting trustees had to be members of the PCUS. No one else at Davidson College, including the educators, had to be in communion with that church. The only entity binding them together was a statement of purpose, which both Clarence Darrow and H. L. Mencken could perhaps have found their way to embrace. At this very time the moderator of the General Assembly was lecturing the church on their need to learn to live with the new onset of pluralism within their fellowship. . . .

There seems to be a problem in the bloodstream of the Presbyterians that has affected their colleges. The church was, from the beginning, largely composed of an industrious bourgeoisie. They were already well educated, and their Calvinist consciousness of public polity had from the beginning made Presbyterians instinctively supportive of the American civil authorities (as distinct from the British authorities, who had awarded them a hedged citizenship). Over here the Presbyterians were culture-friendly, and from the beginning they marketed their colleges openly: not simply to attract students and income, but because they saw the nation as a divinely blessed commonwealth. In this mood their educators were wholly undisposed to see their colleges as intellectually set apart. For moral purposes they were prepared to make their campuses defensive havens against a threatening environment, but not for intellectual purposes. Marsden and Longfield see this:

In 1935 H. Richard Niebuhr had warned that “if the church has no other plan of salvation . . . than one of deliverance by force, education, idealism or planned economy, it really has no existence as a church and needs to resolve itself into a political party or a school.” By the latter half of the twentieth century most mainline Protestant church schools had resolved themselves into being simply schools. . . Twentieth-century mainline Presbyterians, assuming that they were part of the cultural establishment, have seldom seen American culture as a threat and so have trusted in education. (221, 234-35)

Two Kingdom Theology and Same Sex Attraction

Remember when two-kingdom theology was the easy and quick explanation for Reformed churches friendly to homosexuality? Steven Wedgeworth clarifies what everyone knew when anti-two kingdom folks were using Meredith Kline as the whipping boy for moral relativism. The folks at Memorial Presbyterian Church in St. Louis who sort of oversaw the production, “Transluminate: A Celebration of Transgender, Agender, Non-Binary, Genderqueer and Genderfluid Artists,” are not two-kingdom proponents:

To understand how the Transluminate event could happen within the PCA, readers should see it as an extreme but perhaps predictable ramification of a certain philosophy of ministry, common in our day. Evangelical and particularly “missional” churches routinely advocate for various kinds of parachurch ministry in the world of arts and culture. Some call for an aggressive or confrontational approach, while others say that mere “faithful presence” is a more effective strategy. This term, “faithful presence,” was originally coined by James D. Hunter in his book To Change the World, but has become a shorthand way, not unlike the term “common good,” to express the concept of Christians interacting with the secular public realm, not in overtly distinctive ways, but simply according to basic morals and friendly manners. This posture is frequently described as winsome or hospitable. It argues against direct criticism or evangelism, at least in any public way, in favor of building more long-term relationships. After these relationships of trust are sufficiently built, opportunities for evangelism may make themselves apparent. Some proponents of this philosophy even deny that specifically evangelistic activity, arguing that the relationship itself or the image and reputation such faithful presence creates will itself be a sufficient Christian testimony. Memorial Pres. certainly seems to promote this view of evangelism and outreach.

Jake Meador partly agrees:

Our outreach to the world cannot simply be a gesture of welcome, but must also include a call to repentance and to adopt the practices of Christian piety in grateful response to God’s offer of grace in the Gospel. What conservatives fear is that this inherently confrontational aspect of Gospel proclamation is lost or watered down by some on the church’s progressive side. And this is not a wholly groundless concern.

Parachurch ministry in the realm of arts and culture, welcoming congregations, “faithful presence” — these are all features (not bugs) of Redeemer New York City and its spin offs. And yet, the Gospel Coalition has not clarified the missional approach to ministry. In fact, they have benefited from Tim Keller’s presence and stature.

Do Senior Christian Market Church Leaders Talk?

With the appeal of Donald Trump in 2016 and Bernie Sanders in 2020 (which may turn out to be the political equivalent of Dave and Busters), some political commentators have observed that Democratic and Republican leaders have not served the American voters well. Party elites continued to play by old rules of analysis and missed the effects of economic and cultural changes on the electorate. The same point could well be made about leaders of the PCA — leaders, that is, who emerged as such through the platforms created by big evangelicalism.

Tim Keller and Bryan Chapell have emerged as pastors whose assessment of the church and its relationship to the world matters. Like E. F. Hutton, when they speak, people listen.

But why? When it comes to assessments of the culture and what Christians should do in response, consider the following. Remember in 2015 when during what was approaching peak intersectionality awareness, Chapell identified pluralism as the major challenge facing the PCA:

If we do not see pluralism for the enemy it is, then we will not make appropriate alliances, link arms for necessary purposes, or allocate resources and align priorities for the greater ends required. If we do not recognize how seductive pluralism will be for all of us (and all we love) with its promises of societal approval and acceptance, then we will not embrace the means, manner, and message that will communicate the true beauty of grace that is the power of the Gospel.

Without clear identification of the external enemy’s magnitude, the dynamics of a largely homogenous social and doctrinal association will only make us less patient with our differences. We will also become increasingly insensitive to how much we need one another to maintain a voice for Christ in an increasingly pluralistic culture.

Right now our eyes are not focused on pluralism as our greatest enemy. We are more focused on what others in our ranks are doing or not doing. Debates about charismatic gifts are unlikely to divide us. Discussions about the role of women will continue to marginalize us but probably will not break us. Dealing with changing sexual mores may drive our youth away but will probably not divide us. All these issues are secondary to the challenges of pluralism.

Two years later, in the wake of Donald Trump’s victory, Keller corrected course. Uniting in response to a perceived enemy — looking for denominational cooperation — is part of what produced evangelical support for Trump:

In a book published earlier this year, “In Search of Ancient Roots: The Christian Past and the Evangelical Identity Crisis,” the historian Kenneth J. Stewart makes the case that the evangelical impulse in Christianity has been with us for centuries, taking on many different forms and bearing many different names, while maintaining substantially similar core beliefs. Many have analyzed the weaknesses of the current iteration of this movement. The desire by mid-twentieth-century leaders to foster more widespread coöperation between evangelicals and downplay denominational differences cut believers off from the past, some religion scholars have found. The result was an emphasis on personal experience rather than life in a church with historical memory. This has made present-day evangelicals more vulnerable to political movements that appeal to their self-interest, even in contradiction to Biblical teachings, for example, about welcoming the immigrant and lifting up the poor.

The lesson appears to be that a broad interdenominational cooperation by post-World War II evangelicals made born-again Protestants more political and less ecclesiastical.

It is at the very least, advice with a mixed message and could raise questions about the capacities of pastors to assess culture and society.

It is also a tad ironic for Keller to critique downplaying denominational differences when City-to-City is hardly a program of the PCA’s Mission to North America or Mission to the World.

Have Senior Christian Market Pastors Served the PCA Well?

If Tim Keller is someone to read for political philosophy, what about urban design and planning? It turns out that much Christian reflection on the city is similar to Christian thought about government and society — it is pietistically utilitarian. The city or politics are ways to evangelize or carry out God’s will for me and others, not a common arena of human life that relies on the sorts of human inquiry that may involve both sides of the antithesis.

Here is one of Tim Keller’s typical briefs for the city:

social scientists tell us that across the whole planet there are at least 5 million people moving into cities from the countryside every month. The number of churches per capita in the country and towns dwarfs the number of churches in cities. People are moving to cities with fewer places of gospel witness for the population, and that situation is worsening by the day. For example, New York City will be gaining a net of 1 million people over the next 25 years. That’s bigger than Charlotte, North Carolina. Yet will we be planting as many new churches here as there are churches in Charlotte? Probably not.

So put the balance like this: we need churches everywhere there are people—but the people of the world are moving into cities much faster than the church is. Jesus told us to go into the world to make disciples (Matt 28:18–20). If we fail to go where the world is going, then we aren’t heeding our Lord’s command. Certainly we must never insist that everyone should do city ministry, nor that gospel ministry in one place is intrinsically better than in another, but we shouldn’t shrink from emphasizing city ministry as never before.

Don’t romanticize or demonize or shrug at the city. Love the city, as Christ loved you.

Treat cities like a mission field.

But if you are going to transform a city with a gospel ecosystem, you may need to read urban designers and planners. And if you read the history of the cities, you may encounter a less than onward-and-upward understanding of the city. Cue James Howard Kunstler:

The city is perhaps the greatest cultural artifact of the long-running human project, which now faces an array of predicaments at a larger scale than at any previous inflection point in our history. These include population overshoot, the fossil-fuel quandary, competition over dwindling resources, an unsound banking system, climate uncertainty, and much more. These dynamics are expressing themselves currently in political disorders and cultural hysterias, and the anxiety over what happens next appears to be driving us crazy. . . .

The urban metroplexes of the U.S. have assumed a scale and complexity of operation that cannot be sustained in the coming disposition of things. They will contract substantially. Some of them in especially unfavorable locales—Tucson, Miami, Houston—may disappear altogether, but the rest will have to become a lot smaller and the process is liable to be messy as various groups fight over who gets to inhabit the districts that retain value: for example, riverfronts and original urban cores. This will occur against the backdrop of more generalized political disorder and the failures of national government, especially where fiscal management is concerned. State governments, too, may be broke and impotent. (That implies a devolution of political power from the grand scale to the local level, where decisions and action will matter.)

Cities that are overburdened with skyscrapers and megastructures face an added degree of failure. These buildings will never be renovated in the coming era of resource and capital scarcity. Professional observers like Krieger’s colleague, Edward Glaeser of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government (author of Triumph of the City, 2011), is exactly one of those who expects only more-bigger-higher-denser cities in the years ahead. That will be another disappointment for the wishful-thinking techno-narcissists of this land. More likely we will see skyscrapers and megastructures convert from being assets to liabilities in very short order. We may not even have the financial mojo to pay for their disassembly and the salvage of their modular materials.

The places in our country that stand a chance to carry on are the very places that have gone through the most catastrophic failure and disinvestment the past 50 years: the small towns and small cities that are scaled to the capital and resource realities of the future—especially the ones that have a meaningful relationship to food production. Many of these places lie along America’s inland waterway system (the Ohio, Mississippi, Missouri, Great Lakes, including the Hudson River estuary and the Erie and Champlain Canals). As the trucking system collapses, we will have to move more things by boat. The conventional futurists don’t even see this coming.

But you don’t read about this side of the city when you see descriptions of gospel ecosystems:

When a gospel movement is underway, it may be that the Body of Christ develops to the point that a whole city tipping point is reached. By that I mean the moment when the number of gospel-shaped Christians in a city reaches critical mass. The Christian influence on the civic and social life of the city—on the very culture—is recognizable and acknowledged. That means between 10 and 20 percent of the population.

. . . In New York City, some groups have a palpable effect on the way life is lived when their numbers reach at least 5 to 15 percent and when the members are active in public life. . . . In other words, something is going on in New York that goes beyond one church, one network, or any one denomination. It goes beyond any particular race or ethnic group. It’s a movement.

We’re a long way from getting to the place we need to be, a city tipping point, when 10 to 20 percent of the population goes to those churches, and you begin to realize that the whole city, the whole culture is going to change because of the impact of Christians in a place like New York.

That’s what we’re after. It takes a movement to reach a city, and that’s more than just planting a church, or even seeing your denomination growing.

Someone needs to ask, what will remain of the city when the movement arrives?

The PCA’s Strategic Plan Was So “Sleep”

It can be a cliche to say that the church’s task remains the same, yesterday, today, and tomorrow. But more Presbyterians may be tempted to adopt that somewhat stodgy outlook if you look at what has become of the PCA’s Strategic Plan from a decade ago. Finding it on-line is a challenge, but a video of Bryan Chapell introducing the Plan gives a fairly good indication of the concerns that animated its authors:

About six minutes in, you will see a list that includes:

Strangled secularism

Loss of Piety

Loss of the Young

Loss of Mature Members

Longing for Biblical Responses

Those concerns contrast with those that motivate Presbyterians in pursuit of social justice (from Covenant Seminary’s website):

While some branches of liberal theology have erred gravely by equating issues of social justice with the gospel and downplaying or eliminating the call to repentance and personal faith in Jesus, we must ensure not to make the opposite mistake of removing the biblical call for social righteousness and justice from our understanding of the gospel.

What situations do our neighbors find themselves in as they hear this proclamation that require tangible acts of Christ’s love that flow out of that gospel? Today, we face a wide range of issues that are matters of neighbor love expressed in biblical social justice. These include but are not limited to abortion, human trafficking, racial discrimination, gender discrimination, abuse of women and children, misuse of power, criminal justice, and lack of educational and economic opportunity for the marginalized in our society. The Bible starts with creation and ends with new creation, and the impact of the fall affects everything, including the creation itself and the structures of society. The gospel of God’s saving and restoring grace is set into this framework. Love for God and love for neighbor are always to be held together by the people of God.

Covenant Seminary is the denominational seminary of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), with our main campus located in St. Louis, Missouri. As the denominational seminary, we exist to serve the denomination and its churches as we prepare leaders to engage the pressing issues of our time. A key current issue in the PCA is racial reconciliation and justice . . .

That way of looking at the church’s current ministry is distinctly different from Chapell’s remarks a decade ago.  If some thought the Strategic Plan sounded New School Presbyterian — somewhat uncomfortable with confessional narrowness, the old Strategic Plan looks downright Old School compared to the advocates of social justice.  What a difference a decade makes.

But now, Bryan Chapell is back with a statement about the PCA’s current predicament as he explains how he will serve as Stated Clerk if chosen by the upcoming General Assembly:

I believe our beloved PCA is at a crossroads with regard to her influence in both the wider church and surrounding culture. We carry a unique calling as a Reformed church with a missional zeal. Our historic strength has been maintaining a Bible-centered mission that does not yield to the singular pressures of Reformed fundamentalism, distinction-less Evangelicalism, mere social progressivism, or strident political conservatism. Each of these emphases have sought ascendency in our ranks, yet we have continued to evaluate ideas and establish priorities based on Scripture. Most in our movement remain committed to respect those among us who differ in perspective but prioritize God’s Word. Still, as our culture polarizes and our denomination becomes more distant from her roots, it becomes increasingly difficult for the strands of our biblically Reformed rope to stay woven together for the purposes of our original vision and our future calling.

All things considered, Chapell looks like a moderate and the advocates of the 2010 Strategic Plan look conservative compared to progressives in the PCA.  That is actually encouraging to other churches in NAPARC.

But it does cast doubt about the wisdom of calculating the church’s mission in relation to changes in the culture.