Liberalism 301

From the July 2000 Nicotine Theological Journal:

The prefix “post” has any number of proper usages. And most of those – postscript, postlude, posterior – clearly fix its meaning. Whatever is “post” comes after the main thing, such as after the letter, after the liturgy, or after the rest of the body.

The usage of this prefix in such words as postmodernism and postliberalism, however, is more ambiguous. Postmodernism suggests a period and intellectual sensibility that has moved beyond the age and mentality of being modern, though some argue that the intellectual and cultural fads going under the name, “postmodern,” are actually a heightened form of modernity. Postliberalism is even harder to explain. And part of the reason stems from whether those advocating postliberalism have actually moved beyond liberalism into a theology that is clearly “after” the sort of teaching that has characterized twentieth-century mainline Protestantism.

JAMES GUSTAFSON, FOR MANY years a professor of ethics at Emory University, raised questions about postliberalism for the mainliners who read the Christian Century (March 24-31, 1999). Gustafson himself may not be the best inquirer since his survey of the theological landscape is about as nuanced as the famous New Yorker poster of the world where everything west of the Hudson River dissolves into Walmart and Disneyland. For instance, Gustafson wonders if there is any difference between postliberal affirmations of “divine personhood and activity” and “the virtually magical expectations of divine interventions that one hears proclaimed by television evangelists.” In Gustafson’s universe, Karl Barth is next to Jerry Falwell. (And we thought liberals were supposed to be the rocket-science party in American Protestantism.)

Notwithstanding Gustafson’s fundamentalist-like version of liberalism, his article does help to expose the limitations of postliberalism. In many ways, Gustafson’s piece has a stale smell to it. If he is any indication, liberals are still spooked by world religions and natural science, and so adjust the claims of Christianity in order to avoid giving offense either religiously, culturally or intellectually. But the big question, and one that he acknowledges comes from Ernst Troeltsch, concerns Christian particularism. Did God “choose to reveal Godself in a unique and exclusive way in a single historical event, Jesus Christ?” If postliberals answer “no” to that question, then they are really liberals, according to Gustafson. And so after 150 years of theological development in the United States, liberalism still boils down to being uncomfortable with Jesus only. (Could it be that the origins of not keeping score in Little League baseball games may reside in liberal Protestant timidity – wouldn’t want those little tikes scarred by the exclusive brands of “winner” and “loser”? Mind you, losing in baseball is a lot less painful than losing eternal life. But the good news of the gospel is that Christ made his exclusive salvation available to all people through the ministry of the church – something liberals gave up when they replaced the gospel with culture, and the church with institutions of cultural transformation.)

WILLIAM PLACHER, WHO teaches theology at Wabash College, was the only suspect the editors at the Century could round up to respond to Gustafson’s questions (April 7, 1999). And we must give him credit for answering Troeltsch’s big question pithily and Christianly. “Do postliberals claim that God chose to reveal Godself in a unique and exclusive way in a single historical event, Jesus Christ?” Placher’s unequivocal response is “yes.” To be sure, Jesus Christ’s ministry involved more than one event as the various stages of his humiliation and exaltation indicate. Still, Placher deserves credit for not blinking.

HE ALSO MADE SOME interesting observations along the way which suggest just how hard it is to move beyond liberalism. For instance, when Placher was in grad school in the early 1970s, Schubert Ogden, Gordon Kaufman and David Tracy were at the center of American mainline academic theology. He adds that Barth tended to be dismissed “out of hand.” Which raises an interesting question – what kind of mark did neo-orthodoxy make in the United States? Placher’s recollections, along with other impressions, suggests that the brothers Niebuhr, Tillich and Barth were far more of a fad that allowed the mainline denominations to absorb an existentialist form of Christianity than any kind of movement that righted the ship of American Protestantism.

Placher’s own positive comments about the gospel imply as much, and suggest that postliberalism may reach a similar outcome. As much as he is willing to affirm the particularity of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, his affirmation carries all the baggage of liberal Protestant timidity and turns Christ into a strange brew of abstract particularity. “Jesus Christ reveals and anticipates,” Placher writes, “the culmination of God’s will for creation, and in that sense Christianity is uniquely right about what is most important in the ultimate purpose of things.” How’s that? The real question isn’t just whether Christ is unique but whether what he did makes him unique. Did he die, rise from the dead, and ascend into heaven for sins, and will he one day return to judge the world? To be sure, that is a whole lot more exclusive than anything Gustafson is prepared to accept. But it also makes the uniqueness of Christ much more lively (and efficacious) than the neo-orthodox-inspired maneuvers Placher executes.

In the end, the Gustafson-Placher exchange is eerily reminiscent of an essay Harry Emerson Fosdick wrote also for the Century, sixty-five years ago when the theological grenade-thrower took back some of what he had said in his inflammatory sermon, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” Fosdick’s topic was “Beyond Modernism” (Dec 4, 1935), and the reasons he gave for being a postliberal stemmed from liberalisms’ over-intellectualizing of the faith, sentimental belief in progress, and watered down theology. But the worst feature of modernism, according to Fosdick, was its loss of nerve. “We cannot harmonize Christ himself with modern culture,” he declared. “What Christ does to modern culture” is not accommodate but “challenge it.”

THIS MAY BE WHY IT IS impossible to go beyond modernism. If liberals and postliberals can’t figure out that Christ’s work of redeeming and judging sinners is more challenging than simply being the moral compass of the culture, then both groups, whether followers of Troeltsch or Barth, miss the point. Christianity is not about culture, whether cheerleading for it or self-righteously condemning it. It’s about sin, grace, and preparing for the world to come. For that reason, the only way we will be convinced that significant theological developments are afoot in the mainline churches and seminaries is when the prefix “pre” comes into vogue, as in preliberalism.

Henry M. Lewis

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

Mencken, the Prophet

On the eve of that “Great” War, H. L. Mencken saw where vice crusaders were headed:

In the midst of all our torquernadan crusading, how is it that no moralist has dedicated himself to the extinction of the cigarette, that coffin nail, that debauchery, that father of crime? Elsewhere in this fair land it has been dealt staggering licks by the chemically pure. In Kansas, Iowa and Missouri the children in the public schools are taught to fear and abominate it; in Nebraska, Michigan and Alabama there are hot campaigns against it; in Indiana its sale is forbidden by law. But here in Baltimore not a single voice in raised against it. Our moralists are the most virulent in Christendom–their ardor, indeed, is often far more Mohammedan than Christian–and yet I have not heard a word from them about the licentious and diabolical cigarette.

Certainly this cannot be due to ignorance of its deadliness. It is a matter of common knowledge, indeed, that the cigarette is one of the most insidious of all agents of sin. The boy who inhales its noxious fumes today will be a drunkard tomorrow and a murderer next week. The woman who smokes cigarettes is sinister and unspeakable–a dangerous companion for the young. The man who pursues the corrupting vice is a shifty, blear-eyed rascal, with the complexion of a bilious jonquil and a liver that plots treasons. All criminals smoke cigarettes. So do all paranoics. It is the unanimous pet and comfort of felons condemned to be hanged.

On the medical side the evidence against it is irrefutable and overwhelming. In Dr. Osler’s great work on “The Principles and Practices of Medicine” (lib. XIV, fol. 324) there is the direct statement that the cigarette is one of the most potent causative agents in influenza, cancer, diphtheria, ophthalmia, beri-beri and senile dementia. Dr. Osler there describes an experiment with guinea pigs made by Prof. Dr. Hugo Bierfisch, of Leipzig. Two sets of guinea pigs, one of which had been trained to smoke cigarettes and the other of which had been kept pure, were exposed to virulent cultures of the bacillus typhosus. The virtuous guineas at once leaped out of the window, but the cigarette smokers, besotted by nicotine, snouted the fatal germs and at once fell into convulsions. By next morning all of them save one were dead of arterio-sclerosis, and that one was a babbling maniac. . . .

And all this medical evidence is amply supported by the statistics of our prisons and almshouses. Of the 226 murderers confined in Sing Sing prison between January 1, 1900, and December 31, 1910, no less than 207 ascribed their downfall to cigarettes. Of the 1,987 forgers imprisoned at the same place during the same time 1,562 blamed cigarettes. From Charleston Prison, near Boston, come reports that are even more impressive. Every one of the yeggmen now serving time there is a cigarette fiend. The late Dr. Clarence Richeson was another. Dr. Harvey H. Crippen, hanged in London for the murder of his wife, smoked 15 packages a day. Johann Hoch, the celebrated Chicago murderer, went to the gallows with a cigarette in his mouth and a glass of fake Plisener in his hand.

Did God Rest In One Day?

Volume four of the Nicotine Theological Journal is now available at the back issues page. Here is a whiff, from the April number:

. . . [Morton] Smith’s study of John Murray is an example of how sabbatarian-creation logic fails. Murray understood as well as anyone the importance of creation for Sabbath-keeping: “The weekly sabbath is based on divine example,” he wrote in Principles of Conduct. “The divine mode of procedure in creation determines one of the basic cycles by which human life here on earth is regulated, namely, the weekly cycle.”

LET US CONCEDE, FOR argument’s sake, that Smith is right about Murray, and that the Scotsman “seem[ed] to have held to the 24-hour creation days.” (Smith acknowledges that this is not “expressly stated” in Murray.) So the world was created in 144 hours, according to Murray. Then what happened? “And he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he made.” But how long was the seventh day? Murray is very clear that that day was not twenty four hours. Here is more from Principles of Conduct: “In the realm of God’s activity in creating the heavens and the earth there were six days of creative activity and one day of rest. There is the strongest presumption in favor of the interpretation that this seventh day is not one that terminated at a certain point in history, but that the whole period of time subsequent to the end of the sixth day is the Sabbath rest alluded to in Genesis 2:2.”

From these citations we are forced to conclude that for Murray a literal six-plus-one creation sequence was unnecessary for the establishment of a literal six-plus-one Sabbath-keeping sequence. However symbolic God’s days were, Murray saw that creation was still revealed in such a way as to establish the weekly Sabbath as a creation ordinance. So the logic of Sabbath-creationism collapses. And if the seventh day is not literal, why do the first six days have to be?

Although Smith’s essay claims to survey American Presbyterian thought on creation, including the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, it is largely focused on recent PCA debates, and he neglects OPC reflection on the matter except to speculate on the views of Murray and Cornelius Van Til. This is unfortunate because he omits the 1968 resolution of the OPC’s Presbytery of Southern California (comprised of Murray’s and Van Til’s students), which we believe has not been surpassed as a summary of the biblical and confessional teaching on creation. We republish those eight affirmations in hopes that they will gain a greater reading:

1. The one true and living God existed alone in eternity, and beside Him there was no matter, energy, space or time.

2. The one true and living God, according to His Sovereign decree, determined to create, or make of nothing, the world and all things therein, whether visible or invisible.

3. God performed His creative work in six days. (We recognize different interpretations of the word “day” and do not feel that one interpretation is to be insisted upon to the exclusion of others.)

4. That no part of the universe nor any creature in it came into being by chance or by any power other than that of the Sovereign God.

5. That God created man, male and female, after His own image, and as God’s image bearer man possesses an immortal soul. Thus man is distinct from all other earthly creatures even though his body is composed of the elements of his environment.

6. That when God created man, it was God’s inbreathing that constituted man a living creature, and thus God did not impress His image upon some pre-existing living creature.

7. That the entire human family has descended from the first human pair, and, with the one exception of Christ, this descent has been by ordinary generation.

8. That man, when created by God, was holy. Then God entered into a covenant of works with the one man Adam. In the covenant Adam represented his posterity, and thus when he violated the requirement, all mankind, descending from him by ordinary generation, sinned in him and fell with him into an estate of sin.

CONTEMPORARY CRITICS OF these affirmations might charge them with sanctioning a “poetic” creation account. If so, it bears noting that, contrary to the slippery-slope fears of the Sabbath-creationists, neither Murray’s eternal Sabbath nor the presbytery’s interpretive openness have cultivated in the OPC, thirty years later, a “poetic Sabbath,” that is, observable decline in Sabbath-keeping. The lesson to be drawn, it seems, is this: if Sabbath-breaking is the ultimate concern of the watchdogs from Taylors, South Carolina, they had better look for causes elsewhere than in one’s interpretation of the days of Genesis one and two.

William Hayward Wilson

No Assembly Required

Another batch of back issues from the Nicotine Theological Journal has been posted. The July 1999 issue proves just how cutting edge the NTJ is. Well before Keller or Piper were debating multi-site congregations, other technologically driven pastors were conceiving of an entirely different understanding of gathering with the saints and angels. Here is an excerpt:

“I will tell of thy name to my brethren,” David vows to God in Psalm 22. “In the midst of the assembly I will praise thee. From thee comes my praise in the great assembly; I shall pay my vows before those who fear Him.” David understands that redemption has consequences. His praise must not be private or domestic, but it must be public, in the presence of fellow God-fearers. Not until we worship solemnly with the saints do we express adequately our gratitude to God for our deliverance.

Unlike the psalmist, evangelical Christians today seem terribly confused as to why they are to gather for worship. Consider this metaphor, popularized by Chuck Swindoll. Worship is still important, we are assured, and it is as vital for the church today as the huddle is for a football team, for in both cases that is where the players gather together to learn the plays. The flaw in this metaphor is obvious. The huddle is not the action in football. It is the lull in the action, a moment so uneventful that the well-conditioned TV viewer can use it to race to replenish his beer. So to compare worship to a football huddle is to encourage the mistaken notion that the real world is “out there,” and that the church gathered for worship is somehow something less.

As bad as that is, far worse yet is the increasingly popular conviction that Christians can engage the world with a no-huddle offense. As far as assembling together, more and more are encouraged merely to phone it in. This is not entirely new. As early as the 1950s, dial-a-prayer services were as popular as phoning for the time or the weather or for movie announcements. In a 1964 article in Christianity Today, many pastors were extolling the efficiency of this automated ministry. Said one, it was the only way he could talk to 200 people a day. What is more, his church could minister this way to people at two in the morning without waking up the pastor. Beyond efficiency, its popularity owed to parishioners enjoying anonymity without feeling lonely.

AND THEN CAME THE INTERNET. Any surfer knows that religious communities are thriving in cyberspace. We visited one recently, the First Church of Cyberspace (found at “Godweb.com”). Characteristic of an age that cannot distinguish between profession and self-promotion, the website opens not with a description of its beliefs but with positive comments from recent visitors. Guest book kudos come from Baptist, Presbyterian, and Universalist circles, from as far away as Germany and Japan. Much of the enthusiasm is brief and to the point: “Wow!” or “Cool!” Perhaps what impresses visitors most is the non-fundamentalist character of First Church. From the church’s home page, the surfer is but a couple of hyperlinks from what is euphemistically described as “Adult Christianity.”

OF COURSE, A CYBERCHURCH IS admittedly unconventional, and that is its great advantage, boast its afficionados. One church website designer has claimed that “all elements of congregational life can be experienced through the Internet,” including the sacraments (don’t ask). And all the while – and here is the real virtue – it is in the “real world.” By contrast, a church gathered traditionally is mired in the past, with members who are missing the action. We know of one Presbyterian megachurch that recently appointed to its large staff a “Minister of Technology.” This minister is urging his church to make room for technology, lest it become “too painfully obvious that we have become completely irrelevant.” (He omits the other painful reality of ecclesiastical technophobia: that ministers of technology will find themselves unemployed.)

This then is the church in the technological age – no assembly required. We can forgo the gathering, because technology has conquered the restraints of time and space. One megachurch in Central Florida is explicitly making this claim. Recently this church changed its name from a “Community Church” to “a Church Distributed,” because it had discovered a “new form” of the church (which will eventually become the norm, it predicts). . . .

One Size Doesn't Fit All Christians

More archived issues of the Nicotine Theological Journal have been uploaded to the Back Issues page. One of those (April 1998) includes a piece entitled “Sectarians All.” (Again, beware the anomalies included in transferring from WordPerfect to PDF.) Herewith an excerpt:

SUPPOSE A HISTORY PROFESSOR at an evangelical liberal arts college were teaching a course on American church history. His course did not follow the world religions approach but instead covered the religious traditions most numerous and most influential in America (though those are not synonymous) and so slanted the course to Protestants, Catholics and Jews. For the final exam the professor asked students to describe the teaching and practice of the average observant Catholic before Vatican II. If a student answered the question by ignoring Roman Catholic worship (the Mass), customs (fish on Fridays) , institutions (parochial schools), and teaching on justification, but answered instead with a description of an Irish immigrant in Boston who bucked the repressive pedagogy of local nuns, complained about never understanding the Mass, then went to Boston University, joined InterVarsity, attended Park Street Church, and read his Protestant Bible daily during his “quiet time,” should the professor give the student a passing grade? Such an answer would not be surprising given the historic anti-Catholic bias among Anglo-American Protestants. But wouldn’t the professor be delinquent in his duties as a professor of history to approve such an answer? In other words, is it possible for a Protestant to hold that a Catholic is “good” even if he believes his practices idolatrous?

LET’S TAKE ANOTHER EXAMPLE. This one from real life. J.I. Packer was one of the original Protestant signers of “Evangelicals and Catholics Together,” the first statement (1994) that called for a joint mission of Roman Catholics and evangelical Protestants in a limited number of endeavors. In an article he wrote explaining his decision (Christianity Today, Dec. 12, 1994), Packer applied the very language of “good Catholic” to those with whom Protestants ought to cooperate. Now Packer does not spell out exactly what such a good Catholic looks like. But the reasons he gives for not being able to become a Roman Catholic are helpful. For instance, Rome has a “flawed” understanding of the church, its sacramental theology “cuts across” the Pauline doctrine of justification by faith, the “Mary cult,” the doctrine of purgatory, and the “disbursing” of indulgences all “damp down” biblical teaching about assurance of salvation. What is more, papal claims to infallibility make the “self-correction” of the church impossible. So the communion of Rome is still “unacceptable” to Packer. But the Catholics who are willing to sign a declaration with Packer, despite his reservations and objections, are “good” Catholics. These Catholics most likely are ones who do not observe the faith in ways that Packer deems flawed or, at least, are not strict about them. Ironically, then, Packer’s assessment of Catholicism should fail to earn an A-grade on an undergraduate American church history final exam but is supposed to be persuasive to evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics as the first step in ecumenicity.

WHY DOESN’T SUCH AN understanding of Roman Catholicism earn the strong rebukes of condescension and paternalism? Isn’t Packer saying, in effect, that a good Catholic is one who has given up distinctively Catholic teachings and practice? What is more, why isn’t Packer criticized for harboring the kind of anti-Catholic sentiments that used to inform America’s progressive reformers who desired the assimilation of all immigrants to the United States into WASP culture? Liberal Protestants have a long history of including Roman Catholics at their gatherings and institutions who resemble themselves, that is, believers who have given up the more particular aspects of their tradition in order to fit in to American Protestant norms. That kind of treatment used to be called “illiberal” by Roman Catholics, such as when John Gilmary Shea in the 1880s accused the Puritan tradition of being “narrow-minded, tyrannical, and intolerant” of those who “refused to submit to their ruling.” But now, thanks to the wonders of modern ecumenism, Roman Catholics who are not concerned about Rome’s historic teachings and practices are considered “good.”

Still Smokin'

In an effort to make back issues of the Nicotine Theological Journal available on-line, readers may be interested to see that volume one of the journal glorified newsletter has been added to our page of back issues. (Please beware that the PDF versions will not capture the original layout in WordPerfect.) To tempt readers to take a gander, here is an excerpt from the lead article, “Calvinism, Ethnicity, and Smoke,” from issue number 2.

Old School Presbyterians who grew up within or on the edges of American evangelicalism — we write autobiographically — generally came to regard the Christian Reformed Church with awe for her robust expressions of Reformed piety. To be sure, Dutch-American Calvinists were never completely spared the piety of fundamentalism. But it was always a fundamentalism with a difference. While they may have frowned on such worldly amusements as card-playing or the theater or the dance hall, they continued to drink and smoke. “Sin came from the heart, not the environment,” they generally insisted, and they were usually right. So when you walked into the Calvin College coffee shop twenty years ago, it was not coffee that you smelled, but the pervasive scent of burning tobacco. Then there was the habit of the elders of the Wheaton CRC who smoked on the church lawn after Sunday morning worship, conveniently applying a jolt of nicotine to bus loads of stunned evangelical college students who were returning from church and knew next to nothing about Dutch ways, let alone Calvinism.

This brazen dismissal of artificial morality seemed so, well, healthy. For between puffs these elders could readily produce sound and sophisticated theological arguments on Christian liberty, the true nature of Christian virtue, and serving God in all walks of life. Yes, healthy, and more than a bit intimidating. Mark Noll well described the shock of seeing professing Christians smoke for the first time in his life, when he traveled to Calvin College as a Wheaton basketball player for his team’s annual “ritualistic slaughter.”

SUCH NICOTINE-STAINED PIETY, however, rapidly seems to be becoming a thing of the past. Visiting teams no longer suffer the effects of second-hand smoke on their travels to Grand Rapids. Recently the oldest college of the CRC held a “Great Calvin Smoke-Out.” Anti-smoking support groups have been launched, and smoking is now prohibited in all buildings on campus. (Though our spies report that some faculty are quietly practicing civil disobedience in the privacy of their offices.)

The new CRC morality was on graphic display in the January 6, 1997 issue of the Banner. In its “Worldwide” news column, the Banner reported on the combined efforts of the American Cancer Society and the National Jewish Outreach Program to encourage Jews in converting Saturdays into “Smoke-Free Sabbaths.” We are not persuaded that the pleasures of smoking are forbidden on the Lord’s Day. Still we would pause to commend the Banner at least for recognizing the increasingly quaint principle that some things are inappropriate on the Sabbath.

Winter 2012 NTJ

The print publication that preceded Oldlife.org has been out of circulation for some time. But the Nicotine Theological Journal returns to the world of the living with the Winter 2012 issue. If features two separate reflections by Baptist-turned-Presbyterian baby boomers on their parents and church life of their youth, an assessment of Presbyterian church growth, a review of Carl Trueman’s Republocrat, and a reprint of an post at Oldlife about the development of doctrine.

This issue also explains plans for future publication. The idea is that existing subscribers will receive hard copies for the next year by mail. All others will have access to Portable Document Formats of the NTJ through Oldlife.org. Once the next issue is out (Summer 2013), the NTJ will be available only on-line as a pdf. All readers will be able to access these files for a modest price through PayPal.

This material is too good to give away. At least, that was the consensus of the editors at our last meeting.

Muslims Have Their Scarves, Christians Their Sandwiches

Political religion takes different forms. For political Islam, a women wearing a head scarf is a symbol of devotion and of defiance against western secularism. For American Christians, it looks like eating a chicken sandwich is a signal of a citizen’s belief, morality, and politics.

All of a sudden, biting into a fried chicken sandwich has become a political statement.

Chick-fil-A, the fast-food chain known for putting faith ahead of profits by closing on Sundays, is standing firm in its opposition to gay marriage after touching off a furor earlier this month.

Gay rights groups have called for a boycott, the Jim Henson Co. pulled its Muppet toys from kids’ meals, and politicians in Boston and Chicago told the chain it is not welcome there.

Across the Bible Belt, where most of the 1,600 restaurants are situated, Christian conservatives have thrown their support behind the Atlanta-based company, promising to buy chicken sandwiches and waffle fries next week on “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day.”

The rest of the news story is here.

As theatrical as the controversy over Chick-fil-A may be (and the company may actually do well from the adverse publicity which is still publicity), one point stands out, though by now it may be a little stale. According to this news story, the mayors of Boston and Chicago have said that Chick-fil-A is unwelcome in those cities. According to Rahm Emanuel, “Chick-fil-A values are not Chicago values.” The mayor likely said this thinking that he was taking a courageous stand for diversity and tolerance. But he was also expressing great intolerance in the name of diversity and tolerance.

That may be the intellectual hobgoblin that haunts everyone living in a liberal democracy, though usually only libertarians see that tolerance means toleration even for groups or persons whose views are nutty or objectionable. But it is odd that bright people like Emanuel don’t see that they are erecting a form of intellectual orthodoxy that is just as inflexible as anything the Religious Right might construct.

What Emanuel also fails to see is truth that Thomas Jefferson recognized as basic to living in a free republic. The president’s line about the irrelevance of religion would seem to apply here: “But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” Does Chick-fil-A actually hurt Emanuel or other residents of Chicago just because the owner objects to gay marriage? Ideas are supposed to be freely held in America, as long as they don’t hurt others. (Hurt feelings don’t count since we all face people, ideas, and acts in the United States that don’t empower and affirm us.) Since Chick-fil-A provides a service that many use, and creates jobs that produce tax-payers, why does Emanuel actually care about Dan Cathy’s ideas?

Yes, liberals can be hypocritical. But so are conservatives. What’s surprising is that liberals can be as dumb as (they think) their political opposition.

Postscript: Matthew Lee Anderson makes a good point when he distinguishes “tolerant” (i.e., liberal) from “intolerant” (i.e. Religious Right) consumer boycotts. The latter objects to specific products, the former to ideas. So it’s not the chicken sandwich that offends, but the ideas of the guy who makes it. Perfectionism lives.