One Man’s Modernism is Another Woman’s Sacramentality

Apparently Tracey Rowland doesn’t read Geerhardus Vos or Eric Voegelin and so isn’t worried about “immanentizing the eschaton.” On her recent visit to Scotland she found that Rome’s sacraments are exactly what ails the land of Presbyterianism:

On a recent trip to Scotland Bishop Gilbert of Aberdeen asked me whether I was familiar with the Scottish writer George Mackay Brown. I had to confess that I had never heard of him. A few days later I was rummaging through second-hand book stores searching for everything and anything by Mackay Brown.

Bishop Gilbert had got me hooked by suggesting I read Mackay Brown’s essay “The Treading of Grapes,” which takes the form of three homilies on the Wedding Feast of Cana. One is delivered in 1788 by a classically Calvinist Presbyterian minister, down on every kind of human enjoyment from wine to party dresses. He uses the story of Cana to berate his flock about spending too much money on their wives’ wardrobes, and drinking too much at weddings. He compared their enjoyment of ale to piglets sucking on the teats of a sow.

The second homily is delivered in the 20th century by a modern liberal Protestant minister, who uses the homily to explain that Jesus didn’t really turn water into wine. There was no miracle. Jesus was simply a good organizer who saw to it behind the scenes that supplies were sufficient.

Finally, one is treated to a homily by a Catholic priest delivered in 1548. Rather than berating people as piglets, or denying the reality of miracles, the priest tells his congregation that at the wedding feast of the Lamb they will all be princes. Therefore, he says, I will call you Olaf the Fisherman and Jock the Crofter no longer, but I will call you by the name the Creator will call you on the last day—princes! Prince Olaf! Prince Jock!, et cetera.

The priest left out that his auditors may not be at the wedding feast but still waiting in purgatory.

Still, Rowland thinks the sacraments break down dualism and allow Christianity to flourish:

It can’t be all that difficult to compete with liberal Calvinism and garden-variety New Age paganism when one has the full treasury of a sacramental Catholicism—a faith for which there is “no separation,” no iron curtain standing between the sacred and the profane, no unbridgeable gulf between heaven and the Highlands and the valley of the River Clyde.

Apparently, Professor Rowland is unfamiliar with modernism and its dangers (even though Pius X should have registered a few dents in the Communio mind). According to William R. Hutchison who wrote THE book on Protestant modernism, modern Christians are all in favor of doing away with dualism of all kinds:

[Modernism] generally meant three things: first and most visibly, it mean the conscious, intended adaptation of religious ideas to modern culture. . . . for the Protestant theologians, preachers, and teachers who either championed or opposed the idea of cultural adaptation, two further and deeper notions were important. One was the idea that God is immanent in human cultural development and revealed through it. The other was a belief that human society is moving toward the realization (even though it may never attain the reality) of the Kingdom of God. (Modernist Impulse in American Protestantism, 2)

I don’t know about Professor Rowland, but maintaining some distinction between the sacred and secular, between the Mass and the Happy Meal, is fairly basic for preventing Christians from reverting to the pagan world where gods and spirits infested so many aspects of nature that chopping down a tree was no different from destroying the statue of a saint.

Meanwhile Presbyterians Are Separated by More than An Ocean

But they are unified in not practicing the spirituality of the church.

Rick Phillips started the kerfuffle by declaring socialism evil:

So, biblically speaking, why is socialism evil? Let me suggest three reasons:
1. Because socialism is a system based on stealing;
2. Because socialism is an anti-work system; and
3. Because socialism concentrates the power to do evil.

Even without nude scenes, that seemed to be a pretty easy call.

But David Robertson disagrees and — get this — thinks Reformation 21 is too political (has the Moderate of the Free Church missed a chance to weigh in on Scottish politics?). So he tries to correct Phillips and in so doing regards socialism as more loving than capitalism:

Firstly, in the socialist system the idea is meant to be common ownership, not a handful of people controlling or owning it all. (The fact that this does not often happen is a testimony to human sinfulness, not the inherent evil of the system).

Secondly, Capitalism is not primarily about individuals working hard to produce wealth. They work within systems. Sometimes those systems can be corrupt; bribery, greed, exploitation (refusing to pay the workers their due reward cf. James) and corruption are as endemic within the capitalist system, as they are within any socialist system.

Thirdly it is unfettered free market Capitalism, not Socialism, which is concentrating the power to do evil in the hands of a few. It is the big corporations, headed up by a very few wealthy individuals who are pushing the LGBT agenda in the US and elsewhere. It is they who are seeking to negotiate trade agreements that take them out of democratic control and leave them free to regulate their own affairs and control their massive wealth.

But this does not stop Mr Phillips hyperbole. In Socialism everyone is impoverished, everyone is in slavery and a culture of corruption is always produced. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry at the crass ignorance and grotesque cultural pride on display here. When I first went to the US I couldn’t believe what I saw with my own eyes in some American cities, in the richest country in the world. There was a level of third world poverty and degradation that should have been a shame to any civilised society – but no, some (rich) American evangelicals saw the evils of socialist Sweden, rather than the sick of St Louis.

Robertson even tries to get the upper hand by telling American Presbyterians not to identify so much with the United States:

In this theology, American Capitalism is the essence of America, which is in turn the essence of Christianity. To criticise Capitalism (or at least refusing to agree that Socialism is de facto evil) is apparently unchristian, unbiblical and unconfessional – which is presumably why the Alliance of CONFESSING Evangelicals allowed this post. I don’t confess that socialism is evil, and if the Free Church ever was daft enough to add another chapter to the Westminster Confession stating that it was, I guess I would be out of a job! The equation of the Gospel of Jesus with ANY of the kingdoms of this world has always been a disaster.

Again, this is rich coming from a pastor who regularly comments on Scotland’s political affairs.

Imagine if pastors had to stick to their competency — the word of God. They might recommend authors with a better grasp of politics and economics, people who don’t merely dabble or pontificate.

How Scotland May Feel the South's Pain (or not)

Turns out that getting out of a united and centralized nation may have been easier if you fought your way out (or, count the ways I was wrong):

The SNP has no idea what it is doing, or the risks it is running. Worse, nor does it seem to care.

During a debate in the referendum campaign last fall, then-SNP leader Alex Salmond was asked simply what currency an independent Scotland would have. That would be no problem, he said. We would carry on using the pound, together with the rest of the United Kingdom, and we would share control of a central bank. Absolutely not, said his unionist opponent. Every British political party has made it starkly clear that they would never accept such an outcome. By the way, that was last year, when the rest of Britain was feeling much less aggrieved than it is now by the SNP’s general demagoguery and hate campaigns.

So, given that the shared pound is not a starter, asked his critics, what was Salmond’s Plan B? Repeated questioning failed to shift Salmond at this point, demonstrating to all but his most unyielding supporters that there was no Plan B, and that the SNP had never even thought through the currency issue. That might have been the single moment at which the referendum campaign was lost. Salmond resigned as SNP leader after that debacle, but he has been very visible in recent days, repeating the familiar claims and boasts.

Fortunately, Scotland never had to confront the consequences of this insanity, but let us assume that, after the recent elections, they do become independent. What about the currency?

In the referendum debates, Salmond’s next option was a threat, something at which the SNP is expert. If the United Kingdom refused to share the pound, he said, then the new Scotland would refuse to pay its share of the national debt. The problem there is that an independent Scotland would begin its career as a nation in default, unable to raise credit even for its existing commitments, never mind covering the expense of the ever-expanding welfare state promised by Salmond’s party. The likely consequence would be social collapse and mass unemployment. Presumably English and European aid would prevent actual food riots.

Meanwhile, the moderator of the Free Church of Scotland still wants to turn the world upside down:

The Marxist historian, Christopher Hill, wrote a magnificent book about the 17th Century English Civil War, which he entitled The World Turned Upside Down. In it he examined the radical ideas of the English revolutionaries. Those who are familiar with the King James English version of the Bible will know that he lifted the phrase from Acts 17:6. I liked the idea so much that when I first became a theological student and had to travel the country preaching, one of the verses I often preached on was that one. And then I discovered the more modern NIV translation “These men who have caused trouble all over the world, have now come here”. Did I want to be known as a troublemaker? Do we? It seems to me that in modern Scotland those of us who want to hold to the biblical position are in danger of being regarded as, if not enemies of the State, at least troublesome undesirables from a past era. Is it not the default position of much of modern European Christianity, that though we talk about being radical, we prefer comfortable conservatism, the kind that never changes anything?

Except, that is, in the presence of royalty (or its aura):

then came the evening ‘Lord High Commissioners’ reception at Holyrood Palace. From the beginning it was just such a different world. The palace itself is beautiful, the ceremonies quaint and the people ‘different class’….mostly aristocracy and high clergy. There was so much that fascinated and amused me. Walking into one room and seeing the portrait of Charles the First (perhaps I shouldn’t have commented ‘off with his head!”); thinking that black tie meant a black tie – not realising that it meant black dickie bow, tails and more formal dress….so there was I standing in my brown suit (and black funeral tie) whilst the other ‘high heid un’ clerlgy were in dog collars, purple robes and the various regalia. Still at least it made people ask ‘what do you do?”.

Sitting at the massive table in the dining room – with 80 others – was also an experience. The Lady beside me asked ‘what do you think of gay marriage’ as her opening gambit. Then I spoke to the Lady on my right – who was a judge and indeed had judged the FCC v’s Free Church case. She was absolutely wonderful. She is an intelligent, thoughtful and open minded atheist/agnostic. She is my new ‘bestie’! Suffice it to say I had the most stimulating two hour conversation (Annabel was sitting further down the table) on the law, the bible and the gospel. I feel that I now have a calling to ministry amongst the aristocracy!

Although I am a bit of a pleb. I was horrified when we were asked to raise a glass to the Queen, as I had already drunk my wine. And I was even more horrified to discover that my part of the beautiful white linen cloth was the only one stained by gravy. I wasn’t the only pleb there though! Annabel was talking to a woman who said that she helped with the Queens flowers. To which Annabel replied ‘Are you a florist?”! Not sure that Lady X was all that enamoured.

Postscript: if you want to know the biggest difference between Old and New World Presbyterianism, it is this. In Ireland and Scotland moderators of assemblies still report to and hob nob with the monarchy and its minions. In the United States (can’t speak for Canada), you are lucky if the White House chief of staff knows the URL for your communion.

Independence Day in Calvinist "Rome"

After a stimulating conference in Hungary on international Calvinism, yesterday conferees concluded their visit by taking a tour of Debrecen, the stronghold of the Hungarian Reformed Church, and the place where on April 14 (which was yesterday), 1849, the Hungarians declared independence at the city’s Great (not pretty good) Church. Here’s one account of what happened:

Hungary had been ruled successively by Turkish sultans and Austrian emperors for centuries when the 1848 upsurge of revolutionary nationalism in Europe struck Budapest, where liberty, equality and fraternity were rousingly declared, the single political prisoner left in gaol was freed (a tiresomely loquacious old soul he proved to be) and the Habsburg regime was forced to accept a Hungarian national government. The new, eighteen-year-old Emperor Franz Josef’s attempt to regain control was countered the following year by a declaration that ‘the perjured House of Habsburg-Lorraine’ had broken every tie of mutual obligation between itself and Hungary. ‘Therefore the House of Habsburg is for ever deposed from sovereignty over Hungary and declared to have forfeited the throne and to be excluded and banished in the name of the nation.’ Henceforth, Hungary was independent. ‘We inform all the peoples of the civilised world of this fact,’ the manifesto went on, ‘in the firm conviction that it will accept the Hungarian nation, as the youngest but not unworthy brother, into the ranks of independent nations.’

The proclamation’s author was a radical journalist and agitator of forty-six named Lajos Kossuth, an ardent Magyar chauvinist although himself, ironically, of mixed Slovak and German stock. The Magyars were now in the minority in Hungary, outnumbered by Serbs, Croats, Romanians and Germans, and this was one of the complicating factors in the situation. Kossuth’s political pamphleteering against Austrian rule had earned him several years in prison for subversion in the 1830s and the sentence made him a popular hero, though his opinions were too extreme for many of the progressive intellectuals of the day. Elected to the Hungarian parliament, or Diet, in 1847, and a brilliant and inspiring speaker, he demanded the removal of the dead hand of Austrian absolutism as the essential preliminary to political and social reform. Bold, magnetic, resourceful and high-handed, he was appointed minister of finance in the new national government.

When a Croat army invaded Hungary in September 1848 to restore Austrian control, the Diet appointed Kossuth to head the committee of national defence. He organised a surprisingly successful Hungarian army and inspired the mass demonstrations which propelled the remaining rump of the Diet into issuing its manifesto of independence on April 14th, 1849. The Diet now appointed him Governor of Hungary.

That act of independence hardly fixed things for Hungarians or Hungarian Calvinists in a very complicated part of Europe. But as folks at the conference learned, the Reformed churches of central Europe are alive and kicking. Even though they may not be up to the standards that Presbyterians and Reformed promote in the Land of the Free, it’s hard to blame a communion that has had to deal with the Habsburgs and the Communists. And comparisons of United States’ and Hungarian Calvinism may teach a lot about how important environments are for the fauna that bloom as Reformed Protestantism. They may even teach yet again how positive religious liberty really is even if it also means freedom for a lot of objectionable stuff. No one said it would be all good.

A Pastor on the Verge

In my few interactions with David Robertson, I have noticed that he does not suffer fools patiently. He also seems to have a patronizing attitude toward Christianity in the United States. Nothing wrong with either of these outlooks, but I do wonder if he sometimes hears himself.

For instance, he has been a defender of Tim Keller and appears at times to be inspired by the NYC pastor. But could anyone imagine TKNY writing this:

the kind of ‘reconciliation’ being posited is papering over the real cracks in society. This is more about politicians’ games and media manipulation than any attempt to deal with the real problems in our society. It enabled politicians to say look we are ‘better together’ and it allowed the Church to feel significant.

I found it all more than a little patronising and fake. And I’m not sure I do want to be reconciled to the poverty, injustice, sexual abuse and the growing gaps between the rich and powerful and the poor and powerless. I want to scream at the darkness, not pretend everything is sweetness and light. But even though there is a deeper reconciliation in society needed, there is something even more basic than that. . . .

God’s new community is salt and light in a dark and tasteless world. We are not those who speak of the shared values of the powerful elites, who say ‘peace, peace when there is no peace’. We are those who point to Christ, the light of the world and who ourselves live by that light. Reconciliation will only come through reformation, renewal and revival!

It would be hard to imagine Keller writing about Mayors Guiliani or Bloomberg the way that Robertson writes about Prime Minister Cameron and other UK officials (though if Keller channeled Robertson he would be a lot more interesting to read).

It would also be hard not to see a bit of Robertson’s views about religion and politics in the way that American Christians conduct themselves (except for Keller):

In 1979 I had just become a Christian – I saw in the Gospel a far deeper hope and more radical solution that even Mrs Thatcher was offering and, as I wept, I dedicated myself to proclaiming the cause of Christ, where-ever He called me. Today I weep again for my country and I rededicate myself to that same cause. I don’t want to spend my time trying to steady the sinking ship. I want to man the lifeboats and rescue the drowning. I want to turn the world upside down. Is that so wrong?!

So you say you want a revolution? A Christian one? Say hello to the U.S. of A.

When Dutch Calvinism was 2k — even Republican

Bruce Fronen explains why Reformed Protestants oppose absolute monarchy both in the state and the church:

Calvinism generally is identified with the Swiss city state of Geneva. But that city existed, politically, as a kind of hothouse flower, protected for years by the presence of Calvin himself (though that did not prevent significant problems) and, more important, the strength and isolation of the Swiss confederation. The Netherlands, on the other hand, was a nation born in the crucible of sustained conflict. The Dutch people over generations developed a pluralist society and a kind of federal government sufficient to win independence from the Spanish monarch while retaining local freedoms and significantly divergent, traditional ways of life.

The Dutch republic had only a relatively short time as a major power and example of good government, before descending for some time into a rather petty empire seemingly motivated only by greed. But beginning in the 16th and going into the early 18th century, the Netherlands provided examples of ordered liberty, as well as practically-grounded theories underlying good government. Here a people numerous and organized enough to constitute a nation gave perhaps the first viable alternative to the centralizing monarchies then solidifying power throughout Europe. Here an early modern people came to grips with the intrinsically plural structure of society in such a way as to win their independence as a nation without losing their religious identities or local rights of self-government.

The great theorist of this time and place was Johannes Althusius. Born in what is now Germany, Althusius identified closely with his fellow Calvinists in the Netherlands. He understood, in part from simple observation of lived examples all around him that people do not exist as individuals. We all are, in our essence, members of various communities. Where in most early modern states monarchs had set about destroying most of the communities in which people become fully human and live out their lives, the Dutch never fully succumbed to the power of any single monarch. Their “petty” republics and principalities hung on tenaciously to their particular liberties and ways of life. Split by religious differences, the Dutch developed somewhat (note the lack of emphasis, here) more toleration of religious dissent than most other countries. But where they truly showed their strength was in their recognition and practice of what Calvinists in the New World would term “federal liberty.”

This piece of Dutch Calvinist history often goes overlooked by transformers of every square inch, even though Abraham Kuyper himself capitalized on Dutch pluralism to recognize a variety of groups in Dutch life in ways that would drive American Protestants of Anglo backgrounds batty. The odd thing about Dutch Calvinism is that it was far more tolerant than those whom today it inspires. I can’t help but blame w-w, which drives a wedge between believers and unbelievers in totalizing ways and animates the bejeebies about secularization.

The European Roots of American Christianity

As I walked around Rome this morning I could well understand the appeal of Roman Catholicism to Christians in the U.S. who desire a faith more profound than James Dobson’s or even Tim Keller’s. (TKNY’s historical vibe does not seem to be any older than 1990s New York, despite the comparisons of him to C. S. Lewis.) Heck, part of the appeal to me of Reformed Protestantism was that it situated me in a set of debates and a system of Christian reflection and ministry that went well beyond 1938 — the year my parents’ Baptist congregation started (we had no clue about Roger William and Rhode Island). So with Zwingli and Bucer I get almost five hundred years of tradition (or records, anyway). And for a U.S. Presbyterian who just spent a week in Edinburgh, arguably one of the most beautiful cities in the world with a population of less than 600,000, to walk through the streets and read through the archives and be reminded of arguments and assertions that still hold sway in some American communions sure beats following a trail that ends in some recent odd American locale.

Even so, with Rome, you get a lot more and a lot more grandeur, and if you are simply in the who’s-got-the-oldest-church-cornerstone mode, Rome beats Geneva and Edinburgh (though the latter has more polish than Rome which seems to suffer, along with Istanbul, from being too old; when you get used to having ruins around, you may also become accustomed to a place being a tad disheveled). Still, I’m not sure how Rome beats Jerusalem or Antakya except that western Europe has more cultural cache in the U.S. than Asia Minor (Turkey).

Amid these reflections on Europhilia, David Robertson came to the rescue to keep European Christianity real:

Put any group of Christians together and you will get a wide variety of opinions – some of them contradictory. That is particularly true when we are trying to assess the state of the Church in Europe today. On the one hand there are the doom and gloom merchants, the Jeremiahs, full of facts and figures about numbers and visions of the past, pointing out that the church is dying and we are all “doomed, doomed”. On the other there are the “God is doing a new and greater thing” brigade, the revivalists who are also full of facts and figures but their visions are visions of the future. They assure us on the basis of what is happening in a couple of churches, and a dream that they had that victory is just around the corner, revival is on its way and all we have to do is help their ministry. Isn’t it strange how both the “realists” and the “revivalists” seem to be able to justify their own ministeries because of their prophecies? We are told that we need to support the realists because only in that way will the remnant hang on until the Lord returns. On the other hand we had better support the revivalists because we don’t want to miss out on the revival.

So maybe European Christianity isn’t all that we Europhilic Christians in the U.S. make it out to be. It sure has more history, better architecture, and civilizational presence. But freed from all the baggage of Christendom, perhaps Christianity is better off. That’s not an expression of American Christian exceptionalism. Nor is it an assertion that American Christianity is somehow independent from Europe’s churches. Unmoored from Europe’s tragedies and buoyed by America’s can-do (Pelagian) spirit, mixed with a blasphemous belief in the nation’s divine purpose, American Christianity (Protestant and Roman Catholic) has no room to gloat (even though we usually gloat in spades). At the same time, returning to Europe and its Christian ways won’t do either.