The 2k Middle Way

This should eliminate the “R” from R2K with help from the Gospel Allies. Trevin Wax mentions three matters where New Calvinists (posing as neo-Calvinists) can learn from Anabaptists (hint, it’s not how to build a gospel barn). If Mr. Wax had spent a little more time with 2K, he might have posed these theses better.

First, “What happens in the church matters more than anything that happens in the world.

Reply: what have 2kers been saying but only to hear that Christianity must go beyond the church parking lot? And is it not a tad rich to hear about the importance of the church at a website that puts the RA in parachurch? In other words, a high church Calvinism would help Mr. Wax restore the visible church to its proper significance.

Second, “The church changes the world by being the church.”

Reply: don’t go empire building without referring to your Constantinian playbook. Heck, would the church even have a Trinitarian theology to wind up the complementarians without the emperor calling an ecumenical council? Don’t forget either that the conversion of emperors and kings gave a plausibility to Christianity that made the evangelization of medieval Europe more plausible than it would have been with Christianity as a minority and persecuted faith. Do remember as well that the number of Christians spiked in the first half of the fourth century — from 10% of the population in 300 to 50% in 350 — undoubtedly because Christian politicians made the faith respectable and even remunerative.

Meanwhile, as kind as it is to regard Anabaptists as making a difference, overlooking the enormous influence of magisterial Protestants in so many of the aspects of Christian life we take for granted is unfortunate. Whether you like Vacation Bible School, Sunday school, a Bible in every hotel room, or parachurch foreign missionary enterprises, the evangelicals who read and take heart from the Gospel Allies would have a dry and parched religious landscape if they had had to depend on Anabaptists who went before.

Third, “The church is strongest in its witness when it occupies the margins.”

Reply: another kind and generous assertion, but is anyone going to tell me that the OPC has been incredibly strong — compared to Tim Keller, the Gospel Allies, the hipper portions of the PCA, and the behemoth Southern Baptist Convention — because Orthodox Presbyterians have ministered on the margins? Please.

So before anyone tries to buy a farm next to an Amish family, take Mr. Wax’s recommendation of Anabaptism with a grain of salt. If you’re really Reformed, you can chase it with a shot of Rye.

Is Tim Keller Leaving the PCA for the OPC?

His latest post for the Co-Allies suggests he may:

The earliest Christians were widely ridiculed, especially by cultural elites, were excluded from circles of influence and business, and were often persecuted and put to death. Hurtado says Roman authorities were uniquely hostile to them, compared to other religious groups. . . .

The earliest church was seen as too exclusive and a threat to the social order because it would not honor all deities; today Christians are again being seen exclusive and a threat to the social order because we will not honor all identities.

Yet the early church thrived in that situation. Why?

One reason was that Christians were ridiculed as too exclusive and different. And yet many were drawn to Christianity because it was different. If a religion isn’t different from the surrounding culture—if it doesn’t critique and offer an alternative to it—it dies because it’s seen as unnecessary. . . .

The early church surely looked like it was on the “wrong side of history,” but instead it changed history with a dogged adherence to the biblical gospel. That should be our aspiration as well.

When you read those estimates of the early church, do you think more of the PCA or the OPC?

By the way, Keller leaves out one of the biggest factors in the early church’s “success”: the conversion of the emperor. In 300 roughly 10 percent of the empire’s population was Christian. By 350 that number rose to 55 percent.

Now all Pastor Keller needs to do is convert his fellow New Yorker, Mr. Trump. But I’m not sure how appealing a religion ridiculed by cultural elites and that is excluded from circles of influence and business will be. I am not even sure Pastor Keller’s experience proves that kind of Christianity “works.”

Reading about Machen in The Reformed Journal

Reformed Protestants 50 and up may have spent some of their reading hours with The Reformed Journal, a magazine of Dutch-American Calvinist provenance that came into existence as a forum for Christian Reformed Church progressives. I read it from my days as a seminary student until 1990 when it folded. I didn’t always agree with the politics or theology, but it was provocative and thoughtful.

Given the “progressive” character of the magazine, I should not have been surprised that TRJ’s regular contributors were slightly sympathetic but underwhelmed by J. Gresham Machen. That outlook bothered me because the deeper I went into the archives, the more impressed I was by the man who started Westminster Seminary and the OPC (with lots of help from others). In light of yesterday’s post with an excerpt from Machen’s testimony at his trial and with some reflections still fresh from the fall Presbyterian Scholars Conference (where several participants were experiencing the joy of post-PCUSA life but still not on board with Machen’s own version of that experience), I reproduce some high or low lights of TRJ takes on Machen.

First comes Rich Mouw’s argument that Machen’s departure actually hurt the cause of conservatism in the PCUSA (one echoed by George Marsden at the Wheaton conference):

Barbara Wheeler and I have argued much about the issues that threaten to divide us, but we share a strong commitment to continuing the conversation. She regularly makes her case for staying together by appealing to a high ecclesiology. The church, she insists, is not a voluntary arrangement that we can abandon just because we do not happen to like some of the other people in the group. God calls us into the church, and that means that God requires that we hang in there with one another even if that goes against our natural inclinations.

I agree with that formulation. And I sense that many of my fellow evangelicals in the PCUSA would also endorse it. The question that many evangelicals are asking these days, though, is whether God expects us to hang in there at all costs.

One of my reasons for wanting to see us stick together is that a Presbyterian split would be a serious setback for the cause that I care deeply about, namely the cause of Reformed orthodoxy. I spend a lot of time thinking about how people with my kind of theology, have acted in the past, and I am convinced that splits inevitably diminish the influence of the kind of orthodoxy that I cherish — for at least two reasons.

First, the denomination from which the dissidents depart is typically left without strong voices to defend orthodox. This is what happened in the early decades of the 20th century when J. Gresham Machen and his colleagues broke away from the northern Presbyterian church.

I know that this is not a very popular thing to say in this setting, but I happen to be a strong admirer of Machen. I think that he pretty much had things right on questions of biblical authority, the nature of Christ’s atoning work, and other key items on the theological agenda. But I have strong reservations about his ecclesiology and I regret that his views about the unity of the church led him to abandon mainline Presbyterianism. As long as he remained within the northern church, he had a forum for demonstrating to liberals that Calvinist orthodoxy could be articulated with intellectual rigor. When he and his friends departed, this kind of witness departed with them.

The evangelicals who stayed on in the northern church generally did so because they were not as polemical as the Machen group; they were also not nearly as inclined as the Machenites to engage in sustained theological discussion. This meant that the quality of theological argumentation in mainline Presbyterianism suffered for several decades — some would even say up to our present time.

Not to let facts get in the way here, but Mouw would do well to remember that the PCUSA brought Machen to trial and excommunicated him. Yesterday’s post shows that Machen was not eager to flee even if it would have been a lot more pleasant. Whether his actions were legitimate or constitutional is another question. But he asked about the constitutionality of PCUSA actions and that didn’t endear him to the people who stayed. In fact, they tried him for having the temerity to question the soundness of the Board of Foreign Missions — as if that’s never happened — and the administrative fiats that condemned dissent.

I too wonder if Mouw considers that from 1869 until 1920 the PCUSA became infected by the social gospel and Protestant ecumenism. During that very same time Princeton Seminary as the voice of Reformed orthodoxy in the northern church was still dominated by conservatives. What happened during the years when Princeton kept alive the theology that Mouw values? Princeton and it’s orthodoxy became marginal and then a nuisance — hence the reorganization of Princeton Seminary in 1929. The idea that had Machen stayed conservatives would have done better is naive and ignores what actually happened before Machen “left.” Plus, what kind of high ecclesiology settles for articulating “Calvinist orthodoxy with intellectual rigor”?

George Marsden and Mark Noll regularly wrote for TRJ and again the returns on Machen were not always positive. First, Marsden:

Both at the time and since critics of Machen have suggested that there was something peculiar about him. Most often mentioned are that Machen remained a bachelor and his very close relationship to his mother until her death in 1931. Neither of these traits, however, was particularly unusual in the Victorian era, which certainly set many of Machen’s social standards.

More to the point is that he does seem to have had a flaring temper and a propensity to make strong remarks about individuals with whom he disagreed. One striking instance is from 1913 when Machen had an intense two-hour argument with B. B. Warfield over campus policy, after which Machen wrote to his mother that Warfield, whom he normally admired immensely, was “himself, despite some very good qualities, a very heartless, selfish, domineering sort of man.” You can imagine that, if someone says things like this about one’s friends, that it might be easy to make enemies. Machen does not seem to have had a great ability to separate people from issues, and this certainly added to the tensions on the small seminary faculty. Clearly he was someone whom people either loved or hated. His students disciples were charmed by him and always spoke of his warmth and gentlemanliness. His opponents found him impossible, and it is a fair question to ask whether, despite the serious issues, things might have gone differently with a different personality involved.

This observation continues to baffle me, as if people do not distinguish public from private statements. Maybe we are only learning that lesson after Donald Trump, but historians generally know that in the archives you find people saying all sorts of things that they wouldn’t say in public. In private we blow off steam, unless we are all walking John Piper’s and sanctified all the way down. I also don’t understand why Marsden starts his sentence on Machen’s personality with the man’s opponents found him impossible. Hello. The feeling was mutual. But Machen as a sanctified believer was supposed to find his adversaries hedonistically delightful?

And finally, Mark Noll’s estimate on the fiftieth anniversary of Machen’s death:

By reading controversies within Princeton Seminary, Presbyterian missions, and eventually the Presbyterian denomination as battles between two separate religions, “Christianity and Liberalism,” Machen undermined the effectiveness of those Reformed and evangelical individuals who chose to remain at Princeton Seminary, with the Presbyterian mission board, and in the Northern Presbyterian Church. By committing himself so strongly to theological and ecclesiastical combat, Machen left successors who were ill-equipped to deal with the more practical matters of evangelism, social outreach, and devotional nurture. By pursuing the virtues of confessional integrity, he opened the door to sectarian pettiness.

No real sense here that blaming the victim is a potential downside of such an interpretation. The perspective seemed so often in TRJ to be that Machen was a man on a mission and looking for a controversy. The bureaucrats and seminary administrators were innocent. (Yes, the lawyer who defended modernists in the 1920s, John Foster Dulles, became the Secretary of State who crafted the Eisenhower administration’s Cold War policies — the very administration that the founding editors of TRJ questioned.) The Presbyterian hierarchy simply responded — with a hammer, mind you — to Machen’s provocations. That could have been the case but no one argued that. They largely reduced Machen to a cantankerous figure who got what most of us would expect if we rock the boat the way he did.

And now in hindsight I wonder what these same men would think of Abraham Kuyper who was also part of a church that came out of the Netherlands’ state church. Didn’t Kuyper’s GKN (Reformed Churches of the Netherlands) make it a lot harder for conservatives who stayed in the NHK (Dutch Reformed Church)? And didn’t Kuyper’s Free University make life more complicated for orthodox theologians who remained at Leiden or Utrecht? (In other words, why wouldn’t it be possible to imagine Machen akin to Kuyper? Why doesn’t the Kuyper glow trickle down to Machen? Because Kuyper became Prime Minister and Machen merely president of the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions?)

And what of John Calvin? Was he wrong to leave France? Did he leave Huguenots in the lurch? Was the Roman Catholic Church worse off without Calvin’s ministry and theological reflection? Or does the mind boggle at the questions you need to start asking other historical figures when you become so demanding of a figure of which you disapprove?

Why Machen Left the OPC

He died (on this day eight decades ago).

Machen’s reasons for being a critic of the PCUSA — to the point that some thought he was impossible and failed to show Christian charity — were clear in his testimony before the Presbytery of New Brunswick (you know, the one that the Synod of Philadelphia created to make the revivalists feel welcome), the body that tried, found him guilty, and excommunicated him from the mainline church:

Suppose a minister obtains his ordination by promising to support the boards and agencies, as he is required to do by the plain intent of that addition to the manual of the Presbytery of New Brunswick and by the plain intent of the action of the 1934 General Assembly. Suppose he later becomes convinced that the boards and agencies are unfaithful to their trust. Let us even take an extreme case. Let us suppose that he has become convinced that those in charge of the boards and agencies are guilty of actual embezzlement. That case, is, of course, entirely hypothetical, but an extreme case does illustrate plainly the principle that is involved. Let us insist upon putting that extreme case. Here is a minister who has promised that he will, as long as he remains a minister in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., support the boards and agencies as they are established by successive General Assemblies. He he has become convinced that those boards and agencies are positively dishonest, even with the kind of dishonestly that is contrary to the criminal laws of the land.

What course of action is open to such a minister? He is convinced that the boards and agencies are dishonest. The general assembly is convinced that they are honest. What shall he do in such a situation? . . . Only two courses of action are open to a minister who is in such a quandary.

In the first place, he may continue to support boards and agencies which he holds to be dishonest. That course of action would plainly involve him in dishonesty. An honest man cannot possibly recommend to people that they should give to agencies which he hold to be dishonest.

In the second place, a minister who is in such a quandary may withdraw from the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. That plainly means evasion of the solemn responsibility which he has as a minister. I really wonder whether those who advocate this action of the General Assembly have ever thought this thing through. Do they really mean to tell us that just because a majority in the General Assembly has made a mistake one year and has placed in charge of the missionary funds of the church men who are dishonest, therefore a minister should withdraw from the church and allow that dishonesty to go on? I say that such conduct is an evasion of a solemn responsibility. No, it is the duty of a minister in such a situation to remain in the church and to seek by every means in his power to bring about a change in that policy of the General Assembly which he regards as involving dishonest. Meanwhile (and this should be particularly observed), he cannot for any consideration whatever give a penny to what he regards, rightly or wrongly, to be a dishonest agency; and still less can he recommend to any other persons the support of such an agency. . . .

I could never promise to support any human agency as a condition of my being ordained. I could not promise to support the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions, which I believe now to be sound in the faith. . . . It is at the very heart and core of my ordination pledge, in accordance with the law of the Presbyterian church, that I should repeatedly examine any agency that appeals to me for support in the light of the Word of God, and support it only if it is in accord with that blessed Word. Moreover, in determining whether it is in accord with that Word, I must be governed by my conscience, as God may give me light, and not by the pronouncements of any human councils or courts.

If that is contrary to Presbyterian law, then I should certainly be removed from the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. But all the glorious history of the Reformed faith should teach a man if the Word of God does not teach him, that it is not contrary to Presbyterian law but is at the very heart of Presbyterian law. (Statement to the Presbytery of New Brunswick, 347-48, 349)

Those in fellowship with the Bishop of Rome, eat your hearts out.

Gospel Coalition as Harlem Globe Trotters

One of our many southern correspondents notified me of TGC’s year-end pitch for charitable donations. At the end of Collin Hanson’s post is a link to TGC’s 2016 Annual Report. Curiously absent are the financials. The Allies encourage people to give but those people have to trust TGC staff about funds.

The similarities and differences between the Coalition and a church are striking. Since I serve on the Christian Education Committee of the OPC and am also one of the OPC’s representatives on Great Commission Publication’s board of trustees, I see strong similarities among the OPC, PCA, and TGC at least in the arena of education, curriculum development, and publication. TGC’s report on website hits, best selling books or pamphlets, and plans for 2017 titles is the sort of information I see four times a year as an OPC/GCP officer. But what I don’t see from TGC is any financial spread sheet. Since the church and parachurch both operate in a voluntary world of free-will gifts, support, and self-identification of members, you might think that giving supporters some insight into the Coalition’s funds would be not only wise but honorable.

Chalk up one for the church over the parachurch.

Another note of concern for TGC supporters may be the popularity of Jen Wilkin. According to TGC’s report:

Our all-time bestselling resource on any paid platform is Jen Wilkin’s Sermon on the Mount study with LifeWay, but it may end up topped by her 2016 TGC release, 1 Peter: A Living Hope in Christ.

Jen Wilkin may be a great lady — I’ve never heard of her though she appears to take hairstyle-advice from Ann Voskamp (not Jen Hatmaker) — but do supporters of TGC have no trouble with a non-ordained person teaching the Word of God to Christians? Maybe Ms. Wilkin is ordained. Either way, TGC’s efforts to attract support from conservative Reformed Protestants runs up against church polity that again separates the parachurch from the church (not in a good way, by the way).

But when you look at TGC’s report, you have to come away impressed with all the effort the Allies put into their labors. But what would happen if those same people put their energies into the PCA with Tim Keller or into the Southern Baptist Convention with Ms. Wilkin who goes to The Village Church (is there only one?) or into the Evangelical Free Church with D. A. Carson (does he belong to the EFC?). Where’s the efficiency? Sure, a TGC supporter could argue that the OPC or PCA or SBC are competing with TGC and these other Protestants should join forces with the Allies. But this is always what happens with “unity” projects among Christians. You form one agency to unite everyone and simply add one more organization or church to the landscape. The United Church of Canada did not unite Anglicans, Methodists, and Presbyterians. It added the United Church to the Presbyterian, Methodist, and Anglican churches.

And then there is the question of officers or pastors who hold credentials in the PCA or SBC adding their energy and resources to another Christian organization. If I play football for the Philadelphia Eagles, would the NFL allow me to play for a European football league midweek during the season (or even in the summer)? Or if I am a contributing editor to Atlantic Monthly, do I write regularly for The New Republic? These are obviously apples and oranges — publishing and sports are not ministry (though to hear some neo-Calvinists. . .). But questions about which is the primary outlet for Coalition contributors and officers is a real question that supporters of TGC should question. If I give to TGC, do I want Tim Keller spending a lot of time on committee work for his presbytery?

Chalk up another for the church.

One last observation that makes me think TGC more like an exhibition sports team (Harlem Globe Trotters) than a Major League Protestant Communion: I went to the staff page of TGC and noticed that no one works in a central office. The executive director lives in Austin, Texas (no church mentioned). The executive editor lives in Birmingham, Alabama and is part of a local community church. When it comes to the nuts and bolts of the organization, payroll, accounting, general housekeeping, again staff is scattered. The director of operations lives in Austin (no church listed). The director of program development lives in Cedar Rapids, Iowa (no church listed). The director of advancement lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota (no church listed). The manager of operations lives in Minneapolis (no church listed). The business manager lives in Austin (no church listed). And yet, for full-time staff’s location in places far away from the Big Apple, TGC’s major publishing project for 2017 is a print version of Keller’s New City Catechism. When terrorists band together, we call them non-state actors to distinguish them from the military personnel of nation-states. Nation-states engage use coercive force legitimately (ever since 1648). Terrorist organizations do not. Does that make the Allies spiritual terrorists who have no geographical or ecclesiastical home?

The impression TGC gives overall is doing all the stuff a church does (including solicitation of funds) without many of the rules that give accountability to churches in their work of word and sacrament ministry. The Allies produce conferences and literature and a website presence that provides much of the teaching and encouragement that churches also give. And yet, the Coalition has no mechanism for discipline or oversight or even ecumenical relations. To be in TGC’s orbit is like following an exhibition basketball team instead of the National Basketball Association. I guess, when your home team is the Sixers, the Globetrotters look pretty good. But it’s not real basketball.

If More Congregationalists Read Machen

They might understand the difference between a Baptist and Presbyterian. But to UCC pastor, Peter Laarman, Tony Campolo and Shane Claiborne’s proposal to re-brand evangelicalism (post-Trump) is a fool’s errand:

Campolo and Claiborne even get their history wrong. What they regard as the first successful re-branding of Bible-centered “orthodox” American Christianity in the early 20th century was in fact a complete failure, just as their proposed “Red Letter” re-branding will be this era.

They cite Carl F.H. Henry as the principal re-brander in the 1930s, but Carl Henry was not really a force to be reckoned with prior to the 1940s and 1950s. Moreover, Carl Henry’s beliefs were immediately understood to be contaminated by the same poisons that had fatally tainted Fundamentalism: i.e., a rigid view of biblical inerrancy (including a literalist view of the miracle stories), insistence that mere individual conversion fulfills God’s will, complete acceptance of the old patriarchal frame, etc.

It would be hard to find any daylight at all between the theological commitments of Carl Henry and those of J. Gresham Machen, who was heralded during the 1930s as the single brightest light among the Fundamentalists.

See what he did there? Machen signals fundamentalism (and Laarman didn’t even give Orthodox Presbyterians a trigger warning). Therefore, invoking Carl Henry is really to say you haven’t progressed beyond fundamentalism (yuck!), which makes Campolo and Claiborne even more clueless from a mainline Protestant perspective than even progressive evangelicals can fathom.

The problem is that you can see separation between Machen and Henry if you actually care more about theology, sacraments, and polity than about being in the American mainstream. Henry may have been a Calvinist on soteriology but his Reformedness didn’t go much beyond that (plus his high view of the Bible). Henry also refused to baptize babies, which puts Machen closer to Laarman than to Henry. And then Machen took Presbyterian polity seriously — hello, his church refused interdenominational cooperation in settings like the National Association of Evangelicals where Henry was an intellectual guru.

But that kind of Protestant fussiness only comes up fundamentalist for mainliners. Even though telling the difference between Congregationalists and mainline Presbyterians is impossible (and something you’re not supposed to do in polite Protestant ecumenical company), if you do did in your heels on denominational identity you are merely a separatist. You lack the good graces and tolerant bonhomie of mainstream, well-connected Protestantism. Never mind that after 135 years of ecumenical activism, the UCC and the PCUSA remain — get this — separate. And by all means don’t notice that Congregationalists and Presbyterians descend from the mother of all church separations — 1054, the year that the church Christ founded (as some put it) split up.

Lots of separations out there in church history, but the UCC puts “United” in church unity. As if.

The Next Presbyterian Church?

Notice which denominations the Presbyterian Lay(man’s) Committee tries to connect:

CONNECTING WITH OTHER PRESBYTERIANS Presbyterian Denominations:

ECO: A Covenanted Order of Evangelical Presbyterians
EPC: The Evangelical Presbyterian Church
PCA: The Presbyterian Church in America
PCUSA: The Presbyterian Church (USA)

Are the Seceders (Associate Reformed), Covenanters (Reformed Presbyterian), and Orthodox (OPC) chopped liver? The TKNY effect? The legacy of leisure suits?