Curmudgeonly Evangelicals?

Old Life is not the only place where the dissatisfied express their dissatisfaction. Evangelical scholars are weighing in on Francis Fitzgerald’s new book, The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America. If Barry Hankins thinks Fitzgerald neglects evangelicalism’s religious character, Randy Balmer faults her for not noticing evangelicals’ progressive politics:

FitzGerald recounts the drafting of the Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Con­cern in November 1973, but then progressive evangelicals drop almost entirely from the narrative until the waning years of the George W. Bush administration. Jimmy Carter, a Southern Baptist deacon and Sunday school teacher, the nation’s first avowed born-again president and a progressive evangelical, receives only scattered mention—far less, for example, than Phyllis Schlafly or even Herb Titus, a truly fringe figure. The chapter on George W. Bush, the nation’s second born-again president, by contrast, consumes more than a hundred pages.

FitzGerald renders the inner workings of the religious right in granular detail. We hear, for example, about James Dob­son’s tantrums and Richard Land’s partisan harangues, but only brief and belated reference to Sojourners magazine’s Call to Renewal or the effort of Red Letter Christians to emphasize the social teachings of Jesus. The author commendably plunges into the works of Rousas John Rushdoony and Francis Schaeffer, but the writings of Jim Wallis receive no comparable midrash. Shane Claiborne, a “rock star” among younger evangelicals and a radical (not progressive) evangelical, merits only a single reference.

The problem that Balmer fails to notice is that Christian progressives (evangelical or not) are in decline:

If the religious right has a single lesson to offer the left, it’s that churches make excellent incubators for political movements. With the decline of unions, progressive organizing has been left with a vacuum to fill. Left-leaning congregations could provide much-needed organizational apparatus that would be particularly important in local and off-year elections — the type of contests Democrats have struggled with in recent years.

Yet the the religious left has never faced more serious challenges. Religious progressives are fighting for relevance at a time when secular voters are becoming an increasingly crucial part of the Democratic coalition, and their political clout is only going to grow. Recent work suggests that secular voters are often uncomfortable with religiously infused political appeals, which could hurt the prospects of creating a secular-religious coalition. Progressives have always celebrated the big-tent nature of their movement, but religious liberals who once operated in the center ring may now have to come to terms with working outside the spotlight.

Since we live in a democracy, numbers matter? If we want an aristocracy of the few, the virtuous, the woke, fine. But that means giving up all that idealism about the equality of all people.

Don’t forget to notice also that the problem for Balmer with evangelicals is not Hankin’s complaint — that they are too political. Instead, the evangelical error is having the wrong politics. That would be an amusing exegetical show to find the Democratic (or Republican) platform in the pages of Holy Writ.

Machen’s Warrior Mother

Another difference between New Calvinists and Reformed Protestants — sentimentality. Tim Challies does his best to present J. Gresham Machen as — we used to call them mama’s boys — the godly Christian son:

Because Gresham was a lifelong bachelor, his mother would remain the closest woman in his life until her death in 1931. This was the most grievous event he had experienced, for no one had held him in greater esteem than his mother. No one had been so unswervingly loyal to him. Perhaps no one had been so impacted by him. She once wrote to him: “I cannot half express to you my pride and profound joy in your work. You have handled in a very able manner the most important problem of the age, and you have given voice to my own sentiments far better than I could myself.” On the day the family laid her to rest, Gresham wrote, “My mother seems—to me at least—to have been the wisest and best human being I ever knew.”

God used Minnie’s powerful intellect and warm kindness to raise up a man who would benefit generations of Christians by his stalwart defense of the faith. And he continues to use such mothers to this day. Mothers, as you struggle to instruct your children in the Word and in sound doctrine, learn from Minnie that your labor is setting a strong foundation for years to come. As you strive to show steadfast love to your faltering children, learn from Minnie that God often uses such compassion to draw his children back to himself. Through your training and your tenderness, you are displaying the love of the Father.

Minnie had been her son’s first teacher and, with her husband, the one who led him to Christ. “Without what I got from you and Mother,” he would tell his father, “I should long since have given up all thoughts of religion or of a moral life. . . . The only thing that enables me to get any benefit out of my opportunities here is the continual presence with me in spirit of you and Mother and the Christian teaching which you have given me.” At his time of deepest need, she had comforted him with love and counseled him with the Word of God. She had remained loyal to him in that crisis and through every other controversy he endured. In his greatest and most enduring work, Christianity and Liberalism, it is fitting that its opening page bears this simple dedication: “To my mother.”

Tender. Warm. Kind. Compassion. Love. Loyalty. Those are all appealing words and they no doubt capture some of the relationship that Machen had with his mother, Mary Gresham.

But that portrait of the close relationship of mother and son (which those skeptical of Machen’s virtues have used to raise questions about his sexuality) doesn’t prepare New Calvinist admirers for the Warrior Children side of Machen. And to keep the spread sheets properly balanced, the New Calvinists (at least) need to remember how John Frame described the less than appealing side of Machen’s controversial proclivities:

The Machen movement was born in the controversy over liberal theology. I have no doubt that Machen and his colleagues were right to reject this theology and to fight it. But it is arguable that once the Machenites found themselves in a “true Presbyterian church” they were unable to moderate their martial impulses. Being in a church without liberals to fight, they turned on one another.

One slogan of the Machen movement was “truth before friendship.” We should laud their intention to act according to principle without compromise. But the biblical balance is “speaking the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15). We must not speak the truth without thinking of the effect of our formulations on our fellow Christians, even our opponents. That balance was not characteristic of the Machen movement.

Fighting for the sake of contention is one thing. Fighting for a Reformed church according to the word is another. Many of Machen’s warrior children think they fight for the sake of God’s word. New Calvinists tend to be skeptical, as Frame is, about the extent of battle fronts. They even call Old Calvinists mean and ornery.

As long as New Calvinists also know that Machen had critics who called him mean and ornery, they might avoid sentimentalizing Machen. If they want to sanitize him, they need to explain how Minnie Machen ever let her son become such a controversialist.

You Can’t Claim the Reformation and the First Gross (think German) Awakening

While the Gospel Allies put on the mantle of Luther — LUTHER!!! (that antinomian, beer drinking, potty mouth) — they should really be reading Garry Wills on the problem with evangelicalism. As I’ve been trying to say for some time, revivalism is antithetical to reformation. The church (as in reform the church) matters to Luther and Calvin. The parachurch is at the heart of revivals and the Gospel Coalition. To that end, consider the following:

Evangelicalism tends to break out of any single denomination—think of the preachers from various bodies at Cane Ridge. It is fissiparous even in its most favorable environments—think of Methodism branching into the Disciples of Christ, the Holiness Movement, the African Methodist Episcopal Church. (Whitefield, it should be remembered, was an ordained Anglican.) Evangelicalism is a style—Mark Noll calls it a “value system.” It can affect even some “high church” bodies or members. There are Pentecostalists among Roman Catholics. (Phyllis Schlafly, it should be remembered, was a Catholic, as Kellyanne Conway and Steve Bannon are. Bannon showed his allegiance in his 2014 Skype address to the Institute for Human Dignity at the Vatican.)

Given this description of evangelical style, two things should be noticed. America is, or likes to think of itself as, a “do-it-yourself democracy.” Many of the traits I have been listing are ones Americans will fancy themselves as embodying (or wanting to). People who hit the sawdust trail are working a kind of do-it-yourself salvation. The credentialing by the people is what all presidents claim. No wonder Noll thinks of evangelical religion (despite its roots in Wesley’s England) as native to America, as giving America its most recognizable God. Calvin said God “elects” his chosen ones. In America we choose to elect our leaders. The crowd credentials the preacher. Historians rightly observe that our national political conventions have borrowed elements from revivals.

The Allies should be especially mindful, as the crowds gather this week that “crowds credential preachers.”

Why I Wouldn’t Sign (if I were evangelical)

Would you sign this expression of empathy with people who are not citizens of the United States? Here is how it begins:

The United States has experienced a contentious election and post-election season marked by fear, polarization, and violence. The current political climate reveals longstanding national sins of racism, misogyny, nativism, and great economic disparity. As faculty members of Christian institutions of higher education who represent varying degrees of privilege and power (but who are not representing those institutions in this document), we, the undersigned, join our voices with those who are most vulnerable.

We affirm the dignity of every human being as created in God’s image (Gen. 1:27). We submit to the sovereignty of Christ who humbled himself unto death. As members of his body, we strive to consider others above ourselves (Phil. 2:2–8); to speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15); to serve one another in humility (Matt. 20:26–28); and to honor and steward God’s good creation (Gen. 1:28). As one body, if one member suffers, all suffer (1 Cor. 12:26); if one weeps, the body laments with them (Rom. 12:15); even creation groans in bondage to decay (Rom. 8:19-23).

I wonder if these Christian faculty would be inclined to sign a man-made creed, say like the Westminster Confession or the Book of Concord? I thought evangelicals were supposed to be anti-creedal.

Oh well.

Here‘s why Chris Gehrz signed (even though he admits he hesitated):

Indeed, I think most Christians would affirm them, whatever their theological, political, or other differences. While hardly an exhaustive list of Christian beliefs, these convictions are nevertheless foundational to Christian faith, community, and mission. And, as the statement goes on to explain, such commitments need to be restated and acted upon in a time when there is “falsehood that seeks to undermine truth and any propaganda intended to obscure it,” when a “large portion of our communities is weeping” and there is genuine anxiety and fear among many of our neighbors.

A concern for truth is obviously important for academics, whatever their religious beliefs and doubts. Why our role as Christian educators would compel us to acknowledge “pain and woundedness” and then “entreat Christian communities to seek healing, reconciliation, and justice” may be less evident.

Here‘s why his colleague, Ray VanArragon (what a Dutch-American name), wouldn’t sign:

First, the petition is unduly expansive, covering a range of topics that include racism, economic disparity, the environment, and our lack of neighborliness. At the same time it does not offer any recommendations for concrete responsive action.

Second, it employs language that tends to put off people who live outside of academic circles. It speaks vaguely about “structural injustice” and “degrees of privilege and power,” without explaining what those terms mean. It slyly suggests that Christians ought to share the priorities of the political left – a suggestion reinforced by the fact that, expansive as it is, it makes no mention of abortion. Right-of-center Christians, even well-meaning ones, may be inclined to dismiss the petition as pompous, disingenuous, and one-sided.

Here’s why I’m not.

This statement:

The current political climate reveals longstanding national sins of racism, misogyny, nativism, and great economic disparity.

Does not go with this statement:

we affirm our deep resolve to pursue truth, to reason carefully, and to rely on sound evidence.

Outrage is easy. So is moral posturing. Thinking carefully so that you don’t exhibit moral overreach is a challenge. I’d have thought educators would know this.

Where Reformed Protestants and New Calvinists Part Ways

New Calvinists believe:

Behind every great man there’s a great woman. Like most maxims, it is generally true, even if not universally true.

Reformed Protestants know (thanks to Stan Evans):

Behind every great man is a surprised mother-in-law.

Postscript: Conscience, a mother-in-law who never leaves. (H. L. Mencken)

Perspective on Tim’s Toxic Teaching

W-w will not help you sort this out. Carol Howard Merritt cannot tell the difference between Tim Keller and Tim Bayly:

I know that people are angry that Tim Keller doesn’t believe in women in the pastorate. But, my friends, this goes much, much deeper than women not being able to be ordained as Pastors, Elders, and Deacons. Complementarianism means married women have no choice over their lives at all.

So as Princeton Theological Seminary celebrates Tim Keller’s theology, I will be mourning. As he presents his lecture and receives his $10,000 award, I will lament for my sisters who have been maligned and abused. So much of my ministry has been dedicated to aiding the victims of these poisonous beliefs. In these difficult days, when our president says that women’s genetalia is up for grabs by any man with power and influence, I hoped that my denomination would stand up for women, loud and clear. Instead we are honoring and celebrating a man who has championed toxic theology for decades.

God, help us.

Meanwhile, Justin Taylor can’t tell the difference between Old Life and Carol Howard Merritt.

What help would confessional Presbyterianism give? It could provide a standard for teaching that cuts through male headship, or women’s liberation, or macho heterosexuality as the bright lines of Christian identity.

And notice this. Tim Keller was riding the wave of progressivism that swept through America post-Bush II. The world was getting better, conversations about race were ongoing, the economy was sluggish but improving, tolerance was increasing, cities were becoming more the sites of church life, and Christian apologists were gaining a hearing in the outlets of the mainstream media. Christians really could make a difference. A moderate, New School Presbyterianism with ties to Baptistic Calvinists could recover the cooperative endeavors that fueled Carl Henry, Harold John Ockenga, and Billy Graham. These sensible and extremes-avoiding Protestants could fill the vacuum created by the mainline.

Except that mainstream world, as Merritt indicates, has its own orthodoxy. You can be sensible, moderate, hip — heck, you can even like The Wire and channel Machen — and not measure up.

Maybe it turns out that Keller reached more Christians to think that the skeptics were really friendly rather than reaching the skeptics. Maybe it turns out that New School Presbyterians have more in common with Old School Presbyterians. What if they acted like it?

You Can Take the Curmudgeon out of Presbyterianism . . .

But you can’t take Presbyterianism out of the Curmudgeon.

The best priest we know serves up even more reasons for thinking New Calvinism is a sham:

Drs. Moore and Mohler have also been involved in another SBC fight. They are Calvinists in a denomination that has embraced evangelism and church growth of first of the Second Great Awakening sort (100 verses of “Just As I Am” waiting for one more sinner to be converted or one more backslider rededicate) and then of the church growth/contemporary church sort (rock bands, smoke machines, and preachers sitting on stools). But large number of Southern Baptists have embraced what they call “Calvinism” (How is a credo-baptist really a Calvinist?), or “the doctrines of grace” (“soteriological Calvinism, though one must also ask what kind of soteriological Calvinism denies a means of grace, baptism, to children?). The tension between traditional Baptists and the so-called Calvinistic Baptists is another fault line in the Convention, though a piece of plywood has been put over crack.

To keep it straight, the Gospel Coalition attracts and promotes Calvinists (think Tim Keller and the PCA) who do not minister as Calvinists, that is, Calvinists who look the other way when it comes to worship and the ministry of the word. To be sure, New Calvinists care about ministry, but their concern is for relevance, influence, size (matters). Their concern is not like Calvin’s or Bucer’s or Ursinus’ to make ministry conform to Scripture — Reformed according to the Word.

That is where tranformationalism goes. It sups with practices designed to be strategic, to win a hearing, to sit at the table. And all along, the freedom to minister word and sacrament, follow the regulative principle, administer church discipline is still overwhelmingly available. The problem is that the traditional means of grace and serious worship won’t rise above the hum drum of congregational life to amount to a movement, a following. Shouldn’t New Calvinists trust the God-ordained means of grace? Or do they know something God’s word doesn’t?

It reminds me of Hughes Oliphint Old’s point about contemporary worship:

In our evangelistic zeal we are looking for programs that will attract people. We think we have put honey on the lip of the bitter cup of salvation. It is the story of the wedding of Cana all over again but with this difference. At the crucial moment when the wine failed, we took matters into our own hands and used those five stone jars to mix up a batch of Kool-Aid instead. It seemed like a good solution in terms of our American culture. Unfortunately, all too soon the guests discovered the fraud. Alas! What are we to do now? How can we possible minister to those who thirst for the real thing? There is but one thing to do, as Mary the mother of Jesus, understood so very well. You remember how the story goes. After presenting the problem to Jesus, Mary turned to the servants and said to them, “Do whatever he tells you.” The servants did just that and the water was turned to wine, wine rich and mellow beyond anything they had ever tasted before.