Good to Know Reformed Protestantism is not Tribal

A couple more reflections on the Poway shooting put into perspective the kind of ties that people have to Protestants with Reformed convictions. If you were completely on the outside of Reformed and Presbyterian circles, if you were an evangelical who was leaving born-again Protestantism for something progressive, you might imagine writing what Christian Stroop did for Playboy:

The pattern of evangelical homeschoolers committing racially motivated, violent crimes raises questions about how homeschooling and white evangelical subculture may be contributing factors in the radicalization of young people. Earnest’s branch of the Reformed tradition, as religious studies professor Julie Ingersoll described in detail for Religion News Service, has its origins in the defense of slavery and still valorizes overtly white supremacist theologians such as R.L. Dabney.

Some Orthodox Presbyterians are adherents of Christian Reconstructionism, an extreme right-wing version of Calvinist ideology that, as described by legislative policy analyst with the Coalition for Responsible Home Education, Kathryn Brightbill, “teaches that God’s plan for civil society is to implement Old Testament political law, including the stoning parts.” If we are determined to find solutions to America’s epidemic of gun violence and hate crimes, we must put aside taboos around criticizing Christians and take these considerations seriously. Brightbill is one of two experts on U.S. homeschooling, both of whom were homeschooled in evangelical subculture and who are now a part of the increasingly visible “ex-vangelical” movement, that I asked to weigh in on the issue.

Never mind that Stroop is against heteronormativity even while writing for a publication that put hetero into heteronormativity:

[Exvangelicals] are former insiders who testify to what they see as the traumatizing effects of living under evangelicalism’s patriarchal, heteronormative, and racist norms. As Stroop wrote for Playboy last June: “When Christian nationalists are in power and perpetrating horrors, we should oppose their dominionism not with a different reading of the Bible, but with a robust defense of pluralism and secularism.”

In contrast, if you were in a denomination that has fraternal relations with the communion in which the shooter is a member, you could imagine writing what Kevin DeYoung did:

All of us in the Reformed world were shocked and saddened to learn that the alleged Ponway Synagogue shooter was “one of us,” a theologically minded young man who belonged to an OPC congregation. Without a doubt, this is an occasion to reflect on whether any of us have been soft on anti-Semitic hatred or if any of our churches are breeding grounds for murderous angst.

And yet, by all accounts, the parents and the pastor have said the right things and seem to be the sort of people that manifestly did not create a killer. If there is any causal link it is with the radicalization that happens in apocalyptic communities on message board sites like 8chan. Just because the shooter may have stolen evangelical language or Reformed theology to make his point does not mean the Christian faith is to blame any more than Jesus was to be blamed when his disciples wanted to call down fire on the Samaritans in order to defend his honor (Luke 8:51-55). The key is that Jesus rebuked them, and so must we when we see people under our care twist our teachings or when we witness their zeal turning to violence.

In our age of political polarization, we often hear accusations—on both sides—that Tragedy A was the result of a “culture of hate” or that Horrible Atrocity B was the product of “good people saying nothing.” I suppose those arguments can be true, but as a rule they are almost always so nebulous as to be unprovable and so universal as to be non-falsifiable. If millions of people in the same “culture” never act out in violent ways and a very, very, very small number do, how effective is the culture anyway?

Again, I’m not suggesting that families or religious communities or broader societal factors never play a role—and sometimes it can be shown that they play a significant role—but as a stand-alone argument, we should shy away from “the culture” as a causal explanation for much of anything. It’s unfortunate that some of the same academics who look for finely tuned, always qualified nuances in making arguments about the past are quick to make sweeping causal claims when it comes to analyzing the present.

DeYoung failed to add the unfortunate side to ministers and church members from Reformed backgrounds who also make sweeping causal claims. On the upside, that may mean that Reformed Protestantism has less binding power than political conviction or racial/ethnic identity. That could be a reason for thanks.

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The Reformation Didn’t Work Out So Well

Like the Counter-Reformation did?

Give Casey Chalk credit. He used his conversion from Presbyterianism to Roman Catholicism to land a writing gig that takes him regularly to The American Conservative, Crisis, and other outlets. (He hasn’t posted at Called to Communion for two years.) Was this the career for which Jason Stellman was hoping? What some converts don’t seem to understand, which Chalk does, is that debating theology is not nearly as appealing as talking about Western civilization and societal decay. The conservative intellectual world is populated with lots of Roman Catholics who are eager to hear about the defense of the West. Chalk made that connection.

But.

The problem is that the history that converts tell, which typically sees all the flaws of modernity as bi-products of the Reformation, ignores how poorly the church to which they converted is faring.

Here’s what Chalk recently wrote about Geneva (the city):

a visit to Geneva makes the legacy of Calvin and his cohorts painfully clear. There is the disturbing diversity of beliefs and traditions that stem from the Reformation (made illuminatingly clear in an ever-expanding ecclesial family tree available in the gift shop for ten Swiss francs!). One may also visit the International Monument to the Reformation in a nearby park, where, included with Calvin and other early Reformation figures, there is also a statue of Oliver Cromwell, the English Puritan butcher who committed genocide against a fiercely independent Irish people who refused to abandon their Catholic faith. Ironically, few Calvinists (or even practicing Christians) remain in the city that once served as the center for Reformed missionary activity.

At least Chalk concedes that Geneva “was once a spiritually vibrant city.” There may still be hope that Protestants are saved.

The question remains, though, why when Roman Catholics control an institution that may be much more manageable than a city, they have as much trouble as the Reformed church in Geneva did. Two professors at Villanova recently complained to readers of the Wall Street Journal (behind a pay wall — but we can’t get one in Texas!):

Last fall we were notified by the Villanova administration that new “diversity and inclusion” questions would be added to the course and teaching evaluations that students fill out each semester. In addition to the standard questions about the intellectual worth of the course and the quality of instruction, students are now being asked heavily politicized questions such as whether the instructor has demonstrated “cultural awareness” or created an “environment free of bias based on individual differences or social identities.”

In short, students are being asked to rate professors according to their perceived agreement with progressive political opinion on bias and identity. Students are also invited to “comment on the instructor’s sensitivity to the diversity of the students in the class.” Professors are rated on their “sensitivity” to a student’s “biological sex, disability, gender identity, national origin, political viewpoint, race/ethnicity, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, etc.” The “etc.” in particular seems like an ominous catchall, as if the sole principle of sound teaching has become “that no student shall be offended.”

… For many decades, Villanova’s mission as a Catholic university has been to initiate students into the life of the mind, encouraging them to seek the good, the true and the beautiful even as they are challenged beyond our walls to pursue justice and the common good in the service of “charity in truth.” The adoption of the new dogma of mandatory “diversity and inclusion” places that entire undertaking in danger. As professors dedicated to liberal education, we consider it essential to challenge our students to subject their ideas as well as the predominant opinions of our time to critical examination—however difficult and uncomfortable this may be. We urge our own university as well as other liberal-arts institutions to reject such ideological policing and recommit themselves to the principles of liberal education.

In which case, Roman Catholicism is no more a fix for modernity than Protestantism. What may matter is what you believe about Jesus. That would require Chalk to go back to Called to Communion. But who wants to read about that?

Sexual Hangups, Reformed or Roman Catholic

Where would you be without “Calvinism” to bail you out? Michael Sean Winters blames Reformed Protestantism for U.S. Roman Catholics’ obsession with sex:

The focus on sexuality as the key indicator of Christian identity has always been one of the odd and remarkable hallmarks of Catholicism in America. Catholic cultures — Italy, Spain, France — are not known for any puritanical dispositions regarding human sexuality. But, in America, the ambient Calvinism of the religious culture combined with the Jansenistic impulses of Irish Catholicism to make a concern for sexual purity an obsession. The three Democrats discussing their faith are right to insist that any fair reading of the Gospels reveals that the Lord Jesus spent far more time urging his disciples to be generous to the poor, welcoming to the stranger, and treat people with dignity than he did discussing any sexual issues.

This is rich coming from a member of a communion which makes a common union (marriage) a sacrament, has authoritative teaching that minutely regulates legitimate sex, requires ordained officers to live celibate lives, and has bishops who need to cover up for priests who do not practice what the church preaches (actually only homilies).

The really rich aspect of Winter’s gripe with Calvinism’s mores is that Rome’s double-mindedness about sex goes way, way back, as Charlotte Allen explains:

In Peter Damian’s definition—a common one during the Middle Ages—the sin of “sodomy” encompassed “four classes of unnatural vice,” each described by him with startling explicitness and deemed more serious than the last, starting with masturbation and culminating with anal intercourse, the worst offense of all. All were forms of male homosexual activity (the other two consisted of the carnal touching of others’ private parts and intercourse between the thighs of someone of one’s own sex). Peter Damian was outraged, particularly because the superiors of clerics who committed such sins were, in effect, giving them a pass: exacting penances for monks and priests found to have committed the first three offenses but expelling from holy orders only those who had engaged in the fourth, anal intercourse.

Some of the offenders, Peter ­Damian said, had even chosen fellow homosexual offenders as their confessors so as to obtain slap-on-the-wrist treatment. “Listen, you do-nothing superiors of clerics and priests. Listen, and even though you feel sure of yourselves, tremble at the thought that you are partners in the guilt of others; those, I mean, who wink at the sins of their subjects that need correction and who by ill-considered silence allow them license to sin.” He reserved his harshest condemnation for bishops who abused their underlings by engaging in homosexual acts with them: “What a vile deed, deserving a flood of bitter tears! If they who approve of these evildoers deserve to die, what condign punishment can be imagined for those who commit these absolutely damnable acts with their spiritual sons?” Damian was not without pity for those sinners, however, begging them to throw themselves onto God’s mercy and reform their ways, but he asked Leo to expel from holy orders those who had committed any of the four categories of sodomy.

Scholars have debated whether homosexual activity among clerics was quite such a widespread “festering disease” during the eleventh century. It is indisputable, however, that the tenth and eleventh centuries were the most scandal-plagued that the Western Church had endured, and that the moral and sexual integrity of the clergy was at the heart of the issue. Hildebrand, the Tuscan Benedictine monk who became Pope Gregory VII in 1073, had to institute the “­Gregorian Reform” movement attacking simony (the buying and selling of holy offices), lay investiture (the control of bishoprics by powerful secular lords), and gross violations of the Western Church’s longtime requirement of priestly celibacy. That rule had been in place since at least the early fourth century, but by the eleventh, priests and even bishops all over Western Europe were living openly with wives and children, often passing down their churches by inheritance to their priest-sons. Some took concubines.

How does that saying go? Those in glass houses dot dot dot

Why Calvinism Matters

When you need a check on virtue signaling (also known as brummagem moral grounds), where do turn but to Calvin or Mencken? The following (by a Dutch-American Reformed Protestant turned Roman Catholic, of all things) is a warning about reading charity as a sign of virtue:

Growing up Calvinist, we took great pride in our doctrines, and none more so than the idea of the total depravity of man. Even if we could take comfort in irresistible grace, we never lost our sense that we were sinful by nature and to the core. Regardless of our many merits, which we were ashamed to admit, we were but worms in the eyes of God.

One way to view the doctrine is that we are incapable of doing good without divine help. I am interested here, however, in the idea that everything we do is touched in some sense by our depravity.

Maybe another way of saying this is that everything we do, short of attaining the kind of theosis emphasized in Eastern Christianity, bears the stains of selfishness and the full range of human vices. Naturally, none of us like to believe this about ourselves. We like to think we are good, moral people. So a lot of time our actions carry an accompaniment of performance: we convince ourselves we are good when other people treat us as if we are so. We need their validation. Doing “good deeds” requires the recognition of others as a way of reinforcing our sense that we are good persons.

In Robert Penn Warren’s novel All The King’s Men, the central character, Jack Burden, is directed by the main political figure, Willie Stark, to dig up dirt on a political opponent. Responding to Jack’s protestations that there will be nothing to find, that the man in question is clean and can’t be intimidated, Wille responds: “Man is conceived in sin and born into corruption, from the didie to the shroud.” That is to say: every person who has walked this earth has something in their past, or in their present, that they are carrying around in shame, because that is the sort of creatures we are.

Surely this is part of what Madison meant when he said that government is the greatest of all reflections on human nature, and that whatever else is true of human beings, we are not angels. Nothing we do is untouched by our depravity.

…My point is not that human beings are incapable of doing good, nor that they are never what they claim to be. Rather, it’s to reemphasize that our actions are typically touched and tainted by self-interest, by hypocrisy, by a need to be thought well of. Thus, action must be attended by confession.

I’m not suggesting only religions which have ritualized confessions produce persons capable of doing good. I’m suggesting that moral action has as part of its equation serious introspection. Why am I doing this? Who benefits? How genuinely concerned am I about the well-being of the person who receives my help? How much does it matter to me that my acts receive recognition from others? Am I motivated by love? Power? My own sense of my superior knowledge?

There are no shortcuts on introspection, there is no cheap grace, and there is no “letting yourself off the hook” by convincing yourself that you are, after all, “doing good.”

If sinfulness still resides in worthwhile endeavors, imagine the dirt attached to hedonism.

If Not Imprecatory Psalms, What About the Lord’s Prayer?

Even Psalms that don’t register on the list of imprecatory ones can be a challenge to use if only because of their depiction of the death of God’s enemies. Some advise against their use and this was one of the reasons for not producing, as the OPC and URC did, a complete Psalter:

The psalmist was praying against those who persecuted him. The theocracy, God’s reign in Israel from the time of Moses to the time of Christ, was a shadow of future events (Heb. 10:1). One of those events is the final judgment of God. The destruction of the Canaanites in the days of Joshua was a shadow of the final judgment and not, therefore, normative for how we are to deal with our neighbors who do not believe in Jesus. The imprecations against the wicked in the book of Psalms were also shadows of the final judgment—appropriate for the era of the theocracy, but not for this present age. The gospel era is one of kindness, tolerance, and patience—intended to bring people to repentance and faith (Rom. 2:4). This is the day of salvation (2 Cor. 6:2). And this is why Jesus taught us to love our enemies and to pray for them, not against them. This is why Paul taught us to pray that God would bless our enemies (Rom. 12:14; 1 Cor. 4:12). Like the psalmist we leave vengeance to God, but unlike the psalmist we pray that God would bless those who bring pain into our lives. (Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, Psalms and Proverbs, pp. 348–49)

Others, though, notice that Christians still pray for God’s judgment upon his enemies even in the New Testament:

We need to be very conscious of trying—that part of what we’re called to be as the light of the world is people who love our enemies. Paul talks about how loving your enemies will further increase their punishment. So setting love of enemy radically over against judgment is not biblical.

I think it is not illegitimate to use the imprecations of the psalter to pray for judgment on God’s enemies. Every time we pray, “Come quickly Lord Jesus,” we’re praying an imprecation on God’s enemies. When Jesus comes again, there will be judgment for God’s enemies.

In other words, when Jesus taught his disciples to pray, he included the petition, “Thy kingdom come,” which as the Larger Catechism explains involves praying for the “hastening” of the kingdom of glory:

that Christ would rule in our hearts here, and hasten the time of his second coming, and our reigning with him forever

Not to be missed is the nature of the office that Christ executes as king:

Christ executeth the office of a king, in calling out of the world a people to himself, … restraining and overcoming all their enemies, and powerfully ordering all things for his own glory, and their good; and also in taking vengeance on the rest, who know not God, and obey not the gospel.

In which case, the anti-imprecatory Psalm position implies editing the Lord’s Prayer.

That does not mean that prayers for judgment day are easy to pray. The image of that great separation of the saved and the lost is haunting. At the same time, the thought of the end of the world is never absent from Christian devotion and worship.

On the upside, at least Protestants debate something that Roman Catholics don’t anymore thanks to an effort to manage less than good acts and desires with procedural standards and practices.

Who Sounds Protestant?

Another upgrader to Rome marvels about continuity between the ancient church and contemporary Roman Catholicism (were the church fathers as sexually confused as today?):

I haven’t officially tweeted this yet, but for the last 5-6 months, I’ve been struggling through a very unexpected twist in my Christian life: the Catholic Church. If you knew me before, you would know that this was the farthest thing from my mind for the past 30 years.

I was as anti-Catholic as they come (James White probably had me beat). The problem was, I knew NOTHING about their actually teachings. All I knew came from other anti-Catholic polemicists. Until I started a class on Church History (via a Reformed grad school). I was blown away.

In addition, I started to read the Church Fathers. Not what people say about the Fathers, but their actual letters and writings. This was HUGE in my dealings with the claims of Catholicism. They actually sounded Catholic and not Protestant.

Along with many, many pages of books, debates, and conversion stories, I started to really think that the Catholic Church is the Church that Christ founded 2000+ years ago. Now I am on the path towards full-communion with the Catholic Church. Crazy!

Have people like this never read Paul? What that apostle recommended to Titus does not sound like Roman Catholicism — eh veh:

1 Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ, for the sake of the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth, which accords with godliness, 2 in hope of eternal life, which God, who never lies, promised before the ages began 3 and at the proper time manifested in his word through the preaching with which I have been entrusted by the command of God our Savior;

4 To Titus, my true child in a common faith:

Grace and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Savior.

5 This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you— 6 if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. 7 For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, 8 but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. 9 He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.

10 For there are many who are insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision party. 11 They must be silenced, since they are upsetting whole families by teaching for shameful gain what they ought not to teach. 12 One of the Cretans, a prophet of their own, said, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.” 13 This testimony is true. Therefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith, 14 not devoting themselves to Jewish myths and the commands of people who turn away from the truth. 15 To the pure, all things are pure, but to the defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure; but both their minds and their consciences are defiled. 16 They profess to know God, but they deny him by their works. They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work.

Notice Paul says God reveals himself by preaching. He never mentions the sacraments in his instructions to a man who is planting a church. Odd. Though the shot at Jewish myths might make you want to check what you are doing with an altar and sacrifice in worship.

He also says overseers (bishops or presbyters) should be married to only one wife. So much for clerical celibacy.

In chapter two, Paul goes on to bang the gong for doctrine — the meat and drink of logocentric Protestants.

Then in chapter three, Paul tells Titus to be subject to the ruling authorities and to teach Christians to do the same. Let’s just say that the papacy has had a little trouble thinking such instruction applied to them. Heck, they still have a Vatican jail and mete out temporal justice.

But the church fathers don’t sound Protestant. Whatehveh.

Putting the Loco in Logocentric

Rod Dreher reflects on the ways that even while denominational brands among Protestants are in free fall (and have been, I might add, since the Second Not-So-Good Awakening), the differences between Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox abide:

And yet, some borders still matter — as Berger notes — at the popular level. When you’re a Protestant and you walk into a Catholic church, you know that something very different is going on there, and vice versa (though given the postconciliar Protestantization of Catholic church architecture and interior design, this is much less obvious in some places than in others). Visit an Orthodox church, and the contrast is even more vivid — perhaps surprisingly so for Catholics, who might reasonably have thought that given the strong Marian piety of Orthodox Christians, the Orthodox church was closer to their own faith than it actually is.

The vibe in a Protestant (especially confessional) church would be different in part because services feature, in contrast to the Roman and Eastern churches, the Bible read and preached.

So when you read Paul’s instruction to Timothy, Paul being an apostle and all and an author of an infallible set of books in Scripture, are you thinking of the atmosphere in a Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or Protestant service?

14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it 15 and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.

4 I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: 2 preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. 3 For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, 4 and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. 5 As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.

Don’t let them fool you. The model for Protestant ministry is as old as the church in Ephesus that Jesus founded by way of Paul.

Lutherans, Reformed, Baptists Apart

The following is an excerpt from my contribution to On Being Reformed: Debates over a Theological Identity. Here is how Amazon dot com describes the book:

This book provides a focus for future discussion in one of the most important debates within historical theology within the protestant tradition – the debate about the definition of a category of analysis that operates over five centuries of religious faith and practice and in a globalising religion. In March 2009, TIME magazine listed ‘the new Calvinism’ as being among the ‘ten ideas shaping the world.’ In response to this revitalisation of reformation thought, R. Scott Clark and D. G. Hart have proposed a definition of ‘Reformed’ that excludes many of the theologians who have done most to promote this driver of global religious change. In this book, the Clark-Hart proposal becomes the focus of a debate. Matthew Bingham, Chris Caughey, and Crawford Gribben suggest a broader and (they argue) more historically responsible definition for ‘Reformed,’ as Hart and Scott respond to their arguments.

Without further delay, one of the points that came to me in the exchange:

In both the case of Clark and myself, present-day concerns about Christian fellowship and communion inform assessments of the past, not the sort of integration of faith and historical learning that usually transpires in Conference of Faith and History circles where ecclesiology and creeds become barriers to scholars hoping to find fraternity warmed by religion. Pan-denominational efforts like Banner of Truth, ACE, or TGC need a Calvinism that includes Baptists, especially after the resurgence of predestinarian theology in the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant communion in the United States. If Calvinism is narrow and strictly ecclesial, these parachurch organizations lose a potentially big audience for their enterprise. At the same time, confessional historians reveal their own biases as churchmen who use denominational boundaries to inform their reading of the past. The logic is fairly simple: if the United Reformed Churches do not allow Baptist pastors into the pulpit or behind the Lord’s Table, the history of Reformed Protestantism should reflect a similar understanding. Why exclude Baptists from Reformed ministry today but include them in the history of Reformed Protestantism? A scholarly move that is at odds with ecclesiastical practice makes no sense.

Even Lumping Has Its Limits

The six-hundred-pound gorilla in the historiography of Baptists and Reformed Protestantism is Lutheranism. Here the roles reverse, with predestinarian Baptists rarely including Lutherans in their recovery of historic Protestantism and confessional Reformed historians admiring Lutherans for their self-conscious ecclesial and creedal identity. Gribben, Caughey, and Bingham do not mention Lutherans, which makes sense because seventeenth-century English Protestantism showed no signs of a Lutheran influence. Clark and I, in contrast, regard Lutherans as confessionalists who are clearly not Reformed but who take their confessions, practice, and ministry seriously enough to regard broad evangelicalism and its parachurch aspects as solvents of a Protestant communion’s integrity. Consequently, Clark and I have little trouble recognizing and are willing to live with the reality that Lutherans cannot affirm the Westminster Standards or the Three Forms of Unity. For Gribben, Caughey, and Bingham, however, Lutherans are a mystery. According to their logic, if the London Confession is down stream from Westminster, then why not also argue that Westminster is an extension of Heidelberg, which leads back to Augsburg, which leaves Baptists an extension of the same theological movement that Martin Luther started? Instead of talking about Reformed Baptists, why not Lutheran Baptists? Furthermore, if parachurch predestinarians who refuse to baptize babies can claim that John Piper can affirm ninety-five percent of the Westminster Standards, one might also wonder how much of the Augsburg Confession the Minneapolis minister would dispute. Chances are that Piper could not affirm roughly four of the twenty-eight articles (on the sacraments and holy days), which makes him by one measure eighty-six percent Lutheran. Yet, Baptists of a predestinarian bent want to be included not among the Lutherans but Reformed Protestants.

One explanation might be that Luther was too earthy. His piety is much more off-putting than the earnest, worn-on-the-sleeve pursuit of holiness that typified the Puritans. Another factor is cultural. In the English-speaking Protestant world, Baptists and Presbyterians share a common history and culture that makes similarities easier to conceive than thinking of German Protestants, who have no stake in the British monarchy, the English ecclesiastical establishment and the dissenters it created, or American independence, as fellow believers. German and English Protestants have distinct histories and that makes Lutheranism seem foreign to most Anglo-American Protestants while Calvinism feels familiar, part of the religious landscape, for English-speaking Protestants.

In the end, though, the question is not historical or cultural but one of authority, namely, who decides whether Baptists are part of Reformed Protestantism? Do historians and parachurch leaders or is the decision the task of church officers? Of course, a royal commission of federal agency charged with categorizing Protestant groups could readily solve the dispute but those days are long behind. So the duty of policing Reformed Protestantism’s boundaries has to fall to non-governmental agencies.

This has bearings on both the Theological Dark Web and the Ecclesiastical Dark Web: Luther is too dark for evangelicals and Baptists, communions are too complicated.

Is This 2018 or 1517?

As Yogi Berra said, “this is déjà vu all over again.”

Christendom is dead. The Church is reeling from grave scandal, and Christians are crying out to heaven for reform and purification. It is time to end the Imperial Episcopate.

After the gospel triumphed in the Roman Empire, the Church gradually acquired forms of life borrowed from imperial organization. Many of those forms still serve us well. But over time some of those forms have ceased to make sense and have become impediments to the evangelical freedom of the Church. I believe this is evident in significant aspects of how bishops now live and exercise their Catholic ministry.

Exalted titles and elaborate uniforms, for example, tend to distance bishops from their priests and people, and also subtly nudge them toward self-important and self-referential ways of thinking and acting. As the recent catastrophic scandals demonstrate, too many bishops have proven unable to act as pastors and evangelists and have instead behaved as managers and bureaucrats. The current crisis in the Catholic Church reveals that the clerical culture in which bishops and priests live is in many ways diseased and deformed, requiring renewal through the fire of divine love and the revealed truth of the Word of God.

Grotesque unchastity is an obvious symptom, but perhaps even more dangerous to the priesthood is the habit of mendacity that hides unchastity and other sinful habits. Superficial flattery and fawning over the person of the bishop can deprive him—unless he has an uncommonly strong and healthy personality—of the evangelical simplicity and candor he needs to fulfill his duties. While deference to the bishop may begin with true reverence for his office, it too often leads to the growth of vanity, ambition, and clerical careerism. And so it is time to end the Imperial Episcopate.

But wait. The Imperial Episcopate is dead. Long live the Imperial Episcopate:

Deep reform will, of course, depend primarily on the bishops themselves. . .

Wait, there’s more:

We should encourage bishops to abandon colored sashes, buttons, piping, and capes and stick to simple black. . . . How does that pageantry serve the gospel now, if it ever did? For the purification of the priesthood and the authentic reform of the Church, everything that is of Imperium rather than Evangelium needs to go.

Every diocesan bishop is known by the title of his See city because it is the place of his cathedra, the apostolic chair from which he teaches the gospel. For this reason, every diocesan bishop should celebrate at least the principal Sunday Mass in his cathedral church every week. . . .if the bishop is actually in his cathedral on the Lord’s Day, then not only can he celebrate Mass there, he can also lead the singing of Vespers each Sunday evening and show his priests and people how and why to pray the Liturgy of the Hours for the salvation of the world.

Every diocesan bishop should look at each employee in his chancery and ask this question: If this person’s job disappeared, would anyone in our parishes ever know the difference? If not, then why does this job exist? Chancery bureaucracies generally do not serve the mission of our parishes in which most of the Church’s vital work takes place; . . .

Every diocesan bishop’s most important task is to be pastor of the pastors, and each bishop should know all of his priests personally and intimately. Why is each man a Christian? How and why did he become a priest? What are his joys and sorrows? What are the main obstacles in his life to greater holiness? Is he happy and effective in his ministry? The business of getting to know priests in this way cannot be delegated to vicars. . . .

As for the auxiliaries, who are by far by the most numerous of the titular bishops, these exist primarily for one reason: to administer the Sacrament of Confirmation in the parishes of large dioceses. I submit that this is a deformation of the episcopate. If a diocese is too large for its proper pastor to serve, perhaps that diocese should be broken into smaller local churches. And even if the bishop cannot personally celebrate Confirmation in each parish, he can teach his people that he is the original minister of that sacrament and is present to the people in the sacred Chrism he consecrates every Holy Week in his cathedral. Then the bishop can delegate to priests the duty of administering the Sacrament of Confirmation without in any way diminishing the essential role of the episcopate in the sacramental life of the Church.

You’d have thunk this fellow was reading Luther and Calvin. You’d be wrong. Roman Catholics don’t listen to Protestants.

The More Evangelical You Become, The Less Presbyterian

On this morning’s broadcast with Angelo and company, I heard Carson Wentz describe the bond he shares with Nick Foles by virtue of a common faith.
I’m sure many evangelicals were encouraged.

But I could not help but wonder what would happen when Carson learned that his Lutheran church (I’m speculating) would not welcome Nick to preach because the Eagle’s backup QB is evangelical, not Lutheran. What happens when ecclesiastical requirements get in the way of the bond that comes from being born-again? What even happens if being Presbyterian gets in the way of participating in The Gospel Coalition? The Allies claim “We are a fellowship of evangelical churches in the Reformed tradition deeply committed to renewing our faith in the gospel of Christ and to reforming our ministry practices to conform fully to the Scriptures.” How can that be? How can you be evangelical and in the Reformed tradition “deeply”?

This is a fundamental tension between Protestants who trace their roots back to the Reformation (Anglican, Reformed, Lutheran) and those who only go as far as the First Pretty Good Awakening. For confessional Protestants, fellowship has standards. But for evangelicals, the bar is low.

And that is why you need to give up a lot if you are a Presbyterian to become an evangelical. If beliefs and practices about theology, worship, and church government matter to being a Christian, then the Reformation gets in the way of being evangelical. But if being born-again is what matters, then you don’t really need the Reformation.

Machen knew the score on this one (came across this after hearing Angelo and Carson):

One of the very greatest evils of present-day religious life, it seems to me, is the reception into the Church of persons who merely repeat a form of words such as “I accept Christ as my personal Saviour,” without giving the slightest evidence to show that they know what such words mean. As a consequence of this practice, hosts of persons are being received into the Church on the basis, as has been well said, of nothing more than a vague admiration for the moral character of Jesus, or else on the basis of a vague purpose of engaging in humanitarian work. One such person within the Church does more harm to the cause of Christ, I for my part believe, than ten such persons outside; and the whole practice ought to be radically changed. The truth is that the ecclesiastical currency in our day has been sadly debased; Church membership, as well as Church office, no longer means what it ought to mean. In view of such a situation, we ought, I think, to have reality at least; instead of comforting ourselves with columns of church statistics, we ought to face the facts; we ought to recall this paper currency and get back to a standard of gold.

To that end, it should, I think, be made much harder than it now is to enter the Church: the confession of faith that is required should be a credible confession; and if it becomes evident upon examination that a candidate has no notion of what he is doing, he should be advised to enter upon a course of instruction before he becomes a member of the Church. Such a course of instruction, moreover, should be conducted not by comparatively untrained laymen, but ordinarily by the ministers; the excellent institution of the catechetical class should be generally revived. Those churches, like the Lutheran bodies in America, which have maintained that institution, have profited enormously by its employment; and their example deserves to be generally followed. (What is Faith?, 156-57)