What American Jews Might Learn from J. Gresham Machen

Thanks to another of our southern correspondents, we see how even narrowly Protestant concerns may have wider application:

We’ve spent quite a bit of time in recent years debating who’s a Jew, but we’ve neglected to ask the thornier question: namely, what is Judaism? It’s a question that belongs with theologians, a scholastic class that, in our tradition, is sadly more likely to focus on offering a close reading of some sacred scrap of text than on addressing the fundamental relations between the tenets of faith and the earthly soil in which they’re rooted. It’s a shame—we need this sort of inquiry more than ever now that every social-justice warrior fashions our creed into a banner under which to march into battle.

For inspiration, then, we ought to look to our Christian brothers. In 1923, American Christendom received a master class in doctrinal clarity when a perfervid Presbyterian named John Gresham Machen wrote a short book titled Christianity and Liberalism. Too many of his contemporary faithful, he argued, have come to look at their religion as a blank screen on which to project the values of progressive liberalism. They’ve come to see Christ as a metaphor, not a deity, a gentle reminder to always be good and kind because kindness and goodness were just, you know, right. They read the Bible for affirmation, not for instruction, and they were always ready to ignore its teachings if those clashed, however mildly, with modernity’s latest edicts. Liberals who could not abide by Christianity’s essential truths, Machen argued, were many wonderful things, but they were not Christians. And everyone, the fiery theologian concluded, would be better for it if they stopped pretending that their values corresponded in any but a tangential way with those of the core Christian faith.

You can imagine how well Machen and his ideas were received. Rejected and dejected, Machen quit his perch at Princeton and was soon thereafter altogether defrocked of the ministry for his refusal to compromise his beliefs. He traveled extensively to minister to the few who still supported him, and died on one of those journeys, on New Year’s Day of 1937, in Bismarck, North Dakota. He was 55. On his grave was inscribed, in Greek, the motto that captured him best: “Faithful Unto Death.” In a warm obituary several weeks later, H.L. Mencken advised his readers that the deceased “fell out with the reformers who have been trying, in late years, to convert the Presbyterian Church into a kind of literary and social club, devoted vaguely to good works.”

What fun Machen would have had, then, had he stuck around long enough to witness Judaism today and see it turned, by and large, into just such an enfeebled club. Had he walked into our shuls or read our publications, he would’ve despaired to hear so many of us speak reverentially of Tikkun Olam, the commandment to repair the world, as if it alone stood at the core of our ancient faith, or as if world-repairing, stripped of its specific theological underpinnings, were anything more than the vague sort of general goodwill professed not only by Jews but also by Hindus, Zoroastrians, members of the Kiwanis Club, and practically every other sentient being who ever gazed upon God’s creation and had the fleeting feeling that it ought to be just a touch more perfect. Saying you crave social justice doesn’t make you any more Jewish than saying you crave pizza makes you Italian; it’s a mood, not a belief system, and that so many of us are so frequently unable to tell the difference is dispiriting.

Problem is, Machen wouldn’t have fun with the social justice transformers and postmillennial urbanists that seem to have become the mainstream in the PCA. Would a little Jewish love get him a hearing from the warriors and urbanophiles?

With Friends Like These

Matt Tuininga qualifies and then insinuates:

we cannot simply take Calvin’s thought and apply it to our own time without substantial reflection. Calvin assumed the existence of Christendom. We inhabit a pluralistic society increasingly devoted to secular liberalism. There are self-proclaimed two kingdoms advocates today who would claim the two kingdoms distinction calls us to keep religion and politics entirely separate, as if they are hermetically sealed realms that have nothing to do with each other. Yet such is clearly a distortion of Calvin’s thought, which is decisively rooted in the New Testament’s rich distinction between the present age and the age to come.

Does he have Machen in mind?

In the second place, you cannot expect from a true Christian church any official pronouncements upon the political or social questions of the day, and you cannot expect cooperation with the state in anything involving the use of force. Important are the functions of the police, and members of the church, either individually or in such special associations as they may choose to form, should aid the police in every lawful way in the exercise of those functions. But the function of the church in its corporate capacity is of an entirely different kind. Its weapons against evil are spiritual, not carnal; and by becoming a political lobby, through the advocacy of political measures whether good or bad, the church is turning aside from its proper mission. . . .

To advance the conversation, why not comment on whether the deaconate should do medicine as Calvin recommended:

The fourth order of ecclesiastical government, namely, the deacons

There have always been two kinds of these in the early Church. One has to receive, distribute and care for the goods of the poor (i.e. daily alms as well as possessions, rents and pensions); the other has to tend and look after the sick and administer the allowances to the poor as is customary. [In order to avoid confusion], since we have officials and hospital staff, [one of the four officials of the said hospital should be responsible for the whole of its property and revenues and he should have an adequate salary in order to do his work properly.]

Concerning the hospital

Care should be taken to see that the general hospital is properly maintained. This applies to the sick, to old people no longer able to work, to widows, orphans, children and other poor people. These are to be kept apart and separate from others and to form their own community.

Care for the poor who are scattered throughout the city shall be the responsibility of the officials. In addition to the hospital for those visiting the city, which is to be kept up, separate arrangements are to be made for those who need special treatment. To this end a room must be set apart to act as a reception room for those that are sent there by the officials..

Further, both for the poor people in the hospital and for those in the city who have no means, there must be a good physician and surgeon provided at the city’s expense…

As for the plague hospital, it must be kept entirely separate.

Instead of looking at the theory (theology), why not look at the circumstances and sciences that have differentiated a host of life’s affairs so that the church and religion is one among many spheres of life? But Lordship of Christ folks think, like Gregory VII during the Investiture Controversy, that the direct pipeline of Christianity to God trumps most spheres so that Christians have authority in medicine, biology, history, and dog-catching by virtue of — what? — faith.

2kers want answers. Simply repeating inspiring calls to engage the world doesn’t give them.

PCA Trumped

Or, how politics matters more than communion:

But a few predicted that this election could permanently damage attempts to create unity among evangelicals. “I spend most of my time in ministry talking and teaching about racial reconciliation,” said Jemar Tisby, the president of the Reformed African American Network, a “theologically traditional” coalition of black Christians and churches, as he described it. “The vast majority of white evangelicals with whom I interact are on board and want to see a more racially diversified and unified church. However, when that same constituency overwhelmingly supports Donald Trump, I feel like they haven’t understood any of my concerns as a racial minority and an African American.”

All the racial reconciliation that last year’s General Assembly allegedly accomplished was thin compared to a PCA minister or member’s status in the world of evangelicalism. Does the PCA now need to repent for its members who voted for Trump? Or can its pastors, theologians, and elders help members understand that belonging to the visible church — the kingdom of Jesus Christ, mind you — is so much more significant than what federal politicians do (or votes for them)?

Now more than ever, the PCA needs a healthy dose of the spirituality of the church. It needs to understand that the politics of this world are trifling compared to the realities of the world to come, and that the freedom a Christian enjoys in Christ has nothing to do with politics (just ask the peasants who used Luther’s gospel to advocate an egalitarian social order). But that doctrine is now in the rear view mirror.

It’s Only Politics

Matt Tuininga echoes the idea that politics is evidence of sanctification (integration of faith and life and all of that):

Will Republican evangelicals who see their sisters and brothers – their political opponents – wounded and beaten on the other side of the road and cross over to take up their need as their own, in the spirit of the good Samaritan? Will they stand with them in solidarity, pleading their cause as if it were their own? Will Democratic evangelicals who feel beaten and betrayed accept such an effort at reconciliation and love in a spirit of gospel hope? Will they stand in solidarity with their evangelical opponents, pleading their cause as if it were their own? Do we have the humility to recognize that our own political judgments might not reflect the whole picture, that they might even be wrong?

Bill Smith in his curmudeonly way says, no thanks:

Blacks and other minorities have experienced abuse. Blacks in particular can identify with Israel, an enslaved and abused minority in Egypt. Unfortunately white evangelical Christians have themselves been the abusers of African Americans or failed to speak up against their abuse. White evangelicals have aligned themselves with the Republican Party which has not been sympathetic with the concerns of minorities but rather has become a home of racists and nationalists. Lately, however, there has been progress as black and white Christians have worked toward racial reconciliation. But this election has exposed the reality that white evangelicals have not come so far as black evangelicals hoped. The black minority feel they have been betrayed by white evangelicals who voted for Trump.

. . . The perspective of these brothers is the same as that of Falwell, Kennedy, Criswell, and the Moral Majority. They were on God’s side, and God was on their side. Their champion was Ronald Reagan. The election of Reagan moved forward the cause of Christ and his kingdom.

These brothers believe that God is on their side and they on God’s. Their cause(s) is the cause of the kingdom of God. To them Trump was not just someone they disagreed with but the enemy of the kingdom of God. The 80% of white evangelicals who voted for Trump voted against the interests of the kingdom of God, betrayed their black brothers and sisters (who ask, “How could you?”), and proved themselves unreliable allies in the righteous causes highest on the list of black priorities.

All this was hogwash in the days of Falwell, and it’s all hogwash today. This is not about Christian theology or practice. It’s politics. That’s all it is. Just politics. The joy that the Moral Majority felt when Reagan triumphed was not righteous joy but political joy. The grief felt by these black brothers is not righteous grief but political grief. The reason most white evangelicals voted for Trump is that most white evangelicals are conservatives and Republicans. The reason these black evangelical brothers feel betrayed is because they are liberals and Democrats.

If only we could treat politics like plumbing. But no. Politics has to be a high and holy calling. What we are seeing is the result of all that every-square inch argument. And it’s not helpful for the nation or — get this — for the church. But it does allow evangelical academics to feel pious.

The 2K Temptation

Ed Stetzer seems unable to resist:

Evangelical is not a synonym for Republican.

It’s a definition of people who believe in values like the cross, the gospel, and sharing that news (euangelion) with others. That’s often described by the Bebbington Quadrilateral, which includes biblicism, crucicentrism (focused on the cross), conversionism (the people need to be born again), and activism (works that flow from new life).

I get the temptation to want to narrow what the term means because we feel little connection with others who also use it. But facts are our friends, and labels mean something specific, even if the parameters are broad. We can hold Evangelical beliefs and see some things—like politics—in different ways.

Yes, the vast majority of White Evangelicals decided that Donald Trump was a better choice. Evangelicals of color mostly made a different choice. There are complex reasons for each. It does not help to dismiss them, and I won’t.

But I will remind everyone that being an Evangelical is about the gospel, not about a lever in a voting booth.

But if evangelicals contented themselves with the gospel (as if that’s so hard except for the obedience boy lurking inside all of us), that would mean saying no to the cultural transformation (read Christian nationalism) temptation. Because evangelicals (and most Western Christians for that matter) have refused to give in to 2K, they (along with Ed Stetzer) need to confront their American selves:

The influence of political tactics is not confined to campaign dynamics. It affects how we are formed as people. Instead of our values influencing our politics, our political circumstances are shaping our values. As partisan citizens, we explain away the flaws of the candidate we support, and buy nearly any outlandish theory about the candidate we oppose. We even change what we believe to fit the moment.

C. S. Lewis understood the temptation to seek personal meaning in politics. His essay “Membership” is most instructive in this regard. “A sick society,” Lewis writes, “must think much about politics, as a sick man must think much about his digestion.” However, “if either comes to regard it as the natural food of the mind—if either forgets that we think of such things only in order to be able to think of something else—then what was undertaken for the sake of health has become itself a new and deadly disease.”

Our culture, and many people in our churches, are sick with that new and deadly disease. Politics is causing great spiritual harm in Americans lives, and a big reason for that is Americans are going to politics to have their spiritual needs met. This is the meaning of rising polarization and the cause of our zero-sum mentality. Politics does a poor job of meeting spiritual needs. But if it will get your vote, politicians will attempt to fill the spiritual void nonetheless.

When you grow up in the greatest nation on God’s green earth, believe with President Obama that you are on the right side of history, and have the rest of the world looking to your government (either to help or leave), it is hard to turn away from the power that Paul said Jews sought and be content with the cross.

For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. (1 Corinthians 1:21-29 ESV)

To Paraphrase Freud, Sometimes a Vote is Only a Vote

Are evangelicals this concerned about family farms when they buy their food or about the U.S. military when the pay their taxes?

So why so much attention to conscience when it comes to voting for the next POTUS?

For some reason, this vote says more about evangelicalism than the gospel that pastors preach (maybe that’s an indication that you’ve lost perspective?):

Evangelicals, deeply divided over Donald Trump, are wrestling with what the tumultuous 2016 election will mean for their future.

His candidacy has put a harsh spotlight on the fractures among Christian conservatives, most prominently the rift between old guard religious right leaders who backed the GOP nominee as an ally on abortion, and a comparatively younger generation who considered his personal conduct and rhetoric morally abhorrent.

“This has been a kind of smack in the face, forcing us to ask ourselves, ‘What have we become?'” said Carolyn Custis James, an evangelical activist and author who writes about gender roles in the church.

Then we have the argument that Christianity is a helicopter faith (it hovers over everything):

To undertake this particular activity—voting—the Christian must be convinced that the ballot is cast as an obedient response to the command of God in discipleship. The Christian seeks to discern the word God has for them and to act upon it faithfully. One participates willingly in democratic elections as a disciple or not at all. This might mean that the Christian abstains from voting or votes for an alternate candidate who they believe (again, in good conscience) will best carry out the office. Yes, God works through material affairs themselves to inform the Christian of whom a candidate is and what is at stake in voting for them, but his revelatory providence is by no means restricted to the empirical and obvious.

Whatever happened to the idea of Christian liberty?

God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are, in anything, contrary to his Word; or beside it, if matters of faith, or worship. So that, to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commands, out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience: and the requiring of an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also. (Confession of Faith, 20.2)

So unless we have a proper warrant from Scripture for not voting for either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, like not supporting a self-centered windbag (think Nero) or not voting for a sinner (think Nebuchadnezzar), what’s the big deal here? Aren’t Christians free? Can’t we disagree about politics, just the way we disagree about novels, cars, food, and banking?

But if you are a w-w Christian and every single millimeter of life is shot through with spiritual significance . . .

Well, then why not more hair pulling about the World Series and trying to discern God’s commandment for which team to root?

Personal Sins Require the Cross, Institutional Sins Only Need Policy

Here’s why the talk of systemic sin and social salvation comes up short. It underestimates the gravity of sin and the significance of the remedy. Consider R. York Moore’s case for corporate repentance:

Salvation for American Christians is a transaction between two individuals—themselves and God. This over-simplification of sin does not make sense of systemic, corporate evil, brokenness, and social maladies. American evangelicals reason that if someone is poor, perhaps it is due to his or her individual sinful choices. If someone is denied access to education, perhaps it is because of his or her work ethic or ability to work with others.

Notice that relations between God and man on the sin score card over simplify sin. Never mind that the remedy for my sin only required the eternal son of God to take human form and bear the guilt and penalty of my sin by dying a brutal death. Overly simple? I don’t think so.

Moore goes on to mention ways that healing and restoration “in Christ” may come for the social maladies and corporate injustices of “banking and land development policies [that locked blacks] into cycles of poverty, inadequate housing, and educational opportunities.”

Here are a couple ways to engage the environments, cycles, and systems of injustice that disproportionately impact Black communities.
• Land developers can work with political leaders to create affordable housing that has better potential for wealth creation.
• Policy makers in the banking industry can work toward pathways of empowerment for Black entrepreneurs.
• Law enforcement can pursue racialized quotas in their ranks coupled with substantive ethnic diversity training.

If I follow the implications of Moore’s logic, viewing sin from the perspective of sin and salvation is simplistic because corporate sin is so much more complicated. But the remedy for these structural sins that are so much graver than personal sins comes from a few policy changes that seem inconsequential when compared to the crucifixion.

This is why talk of social sin and social redemption is worrisome. It treats the saving work of Christ as insignificant compared to political reform.

Who’s simplistic now?