What Protestantism Tried to Fix

(By the way, some of Roman Catholicism’s antiquity is not ancient.)

“How the Irish Changed Penance,” by John Rodden, Commonweal Magazine, January 26, 2022

Most Catholics are probably unaware that what we today call the sacrament of Reconciliation existed in a completely different form during the early Christian era. Even those who are aware of this fact may not know that it was a group of Irish monks who were largely responsible for transforming this sacrament into the version with which we’re familiar. It is all too easy to imagine that the seven sacraments have existed in something like their present form from the moment they were instituted. In truth, all of them have changed in important ways over the course of the Church’s history, and none has changed more than the sacrament of penance.

For the Church’s first seven centuries, penance could be received no more than once in a lifetime. That policy dated back to the time of St. Peter. The New Testament tells us that Jesus gave the power of forgiveness to his disciples, but it says almost nothing about how they were to exercise it. In the early Church, the prevailing belief was that baptism was the celebration of the forgiveness of sin, and that the baptized, having turned away from sin, would not need to be forgiven again. As St. Paul wrote, “How can we who died to sin yet live in it? You must think of yourselves as being dead to sin and living for God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 6). 

Nevertheless, the Church Fathers soon realized that they needed a way to deal with post-baptismal sin because many baptized Christians were slipping back into their old way of life. A formal system of public penance was devised to handle such setbacks. Typically, after penitents confessed to the local bishop, they were assigned an onerous penance that lasted several years. During this time they wore sackcloth and garments that scratched or tore the skin, as a modest reminder of Christ’s scourging. They were also required to leave Mass immediately after the homily and forbidden to receive the Eucharist. At least part of their penance consisted of long hours of prayer and fasting. Not until they had completed this long and arduous penitential period were they “reconciled” with the Church and welcomed back into full communion. For the Church’s first seven centuries, penance could be received no more than once in a lifetime.

But reconciled penitents were expected to continue some penitential practices, such as abstinence from sexual intercourse, for the rest of their lives. Those who had been thus reconciled could not be admitted to the clergy or to most public offices. They remained permanently in a somewhat inferior position within the Church, partly for social reasons and partly as an explicit reminder of their lapse. Moreover, such a reconciliation was permitted no more than once in a lifetime, and it was required only for what were regarded as mortal sins, such as murder, adultery, and apostasy. Those guilty of what we now call venial sins were not expected to undergo any formal process; instead, they found forgiveness for their sins by participating in the Eucharist, almsgiving, and seeking forgiveness from those whom they had offended.

Christians who lapsed again into grave sin after they had been formally reconciled found themselves without recourse. “Now,” your local bishop or priest informed you, “you are left to the mercy of God.” The early Church feared that allowing sinners to be sacramentally reconciled more than once would encourage sin. But the rigors of penance and the practice of allowing Christians to receive the sacrament of penance only once had an unforeseen and highly problematic effect. Many people postponed their baptism for decades, because baptism offered forgiveness for a whole lifetime’s worth of sins without the rigors of penance. Plus, those who waited until old age to be baptized were unlikely to lapse thereafter into serious sin more than once. Emperor Constantine, who had declared Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire in 313, remained a catechumen until his own deathbed baptism in 337. 

By the seventh century, it had become obvious to many that the Church’s rules for penance were not working as they were intended to, but there were still no plans in Rome to reform them. It was precisely at this time that Irish monks began to travel to the European continent to proselytize the heathen Franco-German tribes. At least a century earlier, these monks had developed a different practice of penance within their own communities, adapting a little-known tradition traceable to the first monastic communities in the Egyptian desert. St. John Cassian, who had lived with these desert monks, took their practices with him when he founded a monastery in France. His writings were later taken to Ireland and it is there that they found fertile soil. Traditional public penances of the kind practiced in the early Church were not an option for the desert monks: there were no Christian communities, let alone dioceses, in the Egyptian desert. Like the monks in Ireland after them, they were struggling to overcome venial “faults” in their quest for saintliness, not seeking reconciliation after committing grave offenses such as murder, adultery, and apostasy. The Irish monks refined the work of Cassian, developing a system of confession in which the private recitation of sins was followed by the private performance of penance. Crucially, they not only adopted this practice themselves, but introduced it to the faithful outside the monastery, making it applicable to all sins and available to all sinners.

Then, without formal ecclesiastical approval, the missionary monks shared these more relaxed and flexible practices with the new converts in Europe. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church summarizes it: “During the seventh century Irish missionaries, inspired by the Eastern monastic tradition, took to continental Europe the ‘private’ practice of penance, which does not require public and prolonged completion of penitential works before reconciliation with the Church. From that time on, the sacrament has been performed in secret between penitent and priest.” This was a radical change in the history of the sacraments. Gradually, confession went from being public to private, and from a once-in-a-lifetime rite to an as-often-as-needed practice. The “order of penitents,” segregated from the rest of the community, disappeared. 

The great virtue of the Irish monastic approach was how it aided the monk’s quest for holiness. Regular confession became the supreme weapon of Celtic spirituality in the ceaseless spiritual combat against sin. Irish monks would regularly confess their faults to the presiding abbot of the monastery. As Joseph Stoutzenberger notes in Celebrating the Sacraments, gradually the practice came to include confessing faults to a highly trusted brother monk, who became known as the anamchara (animae carus), or “soul friend.” The abbot or fraternal anamchara would pray with the penitent and prescribe actions to help him overcome his failing. Certain monks renowned for their spiritual advice became popular confessors. Eventually, people outside the monasteries began coming to those monks to confess their sins. Because the whole Irish Church was organized around the monasteries, Irish bishops were sympathetic to the monks’ approach to penance and did not regard it as lax or permissive. They recognized its practical and spiritual advantages and allowed it to continue.

But bishops elsewhere did not look so favorably on this alternative approach. Scholars such as Kate Dooley believe that the condemnation of private confession in Canon 12 at the Third Council of Toledo in 589 referred to the Irish monastic practice. That council reaffirmed the traditional rite, whereby reconciliation could be granted only once in a lifetime.Over time, fewer Christians sought the older form of penance, precisely because it was public, long, and severe.

Undeterred, the Irish monks maintained their alternative practice and disseminated it in their missions abroad. Until the twelfth century, both the traditional rite of public penance and the Irish practice of private confession co-existed uneasily. Over time, however, fewer Christians sought the older form of penance, precisely because it was public, long, and severe. Where the older form was still favored, the faithful often treated penance exactly as previous generations had treated baptism: excommunicated members of the community chose to wait until they were on their deathbeds to be reconciled to the Church because the dying sinner could receive the sacrament without performing grueling public penances.

Machen Death Day 2022: Keep It Simple

The Service at Baltimore

The following brief service was read at the grave in Greenmount Cemetery, Baltimore, by the Rev. Ned B. Stonehouse, Th.D.:

I am the resurrection and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live. And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. Forasmuch as it hath pleased Almighty God to take out of this world the soul of our beloved brother, we therefore commit his body to the ground. And we look for the general resurrection in the last day, and the life of the world to come, through our Lord Jesus Christ; at whose second coming in glorious majesty to judge the world, the earth and the sea shall give up their dead; and the corruptible bodies of those who sleep in him shall be changed and made like unto his glorious body, according to the working whereby he is able even to subdue all things unto himself. I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also that sleep in Jesus will God bring with him.

Let us pray:

Almighty God, who by the death of thy dear Son Jesus Christ hast destroyed death, by his rest in the tomb hath sanctified the graves of the saints, .and by his glorious resurrection hath brought life and immortality to light; receive, we beseech thee, our unfeigned thanks for that victory over death and the grave which he hath obtained for us and for all who sleep in him; and keep us in everlasting fellowship with all that wait for thee on earth, and with all that are around thee in heaven; in union with him. who is the resurrection and the life, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Ghost be with you all, evermore. Amen.

(Presbyterian Guardian, January 23, 1937)

What if Mary not only Heard but Answered Prayer?

Mary did you know that your baby boy would one day walk on water?

Mary: if he turned the water into wine first, yes.

Mary did you know that your baby boy would save our sons and daughters?

Mary: “daughters” is not an exact rhyme of “water.”

Did you know that your baby boy has come to make you new?

Mary: as I indicated in the Magnificat, I thought God was fulfilling something old. (“as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever”)

This child that you delivered, will soon deliver you.

Mary: I see what you did there.

Mary did you know that your baby boy would give sight to a blind man?

Mary: technically, he was not a baby boy when he healed the blind man.

Mary did you know that your baby boy would calm the storm with his hand?

Mary: ditto.

Did you know that your baby boy has walked where angels trod?

Mary: sometimes, Joseph and I lost track of his whereabouts.

When you kiss your little baby, you kiss the face of God.

Mary: did not know.

Mary did you know that your baby boy is Lord of all creation?

Mary: I had not worked out Trinitarian theology.

Mary did you know that your baby boy would one day rule the nations?

Mary: I was thinking mainly in terms of Israel.

Did you know that your baby boy is heaven’s perfect Lamb? That sleeping child you’re holding is the great I am.

Mary: If I knew then what I know now, of course.

Day After Mencken Day 2021

When little Felix comes home to his patriotic and Christian home with the news that the Fathers of 1776 were a gang of smugglers and profiteers, and when his sister Flora follows with the news that Moses did not write his own obituary and that the baby, Gustave, was but recently indistinguishable from a tadpole, and later on from a nascent gorilla—when such subversive and astounding doctrines are brought home from the groves of learning there ensues inevitably a ringing of fire- bells, with a posse on the march against some poor pedagogue.

What I maintain is simply that the vigilantes are right and the pedagogue wrong. His error lies in assuming that taxpayers lay out their hard-earned money for the breeding of traitors and atheists; taxpayers actually lay out their money for the breeding of more taxpayers like themselves. And their natural desire that this program be followed strictly is supported by the overwhelming force of the state, which loses strength and authority in direct ratio as its citizens become heretics. What holds it up is not primarily brute force, as so many theorists argue; what holds it up is the fact that, on all really essential questions, the vast majority of its citizens think exactly alike—that there is never any general doubt of the fundamental communal superstitions. Once those superstitions are seriously challenged, the whole fabric of the state begins to crumble. The true function of the pedagogue is not to attack them, but to propagate them. His is a sort of priestly office. He is not paid to marshal doubts and weigh probabilities; he is paid to expound revelation. If he finds himself temperamentally unable to discharge that solemn and awful duty, then he should quit pedagogy and go into bootlegging or some other free craft. So long as he is publicly consecrated to the birch, he can no more depart from his text-book with seemliness than a Christian clergyman could depart from his sworn belief in witches.

It is these sick and wounded of the army of learning, I suspect, who are responsible for most of the academic Bolshevism that now fills the newspapers. Having been purged, by their superior education, of the fundamental communal superstitions—or, at all events, of a few of them—they get revenge upon the society that ill-uses them by inoculating the children of honest Rotarians with their own odd and often nonsensical heresies. These are the fellows who, at frequent intervals, commit scandalum magnatum by teaching that the American patriot infantry, at Bunker Hill, ran all the way down the hill, or that General Grant was a heavy lusher, or that the Bolsheviki have not really nationalized women, or that the world is older than the Bible says, or that the Nordic Blond, biologically, is no more than a bald chimpanzee. And these are the fellows who yell that they are undone when indignant trustees give them the gate.

It seems to me that those who protest against their thus getting the gate fall into the elemental error of assuming, only too often, that an American college is the exact equivalent of a European university. It is called a university, and so they accept it as one in fact. But it is really nothing of the kind. There has been but one genuine university in the United States in our time—the Johns Hopkins under Gilman—and it turned itself into a college with frantic haste the moment he died. The college student differs from a university student in a most important way: his formal education, when he matriculates, is not completed, but simply entering upon its last stage. That is to say, he has not yet taken in the whole of that body of correct and respectable ideas which all of us must somehow absorb before we are competent to think for ourselves—at all events, to any rational purpose and effect.

Only too often the fact is overlooked that even the most bold and talented of philosophers must suffer that stuffing before he is ready to go it alone. Aristotle, you may be sure, had the Greek alphabet rammed into him like any other Greek of his time, and studied the multiplication table, and learned the elements of Greek civics, and all that was then accepted about the nature of the Persians, the functions of the liver, and the aorist. Kant was grounded in Prussian history, the humoral pathology, and the Leibnitzian law of preestablished harmony. Even Nietzsche had to master the grammar-book, the catechism and the Lutheran psalm-book, that he might be a good German and keep out of jail. Such training takes time, for children naturally resist it; it takes more time in America than elsewhere because our elementary-schools, in late years, devote themselves mainly to fol-de-rols borrowed from the Boy Scouts, Greenwich Village and Bernarr Macfadden. Thus the young American, when he enters college, is still only half-educated in the conventional sense. At least three of his four years are consumed in completing the lowly business of making him fit to vote, keep a checkbook accurately, and understand what is in his newspaper. Every now and then some humorist subjects a class of freshmen to what is called a general information test. Four-fifths of them invariably turn out to be as ignorant as so many European schoolboys of ten or eleven.

Obviously, it is as imprudent to parade political heresies before such infants as it would be to lecture on obstetrics before girls of thirteen. When they are graduated at last, they are perhaps ripe for it, but when they are graduated they commonly depart the halls of learning for the bond business. The relatively few who remain seem to suffer no damage from such ideas as they encounter in the graduate-schools. At all events, there is never any complaint that they are being ruined, nor do they themselves complain that the notions of the salient anarchists are being withheld from them. Most of them, having no desire save to get their Ph. D.’s and settle down as pedagogues, are probably anaesthetic to whatever play of ideas goes on about them. A few, taking fire, afterward lecture scandalously in the prairie “universities” to which they are doomed, stir up the students to revolt against their colleagues, and so get themselves cashiered. But not many. Nor is the practical damage serious. There is always room enough for the minority of genuinely intelligent fellows in the graduate-schools whence they came. The spotlights of Babbitt do not bathe these schools, for his sons are not in them; thus they are quite free to monkey with ideas all they please, even with red-hot ones. (H. L. Mencken, “In the Rolling Mills,” Prejudices, Sixth Series, 1927)

David French Rarely Speaks Truth to Evangelical Power

If you recall the controversy over Larycia Hawkins at Wheaton College, when the professor of political science lost her post for among other things saying that Christians and Muslims worshiped the same God, you may also remember that David French came out in defense of the Wheaton College administration:

Terminating a Christian professor — or any other employee of a Christian institution — for expressing beliefs out of line with the organization’s statement of faith is common and should be uncontroversial. Christian organizations have the same right to define their mission and message as any other expressive organization. Does anyone think it’s unjust that the Sierra Club won’t hire fracking advocates or that LGBT activist organizations aren’t open to Christian conservatives?

Why then would he object to Baptists — BAPTISTS — who put the congregation in congregational polity, taking issue with the pastor of their congregation? Can anyone seriously object to a Baptist organization having the right to run its institutions according to Baptist polity? David French can and the reason may be that he is impressed by evangelical celebrity:

David Platt is a bestselling author, the former president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board, and the pastor of McLean Bible Church (MBC), a huge and influential church located outside Washington, D.C.

Although he is an attorney who seems to have a certain expertise about constitutional questions, the plight of Baptists not being able to vote in congregational elections is of no interest to French.

Platt is facing a revolt from self-described “conservative” congregants, a revolt that culminated in a lawsuit filed against the church by a group of its own members, demanding that a Virginia state court intervene in the church’s elder selection process to, among other things, preserve their alleged right to vote in those elections and to mandate a secret ballot.

Turning to the civil courts for protection of ecclesiastical rights may be unusual — but wasn’t a famous letter that Thomas Jefferson sent to Baptists who had certain legal questions — but why isn’t French, the attorney, at all interested?

Why too does he not see that using his platform to make one side in a church dispute look bad does not make him look good? What sort of norms and expectations would I upset if, say, during a trial in a presbytery of the OPC, I wrote an article about it for the wider world and took sides? Whatever influence I may have (or not), the seemingly appropriate thing to do is to stand back and let the process play out. Writing about themes or tensions relevant to such a case may be okay. But outsiders opinions in disputes at which they are not present have no stake are not helpful or welcome. They should but out.

At the same time, when you are a national columnist and need a religious subject for your Lord’s Day column, David Platt makes perfect sense.

Machen Day 2021

How to think about spikes in urban crime and criminal justice reform:

But what was the difference between the teaching of Paul and the teaching of the Judaizers? What was it that gave rise to the stupendous polemic of the Epistle to the Galatians? To the modern Church the difference would have seemed to be a mere theological subtlety. About many things the Judaizers were in perfect agreement with Paul. The Judaizers believed that Jesus was the Messiah; there is not a shadow of evidence that they objected to Paul’s lofty view of the person of Christ. Without the slightest doubt, they believed that Jesus had really risen from the dead. They believed, moreover, that faith in Christ was necessary to salvation. But the trouble was, they believed that something else was also necessary; they believed that what Christ had done needed to be pieced out by the believer’s own effort to keep the Law. From the modern point of view the difference would have seemed to be very slight. Paul as well as the Judaizers believed that the keeping of the law of God, in its deepest import, is inseparably connected with faith. The difference concerned only the logical − not even, perhaps, the temporal − order of three steps. Paul said that a man (1) first believes on Christ, (2) then is justified before God, (3) then immediately proceeds to keep God’s law. The Judaizers said that a man (1) believes on Christ and (2) keeps the law of God the best he can, and then (3) is justified. The difference would seem to modern “practical” Christians to be a highly subtle and intangible matter, hardly worthy of consideration at all in view of the large measure of agreement in the practical realm. What a splendid cleaning up of the Gentile cities it would have been if the Judaizers had succeeded in extending to those cities the observance of the Mosaic law, even including the unfortunate ceremonial observances! Surely Paul ought to have made common cause with teachers who were so nearly in agreement with him; surely he ought to have applied to them the great principle of Christian unity. (Christianity and Liberalism)

Would Moderates Let Slavery Split the PCA?

Maybe it was a different time. It was at least before Mike Brown, Carter Paige, “both sides” in Charlottesville, Robert Mueller, Volodymyr Zelensky, Brett Kavanaugh, Nikole Hannah-Jones, and Anthony Fauci — June 2010 to be precise. But it is hard to imagine any moderate or progressive in the PCA today, after George Floyd, describing the place of slavery in the Old School vs. New School Presbyterian split (1837) the way Tim Keller does. This is from his essay about his positive regard for the PCA:

There is a third reason that we should learn to live together. Because we are brethren, we need each other. Let’s recount a sad case study that illustrates this–the issue of 19th century African slavery. The New Schoolers lacked doctrinal robustness but they were strongly abolitionist. The Old Schoolers saw the danger of the New School’s intense campaigns to reform society—they saw how they could distract from the ministry of the Word, evangelism, and the sacraments. They saw how the New School’s cultural accommodation was leading to doctrinal decline. As a consequence, much of the Old School, especially in the South refused to denounce African chattel slavery as being the evil that it was. Mark Noll has shown in The Civil War as a Theological Crisis and America’s God that the church’s inability to agree that slavery was evil directly led to the disaster of the Civil War and that was the reason that evangelicalism has never again had the cultural credibility in the U.S. that it had before the 1830s. Old School leader Charles Hodge was caught in the middle of this, perhaps because he was one of leaders who tried to achieve a balance of confessionalism and revivalism in the Presbyterian church. On the one hand, he saw what poor theological reasoning lay behind the arguments of the abolitionists and the New School. On the other hand, he rightly sensed the danger that ‘the spirituality of the church doctrine’ could lead to cultural captivity in the other direction—the conservative one. Noll points out that Hodge began to criticize slavery too late to have brought about unity within Presbyterianism on the subject. In short, the Old School’s fear of cultural engagement caused it to fail this great test. And yet the New School’s overinvolvement in politics and social reform did indeed lead it later to doctrinal compromise. So both schools were right in their criticism of the other.

Can anyone imagine a PCA pastor today arguing that opposition to slavery resulted in theological decline? For that matter, has anyone but a few conservatives recently worried out loud that Christian support for defunding police, wearing masks, or mocking elected officials could actually be at odds with biblical teaching and church conviction? To his credit, Tim Keller did.

But eleven years later, that same argument against splitting the PCA is part of the set of convictions that run along with Revoice. If slavery shouldn’t have split Presbyterians, surely Presbyterian pastors who identify as homosexual in orientation (not in practice) will never break up the PCA.

Broadening Churches Break, Will the PCA?

The Broadening Church was the word the title of Lefferts Loetscher’s book about the Presbyterian controversy of the 1920s and 1930s. It was not the epithet of conservatives like J. Gresham Machen. The question was whether a church should attempt to be broad. Perhaps, the better way to put it is whether the church should oppose breadth. Breadth happens. It may be tolerable (Loetscher’s position), it may be objectionable (Machen’s), or it may be welcome (various modernists’). Whatever you think of a broad church, it pretty much goes without saying that conservatives seek communions that maintain doctrinal, liturgical, and ecclesiastical standards, a desire that generally does not go with breadth. On the other hand, those who either accept passively or celebrate broad communions are not conservative.

To look for parallels between the PCUSA and the PCA and raise the question of whether PCA is following a similar set of trajectories as did the PCUSA during the so-called fundamentalist controversy is to assume that the PCA itself is a broad church. If someone leads with the idea that broad and trending liberal go together throughout church history, then some PCA folk who have spoken positively about the denomination’s breadth may pause their identification with a broad church. They want to be conservative. They also want to be broad. So how do you square breadth with conservatism? Maybe the best you can do is Tim Keller‘s “Why I Like the PCA,” an essay which concedes that the New York City pastor’s communion is broad:

I believe that the only way for the PCA to be a place where we own each other is for us to re-affirrm the original boundary markers that the founders set up.

The founders’ drew very specific boundaries at certain points. One that has always been very important has been a high view of Scripture, with a robust, traditional belief in inerrancy. Another has to do with the core of Reformed theology and soteriology—there are to be no “four point Calvinists” in our church. In many other areas where some Reformed denominations have drawn narrower lines—Sabbath observance, worship (e.g. Psalms-only,) eschatology—the founders left room for diversity.

That sounds very different from what happened in the PCUSA where the church actually tried to do an end run around the PCUSA’s boundary markers. Here it may be useful to recall that the controversy started in 1920 with a plan to unite all Protestant denominations into one American church, like the model that informed the formation of the Presbyterian Church of Canada (1925). The president of Princeton Seminary, J. Ross Stevenson, chaired the committee of Presbyterians who approved the plan Stevenson’s faculty opposed the plan strenuously (including B. B. Warfield during the last year of his life). It was a classic instance of “we should be broad” vs. “we want to maintain Presbyterian standards.”

The next phase of the controversy played out in 1922 when congregations in New York City were behaving very broadly. This became common knowledge when Harry Emerson Fosdick, a liberal Baptist preaching as stated supply in a Presbyterian pulpit, gave his famous sermon, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” For Fosdick, the church was divided between those who wanted the church to be narrow and intolerant and those who like himself wanted it to be broad and open to all good souls. Fosdick’s sermon launched judicial proceedings that forced Fosdick out of the Presbyterian pulpit and the New York Presbyterian to explain the anomaly of a Baptist pastor functioning as pulpit supply as a misunderstanding.

Meanwhile, that same presbytery was ordaining ministers would not affirm (nor did the reject) the doctrine of the Virgin Birth. New York’s breadth prompted overwhelming support from officers at the 1923 General Assembly to reaffirm the famous five points of essential and necessary doctrines — which included the virgin birth (which had been affirmed in 1910 and 1916). Some might construe them as boundary markers. But liberals in New York countered with the Auburn Affirmation, which was a plea for liberty in the church (breadth), an interpretation of the essential doctrines in a less than literal manner, and an assertion that the General Assembly lacked power to insist on essential doctrines.

From there it was largely downhill for liberals. The Special Commission of 1925, which had the task of explaining the tensions in the church, blamed conservatives for making unfounded assertions outside the orderly mechanisms of Presbyterian church government. Those un-Presbyterian activities included (by implication) writing books like Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism. The General Assembly followed up with an investigation of Princeton Seminary, again to discover the source of the controversy between Stevenson and his faculty, and between Charles Erdman and Machen. That committee found again that conservatives were the problem and in effect issued a warning that if conservatives continued to criticize liberalism in the denomination those critics could face church discipline. The committee also recommended administrative changes at Princeton that diluted conservative voices (which had been in the majority). Readers should remember that PTS was and remains an agency of the General Assembly (as opposed to independent ones like Westminster, Fuller, and Reformed, or Union Richmond which I believe was founded by a Synod).

Seven years later Machen led in the founding of an orthodox, narrow, and tiny church, the OPC (name to come in 1939). Meanwhile, the PCUSA had managed to remain unified even as it encompassed a spectrum of positions in the church.

Here is how the contemporary broadening of the PCA differs from the PCUSA. You could argue it begins with Good Faith Subscription. According to “Looking Forward – Together,” the determination of the General Assembly twenty years ago was pivotal:

Good Faith Subscription (GFS) was formalized into our Constitution almost twenty years ago to put an end to such unfounded assertions. Two back-to-back General Assemblies and two-thirds of our presbyteries came to a previously and since-unprecedented level of unity to make this Constitutional formulation that allows for meaningful and biblical adherence to our Standards (acknowledging where the Bible allows good men to differ according to a very careful system of checks and balances, where every difference is recorded, approved by entire presbyteries, and submitted for examination to the General Assembly)! The adoption of GFS made recording confessional exceptions mandatory for presbyteries, and has been extraordinarily effective in strengthening our confessional commitments.

Somehow this revision in church life allowed the PCA to do exactly what the denomination had done twenty-five years earlier without the advantages of GFS: “The latitude that our denomination has allowed for, within the bounds of our orthodoxy, protects us from the kind of centralized control or hidden compromise that brought peril to the denomination the PCA left in 1973.”

In other words, GFS accomplished what the PCA had always stood for — latitude (which is synonymous with breadth) even though the PCA in 1973 was formed precisely because the sort of broad church that the PCUSA had achieved in the 1930s was also occurring within the PCUS.

GFS is not what the Auburn Affirmation was. But it is a form of subscribing that is compatible with breadth. GFS is also an action of a General Assembly. The Auburn Affirmation was merely a statement in search of signatures. That is why “Faithfully” can sound sort of threatening to conservatives the way that PCUSA turned out to be with Machen and other critics of liberalism.

Online blogs, Facebook posts, online news agencies, and emails have generally been the modes of much attack, innuendo, and ridicule, with little or no personal interaction with those attacked and cited. In the process, specific brothers in good standing have been labeled – and hurt, but even more frequently, “straw men” are erected without proof. These communications assert that large segments of our church are abandoning Scripture and our Confessional standards. Every sin does violence to God’s world and forsakes his Word, whether the sin of homosexuality, the sin of slander, the sin of compromise, or the sin of divisiveness.

In fact, “Faithfully” implies that conservatives in the PCA are engaged in a power play:

We disagree with digital and social media characterizations that turn suspicions into speculations that become accusations without proof – to achieve political ends within our church. Where compromise or sin is true and can be proven, we have sessions, presbyteries, and judicial processes to engage. We are wrong to presume that all of these are populated by brothers who are less committed to our faith than those ringing alarm bells in internet discussions and news agencies.

That explains why this letter’s appeal to GFS is an important part of the argument. GFS is the law of the church. Anyone who challenges it is running contrary to the settled practice of the PCA. In which case, while the Auburn Affirmation was a plea for liberty in the church, “Faithfully” is a threat against those who challenge the existing breadth in the PCA.

One other important difference between the PCUSA’s becoming broad and the PCA’s current breadth is the degree to which the broadists talk about the relationship between church and society (or hint at a Social Gospel). The Auburn Affirmation was generally silent about society. Progressives in the PCUSA had to worry more about carving out space for themselves in the church than they did about their role in social reform. This is not the case for the PCA, at least by one reading of “Faithfully.” Here are some of the ways, according to the authors of the letter, the PCA has shown it’s commitment to “biblical integrity, ecclesiastical polity, and gospel focus” (none of which sounds very confessional or subscriptionist):

We are seeing a healthy, biblical consciousness for issues that were previously unaddressed in the denomination, including racial reconciliation, refugee care, domestic violence, the vital role of women in advancing the mission of the church, the gospel-centeredness of all Scripture, the importance of mercy ministries and crisis care in the advancement of Christ’s message of hope, and the precious power of God’s covenant care in a society of sexual and family brokenness. For example, without sacrificing our commitment to biblical integrity, the involvement of godly women has been sought for insight on difficult issues affecting children, churches, and families, as evidenced in the recent PCA study committees on the role of women and domestic violence.

Say what you will about those matters and whether the doctrine of the spirituality of the church, which is in the Westminster Confession (ch. 25), was part of the PCUS (and explains why it took until 1983 for the Southern and Northern churches to reunite), and was clearly part (not the whole) of the PCA’s founding, that is not a list of endeavors that would characterize a non-broad or strictly confessional Reformed church. For “Faithfully” to mention these as pretty much obvious signs of the PCA’s health is also to indicate a measure of confirmation bias that in turn construes one sector of a diverse church for the whole.

A similar confusion of broad consensus with actual disagreements is evident in “Faithfully”‘s discussion of the elephant in the PCA room — namely, Side B (or same-sex attracted) Christianity. To avoid that particular matter, “Faithfully” renders the issue as whether or not to ordain practicing homosexuals:

You may have heard that there are PCA pastors who desire to ordain practicing homosexuals This could not be further from the truth, and is an example of using extremes to ignite alarm and enflame passions among brothers. We agree that any unrepentant sinner or sinful lifestyle makes ordination not only impossible, but also reprehensible. We know of no pastors or elders in the PCA who in any way desire for practicing homosexuals to be ordained.

Fine. But what about pastors who identify as homosexual (though non-practicing) Christians? Would anyone object to a pastor calling himself an adulterous Christian because he is sometimes attracted to women other than his wife? Are these questions ones that agreeing on a basic set of “gospel” commitments while allowing for diversity on variety of indifferent matters will be easily answered? What if basic gospel commitments about sin, human nature, repentance, regeneration — all matters covered under Pastor Keller’s “Reformed theology and soteriology” — actually bubble up into questions about church and society? And what if Side B Christianity is a way to project that the PCA is a tolerant sort of place for residents of large metropolitan areas where people are generally uncomfortable expressing opposition to homosexuality?

Again, breadth seems to be afflicting the PCA. The affliction is certainly different from the broadening of the PCUSA roughly one hundred years ago. But in one way it is similar. “Evangelicals” like Charles Erdman, professor of practical theology at Princeton and opponent of Machen within the seminary and the church, believed a denomination could be broad and committed to the essentials of the gospel. The progressives in the PCA seem to be in a similar position. They are not making the church safe for pastors who question the Virgin Birth. But they, like Erdman, want to avoid being part of a restrictive church.

“Presbyterian” by definition means not Lutheran, not Anglican, not Baptist, not Congregationalist, not Quaker, not Methodist. Of course, someone can be not a Baptist in a disagreeable manner. But if the metric for offensiveness is calibrated to the ethos of cosmopolitan urban centers, the bar for giving offense was just set really low.

What about Jesus’ Whataboutism?

Our Lord could be hard to pin down (so to speak):

Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, 2“Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.” 3He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? 4For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ 5But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would have gained from me is given to God,” 6he need not honor his father.’ So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. 7You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said:

8“‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
9in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’”
(Matthew 15)

Imagine how he would have gotten ratioed on Twitter.

Postscript

Was Supposism the Hebrew equivalent for Whataboutism?

23 Then Abraham drew near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? 24 Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city. Will you then sweep away the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it? 25 Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” 26 And the Lord said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will spare the whole place for their sake.”

27 Abraham answered and said, “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. 28 Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking. Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?” And he said, “I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.” 29 Again he spoke to him and said, “Suppose forty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of forty I will not do it.” 30 Then he said, “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak. Suppose thirty are found there.” He answered, “I will not do it, if I find thirty there.” 31 He said, “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it.” 32 Then he said, “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak again but this once. Suppose ten are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.” (Genesis 18)

How Liberal Protestantism Happens (and it’s even worse when it claims to be conservative)

When you ask the church to do something that it can’t, you have a problem.

Here is the premise for Mark Tooley’s brief for churches building community: Matt Yglesias.

Left leaning commentator Matthew Yglesias, who’s Jewish, tweeted today: “Think I’m becoming a Straussian/Putnamist who instrumentally wants to get everyone to go to church again.” Columnist Ross Douthat, who’s Catholic, responded: “Be the change you seek.” Yglesias retorted: “Not gonna sell out the chosen people like that! But I’m gonna go neocon and root for the Christians vs the post-Christians.”

Tooley then goes on about how much Protestant churches civilized America:

Churches and denominations were central to building America’s democratic ethos. They civilized and socialized the early frontier. They created a wider civil society supporting politics, education, charity and community building. Regular church goers have never been a majority in America. But churches as institutions were foundations and pillars of wider society that benefitted all. Typically savvy non religious people have recognized their centrality to American culture and civic life.

He even defends civil religion:

What critics of civil religion fail to see is that Christianity has a duty to society to help create the language and architecture for constructive civil life that benefits all. Christianity wants all to be fed, clothed, housed, provided health care, treated with dignity, given security, and equipped with the political tools to live harmoniously in peace. Christians seek the common good for all society, not just what directly benefits themselves. But this promotion of the common good certainly benefits Christians and itself witnesses to the power, grandeur and truth of the Gospel.

This is out of the playbook of Tim Keller on the church and social capital.

Tooley thinks that evangelicals and secularists fail to see the value that churches add to civil society:

Nondenominational Christianity and evangelicalism often lack this long history and self-understanding as cultural stewards. They often focus more exclusively on individual faith and spiritual needs sometimes from a consumerist perspective. Sometimes their adherents see themselves more as a tribe or a subculture than as parcel to wider society with wider responsibilities.

That could be the reason for some. But for others, the problem is that the social mission of the church is not only hard to find in Peter or Paul or Jesus (is that bar too high?), but also that when Protestants were best at creating social capital, they forgot about Jesus and the world to come. That’s why Machen was important. He saw what the social purpose of the church was doing to stuff like doctrine, preaching, evangelism, and missions.

The rejection of the Christian hope is not always definite or conscious; sometimes the liberal preacher tries to maintain a belief in the immortality of the soul. But the real basis of the belief in immortality has been given up by the rejection of the New Testament account of the resurrection of Christ. And, practically, the liberal preacher has very little to say about the other world. This world is really the center of all his thoughts; religion itself, and even God, are made merely a means for the betterment of conditions upon this earth.

Thus religion has become a mere function of the community or of the state. So it is looked upon by the men of the present day. Even hard-headed business men and politicians have become convinced that religion is needed. But it is thought to be needed merely as a means to an end. We have tried to get along without religion, it is said, but the experiment was a failure, and now religion must be called in to help. (Christianity and Liberalism)

How does Tooley think the mainline churches went off the rails? Some conservatives believe it happened because pastors let this world become as important as the world to come, not to mention that talking about otherworldliness with members of Congress and professors at Yale produces cringe.

But if you want to see Tooley’s argument salvage a Protestant liberal as a conservative, look at Geoffrey Kabaservice’s rendering of William Sloane Coffin, Jr., who according to the New York Times combined the social gospel with 1960s activism (at Riverside Church, “an institution long known for its social agenda — he used his ministry to draw attention to the plight of the poor, to question American political and military power, to encourage interfaith understanding, and to campaign for nuclear disarmament”).  But liberal Protestantism can become conservative when it supplies social glue:

In doctrinal terms, Coffin was indeed a conservative, even an orthodox one. He retained the traditional Protestant liturgy, from the opening prayer to the confession to the benediction, resisting the wave of reform that swept over most denominations in the 1960s. His congregation sung the powerful old New England hymns. . . . The civil rights and antiwar activism of the 1960s seemed part of a much older American history when set to the hymn’s ominous, rolling cadences and the spine-tingling words of McGeorge Bundy’s ancestor, the nineteenth-century poet James Russell Lowell: “once to every man and nation / Comes the moment to decide, / In the strife of truth with falsehood, / For the good or evil side; / Some great cause goes by forever / ‘Twixt that darkness and that light.”

If social ministry can turn Coffin into a conservative, even doctrinally orthodox Protestant, Tooley has some work to do.

Here’s maybe not the but a thing: civil society does not depend on Christians. Believers often make good neighbors, though you’d never know from evangelical scholars these days. Invariably, Christians take out the trash, support Little League, donate books to the public library’s book sale fund raiser, approve of taxes to support police and fire departments. They also vote, which can be an anti-democratic form of social behavior if the ballot goes for the wrong candidate. If civil society has declined in America, it is not because of churches or their members. Rotary, the Elks, and Odd Fellows have also faded in the fabric of American society. For a host of reasons, Americans don’t join a host of voluntary organizations any more. One hunch is the social world that the internet has created. Another factor may be the outgrown size of national politics in the attention of journalists, teachers, and even radio talk show hosts.

But even if the path to a health America went through the social capital generated by churches, the question remains: is this what Scripture teaches?