The Wrinkles of Cultural Ministry

L. Roy Taylor’s retirement as stated clerk of the PCA’s General Assembly prompted a few questions about a Reformed church’s understanding of its responsibility to minister to “the culture.” Taylor himself sounded remarkably antithetical about the relationship between church and culture even while affirming the need to reach out to the wider world:

Few would disagree that our postmodern culture is morally, epistemologically (dealing with knowledge and facts), and theologically relativistic. After the 1960s, the worst thing one could do was to be certain or intolerant. Postmodernism and the sexual revolution of the 1960s have corroded our culture and even our churches. As we deal with modernity, we can either 1) accept the culture’s norms, 2) isolate ourselves from the culture, or 3) bear biblical witness to culture.

For Bible-believing Christians, accepting the culture’s norms is not an option because we believe in absolute moral standards, objective truth, and definite theology based on the Bible. Throughout history, some Christians have sought to isolate themselves from the culture either physically (monastics or hermits) or socially (having few or no non-Christian friends). Given the downward spiral of our culture, isolation is attractive for some Christians. For believers with a biblical worldview, however, we must bear witness to our culture.

Disagreeing with that assessment would require a Reaganesque invocation of “Morning in America” and could sound as naive now as it did then. Taylor suggests that if the church is going to “speak” to the culture, the words will be largely confrontational.

A similar theme was in the incoming stated clerk, Bryan Chapell’s assessment of the PCA from five years ago:

The issue that dwarfs our doctrinal squabbles and our persistent concern of how to treat issues of sexuality and gender is the issue of pluralism. Nothing comes close to that issue in being a challenge to our church’s future. The social stigma that is already attached to us for claiming that “Jesus is the only way” will be magnified many times for our children in a society increasingly willing to identify minority opinions as “bigotry” and “hate speech.” Pluralism will threaten not simply our orthodoxy, but the willingness of many to remain in this church.

If we do not see pluralism for the enemy it is, then we will not make appropriate alliances, link arms for necessary purposes, or allocate resources and align priorities for the greater ends required. If we do not recognize how seductive pluralism will be for all of us (and all we love) with its promises of societal approval and acceptance, then we will not embrace the means, manner, and message that will communicate the true beauty of grace that is the power of the Gospel.

The word “beauty” perhaps takes the edge off an antithetical relationship to the culture, but the threat Chapell identifies in the broader society leaves no sense that a little elbow grease is all you need to get the job of cultural transformation done.

To find a more positive less adversarial understanding of the PCA’s relationship to “the culture” you need to go back to Tim Keller’s 2010 remarks about what he “likes” about the PCA:

The culturalist impulse is like the doctrinalist in that it values theological reasoning and is suspicious of the individualism and pragmatism of the pietists. Culturalists emphasize community and the corporate in ways similar to the doctrinalists. However, culturalists are more like the pietists in their openness to social adaptation. Indeed, they usually are more open to the ‘new’ than the pietists. And the culturalists pay the most attention to what goes on outside the church in the culture. In particular, they usually give more heed to modern scholarship. Culturalists may show less concern with ‘church growth’ and overt evangelistic programs than either of the other two branches. Also feel more affinity to ‘the Great Tradition’—the Anglican, Catholic, and Eastern churches—than do the doctrinalists and the pietists.

This is a view of the culture that is open, willing to entertain novelty, and learn from secular scholarship, whether about religious matters or society. It is not antithetical but friendly.

If you had to guess which of these outlooks was most predictive of the PCA’s future and you looked at the age of the authors, you might say that Chapell who is the youngest (and not retired) reflects the communion’s posture for the next decade or so. From another angle, Keller’s own stature as successful New York City pastor and author of many books suggests that his outlook will carry the most weight, at least for a while.

But when it comes to cultural transformation, the wrench that gums up the works is the ministry of social justice. Those most concerned about racism, inequality, and structures of exclusion and privilege likely have no trouble seeing the church at odds with cultural structures that are systemically unjust. These Presbyterians could well agree with Taylor and Chapell’s warnings about cultural captivity. And the social justice Presbyterians could well think that Keller’s estimate of the modern world, from scholarship to big cities and the economies that make such urban centers possible, is naive. Missing from the social justice outlook, though, is an awareness that lots of people who have no Christian profession adopt the same causes (more like the other way around) that believing progressives do. In other words, the antithesis for social justice Christians has much more to do with politics than regeneration.

All of which makes a cultural ministry anything but simply the gospel.

Maybe President Obama was the Exception and Jeremiah Wright was the Rule

Matt Lewis thinks the Trump campaign is foolish to use Obamagate against Joe Biden and the previous administration since no one is more popular (especially among African-Americans) than President Obama. But if you read then Senator Obama’s Philadelphia speech about race (in response to inflammatory statements by his United Church of Christ pastor, Jeremiah Wright), the former president’s ideas have not aged well. You might even think he was living in a never-never land about race. Timelines are again important and the 1619 Project has swept away President Obama’s hopes for national unity:

I have asserted a firm conviction – a conviction rooted in my faith in God and my faith in the American people – that working together we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds, and that in fact we have no choice if we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union.

For the African-American community, that path means embracing the burdens of our past without becoming victims of our past. It means continuing to insist on a full measure of justice in every aspect of American life. But it also means binding our particular grievances – for better health care, and better schools, and better jobs – to the larger aspirations of all Americans — the white woman struggling to break the glass ceiling, the white man who’s been laid off, the immigrant trying to feed his family. And it means taking full responsibility for own lives – by demanding more from our fathers, and spending more time with our children, and reading to them, and teaching them that while they may face challenges and discrimination in their own lives, they must never succumb to despair or cynicism; they must always believe that they can write their own destiny.

…The profound mistake of Reverend Wright’s sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It’s that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country – a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black; Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old — is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past. But what we know — what we have seen – is that America can change. That is true genius of this nation. What we have already achieved gives us hope – the audacity to hope – for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.

That was 2008. By almost the end of Obama’s second term as POTUS (2015), Jeremiah Wright was still making the rounds and his “static” view of the United States made sense:

Wright is a flawed messenger with a flawed message, but the message feels far more suited to the times in 2015 than it did to 2008. Back then, the prospect of an Obama election set off giddy daydreams of a post-racial America. Today, nearly three out of five Americans say that race relations in the United States are bad. Wright’s argument in those sermons more than a decade ago, that the United States was structurally racist and conceived in white supremacy, are now commonly voiced, by those like my colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates, Black Lives Matters activists, and white liberals. Another cause he championed back then has come to draw adherents from across the political spectrum—the dangers of mass incarceration. Wright said in 2003:

The United States of America government, when it came to treating her citizens of Indian descent fairly, she failed. She put them on the reservations. When it came to treating her citizens of Japanese descent fairly, she failed. She put them in internment prison camps. When it came to treating the citizens of African descent fairly, America failed. She put them in chains. The government put them on slave quarters, put them on auction blocks, put them in cotton fields, put them in inferior schools, put them in substandard housing, put them in scientific experiments, put them in the lowest paying jobs, put them outside the equal protection of the law, kept them out of the racist bastions of higher education and locked them into positions of hopelessness and helplessness. The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing “God Bless America”

It could be that Obama didn’t really have a chance. The major media outlets and universities had not really agreed with his understanding of the United States. As David Graham added in his story about Wright:

much of it sounded very much like what you might hear from liberal professors in university classrooms across America: the emphasis on structural racism; skepticism of imperialism in many guises; sympathy for Palestinians and even antipathy toward Israel; praise for interdisciplinarity; the plea for multiculturalism and alternative viewpoints. Adding to the professorial vibe, Wright peppered his talk with repeated “assignments” for reading: the pioneering black historian Carter Woodson; C. Vann Woodward’s classic The Strange Career of Jim Crow; A. Leon Higginbotham’s In the Matter of Color: The Colonial Period; academic monographs in various disciplines. (The parallels between Coates and Wright were amusing: an interest in the study of white supremacy; a deep immersion in academic literature; a reverence for Howard University as an intellectual Mecca.)

For confirmation that President Obama did not change the minds of many Democrats and progressives about race, (trigger warning) read Adam Serwer on the Pulitzer Prize winning 1619 Project:

The most radical thread in the 1619 Project is not its contention that slavery’s legacy continues to shape American institutions; it’s the authors’ pessimism that a majority of white people will abandon racism and work with black Americans toward a more perfect union. Every essay tracing racial injustice from slavery to the present day speaks to the endurance of racial caste. And it is this profound pessimism about white America that many of the 1619 Project’s critics find most galling.

Not the hope of 2008 but the despair of 2019/1619 is prevailing.

The Steel Trap of the Liberal Presbyterian Mind

Henry Sloane Coffin was a leading liberal minister in the Presbyterian Church USA during the 1920s. When the General Assembly of 1925 was ready once again to affirm the virgin birth as an essential doctrine of Christianity, Coffin threatened to lead an exodus of liberals (mainly from New York) outside the denomination. This vote was so threatening because the Presbytery of New York City had ordained two ministers (one of them Henry Pit Van Dusen, president of Union Theological Seminary during the Niebuhr era) who could not affirm the virgin birth.

A separation was what J. Gresham Machen had wanted because liberals and conservatives were in such conflict:

A separation between the two parties in the Church is the crying need of the hour. Many indeed are seeking to avoid the separation. Why, they say, may not brethren dwell together in unity? The Church, we are told, has room both for liberals and for conservatives. The conservatives may be allowed to remain if they will keep trifling matters in the background and attend chiefly to “the weightier matters of the law.” And among the things thus designated as “trifling” is found the Cross of Christ, as a really vicarious atonement for sin. (Christianity and Liberalism)

But Coffin’s reply was to stand upon “the constitution of the Church,” not the provisions that included an affirmation of the virgin birth in the Confession and Catechisms, but that part that prevented General Assemblies from changing or adding “to the conditions” for ordination.

Coffin, after all, was an liberal evangelical:

We are first and foremost evangelicals . . . to the core of our spiritual beings. Any attempt to belittle Jesus, to reduce Him to a mere Teacher, a sage superior to other sages, but one among many, not the unique Saviour of the world; to substitute any other standard for the Bible as the authoritative express of God’s life with men. . . is to depreciate the Christian religion and to rob it of its vital force. (quoted in Longfield, Presbyterian Controversy, 88)

That evangelicalism came with a catch. According to Longfield:

In the Presbyterian conflict Coffin would fight for doctrinal liberty in the church, for the freedom to rethink Christian convictions in present-day categories. This was essential if the church was to survive in the modern world. But beyond that, Coffin was fighting to preserve the hope of a social and economic order redeemed through the people of God. The church existed “to embody and create the world-wide community of God,” “to conquer all the kingdoms of this world — art, science, industry, education, politics — for God and for His Christ. . . . The attacks of fundamentalist like Machen and Macartney on liberal evangelicals therefore threatened both the freedom of Christians and the future of the world. Only a universal church, a “re-united world-wide Church of Christ, supernational,” could marshal the power to remake the world according to Christ’s mind. (Longfield, 99)

Twenty-five years later, William F. Buckley, Jr. ran up against that sort of progressive (and still evangelical?) Christianity when he published God and Man at Yale, a book that blew the whistle on the lack of Christianity and friendliness to collective economics in the instruction at the school from which Buckley had just graduated. The book created a great controversy and was arguably the first installment of the conservative movement that would soon make a dent on the Republican Party.

Yale appointed a committee (like the way Charles Erdman appointed the Special Commission of 1925 to investigate the Presbyterian conflict) and the chairman of the commission was Henry Sloane Coffin. In a letter to a Yale alumnus, a copy of which went to Buckley, Coffin wrote that the book’s author was “distorted by his Roman Catholic point of view.” Buckley should have known that Yale was a “Puritan and Protestant institution by its heritage.” He also should have “attended Fordham or some similar institution.”

So in 1925 Coffin rejected a separation in the Presbyterian Church. But for Yale, he had no problem thinking that Roman Catholics should take their endeavors elsewhere. The separation of the church? No. The separation of the university? No problem.

Machen may have been able to warn Buckley had he lived beyond 1937:

Such obscuration of the issue attests a really astonishing narrowness on the part of the liberal preacher. Narrowness does not consist in definite devotion to certain convictions or in definite rejection of others. But the narrow man is the man who rejects the other man’s convictions without first endeavoring to understand them, the man who makes no effort to look at things from the other man’s point of view. For example, it is not narrow to reject the Roman Catholic doctrine that there is no salvation outside the Church. It is not narrow to try to convince Roman Catholics that that doctrine is wrong. But it would be very narrow to say to a Roman Catholic: “You may go on holding your doctrine about the Church and I shall hold mine, but let us unite in our Christian work, since despite such trifling differences we are agreed about the matters that concern the welfare of the soul.” For of course such an utterance would simply beg the question; the Roman Catholic could not possibly both hold his doctrine of the Church and at the same time reject it, as would be required by the program of Church unity just suggested. A Protestant who would speak in that way would be narrow, because quite independent of the question whether he or the Roman Catholic is right about the Church he would show plainly that e had not made the slightest effort to understand the Roman Catholic point of view.

The case is similar with the liberal program for unity in the Church. It could never be advocated by anyone who had made the slightest effort to understand the point of view of his opponent in the controversy. (Christianity and Liberalism)

The lesson could very well be, beware the tranformationalists.

A Side of Dutch Calvinists You Don’t See Anymore

This anonymous interlocutor who reads Rod Dreher’s blog, sells real estate, and sometimes preaches may be a member of a Christian Reformed Church congregation in Canada:

Why would you bring guns to a state legislature in protest?

Because the meritocracy are a bunch of gun hating pussies that’s why. It’s a show of “strength.” It’s a statement, “You may have all the levers and instruments of political power, but we have all the guns.” It has been my belief for a several years now that the politicization of our society and its radicalization are only going to get worse. I also believe that if de-escalation is going to happen, the first steps must begin with the left and with the meritocracy. They must begin walking back the Alinsky-ite attitude of the left. They need to show “respect” to those that differ with them, who disagree with them and will not join them in the “climb” up the social ladder. Calling them selfish morons and jerks only fuels the fires and widens the divide.

Why would people be willing to vote for and continue to support Trump? Why, when there many more qualified and better people who could do the job and were willing to do the job?

If I were an American, I would have voted for Ted Cruz. But the movers and shakers in the Republican Party hated him so much that they were willing to allow Trump to get the nomination rather than see Cruz win the nomination. Why are so many people willing to vote for Trump? It’s not just the red meat rallies. It is not just that he thumbs his nose at the press and constantly battles with them. Every other candidate was obviously a part of the meritocracy. Even though Trump is super rich and was born with a silver spoon, he is gauche enough to be thought of as having a common touch. He connected with people and made them believe that whatever he is, he isn’t one of “them.” “Them,” the meritocracy, are so reviled and so hated that his supporters would vote for anyone, as long as they had no stench of “them” on themselves. Anyone but a member of the meritocracy. Trump understands this instinctively. So, as long as he is seen as “not one of them” his base will follow. And there is a large segment of the population willing to die of coronavirus than listen to the dictates of the meritocracy. They are that hated and reviled. But the leadership class in both parties do not see it, will not see it and wouldn’t believe it even if they did. Nobody likes them. There is no one other than Trump. Tucker? Name someone other than Trump who can or is willing to lead the fight against the growing hegemony of the meritocracy? Do you think that the meritocracy is willing to stand down and end its war against the common people, the deplorables, to make peace and once again earn the trust of the people? The common people know that they will do anything to destroy them. Send their jobs overseas, flood the market with illegal aliens, wreck their families and towns and so forth. There is already a war going on and people are starting to wake up to that reality. Guns in the state house is only the beginning. Who will fight for the common man? Fight hard enough to win? Right now the perception is that Trump is all they got.

What is your only comfort in life and in death?

This is the question that opens the Heidelberg Catechism, an amazing document and one of the core confessional teachings in the Dutch Reformed stream of the Christian faith. Most of us who grew up in a church with roots in this tradition can give the answer of “The Catechism” from heart. And it is this answer that makes me not afraid. At the same time, I am also conscientious enough and polite enough to wear a mask, sanitize and stay home. I also have two university degrees, am regularly asked to speak as an “expert” (preach from the pulpit), make a six figure income, send my kids to private (Christian) grade school and high school and we are on swim team. By all metrics I should be a happy and contented member of the meritocracy. But I just can’t do it. I just can’t embrace it. A big part of it is my Christian faith. But I think a larger part of what turns me off from the meritocracy is that so many of them – people, who, on their own, seem like nice people – behave in way that reminds me of treatment I received in high school from the “cool kids.” I see it at church. I see it at swim team. I see it on Facebook, Twitter and almost every time I turn on the TV. Good looking “cool kids” telling me how to live my life and admonishing me to “stay safe.” I don’t want to stay safe. I want to live life. I want to challenge myself in my faith journey to be as honest with myself as I can stand it and more. I don’t want to be afraid. I am not. Why am I not afraid? Because I share in a reality that is more real than the empty material world of the elites. I don’t need to figure out what the world means to me, because it is already deeply imbued in its very fabric and foundation with meaning. Truth, Beauty, Justice, and so forth are all out their waiting to be discovered, pondered and embraced. Its not “safe” to pursue these things. But I can do so knowing:

That I am not my own,

but belong –

body and soul

in life and in death—

to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.

He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood,

and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil.

He also watches over me in such a way

that not a hair can fall from my head

without the will of my Father in heaven:

in fact, all things must work together for my salvation.

Because I belong to him,

Christ, by his Holy Spirit,

assures me of eternal life

and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready

from now on to live for him.

For many in my community, these words are the ordering principle and foundation for their approach to life. Why would I be afraid to live if I know that my life belongs to Christ? Can a virus take away my salvation? Can it separate me from the love of God that is in Jesus Christ?

Even though I am not afraid, I know others are, and so I try to respect that as best I can. I wear a mask and other than trips to the grocery store and a few house showings, I have allowed myself to be kept prisoner. But I would much rather be living life.

Public Health is Harder than Long Division

James Scott’s book, Seeing Like a State (1998) came up in this fascinating discussion of public policy, health systems, government, expertise, and legitimate political authority. The following is from a review of Scott’s book in The New Republic, May 18, 1998 (“More is Less”, by Cass R. Sunstein). This is precisely what state governors and their advisors are doing during the COVID-19 pandemic:

German psychologist named Dietrich Dorner has done some fascinating experiments designed to see whether people can engage in successful social engineering. The experiments are run by a computer. Participants are asked to solve problems faced by the inhabitants of some region of the world: poverty, poor medical care, inadequate fertilization of crops, sick cattle, insufficient water, excessive hunting and fishing. Through the magic of the computer, many policy initiatives are available (improved care of cattle, childhood immunization, drilling more wells), and participants can choose among them. Once initiatives are chosen, the computer projects, over short periods of time and then over decades, what is likely to happen in the region.

In these experiments, success is entirely possible. Some initiatives will actually make for effective and enduring improvements. But most of the participants—even the most educated and the most professional ones—produce calamities. They do so because they do not see the complex, system-wide effects of particular interventions. Thus they may recognize the importance of increasing the number of cattle, but once they do that, they create a serious risk of overgrazing, and they fail to anticipate that problem. They may understand the value of drilling mote wells to provide water, but they do not foresee the energy effects and the environmental effects of the drilling, which endanger the food supply. It is the rare participant who can see a number of steps down the road, who can understand the multiple effects of one-shot interventions into the system.

These computer experiments have countless real-world analogues. As everyone now knows, an unanticipated problem with mandatory airbags is that they result in the deaths of some children who would otherwise live. Less familiarly, new antiterrorist measures in airports increase the cost of air travel, thus leading people to drive instead, and driving is more dangerous than traveling by air, so more stringent antiterrorist measures
may end up killing people. If government wants to make sure that nuclear power is entirely safe, it should impose tough controls on nuclear power, but those controls will increase the price of nuclear energy, which may well increase the use of fossil fuels, which may well create the more serious environmental problems. . . .

On Scott’s view, the failed plans and the thin simplifications ignore information that turns out to be crucial. To be sure, an all-seeing computer, capable of handling all relevant information and envisioning the diverse consequences of different courses of action, may facilitate tyranny. But it need not blunder. This is the real lesson of Dorner’s experiments, for which Scott has provided a wealth of real-world counterparts. And this is not
the end of the story. Dorner also demonstrated the possibility of successful planning by those who are attuned to long-range effects. Scott’s analysis would have been improved if he had compared success with failure, and given a clearer sense of the preconditions for success.

Still, Scott’s advice is far from useless. It can be applied to contexts far afield from those that concern him here. His case studies help explain, say, why national regulation tends to work better when it consists of altered incentives rather than flat commands. Some of the most successful initiatives in American regulatory law have consisted of efforts to increase the price of high-polluting activities; and some of the least successful have been rigid mandates that ignore the collateral effects of regulatory controls. Scott’s enthusiasm for metis also suggests that certain governmental institutions will do best if they act incrementally, creating large-scale change not at once, but in a series of lesser steps. We might think here not only of common law, but also of constitutional law. Many judicial problems derive from a belief that judges can intervene successfully in large-scale systems (consider the struggles with school desegregation in the 1960s and 1970s), and many judicial successes have come from proceeding incrementally (consider the far more incremental and cautious attack on sex discrimination in the same period).

And Scott also offers larger implications. A society that is legible to the state is susceptible to tyranny, if it lacks the means to resist that state; and an essential part of the task of a free social order is to ensure space for institutions of resistance. Moreover, a state that attempts to improve the human condition should engage not in plans but in experiments, secure in the knowledge that people will adapt to those experiments in unanticipated ways. Scott offers no plans or rules here, and a closer analysis of the circumstances that distinguish success from failure would have produced greater illumination. But he has written a remarkably interesting book on social engineering, and be cannot be much faulted for failing to offer a sure-fire plan for the well-motivated, metis-friendly social engineer.

What Value Do Evangelicals Add?

One more thought about David French’s implicit castigation of Al Mohler for deciding to support Donald Trump. It goes beyond French’s own theology of regeneration and good works to his w-w. If he thinks that faith should inform all he does, if that means especially it should determine his political judgments, why is his godly point of view so similar to journalists who don’t pretend to be Christians? Shouldn’t a Christian understanding of human nature, virtue, governance, society and more mean that a believer’s analysis will look different from a non-Christians? Wasn’t that the point of w-w thinking, integrating faith and intellect?

Take the case of Alabama Republican, Roy Moore. In his exchange with Eric Metaxas, French said “America is better off without Roy Moore.” He didn’t say much more than that but it’s not hard to imagine that again Moore came up short in the character balance sheet.

Anyone who tells you that your choice is limited to pro-abortion Doug Jones or an incompetent, unfit apparent child abuser like Roy Moore is simply lying to you. If you are a faithful conservative, you can write in a different name or stay home. You can reject the choice served up by the plurality of Alabama GOP primary voters and simply say, “If you want my vote, you have to do better.”

…There is no comparison between Moore and men like Patton, Jefferson, and King. Their legacies are complicated by their flaws. Moore’s candidacy is unambiguous. There is no positive political legacy to “complicate.” There is only a sordid, ignorant, and revolting reality.

No party or politician is entitled to your vote. Every man or woman who seeks public office has to earn the public’s trust. Roy Moore has earned nothing but its contempt.

This is not that different from David Graham’s point of view at the Atlantic:

The newest allegations against Moore present Republicans with a choice—not only individual officeholders, but the party as a whole, both nationally and in Alabama. Withdrawing support for Moore, and calling for voters not to support him, would be a bitter pill. It’s too late to replace him on the ticket, and although there’s talk of a Luther Strange write-in campaign, a Moore defeat would probably mean the seat goes to Democrat Doug Jones. And yet if the party’s members can’t bring themselves to set aside narrow partisan interest and condemn a man whom they despise, with a track record of bigotry, and with multiple on-the-record accusations of improper sexual misconduct with underage women, what behavior and which candidate can they possibly rule out in the future?

None of what French and Graham write is untrue, nor is it particularly profound or very political, unless electoral politics is really about finding the most virtuous people.

So what value does French add? As a recognized evangelical writer with a law degree and some history in conservative circles, he seems to add the evangelical perspective. What makes it different from writers at the Atlantic is that French appeals to Jesus for his morality.

That is not political philosophy. As Mark Noll wrote almost 10 years ago:

The merger of Jesus and Jefferson that propelled the New Christian Right was neither made in heaven, as in the eyes of its proponents, nor was it a cynical exercise in hypocritical self-interest, as often portrayed by its opponents. It was rather a historically constructed contingency that, judged from a broad Christian perspective, deserves to be both applauded and denounced….evangelical conservative politics has been a movement without a philosophy. … Yet to deal with such complexities—to bring together solidly grounded conceptions of government, employment, education, capitalism, race, history, world affairs, and even Christianity into practical political action—requires political philosophy of the sort that American evangelicals have never possessed. Theirs is not the tradition of Rerum Novarum, Quadragesimo Anno, or Mater et Magistra. It is instead the tradition of Charles G. Finney, who in the 1830s declared that the problem of slavery could be resolved “in three years’ time” if only slaveholders would recognize that slaveholding was a sin. It is the lineage of Billy Sunday, who in 1919 predicted that Prohibition would empty American prisons and transform the country into a heaven on earth.

The flourishing of conservative evangelical politics in recent American history has done considerable good through the exercise of instinct, anger, energy, and zeal. It would have done much more good, and also drawn nearer to the Christianity by which it is named, if it had manifested comparable wisdom, honesty, self-criticism, and discernment.

Pietism and Christian Alliances

It might seem strange to describe something like the Gospel Coalition as confessional when its affect and substance is so much more pietist:

Pietist historians had narrated how much conflict and violence had been begotten by ecclesial differences. And while their hope for the future was to repristinate Christian faith and free it from the old animosities, their reading of the Christian past was one of chagrin and contrition. There were others, far less enthusiastic than they for Jesus, who looked over their shoulders at this same sad history and saw it as Europe’s folly. All those quarrels over the homoousios and homoiousios, Communion from the cup, predestination, apostolic succession, total depravity, infant baptism, and so much else, persuaded this generation that all the bickering had been no more important than the tithing of anise and cumin. . . .

A pietist directly address people who have inherited a confused tradition, and when he or she says that “all property is God’s,” or that “we are all brothers and sisters and call no man teacher,” and that “it is all summed up in love,” the short saying is like a single wink from Alec Guinness near the end of a complex film, a wink that suddenly makes sense of it all to the attentive viewer. But to a patron who walked into the theater in the midst of the final reel the wink might as well be a flirtatious come-on, for it is all the newcomer can see. . . . to someone whose head is so empty as to make confusion impossible, for someone who is starting from an intellectual ground zero, the toss-off could be a quip that becomes the cornerstone of a new and lethally naive Weltanschauung. This ability of the unformed addressee to receive what the pietist intended as a restorative insight, and to mistake it as a freestanding truth instead, and thereby to take in hand terribly less than was handed on, is what has made pietist reforms so powerfully cliched and unstable. (James Burtchaell, The Dying of the Light, 841, 840).

How Broad Can Confessional Presbyterians Be?

The subject of confessionalism in relation to the Gospel Coalition has again come up, this time with a charitable defense of the organization from Ligon Duncan. The article that elicited this response is not at issue here.  I have not read it nor is that as pertinent as what Duncan says about confessionalism:

None of us are a part of TGC because we don’t care about our ministerial vows or because we don’t really believe our Confession.

We are a part of TGC because TGC beautifully promotes certain important things in the wider Christian and evangelical world that are needed, vital, true, good, right, timely, healthful, and which are also perfectly consistent with our own confessional theological commitments, so we want to be a part and a help. We also think that we have a thing or two to learn from our non-Presbyterian friends in TGC that “sweetly comport” with our vows and our church’s doctrine and practice. And we love the friendship and fellowship we enjoy with like-minded brethren from and ministering in settings denominationally different from our own, but committed to the same big things.

Just as Charles Hodge of Princeton (not one shy of his confessional Presbyterian commitments), for similar reasons, was happy to participate in the Evangelical Alliance in the nineteenth century, so also I am happy to participate in TGC.

This is an important historical matter that deserves more attention. What was the relationship of Hodge’s Old School Presbyterianism to interdenominational endeavors like the Evangelical Alliance? And how did Hodge’s own opposition to the 1869 reunion of the Old and New School churches relate to endeavors like the Evangelical Alliance?

One way of answering that question is to notice that the sorts of cooperation in which mainline Protestants engaged after the Civil War, with the 1869 Presbyterian reunion paving the way, fueled ecumenical and social gospel endeavors that produced conservative opposition in the 1920s and 1930s. The Evangelical Alliance was the Moral Majority of its day, wanting immigrants to conform to Protestant norms, opposed to Romanism and communism (for starters), and it provided the vehicle for Protestants to unite to defend a Christian America. Those ecumenical impulses eventually produced the Federal Council of Churches in 1908 and the Plan for Organic Union in 1920, a proposal that would have united all mainline Protestants into one national church — the way Canadian Protestants at roughly the same time formed the United Church of Canada (1925).

What the period of interdenominational cooperation meant for Presbyterians was a 1903 revision of the Confession of Faith. That revision enabled the PCUSA to receive the Cumberland Presbyterians. Revision softened the Confession’s Calvinism to make room for a body that had left the church almost one hundred years earlier over objections to election and limited atonement. Presbyterians going along for the ecumenical ride included the president of Princeton Theological Seminary, J. Ross Stevenson, who presented the Plan for Organic Union to the 1920 General Assembly. J. Gresham Machen was a first-time commissioner to that Assembly and Princeton’s faculty’s opposition to that plan was start of a denomination wide controversy that forced the 1929 reorganization of Princeton Seminary (to make it tolerant of diversity) and the simultaneous founding of Westminster Seminary.

According to Lefferts Loetscher, who wrote a book with a title that frightened conservatives in the PCUSA and the PCUS, The Broadening Church (1954), the reunion of Old and New School in 1869 touched off developments that saw the PCUSA recover its historic breadth:

Once again in 1869, as in 1758, the Presbyterian Church was restoring unity not by resolving its differences, but by ignoring and absorbing them. Men who had been denounced as “heretics” in 1837 and who had professed no change of theological viewpoint in the interim were welcomed in 1869 as honored brethren. The result was, of course, that the theological base of the Church (especially of the former Old School branch of the Church) was broadened and the meaning of its subscription formula further relaxed. The gentlemen’s agreement of 1869 to tolerate divergent types of Calvinism meant that clear-cut definitions of Calvinism would not be enforceable in the reunited Church, and that it would be increasingly difficult to protect historic Calvinism against variations that might undermine its essential character. (8)

No one actually doubts whether the Old and New Schools were liberal. By almost every measure, both sides would come out as evangelical today (especially if you don’t apply the category of confessionalism). And yet, the breadth necessary for combining both sides also made room for a range of theological ideas that spawned liberalism.

In other words, breadth is not a good thing. Broadening churches are usually ones that become liberal.

So why is an organization that tolerates a diversity of “evangelical” convictions going to avoid that problems that usually surface when you recognize you need to be broader than your own communion is? The answer is not that the Gospel Coalition is going liberal. But an objection to the Gospel Coalition is that it does not have built in transparent mechanisms for identifying and disciplining liberalism.

And here are a couple ways that the Coalition’s breadth could collide with my own Presbyterian confessionalism. If I am a member of the Council and an officer in a confessional Presbyterian church, and my communion has a controversy over someone ordained who does not affirm the doctrine of limited atonement, will I receive support for my opposition to this erroneous officer from my friends and colleagues at TGC? Or what about the Federal Vision? If my church decides that Federal Vision is a dangerous set of teachings that need to be opposed, will my friends and colleagues at TGC support my church in its decision? Will people who write for Gospel Coalition even be clear about the covenant theology that is clearly taught in the Confession of Faith? Or will some of them think that my communion is too narrow in its understanding of Reformed Protestantism? Will they think that the proper response should be one to include a breadth of views in denominations because that is the norm for the Coalition? I could well imagine feeling some pressure to weigh matters before a presbytery or Assembly with my peers in the Coalition in mind? Will I disappoint them? Maybe that’s the wrong way of asking the question. What if they don’t care about the affairs of my communion the way I do? (Why should they care since they are not members or officers of my denomination?)

These are real dilemmas for anyone who has subscribed the Confession and Catechisms and been ordained in a Presbyterian communion while also belonging to an evangelical organization with standards different from the church. They are concerns that have been around for almost 160 years. The Gospel Coalition has not brought an end to church history.

Mingling Church and State while Social Distancing

Have a pandemic and all the government response completely undone the temporal-spiritual distinction? One expression of that differentiation is the separation of church and state (or religious disestablishment) that comes with the U.S. Constitution and early modern political liberalism more generally.

Baptists used to be very adamant about the separation of church and state, sometimes even celebrating a wall if it preserved religious liberty. In 1947 the Southern Baptists called for a Constitutional Amendment to affirm the separation of church and state and “to prohibit sectarian appropriations to non-public educational institutions.” This was likely in the context of certain kinds of state aid going to parochial (read Roman Catholic) schools. Twenty years later, a constitutional amendment was out of the question but a resolution asking Congress to make laws against federal funding going to church-related schools was still in the SBC wheelhouse.

we urge the Congress of the United States to enact legislation which would help clarify responsibility of the judiciary to interpret the meaning of the United States Constitution for separation of Church and State, including constitutionality of federal funds in church-sponsored programs

That now seems like ancient history with all the computer models, hand washing, apocalyptic headlines, and rising rates of death on planet earth. The wall between church and state has come down with a bang and Southern Baptists are apparently fine with it.

They may receive funding from the government‘s economic stimulus package through the loan portion of the plan:

The benefits allotted to small business, nonprofits, and houses of worship include payroll protection and access to a covered loan if the nonprofit organization maintains their employees. The loan can go to cover the cost of group healthcare benefits during periods of paid sick, medical, or family leave, and insurance premiums, employee salaries, rent, utilities, and interest on any other debt obligations that were incurred before the covered period. The program is designed to allow for the loan to be forgiven if used to cover payroll expenses. . . .

In the midst of these uncertain times, this government aid can hopefully provide some needed financial relief for individuals, nonprofits, and churches.

Southern Baptists may also follow government guidelines restricting worship services under no penalty of violating religious liberty:

The current situation facing us is not a case of the state overstepping its bounds, but rather seeking to carry out its legitimate God-given authority. Nowhere, at this point, have we seen churches targeted because of their beliefs or mission. At issue is a clear public objective—stopping the transmission of a dangerous virus by gatherings. . . . .

The situation will almost inevitably lead to even stronger and less voluntary government actions. Could these encroach on religious liberty? That is certainly possible, but not necessarily. To prevent that, we will need more secular leaders to think carefully about why religion is important and more religious leaders to be thinking through the complexities of public health. If we remain on the same ‘team’ when it comes to overcoming this crisis, we can avoid overreach on one side or paranoia on the other. And that’s what we will need.

Any order should include the maximum recognition of the need for clergy and other religious workers to carry out necessary ministry, in the same category as health care workers. Such ministry is necessary. A nursing home patient who is in peril needs a doctor to care for her physically, but also should be allowed to have a pastor pray for her, her priest administer last rites, or whatever the equivalent would be in her religion. We can make such exceptions without creating jeopardy to lives, just as we have in every other time in human history from the Black Plague to the 1918 influenza crisis.

I’m not sure which is more at odds with the First Amendment. Freedom of assembly seems pretty basic to civil liberties. When China cracks down on public protests, Americans shout “authoritarian”! But now, even Southern Baptists seem to be comfortable with government shutdowns of worship. They even seem incapable of wondering if government officials use an emergency for ends other than public health.

At the same time, giving money to churches (or lending money that will not have to be repaid) is about as big an instance of the establishment of religion as Protestants once imagined. Heck, they even worried about using public school buses (with funding from public coffers) to give Roman Catholic students rides to parochial schools.

But not every one is happy. Cue the atheists:

Organizations that advocate for strict church-state separation are criticizing the program.

“The government cannot directly fund inherently religious activities,” argues Alison Gill, legal and policy vice president of American Atheists. “It can’t spend government tax dollars on prayer, on promoting religion [or] proselytization. That directly contradicts the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. This is the most drastic attack on church-state separation we have ever seen.”

According to the First Amendment, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Advocates for government funding of religious institutions argue that denying them aid that is available to nonreligious institutions amounts to discrimination, and the U.S. Supreme Court has recently declined to challenge such support.

“In the last 15 years, the Court has moved increasingly in a permissive direction,” says John Inazu, who specializes in religion and law at Washington University in St. Louis’ School of Law. “There’s just an increased willingness by the court to allow for direct funding of religious entities.”

The powers of COVID-19 seem to be more “total” than the president’s.

Timely, Timeless, and Weekly

After pondering why pastors (and even parachurch leaders) feel the necessity to comment on contemporary affairs — and whether this is connected to civil religion or pious nationalism — I was curious to see what the gospel allies have been writing about the pandemic.

One problem for people who are in the business of teaching and defending enduring truths like those from a book over two millennia old is that commentary on current affairs can be dated oh so quickly, even in a piece that initially seemed so brilliant:

3. What Decisions Do We Need to Make?
[Note this update from Crouch: As of the President and federal health officials’ afternoon press conference on 16 March 2020, this advice, which was intended for leaders making decisions on or immediately after12 March 2020, is obsolete, though still helpful both for modeling how Christians might make such decisions and in helping us comply with existing restrictions (e.g., in places where gatherings of up to ten are allowed). I will not be updating it further. All leaders should obey both the requirements and the requests of public officials at every level.]

Groups of less than ten people can meet together with minimal risk, provided that
*no one present is sick or has any reason to think they have been exposed to SARS-CoV-2,
*shared surfaces are disinfected before and after the meeting
*everyone washes their hands thoroughly (more than 20 seconds) upon arrival and upon returning to their home
*food and drink are served individually
*as much distance as possible is maintained between members of different households and their belongings.

Another oddity is the tacit admission that Christians are so poorly read that they need to go to a parachurch website for knowledge about a topic that almost everyone is talking about 24/7. Don’t believers actually know where to go for information about the world they share in common with non-believers? Or do they need that knowledge to come from reliable sources (and only Christian sources are reliable)? This piece has good material, but it also comes across paternalistically, like we need to spoon feed this stuff to you kids out there:

The use of the terms endemic, outbreak, epidemic, and pandemic do not denote the severity, or how serious the condition has become. For instance, influenza (flu) is endemic to the United States, though the severity changes from year to year. The severity of the flu in 2019–2020 is classified by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) as being “high.” According to CDC estimates, from October 1, 2019, through February 15, 2020, there have been 29 million to 41 million flu illnesses, 13 million to 19 million flu medical visits, 280,000 to 500,000 flu hospitalizations, and 16,000 to 41,000 flu deaths.

In contrast, the COVID-19 has (as of February 24, 2020), resulted in 51,838 currently infected patients (40,271 in mild condition; 11,567 in serious condition), 25,271 recovered cases, and 2,698 deaths. It’s currently unclear what level of severity we should expect if COVID-19 becomes a pandemic.

Two other important terms are containment and mitigation. Containment is measures taken to slow the spread of a condition, usually for the purpose of making preparations before it becomes an epidemic or pandemic. As applied to COVID-19, containment has included measures taken to slow the spread of the virus (a somewhat achievable goal) rather than intended to stop the complete spread of the disease (which may not be achievable, at least in the short term). Mitigation is efforts to reduce the severity or seriousness of the condition. In a pandemic, mitigation strategies may include a variety of approaches, from encouraging handwashing to the creation of new vaccines.

So what are Christians to do? Why can’t they have Sundays for a word from the Lord, fellowship of the saints, and rest from this world in anticipation of the eternal rest to come? Machen sure seemed to understand this:

Remember this, at least — the things in which the world is now interested are the things that are seen; but the things that are seen are temporal, and the things that are not seen are eternal. You, as ministers of Christ, are called to deal with the unseen things. You are stewards of the mysteries of God. You alone can lead men, by the proclamation of God’s word, out of the crash and jazz and noise and rattle and smoke of this weary age into the green pastures and beside the still waters; you alone, as minsters of reconciliation, can give what the world with all its boasting and pride can never give — the infinite sweetness of the communion of the redeemed soul with the living God. (Selected Shorter Writings, 205)

The other six days, let the experts have their say and let the saints figure out — in consultation with friends, parents, cousins, teachers, colleagues — which experts to follow. Is that too secular?