Apparently Calvin Did Not Receive the Neo-Calvinist Memo

Calls for a transformational, wholistic, and cosmic redemption do not die. In fact, whenever sin is readily apparent in the news, the need for a solution (or at least a response) from Christians generally involves an appeal to the gospel. What else do believers have? (Short answer: as created beings, they have a lot more — just think of all the subjects in a university or college course catalog and imagine saying after reading all that “the gospel is always the only answer to human hardship.”)

Here’s one way of talking about Cosmic Redemptive Christianity:

CRC is a redemptive-historical view of the gospel. Tim Keller’s definition of the gospel is a great example. He defines it this way: “Through the person and work of Jesus Christ, God fully accomplishes salvation for us, rescuing us from judgment for sin into fellowship with him, and then restores the creation in which we can enjoy our new life together with him forever.” The difference is subtle but overwhelming in its implication for the black experience in America.

The key phrase here is “restores the creation.” [Great Commission Christianity] sadly does not include creation, the kingdom, or redemption as a necessary part of the gospel. Leaving out “creation” explains why GCC struggled to encourage Christian involvement in social issues.

I’d define the gospel by saying it is the good news of God’s saving work in Christ and the Spirit by which the powers of sin, death, and judgment are overcome and the life of the new creation is inaugurated, moving towards the glorification of the whole cosmos.

Here’s another:

As such, this Gospel message is indeed anemic as it does not properly answer to the nature of mankind, nor the restoration of all that is the image of God in man. If man as the image of God includes not only soul, righteousness, and immortality, but also his physical nature, his social relations, and even his proper habitation, then the message of redemption—i.e., renewal “after the image of him that created him”—must of necessity be, in Bradley’s words, “the good news of God’s saving work in Christ and the Spirit by which the powers of sin, death, and judgment are overcome and the life of the new creation is inaugurated, moving towards the glorification of the whole cosmos”; that is, something like “Cosmic Redemption Christianity.”

If the message of redemption includes anything less, then man is not being restored by the Gospel; but if we take seriously all that it means to be made in the image and likeness of the Triune God, then we must likewise take seriously all that is included in man’s redemption, and craft our mission and message accordingly.

Talk about setting expectations high.

That’s not exactly what Paul told the church in Corinth (who had a fair amount of troubles — wealth gap, incest, imperial injustice):

For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. 2 For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, 3 if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. 4 For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. 5 He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.

6 So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, 7 for we walk by faith, not by sight. 8 Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. 9 So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. 10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil. (2 Cor 5)

That’s a tad dualistic for some inclined to a cosmic gospel. But Calvin lays it on thick in his commentary on this passage:

The body, such as we now have it, he calls a house of tabernacle For as tabernacles [512] are constructed, for a temporary purpose, of slight materials, and without any firm foundation, and then shortly afterwards are thrown down, or fall of their own accord, so the mortal body is given to men as a frail hut, [513] to be inhabited by them for a few days. The same metaphor is made use of, also, by Peter in his Second Epistle, (2 Peter 1:13, 14,) and by Job, (Job 4:19,) when he calls it a house of clay. He places in contrast with this a building of perpetual duration. It is not certain, whether he means by this term a state of blessed immortality, which awaits believers after death, or the incorruptible and glorious body, such as it will be after the resurrection. In whichever of these senses it is taken, it will not be unsuitable; though I prefer to understand it as meaning, that the blessed condition of the soul after death is the commencement of this building, and the glory of the final resurrection is the consummation of it. . . .

As, however, it is natural for all animals to desire existence, how can it be, that believers are willing to cease to exist? The Apostle solves this question, when he says, that believers do not desire death for the sake of losing any thing, but as having regard to a better life. At the same time, the words express more than this. For he admits, that we have naturally an aversion to the quitting of this life, considered in itself, as no one willingly allows himself to be striped of his garments. Afterwards, however, he adds, that the natural horror of death is overcome by confidence; [515] as an individual will, without any reluctance, throw away a coarse, dirty, threadbare, and, in one word, tattered garment, with the view of his being arrayed in an elegant, handsome, new, and durable one.

Farther, he explains the metaphor by saying — that what is mortal may be destroyed [516] by life. For as flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, (1 Corinthians 15:50,) it is necessary, that what is corruptible in our nature should perish, in order that we may be thoroughly renewed, and restored to a state of perfection. On this account, our body is called a prison, in which we are confined.

Calvin could be wrong, though saying that about holy writ may take a little more chutzpah. Maybe Reformed Protestants misunderstood the gospel until Tim Keller started planting a church in New York City.

Or maybe, people who think about Great Commission Christianity are not shocked by sin and its consequences in this life because they look for a time and place when suffering will completely end. Meanwhile, the Cosmic Redemptive Christianity advocates are the ones who expect heaven to come down to earth and are endlessly frustrated if not enraged when it doesn’t happen.


More Orthodox Presbyterians in the News

Sometimes, people who grew up in the church make news in a variety of ways.

Here is a story about a woman who is the daughter of an executive in OPC foreign missions:

Chrissy Clawson, 35, a manager at Baker Street Bread Co., 8009 Germantown Ave. in Chestnut Hill, is on a mission to raise $50,000 by June 8 in memory of her sister, Dr. Kathleen “Katie” Clawson, who passed away from Hodgkins Lymphoma on March 2, 2019.

And thanks to businesses and shoppers who have contributed to the upcoming Chestnut Hill Gives Back on May 1, Clawson is a step closer to meeting her goal. Eighteen local businesses donated a portion of their proceeds or made a donation to support her campaign for the 2019 Leukemia Lymphoma Society Man and Woman of the Year.

“MWOY is a fundraising competition in the United States to raise funds for LLS, the world’s largest voluntary health organization dedicated to fighting blood cancers,” Clawson said. “LLS’s goal is to cure Leukemia, Lymphoma, Hodgkin’s disease and Myeloma, as well as improve the quality of life for patients and their families.

“Since my sister’s diagnosis in late 2016 and up until she passed away, Katie and I co-captained the LLS Speedy Turtles, a group of volunteers who have raised nearly $17,000 for LLS. As one of Katie’s caregivers who was by her side through more than 60 treatments of chemo, radiation, immunotherapy and clinical trials, I know the benefit of research. Although the thought of raising $50,000 by June 8 is quite intimidating, Katie nominated me for Woman of the Year before she passed away because she understood the necessity of cancer research.”

Then comes word that the school Cornelius Van Til played a significant role in founding invited Anthony Bradley to speak at its 75th anniversary festivities:

Philadelphia Montgomery Christian Academy (Phil- Mont) in Erdenheim will welcome alumni, families, staff and friends to the school campus for a 75th Anniversary Gala on Saturday, April 27. The celebration will honor the school’s history of serving and nurturing Christian families since 1943.

Phil-Mont has a rich history of college-preparatory education in an environment with students from diverse backgrounds, an emphasis on Christian worldview, and opportunities for excellence in sports, drama and the fine arts.

The gala serves as a fundraiser for many of the school’s core priorities and has been lovingly shepherded by Will Liegel, secondary English teacher, head of the drama department and director of advancement.

“This event is about celebrating all that God has done here for over seven decades. We are planning an exciting evening of food, music, testimony and, yes, even fundraising,” he said.

The evening will include a silent auction with an array of offerings ranging from kayaking and sailing trips, to services like estate planning and vocal lessons, to theatre tickets and ethnic cuisine prepared in the comfort of your own home.

“The hope is to encourage, excite and explain our plans for the years ahead,” Liegel said.

Dr. Anthony B. Bradley will serve as the keynote speaker for the celebration, which will also feature perspectives from current and former students, parents and staff, and performances by the school’s award-winning high school jazz band. Bradley served as Dean of Students at Phil-Mont from 2001 to 2002, and is an internationally known author and speaker on a wide variety of topics related to African Americans and American Christianity, including discussions on theology and legal issues.

If you are in the business of connecting dots, please have longer hours.

Multiculturalists All

The people lining up to defend and laud rap and hip-hop, some from the very demographic of middle-aged white men who recently started a kerfuffle by objecting to Reformed rap and hip-hop, is a curious and not entirely encouraging development. I am referring particularly to the efforts by Ligon Duncan (and now Al Mohler) to distance themselves from the panel of family-friendly Calvinistic speakers who were filmed saying what many have taken to be racist, elitist, and culturalist assertions about rap and hip-hop. I am not sure if this is a substitute for the sporty red convertible, or an attempt to show once and for all one’s integrationist bona fides. (The next time Anthony Bradley writes about racism in the white evangelical church, he should remember this incident.) But whatever the incident may say about middle-aged men with ties to a region of the country where race relations have not been good (though the rest of the country was no picnic of integration), it says lots of discouraging things about the health of our culture.

Maybe I am too old to get rap or hip-hop. Frankly, I like melody in a song. Is that Eurocentric or middle-aged? Maybe, but listening to poetry, no matter how good or vicious, with some kind of rhythm or progression of chords, has never struck me as all musically appealing. It strikes me as the “musical” equivalent of The Three Stooges’ comedy. I never was a fan of those three white guys and have never understood their appeal. But I wonder if the panelists who objected to rap would be receiving the same kind of rebukes had they said similar things about The Three Stooges — the culture out of which the humor emerges is questionable, the themes betray vicious parts of human nature, such creative expressions cannot be redeemed. For the record, “disobedient cowards” was not helpful. (Also, does it get me any street cred if I liked but didn’t love 8 Mile?)

Now, if they had said about The Simpsons what they said about rap, should I get on my high horse because I find that cartoon series to be about as accomplished as Rocky and Bullwinkle? I would hope not. Not to go all elitist on anyone, but I am convinced that as good as The Simpsons is, I don’t think it will endure. Sure, it will live on in syndication for as long as its fans have access to cable. But it is not a creative form that will stand the test of time like the one that says a book on Shakespeare has much more of a chance of gaining an acquisition editor’s attention than a book on Ricky Gervais’ original series, The Office. Yes, Shakespeare has the advantage over Gervais of being assigned in all sorts of schools, all over the world. But Shakespeare does speak to a wider and more profound range of themes than The Office, and so can reach audiences that are old and young, Asian and Canadian, boy and woman.

But I am not sure that defenders of Reformed or Christian rappers are capable of seeing the difference between The Three Stooges and Shakespeare when they analyze like this:

Culture is the milieu that emerges when lots of image bearers start playing and working with creation, and in a fallen world, it’s always a mixed bag of glory and tragedy. It’s glorious because humanity is glorious. We are shockingly imaginative, capable of great compassion and generosity. It’s tragic because we’re blind and broken, capable of hatefulness, selfishness, murder and exploitation.

Wisdom recognizes that all cultures are just such a mixed bag. This is just as true of Western European post-reformation culture as it is of medieval culture, contemporary middle Eastern culture, and contemporary Hip Hop Culture. Each has their idols. Each has their glimpses of glory. Each has a way of showing off the beauty of creation. And each one desperately needs the purifying power of the gospel. . . .

Make no mistake about it: this is a gospel issue, plain and simple. I want to say this very carefully. Christian rap is not a gospel issue because Christians need to do it, but because their freedom to do it – their freedom to let the gospel take root in the soil of their culture and bear fruit in their communities, with their voices, sounds, and heart language, is something worth dying for.

It’s a gospel issue because what they demand – abandoning and replacing their culture with something more “appropriate” – is another gospel altogether.

It’s the reason Paul wrote the book of Galatians. It’s the reason he rebuked the Judaisers. To condemn a whole culture, to demand cultural conformity is to add on to the free, culture-renewing grace of Jesus and say, “Jesus plus our cultural norms.”

I don’t know why it would be offensive to put rap and hip-hop in the same ephemeral category of The Three Stooges, The Simpsons, and Ricky Gervais. To do so is just as implicitly elitist and hierarchical as the white-guy panel was. One difference is race. But were these panelists really referring to race or to a sense that some forms of cultural expression are worse than others? Race may have played a part in their comments, though the rush to find the racist code in their language despite their explicit silence is hardly the best evidence of Christian charity. Still, the overwhelming urge to laud and defend rap as just one more valid and good cultural expression is not a good sign. It shows that the so-called conservatives in the culture wars are just as multicultural as the people who continue to promote race, class, and gender as significant categories for understanding culture.

Culture the Basis of Cult?

A frequent claim in conservative intellectual circles is that cult is the basis of culture. T. S. Elliot Eliot may have been the first to assert and Russell Kirk may have picked it up from Elliot Eliot, though Christopher Dawson was also likely responsible for introducing this notion among conservatives in the U.S. The problem with this assertion is that in the Garden before the fall, we see no explicit forms of worship. Adam didn’t preach to Eve. They didn’t sing Psalms in corporate worship. And of course, they did not make sacrifices the way the Israelites would. Why? The introduction of sin.

After the fall, God’s presence is no longer with the human race but is restricted to specific, holy places. Meanwhile, to enter into God’s presence requires fallen saints to take sin into account, either by sacrificing bulls and other barnyard animals, or by confessing sin and observing Christ’s death, the ultimate sacrifice, in the Lord’s Supper.

In other words, you could argue that the fall introduced worship into human history as we (generally) now know it.

This also means that worship before the fall was essentially synonymous with what we now regard as work — specifically, gardening. If the Garden was the place where God was specially present with his people, Eden was also a temple in which Adam’s tending and keeping the land was a kind of priestcraft. According to Zach Keele and Mike Brown (Sacred Bond):

Eden is a place where God dwells . . . . By definition in the ancient Near East, temples were houses of gods, dwellings of the gods. To go to the temple was to draw near the presence of the gods. . . . This holy temple setting, then, means that Adam was a priest. Only priests, along with their guilds of servants, lived and worked in temple precincts in the ancient world. One had to be consecrated as holy to live in a holy place. . . . In fact, the tasks of serving and guarding given to Adam in 2:15 are the most common Hebrew verbs used for what the Aaronic priests and the Levites did in tabernacle and temple (Num. 1:53, 3:7-10) (51-52)

This way of understanding the relationship between worship and work before the fall not only upsets the conservative shibolleth about cult and culture, but it may also resolve the tension that Anthony Bradley noticed about Christians looking for the gospel in the first chapters of Genesis:

There are two prominent schools of thought within conservative Protestant circles that continue to clash over what Christianity is about because their starting points comprise different biblical theological visions. . . . One begins by constructing an understanding of the Christian life orientated around Genesis chapters 1 and 2 and the other begins with Genesis chapter 3. A Gen 1 and 2 starting point views the gospel as means of human beings having a realized experience of what their humanity was meant to be and to do, whereas a Gen. 3 orientation sees the gospel as a means of saving us from our humanity in preparation for the eschaton (heaven). . . .

For example, when one begins with Genesis 1 and 2, as one well-known Protestant pastor opines, we could understand the gospel this way: “Through the person and work of Jesus Christ, God fully accomplishes salvation for us, rescuing us from judgment for sin into fellowship with him, and then restores the creation in which we can enjoy our new life together with him forever.” As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, Theodore G. Stylianopoulos reminds us that the gospel is “the good news of God’s saving work in Christ and the Spirit by which the powers of sin and death are overcome and the life of the new creation is inaugurated, moving towards the eschatological glorification of the whole cosmos.” Because the entire creation has been drawn into the mutiny of the human race, (Rom 8:19-24) redemption must involve the entire creation, as Michael Williams argues. In a Genesis 1 and 2 framework, everything matters in God’s redemptive plan. . . .

On the other hand, when the gospel begins with Genesis 3, as the conceptual starting point, one might articulate the gospel as: “the good news that Jesus Christ died for our sins and rose again, eternally triumphant over all his enemies, so that there is now no condemnation for those who believe, but only permanent rejoicing.” As such, because of Christ’s redemptive work, argues this view, “there is nothing that separates those who believe from their Creator and all the benefits that He promises in him.” What matters for the church and the Christian life is keeping the issues of sin and salvation front and center (John 3:16, Eph 2:8-10).

I myself am much more drawn to the Genesis 3 understanding of Christianity. Christ’s work makes no sense without the fall. I know that is not the point as Bradley explains it. But neo-Calvinists in their cosmological understanding of redemption tend to discount the effects of sin (I believe) to the point that they say silly things about redeeming television by our efforts (of course, blessed by the Holy Spirit) — as if television had sinned or believers could save anything.

But if part of the point of God’s creating man was to fellowship with a creature created in the image of God, and if that fellowship was to involve a real presence in which God resided with his people, the idea of saving the cosmos again doesn’t make much sense. After the fall, God is present is specific and special ways with his people but is absent in the way that he was present in the Garden. At the same time, the new heavens and new earth promise a place where God will again be present with his people in a specific and special way. The only harbingers of that redemptive presence between the fall and consummation are not a great symphony or expert plumbing but when Christians gather in God’s presence in the holy of holies for worship. The cosmological understanding of salvation, in other words, does not do justice to what happens in all of Genesis 1-3.

If culture is the basis of cult, then conservatives and neo-Calvinists need to reboot their understanding of culture.

All Down Hill After John Witherspoon?

Anthony Bradley wonders (again) what has happened to Presbyterians and why they lost their momentum. First it was as popular voices among evangelicals, now it’s as dispensers of wisdom about the world:

I am wondering, then, for those who are raising their children in the Presbyterian tradition what resources exists for forming Presbyterian identity in terms of an understanding marriage & family (i.e., the relationship between covenant marriage & covenant baptism in America’s marriage debate), issues related to social & political power & federal political theory (which is derivative of federal theology), divorce and remarriage, war and social conflict, apologetics, and so on? How does a covenantal world-and-life view, and Presbyterian understandings of power structures, unlock the implications for a theology of work & economics when applied to international third world development, and so on?

By extension, I am also wondering what happened to Presbyterians as known and normative leaders of culturally leveraged institutions in American society and culture? Mark Twain and William Faulkner were Presbyterian. More Vice-Presidents of the United States have been Presbyterian more than any other denomination (Presbyterians rank 2nd for the US Presidency). Presbyterians rank 2nd in terms of placement on the Supreme Court in US History. I could go on. . . .

An initial thought is to wonder why Presbyterians need to go to another Presbyterian for instruction on the federal government. Isn’t reading the Federalists and Anti-Federalists (Presbyterian or not?) good enough?

Another wonder is whether Presbyterians have ever been all that influential as Bradley’s post assumes. To meet his criteria — “what Presbyterians are speaking to these issues or leading institutions that are (like think tanks or colleges and universities” — at least three sets of circumstances need to be in play. First, a person needs to be Presbyterian (what kind — Old Side, New Life, Neo-Calvinist — is another question)? Second, such a person needs to be writing on a vast number of public policy type subjects. So far Tim and David Bayly suffice. But then, third, and this is the kicker, the person needs to be sufficiently well known for folks in the pew to consult him or her (sorry, Tim and David). As it stands, lots of Presbyterians have lots of thoughts on all sorts of subjects and publish them (on the interweb). But no one of them stands out with Francis Schaeffer notoriety.

The problem, then, may have less to do with Presbyterian decline than with the diversification of communication technology and the formation of diverse pockets of affinity.

At the same time, Presbyterians need not feel so bad, at least if misery loves company. Bradley’s question applies just as much to Lutherans, Methodists, Episcopalians, and — boy does it ever — to Congregationalists (nee Puritans). Among Western Christians, Rome stands out as distinctly different in this regard since Roman Catholics have an endless supply of public intellectuals who are doing their best imitations of popes, who speak constantly to a host of issues below their pay grade. This may explain much of Rome’s contemporary appeal to converts. If you want a church with all the answers to life’s pressing questions — don’t go to Guy Noir but to the Vatican. But if you believe in the spirituality of the church and the sufficiency of Scripture, you don’t need a Presbyterian pontiff to tell you how to live. You go to church, say your prayers, work dutifully at your callings, and take your lumps.

One last thought about Anthony’s question comes from a period I know relatively well. During the first half of the twentieth century we did have Presbyterians who spoke on any number of issues, were well known and so had pretty large followings. These were William Jennings Bryan, Billy Sunday, J. Gresham Machen, and Carl McIntire. Maybe 1 in 4 isn’t bad. But if that’s going to be the percentage of Presbyterians we should heed when they start to pontificate about all of life, I’ll take my chances with guys who write for American Conservative.

Will Piper, Carson, and Keller Alone Be Left Standing (or why don't rappers rap about Native Americans)?

Readers at Old Life know that Puritanism is not on the A-list of favorite topics (unless it is to kvetch about experimental Calvinism). But the recent discussion of Propaganda’s song, “Precious Puritans,” has me reaching in my apologetics tool box (as if John Frame taught me nothing or that I ever heard of Propaganda before).

The issue so far seems to be whether or not to criticize heroes. Anthony Bradley, defender of Propaganda, argues for a sensible outlook on historical actors:

Those who would reject the Puritans because of their white supremacy will themselves struggle to find much of anyone in Western Christianity to embrace. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God in some way (Rom. 3:23), including all of those we hold in high esteem. There is an obvious “no” because this is not how the Bible teaches Christians to engage in cultural and historical analysis. We are to eat the meat and spit out the bones. This includes those who are both inside and outside the tribe. There is much meat in the Puritans but there are also massive bones.

Thabiti Anyabwile concurs at his Gospel Coalition blog (though the irony is rich since TGC is pretty averse to criticism of its theological celebrities):

That’s why we need people less infatuated than ourselves to tell us the plain truth we miss. As I read the exchanges, the folks who seem to have the greatest difficulty with the song are the folks who seem (sometimes they say so) to have the highest appreciation for the Puritans. That’s the pedestal Prop mentions. By definition, raising someone to a pedestal means lifting them beyond critique and realistic assessment. If we “pedestalize” our heroes, we’re bound to miss things and we need others to point to it. But, we don’t like to have people kicking around our pedestals. Our idols may topple and fall. For instance, I don’t like people kicking around the pedestal of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I grew up with a grandmother who kept a cheesy painting of Jesus, King, and Kennedy hanging on her living room wall. Jesus was elevated in the center of the picture, with the requisite soft yellow halo, while King and Kennedy appeared on his left and right. Makes you wonder if the painter ever heard King’s “Drum Major Instinct” sermon. But many evangelicals have the habit of mentioning plagiarism and adultery and “liberal theology” whenever Dr. King’s name is raised. And there’s something in me that kicks back, defends, guards the pedestal and remembers the painting.

2kers, Matt Tuininga and Scott Clark, approve generally the points made by Bradley and Anyabwile. First Tuininga:

. . . we need to ask what it was about Puritan piety that made them so vulnerable to the vices and injustice of racism and exploitation. Of course, the Puritans were not unique in this.

And Clark:

If nothing else, this is yet another reminder of the folly of the “golden age” approach to history, the idea that says “if only we could get back to period x.” Such a program will always disappoint because it always depends on a mythologized view of a past, a story about a past that never really existed. Colonial America was not a golden age, not if one was an African bought and sold by “godly men” who, as creatures of their time, were unable to criticize the peculiar institution of American slavery.

What is missing from this discussion is not a defense of the Puritans or of slavery — though I would suggest it is possible to defend the Puritans without defending slavery — but what is lacking is a critique of the holier-than-thou anti-slavery meme. Of course, slavery is unjust and of course, racism is despicable. But is it possible to see problems with the anti-slavery? The charge of slavery, like that of racisim, paints with a broad brush. It lacks nuance. It renders the world manichean, akin to the old line about pregnancy — you can’t be a little bit with child. In which case, if you owned slaves or are guilty of racism, no need ever to consider anything you have to say. You will forever be known as a slaveholder and racist the way that we now know Jerry Sandusky as a one dimensional pervert.

For instance, is it possible to make distinctions between orthodox slaveholders and Unitarian ones? If so, is it possible to say that the orthodox slaveholder’s theology is better than the Unitarians? In which case, is it possible to read slave holders’ theology and benefit from it? Can we separate aspects of historical actor’s life or does his wickedness go all the way down? The differences between Reformed confessionalism’s 2k posture, which separates holy, common, and profane matters all the time contrasts here with Reformed pietism which disdains all such distinctions under the canopy of “all is religious.” Of course, if we can’t separate matters, then readers should avoid Old Life at all cost not because I own slaves but because I — can you believe it — sin.

In other words, inherent in the anti-slavery position is not a form of genuine Christian reflection but one of perfectionism. This is a one-strike and you’re out scorched earth policy, with certain sins achieving red-letter status. If you break those, we’ll never hear from you again. This has happened with the American founders, slaveholders and chauvinists that they were, among large sectors of the academy. It also explained why mainline churches don’t read older theologians — the PCUSA’s awkward attitude to Princeton Seminary’s bi-centennial is an example. This trend seems to be afflicting evangelical Protestants. No surprise there since nineteenth-century evangelicals fell prey to this binary perfectionism back in the antebellum era.

And if a similar cultural perfectionism is seeping into the evangelical world, when will denunciations of imperialism, colonialism, capitalism, and the West more generally follow? The lyrics of Propaganda’s song point out the problem.

Pastor, you know it’s hard for me when you quote puritans.
Oh the precious Puritans.
Have you not noticed our facial expressions?
One of bewilderment and heartbreak.
Like, not you too pastor.
You know they were the chaplains on slave ships, right?
Would you quote Columbus to Cherokees?
Would you quote Cortez to Aztecs?
Even If they theology was good?
It just sings of your blind privilege wouldn’t you agree?
Your precious Puritans.

So what is the pastor to do? If he says, “the English theologian,” before quoting doesn’t he bring up all the enormity that went with English colonialism? What will the Native Americans in the congregation think? Or how about “the Calvinist theologian”? All monarchists who think well of the Stuarts will be put off with that nasty business of regicide. Or how about if the pastor quotes a male theologian, will feminists quiver and melt?

Are all of these offenses equal? Probably not and it would be hard to find any monarchist these days. But other minorities do have their list of offenses and if we only listened to the pristine, we’d be left quoting Mrs. Piper, Mrs. Keller, and Mrs. Carson.

Perhaps the best way out of this dilemma is to toughen up. After all, how happy were the early Christians hearing the apostle Paul quoted in their worship services? Wasn’t he the guy who helped kill Christians? In fact, if we apply our standards of social justice all the way through the past, we will have to close the good book altogether. The reason is that none of the Bible’s saints could withstand our moral rectitude.

Pugilist, Hit Thyself

Anthony Bradley has been dishing it out pretty good of late against Doug Wilson, almost to the point of making Wilson look like Tom Reagan from Miller’s Crossing. Bradley is alarmed by Wilson’s neo-Confederate arguments. He believes Wilson harbors racism because of his defense of slavery. And Bradley is surprised — maybe even aghast — at the traction that Wilson has among the co-allies of the gospel. These musings have led Bradley to wonder about a conspiracy among Christian Reconstructionists to use social and political issues to gain new recruits, especially among the young, restless, and gullible.

It’s been about 20 years since I first encountered this stuff but I think the combination America’s secularism, masculinity crisis, growing socialistic public policy, and the like, have opened the door for Christian Reconstruction to avail itself to new generation of young Calvinists but not through the front door–“Christian Reconstruction,” “Theonomy,” and the like–but through the back door of apologetics, the family, masculinity, big government, and so on.

Bradley even speculates on a connection between Christian Reconstruction and Roman Catholicism in that both groups use social teaching to gain converts.

What makes Bradley’s criticisms of Wilson, Christian Reconstruction, and the Young Restless crowd odd is that Bradley himself follows the political script that those he criticizes use. Bradley is generally a fan of neo-Calvinism. I have also heard him appeal to the language of cultural transformation in his interview at Christ the Center.

In which case, the problem with Wilson, slavery, the Confederacy and Christian Reconstruction may not be the actual forms these efforts to Christianize the social order take. The problem may be any attempt to read a social order out of Scripture. For instance, it would be interesting to know what Bradley thinks of his fellow Manhattanite, Tim Keller’s programs of word and deed ministry. Or for that matter, what does Bradley do with the use to which the creators of apartheid put neo-Calvinism? Does the gospel have a social program that Wilson, for example, misses or distorts? Or does the gospel have almost nothing to say about a social order?

Either way, it might be helpful to Wilson’s bruised ego to see Bradley acknowledge both men’s common debt to Kuyper.

And for what it’s worth, part of the appeal of the Confederacy, at least among political conservatives as opposed to the Religious Right, is that the South did stand for an understanding of the United States that was closer than Lincoln’s or the Progressive’s to the Constitution. The phrase, states’ rights, generally receives smirks from those who assume it represents a defense of slavery or worse, racism. But the Constitution itself was not particularly clear on how to sort out the relative powers of the states and the federal government, which was a large factor in the sectional crisis. But if folks want to dismiss states’ rights as simply the cant of “Crackers” who wanted to keep African-Americans in place, they should consider the good that states’ rights might serve today when applied to gay marriage and abortion. That may explain some of the appeal of the Confederacy, though I don’t presume to speak for Doug Wilson.

From PCRT to Ligonier to Gospel Coalition

Anthony Bradley’s memories of coming into Reformed Protestant circles during the 1980s has been making the rounds and includes a question about why Baptists dominate contemporary discussions of Calvinism. Back in the day, according to Bradley, James Montgomery Boice, Sinclair Ferguson, and R.C. Sproul dominated discussions of Reformed theology.

They are all Presbyterians. In those days “Calvinism”/”Reformed” and Presbyterian were synonyms. Something happened, however. The Presbyterians lost their voice some would say and I’m not sure how to explain how that happened. Somehow “Reformed” today (2012) is more associated with Baptists (or Baptistic folks) D.A. Carson, John Piper, and Mark Driscoll.

As someone who regularly attended the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology at Tenth Presbyterian Church and who benefited from lectures and sermons by Boice, Sproul, John Gerstner, and Roger Nicole, I too have sometimes reflected on the change of ecclesiastical landscape over the last twenty-five years. Back around 1980 Reformed Protestantism in the United States looked to be the most formidable expression of Christianity and was even drawing converts from Rome. In addition to PCRT, the editors of Reformed Journal assembled a remarkable collection of academics and pastors to write thoughtfully about church life, politics, and the arts. Contributors included Rich Mouw, George Marsden, Mark Noll, Nick Wolterstorff, Ronald Wells and others. Not too long into the 1980s, however, Calvinists lost their swagger and mojo, and Roman Catholicism, thanks to the appeal of John Paul II, became the alternative for thoughtful and socially active “conservative” Christians.

Some could explain the change as simply a function of age and even death. Gerstner and Boice are no longer with us, and folks like Sproul are fast approaching retirement. Another factor is that the Reformed consensus of the early 1980s that appeared to be drawing conservative Presbyterians and Reformed Protestants together had fallen apart by 1990. The OPC found a way to avoid J&R with the PCA and in the process recovered something of its older polemical edge. The PCA became a refuge for disaffected Orthodox Presbyterians of a New Life persuasion. The CRC debated and finally gave its blessing to women’s ordination. As the OPC hardened, the PCA softened, and the CRC amended, Reformed Protestantism fractured.

Meanwhile, Ligonier became the national successor to the PCRT’s regional presence. And the process of building a national constituency led to the inclusion of speakers who would not have been considered either Reformed of Calvinistic, such as John Piper and John MacArthur. At the same time, while Ligonier expanded what it meant to be Reformed, the Alliance of Confessional Evangelicals — a body formed by Boice — broke up with Mike Horton’s version of confessionalism going one way and the Alliance’s going another. Neither ACE nor White Horse Media, however, could keep up with local/national ministries of Piper and Desiring God, Driscoll and Acts 29, or Tim Keller and the Redeemer phenomenon. When the Gospel Coalition came together it did on a national scale what Boice had done on a much smaller (and pre-internet) scale with PCRT. What is more, it received buy in from national celebrity academics and pastors in ways that Ligonier could not, dominated as it was by one speaker and author.

The answer to Bradley’s question then seems to be that in order to achieve national prominence, Calvinism needed to go off the Presbyterian and Reformed reservation and include groups that were much bigger and speakers more celebrated than Presbyterians could muster. Recent posts at the Coalition underscore the breadth that contemporary Calvinism represents thanks to the move from local to national settings. According to Collin Hansen, the Young & Restless phenomenon is a “critique movement”:

Calvinism has thrived, then, as a fire engine sounding the alarm and bearing water to put out the flames consuming American evangelicalism. We’re not surprised by the bad numbers. In fact, even inside some of the biggest churches in America, we’ve seen the limits of any strategy that fails to account for our God-given need for transcendence, transformation, and tradition. Numbers are a lagging indicator of unhealth. Even during the megachurch boom of the 1980s and 1990s, all was not well with the evangelical soul.

Some could only wish that the critique extended even to members of the Coalition, that it might fault Driscoll’s new measures (and clairvoyance) or Keller’s failure to be a traditional Presbyterian.

But when the definition of Calvinism includes Wesleyanism, what kind of critique might you expect? John Starke’s recent exchange with Fred Sanders, a Wesleyan who teaches at BIOLA and who quotes Calvin, reinforces the point about the breadth that afflicts the new Calvinism of the non-Reformed variety. Here is Starke’s introduction:

I’ve been reading Fred Sanders’s blog for a long time, and when his book, The Deep Things of God, came out, I was eager to read it. He’s a good writer, he loves and quotes the Puritans, he’s a reasonable thinker, and he knows how to do careful exegesis.

He’s also a Wesleyan.

I don’t mean to declare that so menacingly. But the first time I learned Sanders—associate professor at the Torrey Honors Institute of Biola University—was a Wesleyan, I was a bit surprised. It’s not that Wesleyans and Arminians can’t be careful interpreters and reasonable thinkers—I just don’t often resonate with their writings and conclusions quite the way I do with Sanders’.

And so, I had to know: For a guy who loves, quotes, and depends upon Calvin and Calvinists, why isn’t Fred Sanders a Calvinist? We corresponded, and he explained the one thing he wished Calvinists would stop accusing Wesleyans of doing and why Wesleyanism is only the opposite of Calvinism in a very small thought-world.

Will Fred Sanders make an appearance at a Gospel Coalition conference and receive a “Calvinistic” benediction? Odder things have happened in the world of contemporary Calvinism.

What's the Difference between Peace & Justice and Health & Wealth?

During my drive through Oregon (wish I could say I was following the trail of Lewis and Clark), I finally had the chance to listen to the Reformed Forum interview with Anthony Bradley about black theology. During one segment Bradley questioned the wisdom of approaching the black church with the solas of the Reformation. A better point of contact would appear to be the neo-Calvinist model of Christ transforming culture since it resonates with black theology’s themes of social justice.

Why Christ is not a better contact I don’t know. Lots of black Protestants I do know love their Lord and are unashamed about talking openly about him. One of the many ironies I observed during my years on the Alumni/ae Council of Harvard Divinity School was the old-time Unitarians’ reactions to the presence of black holiness Protestants as students and graduates. On the one hand, the Unitarians delighted in the presence of minorities. On the other hand, all the talk about Jesus made them uncomfortable.

Whatever the best connection to black Protestants, I am still having trouble distinguishing the worldliness of establishing just social structures from the worldliness of owning a Lexus. This is especially puzzling since Bradley admits that when a Lexus has been denied for so long (because of economic conditions), buying a brand new luxury car may have a dose of justice added to a helping of self-gratification. Either way, whether the social order we prefer is one that costs me wealth so that others may have a larger piece of the pie, or one defined by free markets that allows me to buy as much as my credit card will allow, I’m not sure why either offers a glimpse of the kingdom. In fact, neo-Calvinist transformationalism seems to be as preoccupied with economic and political conditions as Health and Wealth preachers are concerned with experiencing God’s blessings in this life. One may be more modest than the other, though the modesty may be a function more of middle-class abstemiousness than of spiritual insight. But both look for signs of God’s victory in the here and now.

Calling all Vosians!

The Black Man's Burden

I understand that some readers think I have an axe to grind about certain figures in the Gospel Coalition. But surely even those predisposed to discount Old Life in favor of the youthful, restless, thing that aspires to be Calvinistic — surely they can spot the difficulty with this. Tonight John Piper and Tim Keller are going to talk about Christianity and race. They are going to do so with an African-American on the platform. That man will be Anthony Bradley. But Bradley will not be one of the primary interlocutors. Instead, he will be the moderator.

Having been a moderator of various groups, I understand that the work is not difficult but is also not front-and-center. A moderator facilitates. He does not get in the way of the persons assembled to deliberate.

Maybe tonight’s format will be different and Bradley will be more than a “typical” moderator. But is it really unreasonable or uncharitable to wonder why Bradley himself is not one of the prime participants in this conversation about race, and why either Piper or Keller could not back out of the limelight to take the seat of moderator? I mean, even if evangelical Protestants are inclined to see nothing odd about this program because of their abiding appreciation for Piper and Keller, can’t they at least imagine how outsiders might see the billing for this event and the unfortunate implications of having a black man play a supportive role to white men can answering questions about Christian and race?

Postscript: I am dumbfounded that in the video promoting this event, Piper does not even mention Bradley. Holy smokes!