The Necessity of Good Works

Are good works “necessary to the attainment of eternal life,” as A. A. Hodge wrote at one point? Is that simply what the Confession of Faith and Catechisms say?

“Necessary” is actually a word infrequently used in the Westminster Standards. It appears six times in the first chapter of the Confession (on Scripture), as in:

All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all:p yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them. (1.7)

The Divines also use it once in the chapter on vows:

It is not to be made to any creature, but to God alone:n and, that it may be accepted, it is to be made voluntarily, out of faith, and conscience of duty, in way of thankfulness for mercy received, or for the obtaining of what we want, whereby we more strictly bind ourselves to necessary duties; or, to other things, so far and so long as they may fitly conduce thereunto. (22.6)

It comes up once in the 23rd chapter on the civil magistrate, such that wars are sometimes legitimate on “necessary occasion(s).

In chapter 28, baptizing a person by dipping is not “necessary.”

And in chapter 30 church censures are “necessary” for reclaiming unrepentant sinners.

The language of necessity attached to good works’ utility in securing eternal life is not present.

The Shorter Catechism (if my Adobe search capacities are reliable) uses “unnecessary” only once in A. 61 in relation to words, works, and thoughts about worldly employments and recreations, as in those activities that do not qualify for works of “necessity and mercy.”

The Larger Catechism uses “necessary” seven times, all in connection with duties that superiors have to inferiors, the way to pray, or certain implications of the Decalogue.

But for anything close to an assertion that good works are necessary for eternal life or salvation, the Standards say so only by inferences drawn from the mind of the one inferring.

Perhaps the language or “require” will help. But here again, if you look at the Shorter Catechism on the duty God requires, you may wind up backing away from Hodge’s claim.

Of course, Q. & A. 39 state explicitly that God requires all people to obey his law:

Q. 39. What is the duty which God requireth of man?
A. The duty which God requireth of man, is obedience to his revealed will.

That answer introduces a lengthy commentary on the Ten Commandments.

Those reflections end with this:

Q. 82. Is any man able perfectly to keep the commandments of God?
A. No mere man, since the fall, is able in this life perfectly to keep the commandments of God, but doth daily break them in thought, word, and deed.

Conceivably, someone could receive eternal life by good works if that person lived a perfect life. But the fall sort of threw a wrench into that relationship between obedience leading to salvation. The Shorter Catechism puts that reality in a fairly pithy way:

Q. 84. What doth every sin deserve?
A. Every sin deserveth God’s wrath and curse, both in this life, and that which is to come.

Have a nice day.

It’s not a question of how many good works will secure your salvation. It is a problem than one sin condemns you to God’s wrath. Good works aren’t going to make up for that.

So what is the remedy? What does God require for eternal life? Again, the Shorter Catechism is crisp if not clear:

Q. 85. What doth God require of us, that we may escape his wrath and curse, due to us for sin?
A. To escape the wrath and curse of God, due to us for sin, God requireth of us faith in Jesus Christ, repentance unto life, with the diligent use of all the outward means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption.

If someone was looking for an affirmation of the value that good works perform in obtaining eternal life, that would be a good place to find it.

And in case you are thinking that repentance is in the good works ballpark, you might have to find a different stadium since “Repentance Unto Life” is the chapter before “Good Works” in the Confession. Granted, repentance is necessary to perform good works:

By it, a sinner, out of the sight and sense not only of the danger, but also of the filthiness and odiousness of his sins, as contrary to the holy nature, and righteous law of God; and upon the apprehension of his mercy in Christ to such as are penitent, so grieves for, and hates his sins, as to turn from them all unto God, purposing and endeavoring to walk with him in all the ways of his commandments. (15.2)

Repentance is part of the motivation for a good work. But for a work to be good, it must meet three criteria: a heart “purified by faith,” in a manner that conforms to Scripture, and for the end of God’s glory. (16.7)

From DGH on Resolutions for the New Year Submitted on 2014/12/30 at 1:45 pm


Really zany stuff, brah.

But how are people supposed to take you seriously about antinomianism when it is so hilarious? Haven’t you learned in all of your studies that the sixteenth and seventeenth-century Protestant divines were not doing stand up at the Globe? Remember what H. L. Mencken taught us, that Puritanism is the haunting fear that somewhere someone may be happy.

What To Do about Church Law

If you are worried about antinomianism, then what do you do with those rules and structures that regulate the ministry of the word? In the OPC, for instance, ministers must answer in the affirmative to the following questions (among others):

(3) Do you approve of the government, discipline, and worship of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church?

(4) Do you promise subjection to your brethren in the Lord?

(5) Have you been induced, as far as you know your own heart, to seek the office of the holy ministry from love to God and a sincere desire to promote his glory in the gospel of his Son?

(6) Do you promise to be zealous and faithful in maintaining the truths of the gospel and the purity, the peace, and the unity of the church, whatever persecution or opposition may arise unto you on that account?

If you are a Presbyterian or Reformed Protestant minister and take vows like this, should you be careful in aligning yourself with parachurch ministries that replicate the means of grace that God has given to the church? Of course, life outside the church would not be possible without a parachurch organization. Everything from a non-denominational Christian college to National Public Radio qualifies as a parachurch organization. But there are parachurch organizations and then there are parachurch organizations. And if you are in one that has a mix of Reformed and non-Reformed church officers and that engages in work that resembles the teaching and preaching of the church — that even claims to support the church — have you engaged in antinomianism? What about the oversight that should accompany the ministry of the word? Isn’t the biblical model of oversight presbyterian? And even if you belong to a parachurch agency that is comprised entirely of Presbyterian officers, shouldn’t your organization be overseen by an assembly of the church? Does ministry ever happen without oversight by the church? Doesn’t the church matter? Doesn’t church law matter?

Before you answer, be sure to keep in mind (if you are a Presbyterian) that system of doctrine that includes a set of theological affirmations on oaths and vows (though why we need that chapter or whether anyone pays attention to it is beyond me):

1. A lawful oath is a part of religious worship, wherein, upon just occasion, the person swearing solemnly calleth God to witness what he asserteth, or promiseth, and to judge him according to the truth or falsehood of what he sweareth.

2. The name of God only is that by which men ought to swear, and therein it is to be used with all holy fear and reverence. Therefore, to swear vainly, or rashly, by that glorious and dreadful Name; or, to swear at all by any other thing, is sinful, and to be abhorred. Yet, as in matters of weight and moment, an oath is warranted by the Word of God, under the new testament as well as under the old; so a lawful oath, being imposed by lawful authority, in such matters, ought to be taken.

3. Whosoever taketh an oath ought duly to consider the weightiness of so solemn an act, and therein to avouch nothing but what he is fully persuaded is the truth: neither may any man bind himself by oath to anything but what is good and just, and what he believeth so to be, and what he is able and resolved to perform.

4. An oath is to be taken in the plain and common sense of the words, without equivocation, or mental reservation. It cannot oblige to sin; but in anything not sinful, being taken, it binds to performance, although to a man’s own hurt. Nor is it to be violated, although made to heretics, or infidels.

5. A vow is of the like nature with a promissory oath, and ought to be made with the like religious care, and to be performed with the like faithfulness.

6. It is not to be made to any creature, but to God alone: and, that it may be accepted, it is to be made voluntarily, out of faith, and conscience of duty, in way of thankfulness for mercy received, or for the obtaining of what we want, whereby we more strictly bind ourselves to necessary duties; or, to other things, so far and so long as they may fitly conduce thereunto.

7. No man may vow to do anything forbidden in the Word of God, or what would hinder any duty therein commanded, or which is not in his own power, and for the performance whereof he hath no promise of ability from God. In which respects, popish monastical vows of perpetual single life, professed poverty, and regular obedience, are so far from being degrees of higher perfection, that they are superstitious and sinful snares, in which no Christian may entangle himself.

There is Antinomianism and then there is Antinomianism

Protestants wouldn’t seem to have to worry too much about lacking moral fiber.

Here is how H. L. Mencken perceived moralism in the United States circa 1920:

The man of morals has a certain character, and the man of honour has a quite different character. No one not an idiot fails to differentiate between the two, or to order his intercourse with them upon an assumption of their disparity. What we know in the United States as a Presbyterian is pre-eminently the moral type. Perhaps more than any other man among us he regulates his life, and the lives of all who fall under his influence, upon a purely moral plan. In the main, he gets the principles underlying that plan from the Old Testament; if he is to be described succinctly, it is as one who carries over into modern life, with its superior complexity of sin, the simple and rigid ethical concepts of the ancient Jews. And in particular, he subscribes to their theory that it is virtuous to make things hot for the sinner, by which word he designates any person whose conduct violates the ordinances of God as he himself is aware of them and interprets them. Sin is to the Presbyterian the salient phenomenon of this wobbling and nefarious world, and the pursuit and chastisement of sinners the one avocation that is permanently worth while. . . . Every single human act, he holds, must be either right or wrong – and the overwhelming majority of them are wrong. He knows exactly what these wrong ones are; he recognizes them instantly and infallibly, by a sort of inspired intuitions; and he believes that they should all be punished automatically and with the utmost severity. No one ever heard of a Presbyterian overlooking a fault, or pleading for mercy for the erring. (The American Credo, 51, 52, 53)

Forty years later when a Protestant (Robert McAfee Brown) looked at Roman Catholicism and a Roman Catholic (Gustave Weigel) looked at Protestantism, Weigel’s impression was similar to Mencken’s:

The Reformer’s strong rhetoric against the value of works could be interpreted as a form of antinomianism. “Sin valiantly and believe more valiantly.” Yet all the Reformers were against sin in all its forms and shapes. Calvin’s Geneva was no place for sin or worldliness. Virtue was the strongly enforced law of the city. In the history of Protestantism we do not find antinomianism as a practice except perhaps in some exotic little groups not recognized as genuine by the mass of Protestants. In all Protestant communities it does make a difference whether you behave yourself or don’t. Works are important, very important indeed. Catholic cultures are rarely as strict as communities where a strong calvinism prevails. Strangely enough, Catholicism always is more concerned with the faith of its members than with their works. For the Catholic the loss of faith is the greatest loss. With faith alive, pardon is possible. Where faith is absent, there is no pardon. (An American Dialogue, 177)

Postscript: the observations of Roman Catholics and Protestants in the Brown-Weigel exchange are striking for showing how different the Christian landscape is today in the U.S. On the theme of moralism, Weigel also had this to say:

When the Catholic hears a Protestant sermon he notes a number of things. In most cases the sermon is on a moral theme, and could be heard without much, if any, change in a Catholic church. (135)

Or this:

There is of course a Protestant prudery just as there is a Catholic prudery, but I am not referring to either. It seems to the Catholic that the Protestant is not too worried about birth-control, obscenity in the theatre or in print, and exhibitionism in public. Here the Protestant stands for liberty while the Catholic considers it license. These different attitudes produce friction in the national community. The Protestant thinks the Catholic immoral because he drinks and plays Bingo — and it gives the Protestant satisfaction. The Catholic thinks the Protestant immoral because he will not fight birth-control and it makes the Catholic feel morally superior.

These attitudes to drinking, gambling, and sex are very conspicuous but somehow they are not too significant. The real difference between the two communities is their distinctive conceptions of virtue. The Protestant esteems the natural virtues while the Catholic makes more of the supernatural virtues. The Protestant thinks highly of truthfulness, sobriety, simplicity, reliability, and industriousness. The Catholic most esteems humility, mortification, penance, chastity, poverty, and abnegation. Both admire charity, but Catholic charity is warmer and more personal, while Protestant charity is more efficient and better organized. . . . The result of the different tempers of moral conception will be Protestant reserve, stiffness and gravity in contrast to the Catholic’s tendency toward spontaneity, Baroque display and even Rabelaisian earthiness. (143-144)

No Need to Apologize to Me

Though a short note to Tullian Tchividjian (hereafter Double T because who can spell that?) may be in order.

Mark Jones apologizes to me — 15 seconds of my 15 minutes? — in his double-dare to Double T to debate sanctification:

Commenting on what typically happens after times of revival – sorry, D.G. Hart – James Stalker wrote: “it is no unusual thing to find the initial stage of religion regarded as if it were the whole. Converts go on repeating the same testimony till it becomes nauseous to their hearers as well as unprofitable to themselves. In the religion of many there is only one epoch; there is no program of expanding usefulness or advancing holiness; and faith is only the constant repetition of a single act.” Indeed.

If I read this right (and I am still feeling a little foggy after the flight to Dublin), Jones is saying that revivalism tends to lock converts into a certain pietistical predictability. That sounds negative. Isn’t this one more strike against revivalism? Shouldn’t Jones be thanking me for leading the charge against revivalism?

But aside from (all about) me, I do wonder about a couple of matters in this kerfuffle between opposite points on the North American Presbyterian compass. First, we have yet another theological imbroglio among PCA pastors in which the courts of the church seem to have little or no bearing. No one seems to think of this as a denominational problem even though both men are part of the same communion. Could that be because the PCA has no real theological center, even avoids striving for one? To be sure, the Federal Vision was another theological problem on the PCA’s watch and some did try to remedy that situation. But it has apparently been left to presbyteries to decide. In the meantime, ministers can talk, act, and teach what they want with seemingly little sense of obligation to what will pass in the wider communion. (What happens in NYC, stays in NYC.)

Second, the conversations about sanctification are long, historical, sometimes exegetical, and incredibly abstract. Consider Paul Helm’s reflections on the controversy surrounding Double T:

Summarising, the idea that the law is no longer to be the moral guide, a point often insisted on by those dismissed as ‘antinomian’ (rather unjustly it seems to me) is clearly mistaken. The relevance of the moral law is a view endorsed by Christ and spelled out by the apostles. So in the most extended discussion of the nature of sanctification in the New Testament, Romans 12 and 13, the command to love one’s neighbour (12.9), and not to remain indebted (13.7), the laws forbidding adultery, stealing, covetousness are summed up, as Christ himself taught, as particular instances of ‘you shall love your neighbour as yourself’. (13. 8-10) But the law in not thought of primarily as obligations, duties, but as structural directions for the new life.

And this may be thought of as providential given the varieties of circumstance that the New Testament international church of Christ may find itself in. Without being relativistic, there may be across the world and down the centuries very different ways in which the injunctions are to be taken to apply to one thing and another. We must never forget that New Testament church is an international jurisdiction, by comparison with the Old Testament theocracy. . . .

All these forms of language in themselves strongly imply that Christian moral character is formed from the inside out, by means of the renewal of the mind, by the development of those seed-graces planted in regeneration. Morality is considered not of a code of separate acts of obedience which then develop in the agent corresponding habits of mind, but as an inner renewal which brings about the practice of the appropriate actions in a properly motivated manner.

This is useful, especially the point about the varieties of circumstance that confront believers. And it is these varieties that are so far from view in the shoving contest between alleged antinomians and neo-nomians. No one really asks a simple question like: so I am home from a not-so-hard day at work and it is the customary hour for an adult beverage and maybe a little ear-time with Phil Hendrie. Should I or should I not do this in my life of sanctification? Should I instead turn to Scripture with a time or prayer? Or maybe I should try to earn a little extra money with some on-line sales scheme in order to give more to foreign missions. Or maybe I should cut the grass a couple days early so that I can spend my entire Saturday in preparation for the Lord’s Day. Can I get a little help here?

Or to give the problem even greater concreteness, can someone claim to be more sanctified now than she was ten years ago even while being impolite — interrupting someone else who is speaking — to make this claim?

Which makes me wonder if we should postpone all talk about sanctification until the talkers are willing to mention specifics. The only people allowed to talk about it, in the meantime, are pastors who are preaching on texts related to the topic, church officers and parents who are catechizing children, and church officers doing the rounds of family visitation. I will grant an exemption to scholars who are writing commentaries or works of theology, but they must confine their remarks to the manuscript. Otherwise, sanctification may be a subject best left alone lest it become something so ethereal that we can affirm it without ever having to talk about how the dying to self goes in real time.

Would You Give Up Whiskey for Lent?

It’s a curious post for early in a period some call Lent, but Robert Christian thinks Roman Catholics have a drinking problem:

From parishes to parochial schools to university classrooms, the Church is failing in its responsibility to talk about the pernicious impact of alcohol (and even drugs) on so many people in our society, along with the detrimental impact it has on achieving the common good. One is more likely to see devout Catholics being flip about drinking—or even romanticizing and glorifying it—than confronting the nihilism, escapism, and despair that are a big part of our nation’s drinking culture and the wreckage that it leaves in its wake. The Church takes a harder line on drugs, but how often is the topic really discussed? How often does the Church address why people turn to drug use and explain its incompatibility with human flourishing? The Church provides some assistance, but most often it comes after people have already had their lives and the lives of their loved ones (and possibly strangers) devastated by the ruinous costs of addiction. The Church can and should do better. . . .

It is strange that those who identify the emptiness of materialism, consumerism, the sexual objectification and exploitation of others, the lust for power, and other false paths to happiness are failing to address the illusory nature of the “happiness” generated by drugs and alcohol. It is downright embarrassing when one compares the Church to the world’s other religions. Buddhism, Taoism, Mormonism, Sikhism, Islam, the Baha’i faith, and various Hindu sects and protestant denominations either teach that alcohol should be avoided entirely or used in moderation (defined in such a way that many Catholics would find fairly extreme). While engaging in interfaith dialogue, the vast majority of thoughtful, virtuous young people I have met from other faiths have been teetotalers (those who abstain from alcohol entirely), while I have witnessed many of my fellow devout Catholics, who are otherwise morally serious, acting foolishly due to their consumption of alcohol. The contrast is cringe-worthy.

Not to be overly low church, but the habit of giving up something (it used to be sin) for forty days a year may not be the best way to live a life of moderation and restraint. At the same time, comments like Christian’s reveal the dark side of the old charge that Protestantism was just a cover for antinomianism. No one can outmoralize a Protestant. Even so, Rome’s version of the gospel is no barrier against taking the law lightly.

The human predicament may be that we love the law when it makes us superior, and we love grace when we are feeling low. Protestants of the good sort know that we are only superior in Christ.

Does the L in TULIP Stand for Living in Denial?

A while back Bill Smith, Presbyterian in exile, made this observation about the ongoing debates in Reformed circles over antinomianism and sanctification:

I think I understand the problem the “obedience boys” have with the “grace boys.” It is that the “grace boys” can seem to teach grace in such a way as to make people indifferent to sin: “Sin is not such a big deal. It happens. No need to get all worked up about it. Just accept that you are a sinner and that God loves you no matter what. Bask in the knowledge you are a child of God.” I get the problem the “obedience boys” have with the “grace boys.” As far as taking exception with that portrayal of the life of grace goes, I agree.

What I don’t think the “obedience boys” get is how normal sin is. Perhaps they really do not know this reality in terms of their own experience. It could be that for them there is a regeneration-created night and day before and after story. Or, it may mean that there has been a steady upward trajectory to their sanctification without harrowing nosedives into sin or wearying discouragements of slow or no progress. Or, it may be that they do not know themselves very well. Or, it may be that their theological understanding of regeneration and conversion does not allow them to acknowledge that believers can have messy lives – chronic struggles and frequent defeats. That believers can by their messy lives inflict great damage and hurt on other believers and can be badly damaged and hurt by the messy lives of other believers. That the church is a messy place where messy lives are intertwined with and sometimes disillusioned by other messy lives.

Smith recommends that SNAFU makes more sense of how Christians should understand the presence of sin in this world (which would also apply to the neo-Calvinists and Roman Catholics prone to talk about “human flourishing“):

SNAFU – situation normal, all messed up. A National Guard radioman may have invented the term just before World War II, but it became standard, if unofficial, military jargon during the War. It was an apt description of reality as soldiers and marines experienced it. Supplies and equipment did not get where they were needed when they were needed. Battle plans went awry. Stupid orders were issued. Men found themselves in desperate situations. Usually the “human element” was in part or whole responsible. Military men came to expect mess-ups as normal.

A further indication of how few “conservative” Christians (Roman Catholic and Protestant) are willing to apply the category of SNAFU not only to persons but also to the United States, is to consider the degree to American exceptionalism resonates with self-professing believers. Defining American exceptionalism is tricky, but it generally involves a belief that the United States is singularly blessed by God, has accomplished untold good in the history of the world, and even if it has declined the nation was truly great because of its divine sanctions and virtuous performance.

It would be one thing, say through the extra-confessional idea of definitive sanctification, to argue that the individual Christian has broken definitively with sin and so now lives a life that should not be characterized by SNAFU. But to view a nation as on balance wholesome or even as an exceptional force for goodness, truth, and beauty is downright inconceivable given what we know about human depravity (think Woodrow Wilson) or about human politics (think The Wire or Homeland).

To avoid the dark thoughts that follow from Total Depravity is truly gullible. Non-believers tend to think that Christians are remarkably prone to believe all sorts of nonsense. A pronounced understanding of human wickedness should function as a hedge on such gullibility. If it does not, it explains the appeal of the “obedience boys” and the Salem Radio Network.

Court of Sanctification?

While wading through the snow yesterday during my Sabbath constitutional, I listened to the Reformed Forum’s interview with Mark Jones about his book on antinomianism. Again, questions surrounding justification and sanctification are still in play. At one point in the discussion, in relation to the notion that good works are filthy rags, Jones remarked that good works, of course, will not stand up in the court of justification. He stopped there but that had me scratching my head. Is there a court room of sanctification? If the problem with Lutheranism and its Reformed friends is an overly forensic understanding of the gospel, then where on earth did court of (the renovative) sanctification come from?

Richard Sibbes to the rescue (from Jones’ book):

I say there are two courts: one of justification, another of sanctification. In the court of justification, merits are nothing worth, insufficient; but in the court of sanctification, they are ensigns of a sanctified course, so they are jewels and ornaments. (45)

This may help to raise the stakes of sanctification for those who for some reason want to see a grander account of salvation than justification alone, though Sibbes sounds more like the counting house than the court room. But is it not the case that the only way you get into the court of sanctification (if such a court does exist) is through the court of sanctification justification? And at the end of the day, isn’t the court of justification the one where perfection is required and where good works cannot

merit pardon of sin, or eternal life at the hand of God, by reason of the great disproportion that is between them and the glory to come; and the infinite distance that is between us and God, whom, by them, we can neither profit, nor satisfy for the debt of our former sins, but when we have done all we can, we have done but our duty, and are unprofitable servants: and because, as they are good, they proceed from his Spirit; and as they are wrought by us, they are defiled, and mixed with so much weakness and imperfection, that they cannot endure the severity of God’s judgment. (CF 16.5)

Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Moralism

While away this summer I read Mary Gordon’s Final Payments, a story about a Roman Catholic women, with a strongly plagued conscience, who figures out to do with her life after her father dies, a man whom she had offended and to whom she tried to make amends by taking care of him (a stroke incapacitated him) for eleven years. It is a novel about growing up in pre-Vatican II Roman Catholicism and whiffs of what the new order are like emerge. But it is not a heavily religious novel. It does, though, have this observation about Protestantism in comparison to Roman Catholicism:

Protestants, it said, thought about moral issues, drank water and ate crakcers, took care to exercise and had a notion that charity was synonymous with good works. Catholics, on the other hand, thought about eternity, drank wine, smoked cigards, were somtimes extravavgant, but knew that charity was a fire in the heart of God and never confused it with that Protestant invention, philanthropy.

It is an odd take on Protestantism since one of Trent’s major objections to the Reformation was the idea that one could be saved apart from good works (of course, I’d need to qualify that as the Reformed confessions did). For Rome, Protestantism was an open invitation to licentiousness and antinomianism. Now, Gordon, among others, is telling us we are moralists.

Ross Douthat’s recent post on Jody Bottom’s switch on gay marriage (Bottom was formerly editor of First Things) reminded me of this passage from Gordon and my plan to comment on it:

In the longstanding, not-unjustified stereotypes of Western religious conflict, Roman Catholicism was generally seen as far more accommodating and tolerant — or, alternatively, more decadent and lax — than its Protestant rivals on matters related to the human body and the human heart. The structure of Catholicism, with its elevation of religious life in all its varied forms above the family unit, was always friendlier to what today we might call non-heteronormative aspirations, male and female, than many other churches (and, indeed, than many other civilizations). The emphasis that the church’s sacramental life placed on the cycle of confession-sin-repentance, as Bottum notes, tended to create a moral economy in which fallenness was taken for granted, and wider latitude extended to people who persisted in their sins than was sometimes the case in the sterner, Calvin-influenced precincts of Christendom. (The old Protestant image of Jesuitical confessors performing elaborate logical contortions to minimize the gravity of moral faults — and has — some basis in reality.) And then of course the deeply carnal nature of Catholic liturgy and art and culture created a broad religio-aesthetic landscape in which a wide diversity of enfleshed desires could be projected, expressed, sublimated, channeled, fulfilled.

This historical and cultural backdrop helps explain several things about how the gay marriage debate has played out among American Catholics. (And elsewhere, as well.) First, it’s probably one of the reasons why Catholics as a demographic have tilted somewhat more strongly in favor of same-sex marriage than other major Christian groups.

Of course, Rome was not always tolerant of all form of deviancy. It did give us the Inquisition, the Index of Books, and bishops at Vatican I were excommunicated for not endorsing papal supremacy and infallibility. Why the church would fudge on morality but not on words, ideas, or authority, or not see how looking the other way on morality might actually jeopardize authority is another matter.

What I find intriguing about Douthat’s piece is this kind of admission about Roman Catholic laxity in the context of a major sex scandal. Again, I don’t like going after the child abuse business because it is a case of hitting a man when he is down. But would the kind of leniency Douthat describes account in part for a culture that covered up what priests did? Wouldn’t that also explain why Vatican officials ignored the enormous indiscretions of the Renaissance popes? Might it not also explain why the Vatican was cozy — too much at times — with fascist governments? Sure, you could say that the fascists were anti-Communist. But John Lukacs has long argued that Communism is closer to Christianity than fascism. In other words, rather than a strength, Douthat’s depiction of Rome is a weakness (some would say major).

Meanwhile, the church did advocate celibacy, poverty and other forms of self-abasement as the surest way to salvation for monks, nuns, and clergy. Maybe they needed to be forgiving of sexual shenanigans since the laity didn’t have a clear guide for life in the secular world.

One last thought concerns the severity of Calvinism. I have no doubt that Calvinism draws its share of moralists — just say hello to the theonomists. But if you read through the registry of Geneva’s consistory — at roughly the very time when Englishmen were being inspired to be Puritans (as in purify church and society) — you see remarkable patience with the sins of the Genevans. One case, for instance, involved a man who had gotten his married chambermaid pregnant through fornication. This fellow’s penalty: he was admonished and sent to the city council who imprisoned him for 9 days. (Registers of the Consistory of Geneva, Vol. 1, 388-89). If this example is any indication — and I’ve only skimmed the Register, the moralism that afflicts contemporary Reformed Protestants may have less to do with Reformation theology than the spread of middle class virtues and an egalitarian intolerance of difference.

Bottom line: I’m not sure why Douthat finds this side of Rome appealing. Nor am I certain that moralism is inherent to Calvinism.

Can We Get A Little Love-the-Law Street Cred Here?

The shelf life on Tim Tebow is rapidly decreasing now that the Broncos ran into the Patriots’ capacity for cheating. So before Ricky Gervais completely eclipses Tebow in water-cooler banter, a point needs to be made about the charges of antinomianism that two-kingdom theology continues to receive. (The latest comes in a post about Martin Luther King, Jr. that uses the Civil Rights leader to cast aspersions on your humble — all about me — blogger; on the eve of MLK Day no less. The lack of charity among the lovers of the law continues to dumbfound.)

I have been rooting for the Broncos’ QB even if Tebow’s wear-it-on-your-cheek piety is not an Old Lifer’s preferred demeanor. Tebow appears to be genuine in his devotion even if he could benefit from the oversight of a Reformed pastor. But how can he possibly be a poster boy for evangelicals and the Religious Right when he flagrantly violates one of the Ten Commandments that many born-again Protestants want posted in court rooms and public school classrooms? I get it. How to interpret OT law is something that divides many Christians — and boy can theonomists be divisive about it. But Tebow’s actions are hard to square with any traditional reading of the Decalogue. In fact, U.S. Protestants used to be Sabbatarians through and through, and the NFL had to clear all sorts of Blue Laws in order to get its franchises off the ground (Saturday was already taken by college football, which was, and still is in some parts of the country, more popular than professional gridiron play.

Evangelicals may be inconsistent — which of us is not (except of course for the epistemologically self-conscious)? But the disparity between public statements and actions goes beyond the hobgobblin that afflicts small minds. The Religious Right lauds traditional Christian morality and seeks it for the nation at large. This is partly the rationale behind arriving at Rick Santorum as the evangelical alternative to Mitt Romney. Never mind that Roman Catholics like Santorum were the object of some of those Protestant Blue Laws governing the Lord’s Day. A recent column in the Washington Post (touted by the Baylys) attempted to put a positive spin on the evangelical notion that righteousness exalts a nation. It tried to extend the appeal of Tebow to his opposing QB last weekend — Ben Roethlisberger — who appears to be on the mend morally after recovering his evangelical roots. The piece also argued that evangelical piety is much more important than evangelical politics.

Tebow and Roethlisberger point to the essential aspects of evangelicalism, the ones that make it persist — its missionary, proclamatory character on the one hand, and its private, searching piety on the other. The former wants to appeal to the whole world, which is why Tebow’s family raised him not only to preach, but to persuade others with a winning demeanor. The latter wants a changed life; Roethlisberger, in evangelical parlance, rededicated his life to Jesus after a period of backsliding, because he knew no other way to break his pattern of misbehavior.

In Iowa, Santorum’s evangelical “surge” grossed him about 30,000 votes. That may constitute an evangelical moment, and it may inspire some observers to define evangelicals by their political behavior. But it is not a particularly large group from which to draw conclusions about the movement as a whole. Most evangelicals, like most Americans, don’t show up to the voting booth at all. Their political commitments are not nearly as strong as their faith commitments.

Odd that this column says nothing about forgiveness of sins through the work of Christ as being crucial to evangelical piety. Instead, it points to evangelicalism’s life-changing character and how its adherents lead moral lives. If that is so — and there is some obvious truth to this — what about the elephant in the room of the way that evangelicals (in worship and on Sunday) seem to disregard the first table of the law?

What does this have to do with 2k? Well, the critics of 2k never seem to notice that 2k advocates do care about the law and have defended especially the first table. 2kers are invariably Sabbatarian, defend the regulative principle of worship (derived from the Second Commandment), condemn the creation of images of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, and fear the ways in which informality in worship may breach the Third Commandment’s call for avoiding profanity. Meanwhile, the critics of 2k, who invariably want the entire nation to follow God’s law, look the other way when it comes to the church following all of God’s law. Some of 2k’s biggest critics are advocates of contemporary worship and praise Christian football players who profane the Sabbath.

So it is false to say that 2k leads to or promotes antinomianism. 2kers follow God’s law and defend it — all of it. What seems to be 2kers problem is that we don’t apply the law selectively to public life. That selectivity may not qualify as antinomian. But it hardly constitutes the love of God’s law that 2kers allegedly lack or qualifies as honest.