American Exceptionalism Perfectionist Style

Forget the meme that has Roman Catholics winning. The big winner of late is Charles Finney, that evangelist who insisted that Christians renounce all sin in their lives and taught a generation of Protestants that compromise with sin in politics was — wait for it — sin.

Evidence of the prevalence of such perfectionism comes in Theon Hill’s piece on Charlottesville. Surprising is his acknowledgement that black Civil Rights advocates were far from pure:

The practice of accommodating white supremacy is not unique to white America. People of color have often deployed accommodation strategically, hoping that it will lead to greater acceptance by whites. Booker T. Washington, in his famous Atlanta Exposition Address, embraced the logics of “separate but equal,” expecting blacks to experience upward mobility as they demonstrated their worth to white America. W. E. B. DuBois called on blacks to avoid racial activism during the First World War, believing that loyalty to the nation during this difficult moment would produce greater acceptance during the post-war period. Even my personal hero Dr. King hesitated to oppose racists in the Democratic Party in 1964, believing that accommodation would produce greater gains for blacks in the long term.

Isn’t that the nature of politics? Don’t you take certain gains while recognizing you don’t get everything? Since politics is about maintaining order and equity in a world that consists of sinners, and since you can’t eradicate sin in this life and don’t want to live in a society where government (who uses force legitimately) is looking into everything you do and think, maybe you live with a little compromise? Maybe you fight another day for another round of proximate goods.

Not so when you apply the standards of perfectionist Christianity:

Scripture and history repeatedly warn that accommodating sin never produces greater holiness.

That is certainly true for the believer and even the church — oh, by the way has anyone asked how pure the mainline churches are in their efforts to combat the alt-right? But monuments and social protests are not about personal righteousness. They are about what we share as people inhabiting the same national borders and government by the same civil authorities.

When did people ever start expecting a nation to be holy?

Oh, that’s right. Mr. Finney.

Tim Keller Plants, New York City Gives the Growth

In the ballpark of always affirming, always sunny religious journalism comes Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra’s puff piece on Tim Keller’s retirement at Redeemer NYC. I am not sure that this is the kind of analysis of context that Joe Carter had in mind for the Gospel Coalition’s journalistic forays:

The three main forms of journalism we use at TGC (opinion and advocacy journalism; reporting and narrative journalism; explanatory journalism) are all used to help the church think more clearly about the gospel and how it leads us to interact with the world.

Although, since Carter thinks journalism at TGC should promote revivals, Zylstra’s piece certainly does that. Her account shows, whether she intended or not, how much Keller’s position in New York City made him stand out in ways that no one else among the Allies could. If you do a word count on Zylstra’s story, she mentions the PCA twice, Presbyterian six times, and New York 37 times. As for the work of the Holy Spirit — nada.

If religious journalism at TGC is supposed to promote revivals, that would place Zylstra’s rendering of Keller more on the Finney than the Whitefield side of pretty good awakenings since Finney wasn’t big on the Holy Spirit either.

What I don’t understand is why Mark Dever doesn’t get more attention in the TGC world. There he is ministering in the nation’s capitol, the center of American power, the place from which the United States leads the free world. And yet, to get traction as an urban church planter you need the mojo of the nation’s biggest city, the place that nurtured and shaped Donald J. Trump.

What’s up with that?

Revivalist or Metaphysician?

Marilyn Robinson (thanks to our virtuous commonwealth correspondent) joins the New Calvinists in claiming Jonathan Edwards as her homeboy. Along the way she makes one significant concession:

The “awakenings” that were an effect of the preaching of Edwards and others met with objections on the part of conservative churches and leaders in his tradition. While he was defending orthodoxy in insisting that original sin was a real and crucial element in the human situation, his insistence on conversion, at least in the form it took under his influence, was not orthodox. Calvinism had clearly felt free to part ways with Calvin here and there as the centuries passed. Edwards never cites him as an authority. This matter of “visible saints,” people who indicated by any sign other than a faithful Christian life that they were the redeemed, has no basis in Calvin. That is, for Calvin there is no single threshold experience, like the conversion Edwards urged, that marked one in this world as among those who are saved.

It does make you wonder if the New Calvinists get their Calvinism from Edwards whether they have found the genuine article.

But Robinson is not really concerned with John Piper or Tim Keller — can you believe it? She writes to explain how Edwards’ philosophical theology informed her w-w as it were:

Edwards as a Christian theologian begins with belief in a creator, whose role in existence and experience no doubt elaborated itself in his understanding as he pondered the imponderable problem he had posed to himself. The intuition is sound in any case. It places humankind in any moment on the farthest edge of existence, where the utter mystery of emergent being makes a mystery of every present moment even as it slides into the mysterious past. This by itself elevates experience above the plodding positivisms that lock us in chains of causality, conceptions of reality that are at best far too simple to begin to describe a human place in the universe. Edwards’s metaphysics does not give us a spatial locus, as the old cosmology is said to have done, but instead proposes an ontology that answers to consciousness and perception and feels akin to thought. I have heard it said a thousand times that people seek out religion in order to escape complexity and uncertainty. I was moved and instructed precisely by the vast theater Edwards’s vision proposes for complexity and uncertainty, for a universe that is orderly without being mechanical, that is open to and participates in possibility, indeterminacy, and even providence. It taught me to think in terms that finally did some justice to the complexity of things.

This kind of insight leads Robinson to discount Edwards’ revivalism as mainly a circumstance of his time but not something that should make him known primarily as a preacher of hell-fire. I concede that Edwards was the rare revivalist, by twentieth-century standards. Who could imagine Billy Graham or Billy Sunday engaging Foucault and trying to come up with a justification for original sin? At the same time, revivalist achievements may have been higher in the age before mass communication. Think Charles Grandison Finney as a professor of moral philosophy and president of Oberlin College. Revivalism was not necessarily opposed to intellectual pursuits.

At the same time, Bruce Kuklick’s encounter with the apocalyptic Edwards should perhaps have guarded Robinson from an overly intellectual reading of Edwards — an interpretation that is, by the way, more congenial with her church, the United Church of Christ, yes the communion of Winthrop, Nevin, Niebuhr, Jeremiah Wright, and President Obama:

A scream of an owl at night represented to Edwards the misery of devils residing in eternal darkness. In 1745, the Catholic French defenders of Cape Breton, an island in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, surrendered to their Protestant English attackers. Edwards wrote that the surrender was “a dispensation of providence, the most remarkable in its kind, that has been in many ages.” It was for him a portent of what was to come. The biblical book of Revelation taught Edwards that the Roman papacy was the anti-christian force of the Antichrist that would fall in 1866, presaging a glorious time for the true church that would begin about 2000. These examples are not random—they are bits of reasoning that I can at least grasp; they are the tip of a far more mysterious premodern iceberg.

Confronting this material is paradoxical and perplexing. One is able to appreciate the technical philosophy of a thinker as a manifestation of abstract intelligence. Simultaneously, one can see that the lived world of a thinker is as limited, peculiar, and foolish as one’s own. As a Calvinist colleague of mine has suggested, Edwards’s understanding of his connection to the immediate world around him is no more or less reasonable than that of Linda Tripp when she declared it to be her “patriotic duty” to expose the relation between Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. To put my concern another way, reading volume 15 and pondering its implications, I feel that Edwards is a figure closer to Charles Hodge than I had previously thought. (Bruce Kuklick, “Edwards for the Millennium,” Religion and American Culture, 2001)

I have no dog in this fight. Edwards is so yesterday.

Hollow (read: no) Victory

Along with the last rites being administered to the GOP, students of evangelicalism are also reassessing what had looked like such a strong showing by born-again Protestants in the culture wars since 1980. It turns out, according to some, that rather than being sidelined by evangelical Protestants, the mainline churches were the real winners in late-twentieth-century American Protestantism. John Turner puts it this way:

Liberal Protestants may have ultimately lost the battle for membership, but they won the larger cultural struggle. A trenchant quote from the sociologist Christian Smith: “Liberal Protestantism’s organizational decline has been accompanied by and is in part arguably the consequence of the fact that liberal Protestantism has won a decisive, larger cultural victory.” One could turn to a host of other scholars to buttress Hedstrom’s contentions: David Hollinger and Leigh Schmidt immediately come to mind. Through their embrace of religious pluralism and more universal mystical religious experiences, liberal Protestants imperiled their own institutional strength but persuaded many Americans of the value of their ideas.

Turner bases this view on a book by Matthew Hedstrom, author of The Rise of Liberal Religion. According to Hedstrom, what some people call secularization is simply a change within religion itself:

Let’s look at Harry Emerson Fosdick, probably the most famous preacher in the United States from the 1920s through the 1940s. He was a star on radio, a bestselling author, and the founding preacher of the Rockefeller-backed Riverside Church in New York. As the leader of a major church, he clearly cared about church life. Yet in As I See Religion, his bestseller from 1932, he argued that the heart of religion is reverence for personality—by which he meant the sacred uniqueness of each human being as well as the divine personality—and experiences of beauty, which for him were the clearest pathway to the transcendent. These sensibilities might be cultivated in church or they might not.

Is this secularization? What Hollinger calls Christian survivalists—those who can only see religion as the perpetuation of a certain kind of Christianity—might think so. I guess I’d say that for some, liberal Protestantism is precisely what has allowed them to remain Christian. For others, it has been a halfway house to post-Protestant and post-Christian religious sensibilities. But this is transformation of religion, not secularization.

David Hollinger himself, one of the leading intellectual historians, contributed to this line of argument in an interview he did with Christian Century:

Q.What role did ecumenical Protestants play in shaping contemporary culture that are perhaps too easily forgotten today?

A. Ecumenical Protestants were way ahead of the evangelicals in accepting a role for sex beyond procreation and in supporting an expanded role for women in society. The ecumenical Protestants understood full well that the Jim Crow system could not be overturned without the application of state power, rejecting the standard line of Billy Graham and many other evangelicals that racism was an individual sin rather than a civil evil. The ecumenical Protestants developed a capacity for empathic identification with foreign peoples that led them to revise their foreign missionary project, diminishing its culturally imperialist aspects—and that led them, further, to the forefront of ethnoracially pluralist and egalitarian initiatives as carried out by white Americans. The ecumenical Protestants resoundingly renounced the idea that the United States is a Christian nation, while countless evangelical leaders continue to espouse this deeply parochial idea.

If the barometer of religious health is how a group is faring in party politics, then evangelical clout is clearly on the wane and its gambit of backing the Republicans is looking questionable. John Turner puts the current evangelical predicament this way:

. . . I tend to agree with Albert Mohler that evangelicals had better get ready for a sojourn in the political wilderness. I remember (but could not find to link) a splendid editorial by the Christian Century’s David Heim (some uncertainty about the author) from quite a few years ago (presumably before the 2008 election) wryly encouraging evangelicals to enjoy their moment in the political and cultural limelight because it would prove fleeting. In a short time, they’d be with their erstwhile liberal Protestant bedfellows in the scrapheap of political history.

True enough, but notice where that leaves the mainline — still on the scrapheap of history, now having to scoot over to make room for evangelicals. Notice also, that evangelicals of the nineteenth-century — folks like Finney no less — were responsible for teaching later mainline Protestants about equality, women, race, and the value of evangelizing non-Europeans. What is striking in the stakes between evangelicals and mainliners is that some contemporary evangelicals still read Finney and take great pride in the progressivism of the Second Pretty Good Awakening (e.g. Jerry Falwell). But does anyone in the mainline read Fosdick? Have the culturally spiritual people even heard of Fosdick? Probably not. Which makes the notion of mainline Protestants taking credit for shifts in the culture outside the churches a tad fanciful, sort of like the Sixers taking encouragement from only losing to the Heat by five points.

But the real difficulty with this interpretation of the mainline’s ongoing influence and relevance is that we generally do not permit such moral victories in other realms of historical understanding. Was Protestantism simply the transformation of Roman Catholicism or did the Reformers break with Rome? Was Ronald Reagan simply the transformation of the Democratic Party or was he a Republican? Did removing prayer and Bible reading from public schools represent another form of prayer and Bible reading or were the Supreme Court’s decisions the signal of post-Protestant America’s arrival?

Mind you, I am no fan of trying to pump more antibiotics into the diseased-ridden evangelical body political. But it does seem to me naive if not dishonest to highlight evangelicalism’s poor health by declaring the Protestant corpse in the adjacent bed to be alive.

Charles Finney Wasn't the Only New York Pastor to Defend Revivals

The Redeemer Report features an article by Tim Keller defending revival and conversion as biblical. Keller’s outspokenness on revivalism should not be a surprise since he was a student of Richard Lovelace (Dynamics of Spiritual Life), and since he has defended revivals on other occasions. Followers of Keller’s career and writings may be forgiven if they wonder how revival goes down with the upwardly mobile and aesthetically informed Manhattanites who gravitate to Redeemer Church. (You can take the boy out of Gordon-Conwell, but can you take Gordon-Conwell out of the boy?)

Keller’s latest column offers a succinct biblical theology of revival. What caught my eye, though, was less the theology or revival than the unspoken interlocutors behind Keller’s argument. Why all of the biblical data he assembles needs to be called a revival or a conversion is a question Keller does not answer. Revival itself is a confusing metaphor for spiritual life. It suggests someone who was alive, died, and is now brought back to life. How helpful can it be to use this image with reference to a person who is not regenerate? And just as pertinent, can it ever be used for a saint? Do saints die spiritually and then need resuscitation? If so, doesn’t revival imply that saints won’t persevere? This might explain the appeal of revival to the likes of Finney.

But back to Keller’s unidentified readers. He writes with a measure of hostility rarely seen:

As I sat looking at my computer screen at the title I’d written for this article, I was somewhat bemused by the fact that a defense of conversion and revival was even necessary. But so it is. There are quarters of the church now questioning whether or not conversion, the new birth, giving oneself to Christ, etc., are topics that should even be raised. Conversion, and its corporate expression, revival, are thought to be manifestations of Western individualistic thinking.

Keller adds, again with a surprising edge:

The point of this article is not so that you (or I) can win arguments with those of a different persuasion. Christians throwing theological brickbats at one another is only amusing the Evil One. Rather, we should move forward positively to seek revival in our own lives and churches and to joyfully share the Gospel with those who do not yet know Christ. Changed lives and changed community will both glorify God and fill us with the joy unspeakable.

Let me be clear, I am critical of revivals and revivalists not for the sake of throwing brickbats (whatever they are). I am interested in the ways in which revivals have undermined reformation. I would contend (and have) that the better word to use for improvement in the church is not revival but reform. The rise of Protestantism was not a revival. It was a reformation. Meanwhile, the interior turn that experimental Calvinism nurtured and that gave rise to revivalism, acted as a solvent on those marks of reformation by which we identified a true church — proclamation of the gospel (creeds), rightly administered sacraments (liturgy), and discipline (polity). If revivalists were not inherently anti-formalists, they might be more willing to consider the importance of these formal aspects of church life. But ever since George Whitefield, revivalists have been more concerned with “the heart” than they have with the churchly qualities that manifest the heart and unite believers to the body of Christ.

Of course, other good reasons exist for raising questions about revivals and conversion. From Charles Finney’s New Measures to Jonathan Edwards’ — another pro-revival New York pastor — gullibility over the conversion of four-year olds, revivalism has a checkered past. If Keller is such an effective apologist for revival, he needs to be as empathetic with revivalism’s critics as he is with Christianity’s unbelieving opponents who live in large metropolitan centers.

Why Do Reformed Think They Are Evangelical?

If Reformed Protestantism is basically evangelical then how do you account for the major divisions that have occurred among American Presbyterians? The fundamentalist controversy apparently has nothing at stake for the Reformed/evangelical consensus since Machen and other conservative Presbyterians were fighting liberalism and EVERYONE knows that liberalism is bad. (Of course, the problem here is that Machen’s evangelical colleagues at Princeton were some of his biggest opponents – the revival friendly Charles Eerdman and Robert Speer.)

According to this consensus the Presbyterian opposition to revivalism during the Second Pretty Good Awakening is also easy to explain. Charles Finney and company were delinquent on theology and possibly practice (revivalism and new measures instead of just plain revival). So the Second Pretty Good Awakening proves nothing.

Then there is the First Pretty Good Awakening where Calvinists promoted revivals. This is the golden-age for the Reformed/Evangelical consensus. But what about the Old Side critics? Well, as I learned at Westminster and from Leonard Trinterud, the Old Side were proto-liberals, propounding a rationalistic theology with Enlightenment echoes, and they were drunks, falling off their horses on the way home from presbytery thanks to a heavy elbow.

In the recent exchange with Ken Stewart over at the Christian Curmudgeon I came across another explanation for the apparent tension between Reformed Protestants and evangelicals – which is, blame the Dutch. In response to differences of interpretation about revivalism, Stewart wrote to the Curmudgeon:

I think we disagree is in our estimation of the danger posed by Hart and his school of writers. Westminster Escondido, in a strange continuity with Calvin Seminary Grand Rapids (these schools are usually at loggerheads) are centers from which revival is disparaged. So important a church historian as George Marsden (raised in the OPC) termed Darryl Hart’s book on American presbyterianism “anti-evangelical” because of its steady misrepresentation of the Great Awakening. So, while from your vantage point, you are aware of Hart, from mine – I think he and his allies represent a danger so great that it needs to be countered.

When pushed on the fact that George Marsden, who studied with Cornelius Van Til, who was very critical of evangelicalism, Stewart responded:

I don’t dispute CVT’s anti-evangelical posture; in fact I would suggest that the influx of CRC faculty into WTS in the 1930’s fundamentally shifted the young WTS away from its Princeton heritage, which had been decidedly the other way. When one stands back from this, it makes us realize that the whole conservative Reformed tradition in this country has been influenced far more by Grand Rapids theology than is generally acknowledged. I am not demonizing the CRC in this particular respect; I am simply highlighting the fact that throughout the 20th century, there have been rival versions of the Reformed faith jockeying with one another for dominance.

What is fairly amusing about this reply is that the Dutch-Americans at Calvin Seminary were responsible for printing a review that Stewart wrote of Recovering Mother Kirk, which was hardly flattering of the book’s author or his interpretation of the Reformed tradition. If the Dutch-American Reformed mafia wanted to enlarge their control of the interpretation of American Protestantism, they fell asleep when reading Stewart’s submission.

Stewart and others who reject the argument that Reformed and evangelical are at odds gain a lot of traction by suggesting that Reformed critics of evangelicalism construe Reformed and evangelical Protestantism as fundamentally at odds or separate entities. The proponents of an evangelical-friendly Reformed faith also like to point out that Reformed churches have made lots of room for evangelicalism and even revivalism. So both conceptually and historically, supposedly, the Reformed critics of evangelicalism are flawed.

But for this critic, it is obvious that evangelicals and Reformed are both Protestant and so overlap at certain points, both religiously and historically. Experimental Calvinism arose in the context of Reformed churches (especially when the prospects for reforming the national churches were looking bleak) and Reformed and Presbyterians churches have been friendly to evangelicalism (though I wish they were not).

What the proponents of the consensus are incapable of doing is accounting for the splits that have occurred within Reformed churches over evangelicalism (even without the presence of Dutch Reformed). The Old Side and the Old School split from their Presbyterian peers because the pro-revivalists believed subscription and polity were secondary to conversion and holy living. And so it has always been with evangelicalism. It is inherently anti-formal in the sense that forms to not matter compared to the experience of new birth or ecstatic worship. Evangelicals are also inherently inconsistent about this because since we exist as human beings in forms (i.e., bodies that are either male or female), we cannot escape formalism of some kind. Either way, on the matter of forms – creeds, worship, and polity – those who promote revivals or consider themselves evangelical are indifferent. The Spirit unites, not the forms. The same goes for different shades of evangelicalism: for the Gospel Coalition it is the gospel not the forms that unite; and for the Baylys and other “do this and live” types, it is the law not the forms that unites. Sticklers for the regulative principle, the system of doctrine, or presbyterian procedure are simply ornery obstacles to uniting Protestants on what is truly important.

What should not be missed either is that when Presbyterian particularists insist that forms matter, that the word reveals forms, and that the word and the Spirit work in conjunction, the response is invariably that the particularlists are mean and lack the fruit of the Spirit. Why? Because they do not recognize the presence of the Spirit.

And so to bring a little more light on the matter from one of those nefarious Dutch-Reformed types (though he is actually German), here is a useful reflection from Richard Muller on the impulses within evangelicalism that lead away from the insights of the Reformation(if only he had been editing the Calvin Theological Journal when Stewart reviewed Recovering Mother Kirk):

Even more than this, however, use of the language of personal relationship with Jesus often indicates a qualitative loss of the traditional Reformation language of being justified by grace alone through faith in Christ and being, therefore, adopted as children of God in and through our graciously given union with Christ. Personal relationships come about through mutual interaction and thrive because of common interests. They are never or virtually never grounded on a forensic act such as that indicated in the doctrine of justification by faith apart from works – in fact personal relationships rest on a reciprocity of works or acts. The problem here is not the language itself: The problem is the way in which it can lead those who emphasize it to ignore the Reformation insight into the nature of justification and the character of believer’s relationship with God in Christ.

Such language of personal relationship all too easily lends itself to an Arminian view of salvation as something accomplished largely by the believer in cooperation with God. A personal relationship is, of its very nature, a mutual relation, dependent on the activity – the works – of both parties. In addition, the use of this Arminian, affective language tends to obscure the fact that the Reformed tradition has its own indigenous relational and affective language and piety; a language and piety, moreover, that are bound closely to the Reformation principle of salvation by grace alone through faith alone. The Heidelberg Catechism provides us with a language of our “only comfort in life and in death” – that “I am not my own, but belong – body and soul, in life and death to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ” (q. 1). “Belonging to Christ,” a phrase filled with piety and affect, retains the confession of grace alone through faith alone, particularly when its larger context in the other language of the catechism is taken to heart. We also have access to a rich theological and liturgical language of covenant to express with both clarity and warmth our relationship to God in Christ.

Even so, the Reformed teaching concerning the identity of the church assumes a divine rather than a human foundation and assumes that the divine work of establishing the community of belief is a work that includes the basis of the ongoing life of the church as a community, which is to say, includes the extension of the promise to children of believers. The conversion experience associated with adult baptism and with the identification of the church as a voluntary association assumes that children are, with a few discrete qualifications, pagan-and it refuses to understand the corporate dimension of divine grace working effectively (irresistibly!) in the perseverance of the covenanting community. It is a contradictory teaching indeed that argues irresistible grace and the perseverance of the saints and then assumes both the necessity of a particular phenomenology of adult conversion and “decision.” (“How Many Points?” Calvin Theological Journal, Vol. 28 (1993): 425-33 posted at Riddelblog)

Forensic Friday: Making the World Safe for the Governmental Theory of the Atonement

After going on for thousands of comments with theonomic critics of 2k theology, I now have a better sense for why the governmental theory of the atonement is plausible to some Christians. Whenever I teach about New School Presbyterian theology, and its toleration if not advocacy of the governmental view, I joke with students that this outlook treats the cross of Christ as the greatest of all flannel graph lessons: by showing how horrid the punishment for sin is through the suffering and death of Christ, God upholds the righteousness of his law and show sinners how offensive their wicked acts are in his sight. (For the birthday-challenged, flannel graphs were the Greatest Generation’s Luddite version of power point – a flannel board on which teachers and speakers could hang letters or images without even having to use Velcro.)

I have always found this view bizarre because it offers no comfort or consolation from the cross of Christ. It simply reminds me of what I deserve and tells me to sit up, take notice (of all those laws), and fly right.

The reason it now makes more sense as an appealing view to some Christians is that in their sometime wholesome reverence for God’s law and desire to see it prevail in public and private life, theonomists (at least the ones upbraiding me for licentiousness and atheism) do not seem to make much of forgiveness as a central theme in the Christian religion. After all, if God is ultimately going to forgive sinners (ahem – how would salvation be possible without this?), then the law diminishes in importance as the standard for Christian and pagan conduct. Grace and forgiveness, such as that implicit in the vicarious atonement, seemingly take away incentive to follow God’s law. But if the law is what is supreme in God’s character and in Scripture’s teaching, then looking at the atonement as a vindication of God’s righteousness makes sense and also minimizes the kind of antinomianism that might follow if people took mercy seriously.

To illustrate these different conceptions of law and their consequences for the atonement, I offer up a contrast between Charles Finney and John Calvin. Granted, this may not be the fairest of fights, but Finney’s language (which is widely available online) is instructive for those Calvinists who are tempted to stress the law as central to Christianity and even to the gospel. (Theonomists, Federal Visionaries, Bayly Brothers, Rabbi Bret, and Indiana-based Kuyperians, sit up, take notice and fly right.)

First, Finney on law and gospel:

The intention of the Gospel is by no means to repeal the law. “Do we, then, make void the law through faith?” said the apostle; “God forbid; yea, we establish the law.” By his life and death, Christ honoured the law; and thus himself furnished the means of rebuking the rebellious lives of sinners. The spirit of the law pervades the Gospel, and they infinitely mistake the subject who suppose that the moral law is not part of the Gospel. This is the way to make Christ the minister of sin. This is to array Christ against the moral law; for how could he by abrogating the law make it honourable? This would be to weaken the law. Do not mistake me: I do not mean that men are to be saved by their own righteousness–that they are to be restored to happiness by the law, as the ground of their acceptance with God. I mean no such thing as this; but what I do mean is, that this is a condition of their forgiveness, –they must break off their rebellion, and become submissive and obedient to its authority. A man who has once violated a law can never be justified by it; this is both naturally and governmentally impossible. But there must be obedience to the law as a condition of forgiveness for past sins and offences. (Finney, “Christ Magnifying the Law,” 1850)

Yes, Finney really did say that forgiveness depends on obedience. Holy bleep, Batman!

Next Calvin on law and gospel:

The sum of the matter comes to this: The Old Testament filled the conscience with fear and trembling—The New inspires it with gladness. By the former the conscience is held in bondage, by the latter it is manumitted and made free. If it be objected, that the holy fathers among the Israelites, as they were endued with the same spirit of faith, must also have been partakers of the same liberty and joy, we answer, that neither was derived from the Law; but feeling that by the Law they were oppressed like slaves, and vexed with a disquieted conscience, they fled for refuge to the gospel; and, accordingly, the peculiar advantage of the Gospel was, that, contrary to the common rule of the Old Testament, it exempted those who were under it from those evils. Then, again, we deny that they did possess the spirit of liberty and security in such a degree as not to experience some measure of fear and bondage. For however they might enjoy the privilege which they had obtained through the grace of the Gospel, they were under the same bonds and burdens of observances as the rest of their nation. Therefore, seeing they were obliged to the anxious observance of ceremonies (which were the symbols of a tutelage bordering on slavery, and handwritings by which they acknowledged their guilt, but did not escape from it), they are justly said to have been, comparatively, under a covenant of fear and bondage, in respect of that common dispensation under which the Jewish people were then placed. (Institutes II.11.ix)

Now Finney on the atonement::

7. An atonement was needed to inspire confidence in the offers and promises of pardon, and in all the promises of God to man. Guilty selfish man finds it difficult, when thoroughly convicted of sin, to realize and believe that God is actually sincere in his promises and offers of pardon and salvation. But whenever the soul can apprehend the reality of the Atonement, it can then believe every offer and promise as the very thing to be expected from a being who could give his Son to die for enemies.

An Atonement was needed, therefore, as the great and only means of sanctifying sinners:

Rom. 8:3,4. “For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God, sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh: that the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.” The law was calculated, when once its penalty was incurred, to shut the sinner up in a dungeon, and only to develop more and more his depravity. Nothing could subdue his sin and cause him to love but the manifestation to him of disinterested benevolence. The atonement is just the thing to meet this necessity and subdue rebellion.

8. An Atonement was needed, not to render God merciful, but to reconcile pardon with a due administration of justice. This has been virtually said before, but needs to be repeated in this connection. (Lecture 31 from Lectures on Systematic Theology)

And Calvin on the atonement:

. . . Christ appeared once for all to take away sin by the sacrifice of himself. Again, that he was offered to bear the sins of many (Heb. 9:12). He had previously said, that not by the blood of goats or of heifers, but by his own blood, he had once entered into the holy of holies, having obtained eternal redemption for us. Now, when he reasons thus, “If the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh: how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself to God, purge your consciences from dead works to serve the living God?” (Heb. 9:13, 14), it is obvious that too little effect is given to the grace of Christ, unless we concede to his sacrifice the power of expiating, appeasing, and satisfying: as he shortly after adds, “For this cause he is the mediator of the new testament, that by means of his death, for the redemption of the transgressions that were under the first testament, they which are called might receive the promise of eternal inheritance,” (Heb. 9:15). But it is especially necessary to attend to the analogy which is drawn by Paul as to his having been made a curse for us (Gal. 3:13). It had been superfluous and therefore absurd, that Christ should have been burdened with a curse, had it not been in order that, by paying what others owed, he might acquire righteousness for them. There is no ambiguity in Isaiah’s testimony, “He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was laid upon him; and with his stripes we are healed,” (Is. 53:5). For had not Christ satisfied for our sins, he could not be said to have appeased God by taking upon himself the penalty which we had incurred. To this corresponds what follows in the same place, “for the transgression of my people was he stricken,” (Is. 53:8). We may add the interpretation of Peter, who unequivocally declares, that he “bare our sins in his own body on the tree,” (1 Pet. 2:24), that the whole burden of condemnation, of which we were relieved, was laid upon him. (Institutes, II.17.iv)

Here’s a revelation: I prefer Calvin. What is more, Calvin understands the Bible.

Introducing the Old School Presbyterians: Stuart Robinson

I’ve been wondering. Do contemporary Reformed Protestants read Old School Presbyterians — at all?

Over at Green Baggins where a fiesty exchange of slings and arrows — count ’em, over 1,300 comments and climbing — over 2k has diverted what could have been a good conversation about the value of polemical theology I posted the following excerpt from Stuart Robinson’s The Church of God An Essential Element of the Gospel. I have wondered for a while whether neo-Calvinists and transformers have actually ever considered what were standard argument and distinctions like the one that Robinson here makes. And if they had read the Old School, would they be flummoxed by today’s 2k arguments? Even more, what level of shock set in for neo-Calvinists and transformers to learn that they have more in common with New School Presbyterians like Charles Finney and Albert Barnes than with Charles Hodge or Samuel Miller. Although my pasting this quote has led the crickets to chirp very loudly, it is one worth highlighting here.

1. In that the civil power derives its authority from God as the Author of nature, whilst the power ecclesiastical comes alone from Jesus as Mediator.

2. In that the rule for the guidance of the civil power in its exercise is the light of nature and reason, the law which the Author of nature reveals through reason to man; but the rule for the guidance of ecclesiastical power in its exercise is that light which, as Prophet of the Church, Jesus Christ has revealed in his word. It is a government under statute laws already enacted by the King.

3. They differ in that the scope and aim of the civil power are limited properly to things seen and temporal; the scope and aim of ecclesiastical power are things unseen and spiritual. Religious is a term not predicable of the acts of the State; political is a term not predicable of the acts of the Church. The things pertaining to the kingdom of Christ are things concerning which Caesar can have rightfully no cognizance, except indirectly and incidentally as these things palpably affect the temporal and civil concerns of men; and even then Csesar cannot be too jealously watched by the Church. The tilings pertaining to the kingdom of Csesar are matters of which the Church of Christ as an organic government can have no cognizance, except incidentally and remotely as affecting the spiritual interests of men; and even then the Church cannot watch herself too jealously.

4. They differ in that the significant symbol of the civil power is the sword; its government is a government of force, a terror to evil-doers; but the significant symbol of Church power is the keys, its government only ministerial, the functions of its officers to open and close and have a care of a house already complete as to its structure externally, and internally organized and provided.

5. They differ in that civil power may be exercised as a several power by one judge, magistrate, or governor; but all ecclesiastical power pertaining to government is a joint power only, and to be exercised by tribunals. The Head of the government has not seen fit to confer spiritual power of jurisdiction in any form upon a single man, nor authorized the exercise of the functions of rule in the spiritual commonwealth as a several power.

6. It is unnecessary to digress here into a discussion of the rationale of these fundamental distinctions. It would not be difficult to show, however, that they are neither accidental nor arbitrary, but spring out of those fundamental truths concerning the nature of the Church itself, and of its relations to the gospel, which have already been pointed out. These distinctions, therefore, are of a nature to forbid all idea of any concurrent jurisdiction, and to render certain the corruption and final apostasy of any part of the Church which shall persist in the attempt to exist as a governmental power concurrent with the State,—it matters not whether as superior, inferior, or equal. They are the two great powers that be, and are ordained of God to serve two distinct ends in the great scheme devised for man as fallen. The one is set up, in the mercy and forbearance of the Author of nature toward the apostate race at large, to hold in check the outworking of that devilish nature consequent upon the apostasy, and to furnish a platform, as it were, on which to carry on another and more amazing scheme of mercy toward a part of mankind. The other is designed to constitute of the families of earth that call upon his name, and into the hearts of which his grace has put enmity toward Satan and his seed, a nation of priests, a peculiar nation, not reckoned among the nations, of whom Jehovah is the God and they are his people. That not only the utter disregard of this distinction in the formal union of the Church and State—either merging the Church in the State or the State in the Church—is ” destructive of the Church, but that, also, any degree of confusion in respect of this distinction is proportionally dangerous and corrupting, the history of the Reformed Churches generally, and in particular of the Church of Scotland, is a most striking illustration. Nay, the entire history of the Church, from its first organization, testifies that his people must render to Csesar the things that are Caesar’s, as distinct from rendering to God the things that are God’s, or the Church suffers. (pp. 86-87)

How radical is this if the OPC has reprinted this book?