Of Radical Minorities and the (Dutch) Reformed Mainstream

Vocal defenders of 2k are in such short supply – though practitioners are everywhere in North America (it is the default position for Reformed Protestants, after all) – that I wondered about commenting on this. But when I read this, it seemed that some comment was in order.

Matt Tuininga is a smart fellow and doing impressive work at Emory University on political theology. His blog is worth reading. In addition, he has defended 2k in the pages of Christian Renewal where Dr. K. has done his darnedest to associate 2k with all things profane. (Aside from the kitchen sink, the only charge that Dr. K. has not hurled is is that of Communism.)

In a fairly recent piece for CR, Matt tried to explain the controversy over 2k as one between those who use its logic without even thinking about it and a minority that takes the position to extremes:

The controversy arises when people appeal to the doctrine to question causes closer to home. For instance, some have used it to challenge the politicization of many evangelical churches directly involved in the political work of the Christian Right. Others have used it to challenge what they perceive as the excesses of Neocalvinism and its failure to distinguish the advancement of the kingdom of God through the work of the church with the work of cultural transformation.

Usually when I hear people opposing the two kingdoms doctrine today it is because they think it entails the abandonment of something like Christian education, or of a Christian worldview that guides the actions of Christians in every aspect of life. While there have been some recent two kingdoms proponents who do move in this direction, it is a massive theological and historical mistake to allow those people – who are most certainly in a minority – to define the two kingdoms doctrine and to control the way in which we speak of it. To do this ignores the importance the doctrine has held in establishing precisely the kind of Reformed biblical autonomy and church government that we value so highly and on which the integrity of the Reformed tradition depends.

Since I have in fact used the logic of 2k to question the necessity (as in “thou shalt”) of Christian schools and to wonder about the German idealist pretensions of nineteenth-century critiques of liberalism (i.e., w-w), Matt’s comments would appear to implicate me. Since he and I are friendly and recently had a pleasant chat at the Greenville seminary conference on Old Princeton, I doubt that Matt was necessarily singling me out. Even so, I would like to see him amend his analysis by considering the following.

In addition to the important debates about church power – with Geneva (2k) and Zuirch (Erastian) representing the main options on questions of excommunication – was the even more basic question of the authority of Scripture (i.e. sola Scriptura). Ministers could teach only what Scripture reveals, and churches could require only what the Bible commanded. The doctrines and commandments of men, no matter how wise, pious, or well intentioned, could not bind a believer’s conscience. For that reason, whenever the church evaluates the integrity of a believer’s profession, it must do so on the basis only of norms revealed in Scripture. The church must have a “thus, saith the Lord.” An effort like Adam’s instruction to Eve about not even touching the fruit of the tree won’t do. Either you don’t eat the apple or you sin. Touching it, looking at it, cutting it is not a command revealed by God.

All of the Reformed creeds begin with an affirmation of sola scriptura. Here is how the Gallican Confession (1559) puts it:

We know these books to be canonical, and the sure rule of our faith, not so much by the common accord and consent of the Church, as by the testimony and inward illumination of the Holy Spirit, which enables us to distinguish them from other ecclesiastical books upon which, however useful, we can not found any articles of faith. (Art. 4)

For churches to require anything that the Bible does not require is akin to establishing an article of faith on a foundation other than the Bible. Kuyper and his views about w-w’s or about education may be useful, though the way that places like the Free University turned out or that Christian w-w formation is playing out in numerous so-called Reformed day schools is not the best of testimonies to Kuyper’s wisdom. Still, the point should not be missed. Unless anti-2kers (and even some 2kers) can establish that Christian education and w-w are necessary as in an article of faith, then those who raise questions about Christian education and w-w are not radical or extreme. They are only doing what the Reformers did by asking where the Bible, as opposed to influential saints, establishes the existing practices and teachings of the church. In fact, it is those who establish a hierarchy of faithfulness based on tradition and look down on those who don’t follow the doctrines and commandments of men who are extreme.

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Bracketology

During a recent trip to Wheaton College for a conference on evangelicals and the early church I talked to several faculty about president-elect, Phil Ryken. Everyone was favorably unanimous about his initial remarks to the faculty regarding his plans for leading the institution. Some still wondered, though, whether Ryken will escalate the Reformed influences at the school. For Wesleyans, that would not be a welcome development. Who knows where the Episcopalians at Wheaton are on Wesleyan-Reformed spectrum (they have enough trouble walking the tight-rope of via media as it is)?

I responded to many on the basis of what I have observed about Ryken. He will likely distinguish his own Reformed convictions from the centrist-evangelical identity of Wheaton. After all, he grew up in that environment, has studied Protestantism enough to recognize differences between the seventeenth century and today, and is capable of working along side Protestants from a different theological tradition (Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, for example). In other words, Ryken will bracket his Reformed convictions (whether on soteriology, ecclesiology, or worship) and work within the boundaries established by Wheaton’s statement of faith and other normative guidelines.

While this seems like a reasonable way to proceed – not to expect Wheaton to be the PCA – I wonder if the critics of two-kingdom thought would see such a distinction between the kingdom of Wheaton and the kingdom of a Presbyterian communion as either possible or laudable. After all, isn’t this bracketing of one’s ecclesial identity precisely what two-kingdom proponents advocate for the public square? We don’t expect public life to be the Orthodox Presbyterian Church but bracket the church’s norms when engaging social and political matters.

The point is that the sort of bracketing I imagine Phil Ryken will do at Wheaton is no different from the distinguishing of kingdoms performed by two-kingdom believers.

A couple of side issues do arise with this analogy. One complication is that Reformed believers who do work in environments like Wheaton’s may come to think that the interdenominational fellowship Christians enjoy at the college should really be the case in the church as well. In which case, the sort of boundaries the church draws to keep out non-Reformed teaching and practice will over time become an incumbrance or embarrassment for a Reformed Protestant. This is what happened to the New School Presbyterians.

Another complication is that critics of 2k will be tempted to think nothing wrong with the two-kingdom position imagined here. These critics might think that if only the United States were as religiously and morally plural as Wheaton College – meaning, only inhabited by evangelical Protestants – then two-kingdom theology would be acceptable. But if that’s the case, then why are two-kingdom critics willing to tolerate so much unbelief, idolatry, and immorality? Why don’t they all move to DuPage County where Republicans outnumber Democrats roughly 5.5 to 4.5?

Whatever one makes of these complicating considerations, the point stands: the sort of distinction between churchly and political identities involved in two-kingdom theology is already the experience of millions of Protestants in their vocational responsibilities here in the greatest nation on God’s green earth. It’s not radical. It is ordinary.

Whither Wheaton?

Andrew Chignell, a graduate of Wheaton College and son of a former Wheaton professor, created a minor kerfuffle with a piece about the outgoing college president, A. Duane Litfin, and Wheaton’s search for his successor. Chignell argues that Wheaton, the flagship institution of American evangelicalism, is at a crossroads. He also seems to try relatively benignly to settle scores for those faculty (and their progeny) who were bitterly disappointed by the 1992 appointment of Litfin when Nathan Hatch, now president of Wake Forest University, was the odds on favorite to be Wheaton’s president. The hope was that Hatch, then provost of Notre Dame, an accomplished historian, and graduate of Wheaton, would lead Wheaton into the promised land of elite, private, liberal arts colleges, with of course the evangelical convictions and piety still in place. Some of that disappointment was evident in Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, a book whose polemical edge appealed to Wheaton faculty who wanted a true academic like Hatch as their CEO. (Full disclosure: I taught at Wheaton from 1989 to 1993 and my wife is a 1976 graduate.)

This is a minor flap for Wheaton, despite the creation of a website dedicated to Chignell’s article, because very few Wheaties, as alums are known, have bothered to write. In fact, if not for the poor performance by the owners and editors of Books and Culture, where Chignell’s article was supposed to be published – the “back story” is also at Whither Wheaton – the piece may well have floated away to the Internet’s kazigabties of unused archives, except for Chignell’s own website.

To his credit Chignell does not perform a hatchet job on Wheaton, though it was too edgy for the folks at Wheaton’s neighbor, Books & Culture. He credits Litfin with growing the college’s physical plant and endowment, for shepherding the school through potentially damaging ethos changes such as dropping restrictions against off-campus drinking and dancing, and for overseeing the adoption of a new mascot – from post-9/11 infelicity of Crusaders to the environmentally sensitive but anemic Thunder. Chignell also comments favorably on the decline of religious politics at Wheaton – when he was a student DuPage County, Wheaton’s home, was the most Republican jurisdiction in the United States. Chignell fails to mention that Litfin also oversaw a new statement of faith that dropped the premillennial and dispensationalist laden plank. This was a significant move for many who regarded Litfin, a graduate of the Philadelphia College of Bible (before doing doctorates at Purdue and Oxford), as a fundamentalist since dispensationalism was one of fundamentalism’s chief articles of faith. Wheaton’s old statement of faith reflected its affinities to anti-modernist Protestantism.

On the debit side, Chignell faults Litfin for losing good faculty because of the president’s enforcement of doctrinaire convictions. The most celebrated was the dismissal of a philosophy professor, Josh Hochshield after he converted to Roman Catholicism. But one prospective professor got away when her conjecture that the Bible did not forbid gay marriage ended her candidacy. (On the upside her admission did not prevent an appointment at Calvin College.) Also glaring for Chignell were Litfin’s views on creation, and the apparent irony of raising funds for a science center with all the bells and whistles for first-rate science when the college is committed apparently to doctrines that undermine such research and learning.

The problem for Chignell comes down to Litfin’s own understanding of maintaining a college’s Christian identity. Chignell writes:

In his 2004 book “Conceiving the Christian College,” President Litfin characterizes Wheaton as operating on a “systemic” model, whereby “all of the professors are to be scholars who embody the Christian commitments of the institution, with the expected result that genuinely Christian thinking will permeate the school’s academic and student life programs.”

Chignell agrees that schools operating according to this model are of “immense value.” But he also thinks that the systemic model can take a number of different forms.

At the far end is what might be called the magisterial approach: here a select group of academic administrators specifies which interpretations of the core doctrines and codes are to be propagated throughout the system, and then requires that everyone signs on to those specific interpretations. At the other end is what might be called (for lack of a better term) the wiggle-room approach. Here a certain amount of space is allowed for differing—albeit still reasonable—interpretations of the propositions constituting the systemic core. That doesn’t mean that “anything goes” or that the core is ever significantly or casually altered. But administrators who adopt the wiggle-room approach will tend to be more modest and consultative in interpreting that core, and will often “agree to disagree” on issues that can reasonably be deemed ambiguous or adiaphorous.

Litfin’s fault, then, was in following the magisterial approach, especially on creation, when Wheaton needed and still needs the wiggle-room touch.

A few problems follow from this analysis. First, although I may not agree with the particulars of Litfin’s ideas about creation, Chignell fails to recognize that the faculty who got away from Wheaton were not victims of creationist tyranny. (The college’s statement on creation is hardly polemical – “WE BELIEVE that God directly created Adam and Eve, the historical parents of the entire human race; and that they were created in His own image, distinct from all other living creatures, and in a state of original righteousness.”) The issues in the cases he mentions were Roman Catholicism and gay marriage. In which case, the contrast between a fundamentalist view of creation and a new science center is a red herring. For that matter, plenty of creationists approve of all kinds of science outside the field of biology.

Second, Wheaton’s statement of faith is hardly the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms. It is a useful but meager affirmation of general Protestant verities. By its very nature it reflects the wiggle-room that fundamentalists and evangelicals tried to find to achieve a generic conservative Protestant identity. In other words, Wheaton’s statement of faith is hardly magisterial; Calvin’s is (i.e. the Three Forms of Unity). Wiggle-room enforcement of wiggle-room creeds is another issue.

Third, Chignell is overly optimistic in thinking the wiggle-room touch can keep an institution like Wheaton from turning into Oberlin. The comparison is hardly implausible because when Wheaton started it was in the vein of Wesleyan-Congregationalist perfectionism and post-millennialism running rampant in the mid-West. The affinities between Wheaton and Oberlin were strong, from the kingdom of God to anti-slavery. And yet Wheaton did not become the liberal Protestant institution that Oberlin did despite (or because of?) Finney’s revivalism. One reason is that Wheaton had a fundamentalist interlude under the presidency of J. Oliver Buswell. During that era, and then the subsequent influence of neo-evangelicalism, Wheaton’s administrators, trustees, faculty, students, and students’ parents knew that liberal Protestantism was something that good Christians wanted to avoid. Indeed, one of the important and ignored issues facing schools like Wheaton and sister institutions like Christianity Today is the presence of faculty and editors in important decision-making capacities who belong to such communions as the Episcopal Church USA or the Presbyterian Church USA. If faculty or editors at evangelical institutions reject the writings and appointments of scholars from anti-modernist communions because of views on women’s ordination or homosexuality, what sort of evangelical identity will result?

In fact, the history of American Presbyterianism shows what happens when Chignell’s wiggle-room approach if followed – you wind up in the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. with not simply wiggle-room, but lots of room for elbows, heads, feet, and even private parts. In the 1920s the church’s progressives proposed the Auburn Affirmation for the sake of giving flexibility in the church on such cardinal doctrines as the inerrancy of Scripture and the virgin birth of Christ. The number of essential and necessary doctrines was even fewer than Wheaton’s statement of faith, though the church already had a confession of faith. And that hermeneutic became the basis for the liberal church that the PCUSA is today; it would avoid taking a hard stand against anything except conservatives, favoring breadth over orthodoxy. (I concede that members of Wheaton faculty who are in the PCUSA would not regard their communion as liberal. But I don’t think they can plausibly claim that liberalism is unwelcome in the PCUSA, otherwise why would the Presbyterian Layman and the Confessing Church movement attract the numbers that they do?)

So maybe the reason that Wheaton avoids becoming Oberlin is by having presidents like Litfin who apply a measure of disciplinary pressure on academics who by nature of their scholarly and cosmopolitan impulses are not exactly known to be keepers of the orthodox flame.

And yet, this analysis of Wheaton’s conservatism is unconvincing because what has long struck me about the school is not its doctrinaire evangelicalism but its pietistic ethos. During my tenure at Wheaton I was struck how much the place had the feel of Christian summer camp, where campers (students) took math and history instead of archery and swimming from their professors (counselors). That is not necessarily a knock against Wheaton. Institutions that provide a safe Christian retreat for older adolescents and young adults, on their way to professional lives and parenting, is hardly the worst service a Christian organization can perform. But this impression rang true at a recent alumni event in Philadelphia where those in attendance viewed the promotional materials (posters and film) for the current capital campaign. What was striking was that faculty, books read and written, or graduates like Chignell who go on to excel in higher education, were not evident. Instead, the focus, especially of the film, was on the student experience, as if this were a recruiting film for prospective students. What dawned on me while watching the film was that the student experience is what attracts high schoolers to apply, parents to pay for tuition, and alums to give to the school. That is because the experience of students in all the extra-curricular activities appears to be as important to the making of a Wheatie as reading, writing, and arithmetic. Mind you, the students are very smart. They have to be to get in to a very competitive school. But do they need to be smart to stay at Wheaton? Or is what keeps them there the evangelical warmth and fellowship that comes from a personal relationship with Jesus?

Again, this could sound like a real indictment of Wheaton, and it does second from a different angle Noll’s scandal of the evangelical mind and the kind of indifference to intellectual life that has characterized born-again Protestantism. But it need not be read as evidence of anti-intellectualism at Wheaton. It could be a testimony to the institution’s uncanny ability to remain “conservative” on the basis of experience, on the vague and ethereal but in this case vital and vigorous attachment to having “Jesus in my heart.” That piety did not sustain lots of other Protestant liberal arts colleges founded in the wake of the Second Great Awakening like Oberlin. But it has for Wheaton. And perhaps Litfin’s regular speaking in chapel is one of the formal means that sustains Wheaton’s evangelical ethos. If so, Chignell’s assessment of Litfin and Wheaton misses the most important factor that the trustees should be considering in the choice of a new president.