American Greatness

Liberalism may be failing, but at least the voluntary character of church life in the United States means that communions here do not need to worry the way those in Scotland do where the establishment principle is still in effect even for those outside the established church. David Robertson highlights the contrasting responses of Presbyterians — Church of Scotland vs. Free Church of Scotland — to the Scottish government’s proposal to allow Scots to self-identify their gender. Spoiler alert: the Free Church dissents, the Church of Scotland goes along.

But the arresting matter here is the degree to which a communion self-identifies with its nation:

Lets talk not about gender identity but the identity of the Church. It seems to be that the Church of Scotland is no longer self-identifying as a biblical, prophetic Christian church. It now self-identifies as the spiritual wing of the progressive state, affirming its every action and endorsing its liberal theology. State churches always run the danger of avoiding the prophetic, because they are tied in with the State, and therefore will find it difficult to tell the State the Word of God. If John the Baptist had been a Church of Scotland minister, he would have affirmed Herod in his sin, told him ‘he didn’t want to judge’ and offered to produce a booklet of stories of adulterers like him! I hope and pray that the faithful ministers who remain in the Kirk will not hand out this propaganda, but will challenge 121 and the bureaucracy that has collaborated in this document. Its time for faithful people to be faithful and to at least be prophets to their own denomination.

What about the Free Church (and other churches). We can moan from the sidelines – refuse to get involved – shout in anger or shrink in despair. Or we can be a biblical Christ loving church which does what we can to welcome and help transpeople who are seeking Christ. They need to know him and be saved from their sin – not their trans. And we must have a prophetic voice into the culture – whether its challenging schools when they seek to indoctrinate our children with Queer theory, or making representations to the Scottish Government. And of course we weep and pray….

God have mercy and save Scotland from itself.

At what point do you see the folly of ecclesiastical establishments? Nothing possibly could go wrong here (ever since Constantine).

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Integration and Separatism

I’m behind on podcasts at Reformed Forum and Proto-Protestant nudged me to listen to Camden Bucey’s discussion with Alan Strange about the spirituality of the church. I was not surprised to learn that Alan (and Camden) have concerns about aspects of the spirituality of the church as articulated by contemporary 2k folks like David VanDrunen, John Muether, and mmmmmeeeeeeEEEEE. I was surprised, though, to hear the word “integration” used as much as Alan voiced it during the hour-long recording. Alan wants to affirm the spirituality of the church and on this we agree — the church can’t take a stand on say the War between the States. But he also wants some measure of integration between the church’s witness and civil authority and seems to think that the Scottish Presbyterians are a good model of such engagement.

I am not sure that I would put my disagreements as starkly as Proto-Protestant does:

His final appeal to Acts 17 struck me as patronising and pedantic if not silly. Of course we preach the Word. Does any Two Kingdom adherent deny that? We call all men to repent. That’s a far cry from arguing for the Sacralisation of culture and the state, let alone taking covenant law and ‘integrating’ it with the temporal non-holy order. There is no Biblical precedent for his view in either the Old or New Testaments and he assumes categories completely outside anything found in the Apostolic writings. Instead what he suggests is that natural fallen man can be compelled to ‘keep’ God’s commandments and work together with the Spirit to build the Kingdom of God on Earth in the form of institutions and culture.

Calvin’s comments on the state are wrong. He misinterprets Romans 13 let alone Christ’s words concerning Caesar in Matthew 22. The state is not holy or redemptive. It is temporary and yet serves a ‘ministerial’ purpose. That’s true with Assyria, Persia and in the New Testament context, the Roman Empire under Nero. The Reformed tradition got this desperately wrong and sadly their view has become the Evangelical standard.

It is a caricature to suggest that 2k folks don’t think the church can preach about abortion or same-sex marriage. The Bible forbids the taking of innocent life and has no grounds for marriage between two men or two women. But just because the church preaches against idolatry doesn’t mean that the OPC, for instance, opposes Roman Catholics or Muslims living and worshiping in the United States. Morality is one thing. Civil legislation and public policy are another. And if Hodge was correct that the Presbyterian Church could not back the federal government during the beginning of the Civil War (as Gardiner Spring proposed) even if the Bible requires subjection to the powers that be, is it really that far to go to say that the church cannot endorse a politician or legislative initiative even though the church affirms the morality for which said politician might stand?

But here’s the aspect of this discussion that caught my ear. What does it mean for the church to be integrated with the state? At first, I thought of the Roman Catholic position on integralism. Here’s how one Roman Catholic blogger describes it:

Contrary to popular belief, Catholic integralism—or what I shall refer to simply as “integralism” for the duration of this essay—is not first and foremost a political program. For the integral understanding of Christianity begins first with the supernatural society established by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, namely the Corpus Mysticum, the Holy Catholic Church, which transcends the temporal sphere and has for its end the salvation of souls. By carrying out its mission in the world, the Catholic Church possesses indirect power over the temporal sphere which is exercised for the good of souls. This indirect power in no way sullies the Church’s divine mission nor dilutes it by way of overextension since the civil authority retains at all times direct power over temporal matters.

Of course, Alan does not endorse this or even Erastianism. But integration is too close to integralism for that word to work for Protestants (in my book).

As matters now stand, churches in the United States are related (integrated?) to the civil government but obviously not in the way that the Church of Scotland is to the United Kingdom. The latter is likely somewhere in the constitutional provisions for religion in the realm. In the United States churches relate to the federal and state governments as tax exempt institutions. That means that churches don’t pay taxes and that contributions to churches can be deducted by individual tax payers. That’s not a recognition of Jesus Christ as Lord. It means the OPC is no better or worse than Rotary (another 501c3 organization). But it is a relationship between church and state at which Christians should not sneeze.

And mind you, the church and Christians in the U.S. fair better than Christians during the Roman Empire. What kind of integration to Paul or Peter experience? Did they have a tax-exempt status?

If we want more overt forms of integration, though, what might that involve? If the United States is going to give legal preferences to Christians, does that include Protestants and Roman Catholics, Calvinists and Arminians, Lutherans and Wesleyans? It’s not a foolish question since even the venerable Puritans (who did believe in the spirituality of the church) wouldn’t let Baptists or Lutherans in Massachusetts Bay. Then again, if we want religious freedom for believers (as many seem to since gay marriage went on-line), then where does the good form of religion to free stop and become the bad kind of faith? In other words, isn’t the system we have for church state relations the best we can do without an established religion/church?

But let’s complicate the idea of integration even more. Churches are integrated in the federal government through the military chaplaincy program. But boy oh boy does that look like a disagreeable relationship. In the Armed Services, Orthodox Presbyterian chaplains minister God’s word cheek-by-jowl with female Lutherans and male Wiccans. Of course, if that sounds provocative, it should. If Orthodox Presbyterians insisted on being separate from modernist Presbyterians in the PCUSA, and if those same OP’s remained separate from Arminians in the National Association of Evangelicals, why wouldn’t Orthodox Presbyterians be comfortable now with separatism rather than integration? I mean, if you have the stomach for being separate from other Protestants, surely you can fathom separation (rather than integration) from the federal authorities.

I understand that Alan Strange wants to prevent Presbyterians from being Anabaptists. But 2kers are not separate from the government because civil authority is a corruption of Jesus’ rule. 2kers advocate separation of church and state because politics is only good but not holy. Magistrates maintain public order. They don’t minister salvation. The one is good. The other is great.

Redefining Declension So Numbers Ascend

When you are having trouble with lack of resolve and dwindling numbers among the communicants (and clergy), you find a different paradigm that allows you to turn defeat into victory. For instance, David Robertson reported on efforts within the Church of Scotland to advance Christianity and extend membership:

Rev John Chalmers, Moderator of the Church of Scotland, is a good spokesman for the Church of Scotland. He is personable, warm and says some interesting things. In that vein, in the next edition of Life and Work he has made what has been termed as a ‘radical New Year’s message’. He wants the church to find 100,000 new members in the next decade. What can we say to that? Fantastic. 10,000 new Christians per year in Scotland would be a tremendous boost to us all. How encouraging for the whole Church if the Church of Scotland was to do that. I long and pray for that and I would rejoice if it came through the Church of Scotland. It won’t be easy. This year Church of Scotland membership fell below 400,00 for the first time and seems to be in free-fall. To reverse the 20,000 members per year deficit and turn it into a surplus of 10,000 would be enough of a miracle to cause even the most cynical secularist to doubt!

The Moderator is fed up with statistics (otherwise known as facts) that highlight decline, so he wants to change that. He asserts that the “truth about the number of people who belong to our faith communities is quite different”. Indeed it is, but not in the way he suggests. However it is worth quoting him more extensively: “The real challenge is to redefine membership in a way that allows us to include women and men, young and old who do not fit the post-Second World War model of membership with which we are so familiar. That pattern does not resonate with the vast majority of those who are 50 and younger and who will never buy into the kind of church that sits so comfortably with me and my way of expressing my Christian faith.

“It might pain me to say it, but it’s time for a radical change and I don’t mean a change of hymns, or a visually-aided sermon or a new time of day for traditional forms of worship. I mean something much more far reaching than that.”

He said: “I want us to explore how people might be able to belong to the Church of Scotland rooted in reality, which can interact with them in the context of an online community, but also be there for them when they need real human contact.”

Rev Chalmers thinks that because 1.7 million Scots in the 2011 census associated themselves with the Church of Scotland its an opportunity to bring them into the membership of the church. That’s why he wants to ‘redefine’ membership so that those who are not currently members can be counted as such. Social media, Facebook and twitter could be used to help this process. He was supported in this by former Moderator, Rev Albert Bogle, who stated, “there are a huge number out there who need to be nurtured and strengthened in their faith.”

It may not have the same ecclesial standing as a moderator of a European national church, but the challenge thrown down by Roman Catholic sociologists to the work of Christian Smith on the religious convictions and practices of U.S. adolescents reveals a similar use of ecclesiastical beer goggles (the statistics, like homely gals, are easier on the eyes after a couple pints) to make the best of a difficult situation:

Our studies show that pre-Vatican II Catholics learned a compliance-oriented approach that emphasized the teaching authority of the clergy, demanded strict adherence to all official church teachings, and often relied on fear and guilt to produce record-high levels of conformity.

Then, as a result of changes in American society and changes in the Catholic church, everything changed. Pre-Vatican II Catholics’ best efforts to pass their compliance-centered understanding of the faith on to their children were often mitigated by the cultural revolution of the 1960s and the implementation of Vatican II, both of which fostered a more personal approach to religion.

The three most recent generations learned a more conscience-centered approach that emphasizes Catholics’ responsibility for their own faith, including their responsibility to inform their own consciences, and to follow them as much as possible, even if this involves disagreement with church teachings. . . .

Members of these younger generations are not just “cafeteria Catholics” who “pick and choose” whatever parts of the faith they like. They continue to embrace core doctrinal teachings such as the divinity of Christ and his real presence in the sacraments; love of neighbor; and concern for the poor. But they are more selective in their religious practices, and are more likely to disagree with teachings that they consider unimportant, optional, coercive or wrong — especially those related to sexual and reproductive issues. . . .

Smith’s team draws a very different set of conclusions. What we call a shift from one approach to another, Smith and his colleagues call a story of “decline and loss.” Where we see adaptation to changing circumstances, they see the erosion of Catholicism. They tend to see departures from the compliance model of the 1940s and ’50s as a downward spiraling of the church. This is especially true in their interpretations of young Catholics’ low rates of Mass attendance.

According to Smith and his colleagues, “compared both to official Catholic norms of faithfulness and to other types of Christian teens in the United States [especially young Mormons and young evangelical Protestants], contemporary U.S. Catholic teens are faring rather badly,” “show up as fairly weak” and reflect “the relative religious laxity of their parents.”

Then there are the Callers who represent a logic all of their own.

What Kind of Witness Do Presbyterians Have Anymore?

Over at the Imaginative Conservative I ran across this intriguing tidbit of church history:

Did you know that Christmas celebrations were banned in Scotland until 1958? I certainly didn’t, not until my son started working on his sixth grade “Christmas around the World” report. I haven’t looked up what the English did in this regard (Scotland always has had a good deal of autonomy within Britain, and never stopped following its own legal code). But it seems the good Presbyterians of the established Church of Scotland (“the Kirk,” ironically enough for traditional conservatives) thought Christmas was a Catholic holiday, best stamped out with criminal penalties for unwholesome celebrations (pretty much anything outside of church), along with persistent tolling of bells to make sure everybody went to work on the day.

Bruce Frohnen, the author who uses this piece of trivia to introduce reasons for celebrating Christmas and Epiphany, goes on to say that times have changed and the old reasons for Presbyterians not celebrating Christmas have changed as well:

None of this is intended as a complaint against Presbyterians. In our secular age those of us who’ve “got religion” need to let bygones be bygones—especially when it comes to wrongs with their origins dating back a long way, and which aren’t really relevant to the character of people or religious practice today. What’s more, as they say, “at least they took us seriously.”

This is a curious line of reasoning since it suggests that those who take religion seriously (the “got religionists”) have no reason to take the old reasons for differences between Presbyterians and Roman Catholics seriously. But if the “got religion” crowd does believe religion to be important, then doesn’t that belief extend beyond a generic conservative Christianity doing battle with secularists and egalitarians? Doesn’t it lead all the way to what traditional Presbyterians and traditional Roman Catholics have believed traditionally about practices like the church calendar (redundancy intended)? This is not to say that beliefs change. Presbyterians (in the U.S. anyway) revised their confession in 1789 on the subject of the civil magistrate. Roman Catholics “developed” their doctrine of the church at Vatican II such that salvation now is possible outside the Roman Catholic Church. Still, despite changes and developments, what is a traditional Presbyterian to do who still objects to the “doctrines and commandments of men” implied in the liturgical calendar used by Rome, Moscow, and Canterbury (not to mention Dort)? Can confessional Presbyterians find a seat at the pro-religion, cultural conservative table if they bring up objections to other conservative faiths on the basis of their own conservative faith?

This is, by the way, an important example of why religion — at least conservative faith — is not glue that keeps cultural conservatives together that many scholars and journalists suppose. The religion of the culture warriors (in James Davison Hunter’s old categories) may bring them together, but it is more likely going to be some kind of ecumenical, broadly tolerant religion that stresses morality (the way the old liberal Protestants did), not one that tells Protestants they are in danger if they don’t fellowship with the Bishop of Rome or that tells Presbyterians they should not observe man-made holidays.

Either way, it is remarkable that even mainline Presbyterian churches like the Kirk as little as a half-century ago would not observe the liturgical calendar. Not even the Orthodox Presbyterian Church had that kind of tenacity — just look at the hymns devoted to the birth of the baby Jesus in the Trinity Hymnal.

But if you are thinking about holidays and wondering how to bring in the New Year with a good movie, the Harts recommend Hudsucker Proxy (1994), a Coen Brothers production that ranks right up there with Miller’s Crossing. Hudsucker is set at the end of 1958 — talk about harmonic convergence — the year that the Kirk started observing Christmas, and stars Tim Robbins and Paul Newman. We are planning on some sparkling shiraz to go with the popcorn and should be in bed by 10:30. Woot!

Turning the Gospel Promise into a Law Threat

Speaking of matters missional. . .

I am struck by the motivation that missions proponents sometimes use to justify their efforts. Having grown up in a faith mission environment, I have some familiarity with the ploys designed to generate gifts for missions and even cajole youth into full-time Christian service. As a kid even I thought some of the tactics were manipulative. But recent reading in the work of Alexander Duff (1806-1878), who was the first modern Presbyterian missionary, the Church of Scotland’s own ambassador to India — Presbyterianism’s William Carey as it were, has prompted me to think that much of the modern movement for overseas evangelism has employed what appear to be dubious arguments. The following comes from Duff’s Missions The Chief End of the Christian Church (1839):

It thus appears abundantly manifest from multiplied Scripture evidence, that the chief end for which the Christian Church is constituted—the leading design for which she is made the repository of heavenly blessings—the great command under which she is laid—the supreme function which she is called on to discharge—is, in the name and stead of her glorified Head and Redeemer, unceasingly, to act the part of an evangelist to all the world. The inspired prayer which she is taught to offer for spiritual gifts and graces, binds her, as the covenanted condition on which they are bestowed at all, to dispense them to all nations. The divine charter which conveys to her the warrant to teach and preach the Gospel at all, binds her to teach and preach it to all nations. The divine charter which embodies a commission to administer Gospel ordinances at all, binds her to administer these to all nations. The divine charter which communicates power and authority to exercise rule or discipline at all, binds her to exercise these, not alone or exclusively, to secure her own internal purity and peace, union and stability; but chiefly and supremely, in order that she may thereby be enabled the more speedily, effectually, and extensively, to execute her grand evangelistic commission in preaching the Gospel to all nations.

If, then, any body of believers united together as a Church, under whatever form of external discipline and polity, do, in their individual, or congregational, or corporate national capacity, wilfully and deliberately overlook, suspend, or indefinitely postpone, the accomplishment of the great end for which the Church universal, including every evangelical community, implores the vouchsafement of spiritual treasures—the great end for which she has obtained a separate and independent constitution at all,—how can they, separately or conjointly, expect to realize, or realizing, expect to render abiding, the promised presence of Him who alone hath the keys of the golden treasury, and alone upholds the pillars of the great spiritual edifice? If any Church, or any section of a Church, do thus neglect the final cause of its being, and violate the very condition and tenure of all spiritual rights and privileges, how can it expect the continuance of the favour of Him from whom alone, as their Divine fount and springhead, all such rights and privileges must ever flow? And, if deprived of His favour and presence, how can any Church expect long to exist, far less spiritually to flourish, in the enjoyment of inward peace, or the prospect of outward and more extended prosperity? (pp. 13-14)

I am not convinced, as valuable as foreign missions are, that threatening the church with a revocation of God’s favor is wise. Worse, I don’t believe it is true. But it is curious to see how old this kind of appeal is.

What is also worth highlighting is Duff’s account of Reformed Protestantism several pages later, since he has to acknowledge that the Reformation did not show an interest in non-European pagans and so did not measure up to the ideal of the true church. Because the Reformation was “itself a grand evangelistic work” by which the Spirit “put it into the hearts of an enlightened few, to arise and make an ‘aggressive movement’ on the unenlightened many, by whom they were every where surrounded,” Duff is at liberty to approve of sixteenth century Protestants. But when it comes to efforts of the Covenanters and the remnant of Presbyterians who tried to avoid compromise with the politics of episcopacy, the crown, or parliament, Duff (who was a student of Thomas Chalmers and would take sides with the Free Church during the Disruption of 1843) is not so approving:

When, after the Reformation, the Protestant Church arose, as by a species of moral resurrection, with newborn energies, from the deep dark grave of Popish ignorance and superstition,—then, was she in an attitude to have gone forth in the spirit of her own prayers, and in obedience to the Divine command, on the spiritual conquest of the nations,—and, in the train of every victory, scatter as her trophies, the means of grace, and as her plentiful heritage, the hopes of a glorious immortality. But instead of thus fulfilling the immutable law of her constitution,—instead of going forth in a progress of outward extension, and onward aggression, with a view to consummate the great work which formed at once the eternal design of her Head, and the chief end of her being :—the Church seemed mainly intent on turning the whole of her energies inward on herself. Her highest ambition and ultimate aim seemed to be, to have herself begirt as with a wall of fire that might devour her adversaries—to have her own privileges fenced in by laws and statutes of the realm—to hare her own immunities perpetuated to posterity by solemn leagues and covenants. (p. 22)

I’m not sure what the point of this is other than to suggest that since 1800 we have always had the missionally minded and manifesto affirming with us. But because of the ways in which proponents of missions can threaten by inducing guilt, those with questions about the methods, if not the content, of foreign missions (especially non-denominational kinds) have to prove their innocence before raising their concerns.

How Radical was Margaret Thatcher?

Hillsdale_Thatcher_1280Actually, according to some British academics I know, very, but that’s another story. Thanks to Scott Clark via Martin Downes via Cranmer comes the text of the Iron Lady’s speech before the 1988 General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. Here are some of the highlights:

Perhaps it would be best, Moderator, if I began by speaking personally as a Christian, as well as a politician, about the way I see things. Reading recently, I came across the starkly simple phrase:

“Christianity is about spiritual redemption, not social reform”.

Sometimes the debate on these matters has become too polarised and given the impression that the two are quite separate. But most Christians would regard it as their personal Christian duty to help their fellow men and women. They would regard the lives of children as a precious trust. These duties come not from any secular legislation passed by Parliament, but from being a Christian.

But there are a number of people who are not Christians who would also accept those responsibilities. What then are the distinctive marks of Christianity?

They stem not from the social but from the spiritual side of our lives, and personally, I would identify three beliefs in particular:

First, that from the beginning man has been endowed by God with the fundamental right to choose between good and evil. And second, that we were made in God’s own image and, therefore, we are expected to use all our own power of thought and judgement in exercising that choice; and further, that if we open our hearts to God, He has promised to work within us. And third, that Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, when faced with His terrible choice and lonely vigil chose to lay down His life that our sins may be forgiven. I remember very well a sermon on an Armistice Sunday when our Preacher said, “No one took away the life of Jesus , He chose to lay it down”.

That may not be the best theology upon which to construct a two-kingdoms position, but it sure beats most of the doctrine to come from the speech writers for Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.

She went on:

The Old Testament lays down in Exodus the Ten Commandments as given to Moses , the injunction in Leviticus to love our neighbour as ourselves and generally the importance of observing a strict code of law. The New Testament is a record of the Incarnation, the teachings of Christ and the establishment of the Kingdom of God. Again we have the emphasis on loving our neighbour as ourselves and to “Do-as-you-would-be-done-by”.

I believe that by taking together these key elements from the Old and New Testaments, we gain: a view of the universe, a proper attitude to work, and principles to shape economic and social life. . . .

None of this, of course, tells us exactly what kind of political and social institutions we should have. On this point, Christians will very often genuinely disagree, though it is a mark of Christian manners that they will do so with courtesy and mutual respect. What is certain, however, is that any set of social and economic arrangements which is not founded on the acceptance of individual responsibility will do nothing but harm.

Again, Mrs. Thatcher might have benefitted from courses at Westminster California, but her larger point about the lack of specifics in the New Testament about the social and political order is one that two-kingdom proponents second. So also her call for courtesy and respect when disagreeing – is name calling really necessary?

The Prime Ministerette’s knees went a little wobbly, as so many politicians do, when the thought of Abraham – not the father of God’s chosen people but Lincoln, the father of the U.S.’s second republic – came up:

To assert absolute moral values is not to claim perfection for ourselves. No true Christian could do that. What is more, one of the great principles of our Judaic-Christian inheritance is tolerance. People with other faiths and cultures have always been welcomed in our land, assured of equality under the law, of proper respect and of open friendship. There’s absolutely nothing incompatible between this and our desire to maintain the essence of our own identity. There is no place for racial or religious intolerance in our creed.

When Abraham Lincoln spoke in his famous Gettysburg speech of 1863 of “government of the people, by the people, and for the people”, he gave the world a neat definition of democracy which has since been widely and enthusiastically adopted. But what he enunciated as a form of government was not in itself especially Christian, for nowhere in the Bible is the word democracy mentioned. Ideally, when Christians meet, as Christians, to take counsel together their purpose is not (or should not be) to ascertain what is the mind of the majority but what is the mind of the Holy Spirit — something which may be quite different.

But she recovered well enough to finish on a strong note (even if it meant quoting a hymn rather than a psalm):

We Parliamentarians can legislate for the rule of law. You, the Church, can teach the life of faith.

But when all is said and done, the politician’s role is a humble one. I always think that the whole debate about the Church and the State has never yielded anything comparable in insight to that beautiful hymn “I Vow to Thee my Country”. It begins with a triumphant assertion of what might be described as secular patriotism, a noble thing indeed in a country like ours:

“I vow to thee my country all earthly things above; entire, whole and perfect the service of my love”.

It goes on to speak of “another country I heard of long ago” whose King can’t be seen and whose armies can’t be counted, but “soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase”. Not group by group, or party by party, or even church by church — but soul by soul — and each one counts.

If only American civil religion – both evangelical and theonomic – were as capable of such nuance.