The Presbyterian Narrative

If Ref21 had commboxes with their posts, I could simply make this point (or set of points) in response to Rick Phillips over there. But I guess ACE stands for Anti-Commbox Evangelicals.

At the risk of offending Bill McClay (as if he reads OL) who wrote a very fine piece on the “American narrative,” the invocation of the bad n-word, narrative, and attaching it to Presbyterian may allow me to make my point/s. Here is what McClay finds vexing about “narrative”:

It is one of those somewhat pretentious academic terms that has wormed its way into common speech, like “gender” or “significant other,” bringing hidden freight along with it. Everywhere you look, you find it being used, and by all kinds of people. Elite journalists, who are likely to be products of university life rather than years of shoe-leather reporting, are perhaps the most likely to employ it, as a way of indicating their intellectual sophistication. But conservative populists like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity are just as likely to use it too. Why is that so? What does this development mean?

I think the answer is clear. The ever more common use of “narrative” signifies the widespread and growing skepticism about any and all of the general accounts of events that have been, and are being, provided to us. We are living in an era of pervasive genteel disbelief—nothing so robust as relativism, but instead something more like a sustained “whatever”—and the word “narrative” provides a way of talking neutrally about such accounts while distancing ourselves from a consideration of their truth. Narratives are understood to be “constructed,” and it is assumed that their construction involves conscious or unconscious elements of selectivity—acts of suppression, inflation, and substitution, all meant to fashion the sequencing and coloration of events into an instrument that conveys what the narrator wants us to see and believe.

I invoke “narrative” less to be trendy than to introduce to Presbyterians (real Calvinists?) the idea that we all have narratives and that we may want to be more self-conscious about them even without using the word. (Self-aggrandizement alert — I am a historian and I am actually licensed to think about “narrative.”)

Rick Phillips has a Presbyterian narrative that generally derives from New Side Presbyterianism, the ones who supported the First Pretty Good Awakening. That gives him the leverage, apparently, to further identify with New Calvinism over the Old (at least as long as the Old are critical of the new — mind you, criticism isn’t bad because New Siders and New Calvinists criticize Lutherans; where the Old Calvinists go off the rails, apparently, is in siding with Lutherans over New Calvininsts). Phillip’s affection for the New likely cools when it comes to the New School Presbyterians since they weren’t very good Calvinists. The Old School Presbyterians were good Calvinists, but they were also generally New Siders at heart — they liked aspects of the Pretty Good Awakening of the 18th century. When it comes to New Life versus Old Life, I’m betting Phillips will side with the former since Tim Keller represents the former and OL (duh) represents the latter. Plus, ins’t Keller a New Calvinist?

The problem with this narrative is that it does not address the rupture that the First Pretty Good Awakening introduced into Reformed Protestantism. The stress on experimental piety and revivals undermined the formal ministry and routine piety that had characterized many pockets of the Reformed world prior to the first celebrity pastor – George Whitefield.

What is also important to notice is that Reformed Protestants prior to Whitefield had no trouble identifying with Lutherans. Just look at the Harmony of the Confessions (1581). According to Wikipedia (another no no, but it sure is handy):

It grew out of a desire for one common Creed, which was modified into the idea of a selected harmony. In this shape it was proposed by the Protestants of Zurich and Geneva. Jean-François Salvart, minister of the Church of Castres, is now recognized as the chief editor of the work with some assistance from Theodore Beza, Lambert Daneau, Antoine de la Roche Chandieu, and Simon Goulart. It was intended as a defense of Protestant, and particularly Reformed, doctrine against the attacks of Roman Catholics and Lutherans. It does not give the confessions in full, but extracts from them on the chief articles of faith, which are classified under nineteen sections. It anticipates Georg Benedikt Winer’s method, but for harmonistic purposes.

But look at what these Old Calvinists decided to include in the Harmony:

Besides the principal Reformed Confessions (i.e., the Tetrapolitan, Basel and Helvetic, and Belgic Confessions), three Lutheran Confessions are also used, viz., the Augsburg Confession, the Saxon Confession (Confessio Saxonica), and the Württemberg Confession, as well as the Bohemian Confession (1573) and Anglican Confession (1562). The work appeared almost simultaneously with the Lutheran Formula of Concord, and may be called a Reformed Formula of Concord, though differing from the former in being a mere compilation from previous symbols.

So the question is, where did the love go? Why not more love for New Calvinists instead of Lutherans? And more importantly, what does this reveal about the Presbyterian narrative? Doesn’t it show that we have lost touch with a part of our tradition that used to regard Lutherans as more in sympathy with Reformed Protestantism than charismatics? It’s a free country and Phillips can tell whatever narrative he wants. But shouldn’t he admit he’s not telling the whole story? And one of the main factors that have prevented American Presbyterians from telling the whole story is their love affair with the First Pretty Good Awakening — an event that had all sorts of detractors on good confessional and ecclesiological grounds, sometimes who go by the name Old Side (not Old Light a Congregationalist term). (Self-serving alert: see Seeking A Better Country.)

What should also be noticed is that the Old Calvinists who put together the Harmony did not affirm union with Christ to the degree that Phillips does, as if it is the central dogma that holds Reformed Protestantism together. In fact, union is never mentioned in either the Belgic Confession or the Three Forms of Unity. If it does appear it is always in the word communion. So is Phillips prepared to dismiss the Three Forms of Unity (no pun here) in his insistence on union with Christ?

Finally, I have to take issue with Phillips’ misrepresentation of 2k, which in my mind borders on the rhetoric of the BBs:

Moreover, if being a Lutheran-leaning Old Calvinist means that I must embrace a radical two kingdoms position that will keep me from speaking publicly against manifest evils like abortion and homosexual marriage, then once again I am willing to have my Old Calvinist credentials held in derision.

I would prefer that Phillips extend the same generosity to 2k that he does to New Calvinism. But if he doesn’t want to, he should know that 2kers all affirm the confessions and catechisms of the Reformed churches which teach that murder and homosexual marriage are sinful. But even Lutherans know that carrying a baby to birth or marrying a person of the opposite sex is not going to merit God’s favor. And that is the point of 2k — for the guhzillionth time — that the good works performed in obedience to the law (state or ecclesiastical) won’t save. Can we get some credit here?

Postscript: Here’s is how a charismatic outsider sees it:

It is the revivalist style of at least some members of the New Calvinism punctuated by constant references to Jonathan Edwards and the rise of charismatic Calvinism that has many Old School Presbyterians concerned. Piper side-stepped the main issue between the two camps: from an Old-School perspective the New Calvinism smacks of the evangelical revivalism of a D. L. Moody, or, more to the point, the baseball-player-turned-evangelist Billy Sunday (insert Mark Driscoll reference here). Sunday once called the novelist Sinclair Lewis “Satan’s cohort” in response to Lewis’s 1927 satirical novel Elmer Gantry, whose main character—a hypocritical evangelist—was modeled on Sunday’s flamboyant style.

That older coalition of Congregationalists, Baptists, and New School Presbyterians combined dispensationalism, celebrity revivalism, and fundamentalism—the very traits that Old School Presbyterians disliked then and now. It is not without some irony that Piper acknowledged the important role of Westminster Seminary while not even mentioning that it was the epicenter of Old School Presbyterianism with its anti-revivalist and cessationist stance (at the end of his lecture Piper got a laugh when he said, “you don’t even want to know my eschatology.” Indeed!). . . . All of this is to say that the New Calvinism looks a lot like the old New School Presbyterianism with a Baptist and charismatic flair to it.

Does this make me an outsider? Or can outsiders pick up better what’s going on than insiders?

Postpostscript: Look mom, no inflammation:

In speaking of Old Calvinism, I admit that I am using the expression loosely for the community of Calvinists generally connected with Old School Presbyterianism and their conservative Reformed Baptist counterparts. One thinks of Martyn Lloyd-Jones and the Banner of Truth, and James Montgomery Boice and the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals (the host organization of this blog). They are united by a commitment to Five-Point Calvinism, ordinary means of grace ministry, the regulative principle of worship, and a traditional elder-rule approach to church polity.

Why Do the Critics of 2K and Heterodox Political Theorists Sound So Similar?

I wonder if Rabbi Brett, the BBs, and other transformers of culture (neo-Calvinist or not) would be troubled by Ronald Beiner’s observations in “Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Rousseau on Civil Religion” (Review of Politics, Autumn 1993).

According to Machiavelli, Christianity:

devalued honor and glorified passive martyrdom, has taught me to be humble, self-abnegating and contemptuous of worldly things, has made the world effeminate and rendered heaven impotent. In sum, Christianity has celebrated slavishness, and encouraged human being to despise liberty, or the harsh politics required for the defense of liberty. (622)

Meanwhile

Hobbes came to the same insight grapsed by Rousseau and Machiavelli, namely, that genuinely Christian aspirations are so radically otherworldly that they subvert the authority of temporal power, and so Hobbes too must search for a way in which to de-Christianize Christianity. However, Hobbes’s solution is not to go back to Roman paganism, but to go back further, to the Judaic tradition. (625)

Hmmm.

Why Fox News Isn't the Best Judge of Religion in Public Life

First the story:

In mid-December, six-year-old Isaiah Martinez brought a box of candy canes to his public elementary school. Affixed to each cane was a legend explaining the manner in which the candy symbolizes the life and death of Jesus. Isaiah’s first-grade teacher took possession of the candy and asked her supervising principal whether it would be permissible for Isaiah to distribute to his classmates. The teacher was informed that, while the candy itself might be distributed, the attached religious message could not. She is then reported to have told Isaiah that “Jesus is not allowed at school,” to have torn the legends from the candy, and to have thrown them in the trash.

Such is the account of Robert Tyler of Advocates for Faith & Freedom, who is serving as media spokesman for the Martinez family. Organizations such as Fox News and Glenn Beck’s The Blaze latched onto the story with purple prose and pointed commentary to rally the base. The Daily Caller described the teacher as having “snatched” the candy from Isaiah’s hands, “and then—right in front of his little six-year-old eyes—ripped the religious messages from each candy cane.” Fox News said “it takes a special kind of evil to confiscate a six-year-old child’s Christmas gifts.”

Turns out the teacher in question is a Christian and her former pastor explains what may have happened:

Such behavior would be entirely unbecoming of Christians even if the teacher in question were all the things she has been called. In fact, she is herself a pious and confessional Christian, though it would be impossible to discern as much from the coverage of much Christian media.

I know this because I was present at her baptism; I participated in the catechesis leading to her reception into the theologically (and, overwhelmingly, politically) conservative Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod; I preached at her wedding; my wife and I are godparents to her children, as she and her husband (who is himself on the faculty of a Christian university) are to our youngest. Needless to say, I have complete confidence that her far less dramatic version of events is much the more accurate account.

Some will say that precisely as a Christian she should have had the courage of her convictions and allowed the distribution of a Christian message in her classroom. And yet, precisely because she is a catechized Christian, perhaps she understands that in her vocation she serves under the authority of others.

Perhaps it was wise in the litigious context of America’s public schools to confer with and defer to the supervising principal. Indeed, a lawsuit arising from virtually identical circumstances is still, ten years on, bogged down in the courts. If the answers to the pertinent legal questions are not immediately obvious to the dozens of lawyers and judges involved in this previous case, one can hardly expect them to be self-evident even to an intelligent primary school teacher. Thus, those critics who have dismissively counseled her simply to “read the Constitution” betray (in addition to a lack of charity) either an unhelpful naivety or a willful ignorance.

Of course, if you want to score points in some sort of publicity competition, demonizing this woman is not a bad strategy, though why Reformed Protestants also resort to such behavior (yes, I’m thinking the BeeBees and Rabbi Bret) is another question. But if you want to think through the layers of significance in such occurrences, maybe it’s better to check if as in this case the teacher belongs to a church and what her pastor thinks.

Not a 2K Candidate

John Miller’s recent piece in the National Review on Ben Sasse’s efforts to gain the Republican nomination for the Senate in Nebraska is well worth reading. Here is a part that stood out from an OL perspective because it is silent about Sasse’s religion (which happens to be 2k Reformed Protestant):

After growing up in Fremont, where he was the high-school valedictorian, Sasse left for Harvard: “Not because of superior academics, but because of inferior athletics,” he jokes. He wrestled for two years and specialized in head-butting his opponents. Sasse has a long scar at the top of his forehead, along his hairline, from falling off a hayloft as a boy. “I have no feeling there,” he says. “It gave me a small advantage.” He left the wrestling team to spend his junior year abroad, and then earned a degree in government. Next came an itinerant career in business consulting, combining full-time employment with full-time study. He roamed the country, working with clients such as Ameritech and Northwest Airlines, while he also pursued a master’s degree from St. John’s College in Annapolis, Md., and then a Ph.D. in history from Yale. His dissertation, on populist conservatism from the 1950s to the 1970s, won a pair of prestigious campus prizes. “He’s insanely disciplined and incredibly hard-working,” says Will Inboden, a University of Texas professor who lived across the street from Sasse when they were graduate students at Yale. “It’s amazing how much he did.” The virtue of work is a constant theme in Sasse’s speeches and conversation. “Work is where meaning is,” he says. “I don’t know how capitalism and America function if people work to get beyond working, just so they can get to leisure.” One of his favorite recent books is Coming Apart, by Charles Murray, especially for its section on the importance of industriousness.

As a boy, Sasse embodied industriousness: He spent his summers “walking beans and detasseling corn” — i.e., weeding soybean fields and controlling corn pollination. He describes cool and wet mornings, hot and humid afternoons, muddy furrows, sore ankles, spider bites, sunburns, and “corn rash,” which forms on hands, arms, and faces when corn stalks deliver nicks and bruises hour after hour, day after day. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and the most formative experience of my life,” he says. “When you survive a season of this, you’re a different person at the end.” He worries that young people don’t learn the same lessons today. “We have a crisis in the work ethic,” he says. “Politics can’t fix our culture, but politics can lie to us long enough to keep us from focusing on the cultural issues in our own lives.”

Sasse’s candidacy presents 2kers with a potential problem — namely, endorsing candidates who agree with our political theology. And that’s a problem because it would mean we are like the BeeBees. The affairs of the civil and temporal realm are one thing, the politics of God’s kingdom another. Just because a candidate may agree with that theological proposition does not mean he is best suited to serve as a congressman.

For that reason, support for Sasse should come from concerns about our common life, not from a desire to have our theological position vindicated. And given Sasse’s understanding of health care and the crisis that it represents, he has real merits. But this is above my pay grade. It belongs to Nebraska.

When Luther Sounded Constantinian

From Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation Respecting the Reformation of the Christian Estate

We see, then, that just as those that we call spiritual, or priests, bishops, or popes, do not differ from other Christians in any other or higher degree but in that they are to be concerned with the word of God and the sacraments—that being their work and office—in the same way the temporal authorities hold the sword and the rod in their hands to punish the wicked and to protect the good. A cobbler, a smith, a peasant, every man, has the office and function of his calling, and yet all alike are consecrated priests and bishops, and every man should by his office or function be useful and beneficial to the rest, so that various kinds of work may all be united for the furtherance of body and soul, just as the members of the body all serve one another.

Now see what a Christian doctrine is this: that the temporal authority is not above the clergy, and may not punish it. This is as if one were to say the hand may not help, though the eye is in grievous suffering. Is it not unnatural, not to say unchristian, that one member may not help another, or guard it against harm? Nay, the nobler the member, the more the rest are bound to help it. Therefore I say, Forasmuch as the temporal power has been ordained by God for the punishment of the bad and the protection of the good, therefore we must let it do its duty throughout the whole Christian body, without respect of persons, whether it strikes popes, bishops, priests, monks, nuns, or whoever it may be. If it were sufficient reason for fettering the temporal power that it is inferior among the offices of Christianity to the offices of priest or confessor, or to the spiritual estate—if this were so, then we ought to restrain tailors, cobblers, masons, carpenters, cooks, cellarmen, peasants, and all secular workmen, from providing the Pope or bishops, priests and monks, with shoes, clothes, houses or victuals, or from paying them tithes. But if these laymen are allowed to do their work without restraint, what do the Romanist scribes mean by their laws? They mean that they withdraw themselves from the operation of temporal Christian power, simply in order that they may be free to do evil, and thus fulfil what St. Peter said: “There shall be false teachers among you,… and in covetousness shall they with feigned words make merchandise of you” (2 Peter ii. 1, etc.).

Just trying to complicate the minds of those (the BeeBees, the Reformed Rabbi, Doug Wilson, and William Evans) who think that 2k and Lutheranism are responsible for secularism, materialism, and Obamacare.

Do the BeeBees Read American Conservative?

From Daniel McCarthy, “Why the Tea Party Can’t Govern,” American Conservative, Nov/Dec 2013

There was an absolutely natural backlash in the late 1970s against the hasty push from the left for further sexual revolutions. Contraception, abortion, and homosexuality had all gone from being little spoken of and sometimes restricted by law to becoming “rights.” Many Americans, particularly Christians, felt disenfranchised. So they voted. But they did so in reaction: what they were against was always more clear than how they could create an alternative— a modern alternative, not simply a return to an idealized past. Because the emphasis was on negation rather than a creative agenda, the question of what compromises power must make with imperfect reality could be avoided. In “principle,” divorced from practice, one can outlaw every abortion without exception and send homosexuals back to the closet.

Christian conservatives are as well-adjusted as anyone else on these questions in their own lives. But the Christian conservative who accepts sinfulness in reality cannot accept it in theory, and one who tries is liable to be trumped within the community by someone who asserts a harder line. Religious right activists thus radicalize one another and continually refine their ideology—then demand professions of principle from candidates. . . .

From the Moral Majority to the Tea Party, a right forged in opposition offers only images of a mythic past in place of present economic and cultural realities. Instead of a modern conservatism competing against what is in fact a creaky liberalism—whose corporate cronyism and cultural atomism have engendered wide dissatisfaction—we have only the conservatism of what was versus the liberalism of what is. This accounts for why the Republican Party, even as it has grown more right-leaning and “extreme,” has failed for 25 years to nominate a conservative for president. No one can take the no-compromise ideology of libertarianism or Christian conservatism and make it electorally viable, let alone a philosophy of government. Rather than find leaders who can build plausible resumes in elected office before running for president, the activists of the right lend their support to symbolic candidacies that represent negative ideals—the ideals not of government but of protest. Because ideological conservatives cannot accept the compromising complexities of a positive philosophy, the Republican old guard wins every time. The result is doubly perverse: instead of a serious conservative who speaks softly, Republicans wind up with unprincipled figures who become shrill in attempting to appeal to the right.

I guess the problem may be in wanting to be not conservative but Christian. Then when will the critics of 2k ever orm a Christian Political Party that eschews any pretense with compromise?

Has This Guy Been Reading the BeeBees?

A little dated but still fresh:

Indeed, many describe the Republican political faith as “American Calvinism.” It borrows several notions from the sixteenth century French theologian: the Bible is infallible; the “law” is driven by the Ten Commandments, rather than the teachings of Jesus; humans are totally depraved; and God has predestined who will be saved.

Despite its austere nature, Calvinism strongly influenced the original American settlers — many of who were Presbyterians. One historian noted, “in England and America the great struggles for civil and religious liberty were nursed in Calvinism, inspired by Calvinism, and carried out largely by men who were Calvinists.”

During the ’80s American Calvinism morphed into a conservative political ideology with the formation of the Christian Right. James Dobson, Jerry Falwell, Ralph Reed, Pat Robertson, and others preached on political subjects and touted conservative “Christian” candidates.

In Republican hands, contemporary Calvinism has had two thrusts. It fomented the culture wars and accused Democrats, and non-believers, of advocating “sixties values” that would destroy home and community. The Christian Right was against abortion, same-sex marriage, the teaching of evolution, and the separation of church and state; they were for homeschooling, limited Federal government, and Reaganomics.

The second Calvinist thrust promoted capitalism. In his classic, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, German sociologist Max Weber observed that not only did the protestant work ethic promote capitalism but also worldly success became a measure of the likelihood of one’s salvation. “He who has the most toys, wins.”

Given the strong influence of Calvinism on Republican politics, it’s not surprising the GOP favors the rich, opposes new taxes, and continues to support Reaganomics with its myths of “trickle down economics” and “self-regulating markets.”

Safe to say, he hasn’t been reading Oldlife. But it goes to show why Calvinism continues to be iconic.