The Shelf Life of 2k — Part Two

This is part two of the interview David Strain conducted with mmmmeeeeeEEEEE:

Here’s the second installment. There’s more to come. Enjoy…..

1. Is there a connection between 19th century revival/revivalism and the kind of socio-political agendas often advocated by both the Christian Right and Left today?

Definitely. Many evangelicals and Reformed do not understand that the kind of evangelical activism they now promote or perform was first part of the Second Great Awakening – the bad one. Not only was Finney interested in converting people, but he also wanted a righteous and just society. Evangelicals responded by forming a ton of voluntary societies that did in many respects transform American society (if you were not a member of the Whig or Republican parties, you may not have appreciated all of these reforms.)

So the Second no-so-great Awakening drove a wedge between Protestants, those with a high view of the church (Episcopalians, Lutherans, and some Old School Presbyterians) and those with a low view of the church and a high view of America. The ethno-cultural school of political historians has produced a body of literature on these ecclesial differences, and this work has actually informed my own writing on confessional Protestantism. The term “confessional” itself comes from political history and it stands for high church Protestants who are less concerned about social and political matters compared to the eternal realities of the gospel.

One other historical reference worthy of comment here is that the Second not-so-great Awakening was really the soil from which the Social Gospel sprung. I sometimes wonder why today’s “conservative” evangelicals are so willing to repeat the efforts and arguments that “liberal” Protestants were making a hundred years ago. Also, if you look at the books written by leaders of the religious right, people like Falwell and Ralph Reed, you see the Second not-so-great Awakening cited as a model or inspiration for contemporary political activism.

As the kids used to say, “What’s up with that?”

2. Should the church tell people how to vote for specific candidates, based on issues like abortion or gay marriage?

Definitely not. The church may and should speak to all the laws of the Decalogue, including the sixth and the seventh. Why the first four don’t receive more attention is anyone’s guess – could it be that social activism makes matters like worship and the Sabbath less important? But beyond explaining what God’s word requires, the church needs to let members apply them in their lives according to the callings and consciences. I mean, would anyone want the church to tell members never to eat meat offered to idols? It looks to me that if Christian liberty applies to the affects of idolatry, it also applies to electoral politics and the legislators voted into office.

3. Does the church have a prophetic voice, challenging sin wherever it finds it, even in politics and culture?

It depends what you mean. Expounding and teaching God’s word does involve challenging sin, obviously. But what people often mean is they want the church to apply the truths of the word to specific circumstances. I actually think this stems from a desire for the church to be relevant, to be doing something important. If the church is the place where the kingdom of grace is advancing, I don’t see why cleaning up pockets of cultural crime in the United States is more relevant than that. So people need to see how amazing the work of the church is, and how trivial, ephemeral, and fading the affairs of politics and culture are in comparison. But even so, the church has a prophetic voice simply by proclaiming the whole counsel of God. I wonder if people who say the church needs to be a prophetic voice actually appreciate that a minister standing in the pulpit each Sunday is representing the prophetic office of Christ.

4. Is there a place for para-church agencies and what are the boundaries of legitimate para-church work?

There has to be a place for the parachurch because the church can’t run everything. So everything that is not the church is parachurch.

The real question is parachurch agencies that engage in religious work. I don’t think a hard rule exists here except in those areas of evangelism and missions, work that the church is to oversee directly. But when it comes to educational endeavors, publishing, flexibility is in order

5. How do you respond to those who believe that the work of the church is to ‘transform society’ or to ‘bring in the Kingdom’?

First, I say that the coming of the kingdom is not evident in transforming society. As I’ve said, the church through word, sacrament, and discipline, is advancing the kingdom of grace, which is hastening the kingdom of glory (I’m using the language of the Shorter Catechism here). And because the church is not called to transform society – she already has enough on her plate – then she is not called to transform society. Individual Christians in their vocations are called to a host of tasks that do, I guess, contribute to social transformation. (I don’t like that language because it has a progressive political valence that I oppose for political and cultural reasons – both libertarian and localist and at times agrarian.) But the church doesn’t transform society nor should she as an institution (in distinction from her members’ callings).

This doesn’t mean that some of the aspects of social transformation, such as government, policy, and legislation are unimportant or “worldly.” They are worldly but in the good sense of the created order and the way that God superintends this world. Society is a good thing and Christians as citizens or in other capacities should be dutiful in their obligations to neighbors and magistrates. But social transformation is not where the kingdom of Christ happens.

6. If cultural transformation isn’t the church’s work, what is?

The work of the church is word, sacrament, prayer, discipline, catechesis, diaconal care and fellowship. It is not sexy and it does not generally attract headlines. But these are God’s ordained means for building his kingdom.

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The Shelf Life of 2k — Part One

In 2009, David Strain, then a PCA pastor in Columbus, Mississippi, did a four-part interview with me about 2k and the spirituality of the church. These links are dead but they do prove that I’m not making this up. And through the wonders of the interweb, you can retrieve old web pages (and you wonder what the NSA can do).

Here is the first of the interviews. Pastor Strain tries to situate 2k in the vicissitudes of Presbyterianism in the U.S.

2 Kingdoms ideas and the complex of doctrinal issues that accompany them have been creating a bit of a stir of late. Among those with whom I am in contact much of the debate is generated by misunderstanding. So what else is new, I hear you cry.

Well, to help us (or help me at least) work through some of the areas of potential misunderstanding Dr. Darryl Hart has graciously agreed to answer a few questions.

Just to ease us in, today we begin with a few general comments on common features of the contemporary evangelical landscape….

1. Darryl, would you comment on the distinction that is often made in conservative reformed circles between revival and revivalism? Is it a helpful distinction?

I am inclined to think it is a distinction without a difference. It has been a way to try to distinguish the good First (Really) Great Awakening from the Second (bad) Great Awakening. I will take Edwards over Finney any day. So the theology of the First GA may have been better. But typically the assessment of Edwards and Whitefield does not go a lot farther than the 5 points of Calvinism. But what about preaching the “terrors of the law” to apparent believers? What kind of theology leads to that? And what about the frankly bizarre conversion experiences of even Presbyterian revivalists like the Tennents? And what about Whitefield’s pulpit antics (well documented in Stout’s biography)? When you look more closely at the First GA you are getting a lot more than that for which you bargained. And then there is the problem of conversion and the way that a dramatic experience became the norm for detecting regeneration and effectual calling. So in the end, I’m not inclined to think revivalism was all that hot.

2. What is an Old Side Presbyterian, and do you qualify?

An Old Side Presbyterian was a guy who opposed revivalism because revivalists were not as concerned about subscription as Old Siders were, and was opposed to the way that some New Siders completely disregarded church polity and the authority of synod and presbyteries. So if to be an Old Sider is to favor subscription to the Standards, believe in the real authority of the church, and to be suspicious of subjective religious experience, I am one.

3. Do Old Siders believe in evangelism?

Old Siders do believe in evangelism. They believe that preaching is an ordinance that convicts and converts sinners. Old Siders believe in preaching. This isn’t quite a syllogism, but you get the point. Now, because of the influence of revivalism – just as conversion has taken on a different meaning from the Reformation, so has evangelism. For many revival-friendly Protestants, evangelism is what every Christian does. My “witnessing” is apparently no different or worse than God’s appointed means (let’s not forget Romans 10) for drawing his people to himself. But if there is still room in the universe for churchly evangelism, then I believe in evangelism.

4. Do individual believers have a responsibility to engage in evangelism?

Not to be coy, but some do and some don’t. All believers should be able to give a defense of their faith, but I do not assume that this is the same as witnessing or giving one’s testimony. Having had to go door-to-door as a kid for evangelistic purposes I may be overreacting. But I also think that the way that evangelism is often advocated leads to Christians who are constantly on the make, looking for a way to close the deal. In other words, they don’t seem to take other people as people; non-believers are persons to be converted and then the evangelist moves on to the next non-Christian.

You see this very well illustrated in the movie, The Big Kahuna (which has lots of bad language so believers whose consciences cannot bear such words should beware). It is an amazingly sympathetic view of a born-again Christian who feels compelled to witness on the job. Not only does the movie show that sometimes this approach makes Christians look like one-dimensional people, but it also says important things about vocation. If we serve God in our work, then we don’t need to make it really religious by using it to evangelize.

So some people may be called to evangelize, others are not (some do not even have the gifts for personal evangelism). The guys who are definitely called to evangelize are preachers.

Huh?!?

Over at Ref21, Ligon Duncan supplies a drive-by quote from Herman Bavinck that the Mississippi pastor directs against John Williamson Nevin. Here is the the Bavinck quote:

In a comparatively sound church life, it is possible to assume that as a rule the children of the covenant will be born again in their youth and come to faith and conversion ‘in stages and gracefully.’ But when the world penetrates the church and many people grow up and live for years without showing any fruits worthy of faith and repentance, then the serious-minded feel called to warn against trusting one’s childhood regeneration and one’s historical faith in Christian doctrine and to insist on true conversion of the hearts, and experiential knowledge of the truths of salvation. Against a dead orthodoxy, Pietism and Methodism, with their conventicles and revivals, always have a right to exist. (Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 3:583)

Then comes this pithy postscript:

And, yes, I know I’m being provocative with the title. But Nevin is not the answer to what ails us.

The post has no links, and as is Ref21’s wont, no place for comments (no peace, no justice!).

So I wonder what made Duncan think of Nevin in connection with Bavinck. Was the Dutch theologian writing against his American counterpart directly? The quotation doesn’t suggest so. Or did David Strain, from whom Duncan obtained the Bavinck quotation, have a recent reading session with the Mercersburg Theology? (I actually follow David’s blog and have not seen activity there in some time. Of course, the Internet is not the only way for David and Ligon to communicate since they both minister in the PCA in Mississippi.)

But even more mysterious is what Ligon means by Nevin not being the answer. The only folks in conservative Presbyterian circles who advocate Nevin regularly are the Federal Visionaries. I know I myself may be charged with such an accusation, but the record is pretty clear that my prescriptions for our communions run more toward Machen than Nevin (as much as I respect the latter’s critique of revivalism).

Still, the funny thing is that the Federal Visionaries’ efforts to blur the lines between faith and faithfulness are very similar to those of the Methodists and Pietists whom Bavinck commends against a dead orthodoxy. After all, the point of turning faith into faithfulness is to get people to take seriously not just the sacraments but all those endeavors to create Christendom and establish the rule of Christ and God’s law. Federal Vision may be wrong orthodoxy but it is hardly dead. In which case, their recommendation of Nevin is a way to obtain exactly what Bavinck wants — “fruits worthy of faith and repentance,” that is, lots of godliness of a experimental Calvinist kind but rooted in the church (where pastors wear clerical collars of odd pastel hues). Federal Vision is no faith for slouches.

At the same time, Bavinck may want to consider Nevin’s critique of revivalism because sometimes children of the covenant are already showing fruits that don’t measure up to the enthusiasts’ standards or their constant laments about dead orthodoxy. As I read Nevin, the point of Christian devotion is not to stick out like a sore thumb but to wear one’s faith organically, or quietly, peacefully (or in Presbyterian parlance, decently and in order). The reason is that calling attention to one’s devotion can readily destroy devotion with selfishness and pride. Even more pressing for Bavinck and recommenders like Duncan is to consider the oxymoronic assertion that a child of the covenant, not in open rebellion, but attending the means of grace and trying to trust the Lord in family devotions and private prayer, and still submitting to godly parents, needs to convert. Convert from what? Pious ways?

As I say, Huh?!?