What If Historical Inquiry Isn't Comforting

Kevin DeYoung has a pretty positive spin on John Witherspoon’s commitment to Protestant unity without lapsing into doctrinal indifferentism:

Although he remained staunchly committed to and invested in Presbyterianism his whole life, Witherspoon was not a man of narrow party spirit. In his Treatise on Regeneration (1764), Witherspoon noted, “I am fully convinced, that many of very different parties and denominations are building upon the one ‘foundation laid in Zion’ for a sinner’s hope, and that their distance and alienation from one another in affection, is very much to be regretted.”[9] In his farewell sermon in Paisley, Witherspoon warned against “going too much into controversy” and developing “a litigious and wrangling disposition” that would lead Christians—and here he is quick to add the qualification “I mean real Christians”—into “innumerable little parties and factions.”[10] He longed for the day when the “unhappy divisions” among “protestants in general” would be “abolished” and those truly centered on Christ crucified would “be no longer ranked in parties and marshaled under names” but only strive with each other to see “who shall love our Redeemer most, and who shall serve him with the greatest zeal.”[11]

This ecumenical streak in Witherspoon was not borne out of doctrinal indifferentism. His desire for unity, for example, did not encompass Socinians, Pelagians, Catholics or any other group holding religious views he deemed antithetical to true biblical Christianity.[12] Witherspoon had no patience for the latitudinarian kind of unity he found among his colleagues in the Moderate Party.[13] In conjunction with the publication of his St. Giles’ sermon before the SSPCK (1758), Witherspoon penned a robust defense for pointing out error entitled “An Inquiry into the Scripture Meaning of Charity.”[14] With characteristic verve, Witherspoon attacked the increasingly popular notion among enlightened clergy that “charity was a far more important and valuable bond among Christians than exact agreement on particular points of doctrine.”[15] For Witherspoon, Christian unity was not rooted in downplaying doctrinal distinctives (least of all among those who could not be counted true believers), but in stressing the theological similarities that existed among born again Christians from a variety of denominations. “No man, indeed,” Witherspoon wrote, “deny it to be just, that every one should endeavor to support that plan of the discipline and government of the church of Christ, and even the minutest parts of it, which appear to him to be founded upon the word of God. But still sound doctrine is more to be esteemed than any form.”[16]

This is a plausible reading of some of the material, though Witherspoon remains a mystery to many who have studied him — Mark Noll is still puzzled why Witherspoon threw out Edwards’ idealist philosophy when he started as president of the College of New Jersey. Explaining Witherspoon can be almost as difficult as reading Pope Francis’ tea leaves.

But what Kevin needs to keep in mind is what Witherspoon’s politics and civil religion might have done to facilitate doctrinal indifferentism. In his widely circulated sermon on behalf of independence, the Scotsman said this:

. . . he is the best friend to American liberty, who is most sincere and active in promoting true and undefiled religion, and who sets himself with the greatest firmness to bear down profanity and immorality of every kind. Whoever is an avowed enemy to God, I scruple not to call him an enemy to his country. Do not suppose, my brethren, that I mean to recommend a furious and angry zeal for the circumstantials of religion, or the contentions of one sect with another about their peculiar distinctions. I do not wish you to oppose any body’s religion, but every body’s wickedness. Perhaps there are few surer marks of the reality of religion, than when a man feels himself more joined in spirit to a true holy person of a different denomination, than to an irregular liver of his own. It is therefore your duty in this important and critical season to exert yourselves, every one in his proper sphere, to stem the tide of prevailing vice, to promote the knowledge of God, the reverence of his name and worship, and obedience to his laws.

One way of reading that is that Witherspoon felt more in common with a Methodist who lived an upright life than a Presbyterian who insisted on perseverance of the saints. The kicker here is that Witherspoon aligns such a pursuit of holiness with the American cause, thereby enlisting a form of moralistic Protestantism on the side of patriotism and nationalism.

Witherspoon is not necessarily to blame for crafting a recipe that liberated a devotion that supported American independence from the “circumstantials” of Presbyterianism. He had help — lots of it. But since we live at a time where unsexy America promotes both Christian morality and American exceptionalism to the detriment of sound moral theology and ecclesiology, I do tend to conclude that in Witherspoon we have the seeds of Protestant liberalism and its Christian Right progeny.

Everywhere you turn in history, you step on Sideshow Bob’s rakes.

An Evangelical Warrior Child

Here is what may be the turning point in John Frame’s development:

PEF (Princeton Evangelical Fellowship) was dispensational in its viewpoint, as Barnhouse was, but Gerstner thought dispensationalism was an awful heresy. I never accepted the dispensational system, but neither could I accept Gerstner’s harshly negative verdict about it. My friends at PEF were godly people who loved Jesus and the Word. We prayed together every day and visited dorm rooms to bring the gospel to fellow students. Princeton was a spiritual battleground, and the PEF folks were my fellow soldiers. Struggling together for Jesus against opposition tends to magnify the unity of believers and to decrease the importance of disagreement. Surely Jesus intended for his people to wage this battle together, not separated into different denominations and theological factions. My experience with PEF (and earlier with Graham) prevented me from ever being anti-evangelical, as are many of my Reformed friends. At Princeton, I became an ecumenist.

I majored in philosophy and also took courses in religion, literature, and history. The religion courses, together with the denominational campus ministries, gave me my first introduction to theological liberalism. Although I had toyed with similar ideas during my high school years, I sharply rebelled against liberalism in college. Princeton liberalism was casual religion: no authoritative Bible, no passion for souls, no desire for holiness, no vitality. Indeed, the Christ of Scripture simply wasn’t there. Later, I read J. Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism, which argued that liberalism was an entirely different religion from Christianity, and I found it entirely persuasive. Although liberalism has changed its face in the years since, I still see it as the opposite of the biblical gospel.

The problem for Frame and others in the conservative Presbyterian world that Machen hatched was that some, like Frame, stopped reading Machen after 1923. Between then and the founding of the OPC in 1936, Machen’s opposition to liberalism also included battles with evangelicals who tolerated liberalism and a recognition of the need for church discipline with Presbyterianism being the best (and most biblical means) for maintaining and regulating the gospel ministry. Whether he got those tussles right is one thing. But somehow thinking that Presbyterian controversy was merely about liberalism is to do history without being licensed to do historical science.

What John Frame might have understood had he kept reading Machen is that — to take liberties with Bob Dylan — you’re gonna fight somebody. He’s battled with Machen’s Warrior Children who in turn have battle with Frame’s Evangelical Warrior Children and both of those groups have sometimes contended with Liberalism’s Warrior Children.

So many fronts, so little ammunition.

Everything Is So White

Kathy Khang reflects on the difficulty that Korean-Americans confront when attending a white church:

So it came as a bit of a shock to recognize that the churches we were visiting during our search had a different feel, a different sense of community and welcoming that we recognized as being part “Christian” and part “white” but did not fully resonate with us. The-“Where are you from? I’m from in town. Awkward pause.”-interactions. The times we would slowly walk out of a sanctuary waiting for someone, anyone to welcome us instead of just looking at us. The time-orientation of the service–in which emphasizing punctuality and ending “on time” seems more important than relational exchanges that might change the timing of the service– along with the tempo and phrasing of the worship songs. I think I had wanted to believe that a church could be racially white but not culturally white and unintentionally exclusive. I think I had wanted to believe what many of my white Christian sisters and brothers want to believe: there is no white church culture. It’s just church.

But rather than trying to be cultureless, which Khang believes is impossible, she wants white churches to acknowledge their whiteness:

Churches tend to take on the cultural influences and traditions of its members and community, but how many predominantly white churches own a white identity and name its culture as being white? The Korean immigrant church of my youth owned it in name (written in both Korean and English), language, and food but it often failed at reconciling the generational gap that grew between the Americanized youth and the Korean elders. More often than not, predominantly white churches won’t claim being culturally white but rather try to emphasize a Christian identity.

A couple of thoughts.

It is an intellectually challenging but perhaps worthwhile proposition to try to tell what parts of a worship service reflect a congregation’s cultural heritage. Language is one factor. Rule Britannia. Music is another. Most of our churches use the western musical scale and the harmonics that go with it. They may even rely upon European rhythms. Another part is sitting. Witold Rybczynski observed that human cultures are divided into the sitters and squatters. That means Americans generally falls into the white column because they with the rest of the West sit when not standing. From posture we might examine the liturgy or order of service. Some white churches will use the white evangelical service, the white P&W order, or a liturgical order from one of the European churches. All white but no one white size fits all.

Then we have what happens after the service. What kind of drink and fare do we have over fellowship? Sweets would likely put off Turks since desserts are not a specialty of Asia Minor. Coffee, as Khang shows, is not the favored drink of many in the East. And then we have the phenomenon of bad coffee that doesn’t suit either foodies or visitors from Seattle and Portland.

What about openness to outsiders? Can we chalk up friendliness to culture? We may associate the Dutch and the Scots with certain temperamental features. But once you’ve been in America for several generations, do you become as open and bubbly as Americans are supposed to be? Or is temperament a spiritual gift, or is niceness part of definitive sanctification? Churches should be friendly if only to recruit new giving units since congregations can’t rely on the state for patronage.

On the whole, Khang has a point. Our churches have a lot more culture than the vanilla places we think them to be. And much of it is decidedly of European descent. White doesn’t really do justice to this European heritage since color of skin (really pink) does not account for how important European Christianity was to the emergence of churches not only in North America but around the world. Of course, Europeans have a lot for which to ask forgiveness and European Americans should not be reticent about getting in line for that soul-searching. At the same time, without Christian Europe (Protestant and Roman Catholic) along with the colonialism and imperialism that attended the globalization that Europeans started in the fifteenth century, we wouldn’t have many churches (white, yellow, or brown) period.


Our western Michigan correspondent sent word of a recent piece in the Christian Reformed Church’s magazine, The Banner, that fairly well captures the sense of superiority that runs in Reformed circles. Some boast in liturgy (not many, really), some boast in doctrine, some in earnestness, and others in world affirmation. Now comes the double boast of neo-Calvinism’s superiority and its taking credit for evangelicals’ engagement with the world. According to Robert Joustra:

Times columnist David Brooks calls these young evangelicals “the Cynic Kids.” He writes that “the harsh events of the past decade may have produced not a youth revolt but a reversion to an empiricist mind-set.” These Cynic Kids, he says, “don’t like the system—however, they are wary of other alternatives as well as dismissive of their ability to actually achieve the desired modifications. As such, the generation is very conservative in its appetite for change” and “deeply resistant to idealism. Rather, the Cynic Kids have embraced the policy revolution; they require hypotheses to be tested, substantiated, and then results replicated before they commit to any course of action.”

Entitled, in other words, they are not. Just when the world badly needs the affluent, educated young to risk everything on an audacious idealism, something beyond themselves, beyond fear and uncertainty, beyond recessions and terrorism, First World problems are getting deadly serious.

Young evangelicals badly need a Christian theology that makes sense of this orgy of brokenness they are inheriting without turning them cold and cynical. They need, to quote Bob Goudzwaard, “hope in troubled times.”

Enter world-reforming Calvinism—“neo-Calvinism,” some say for short—and its practical theologies. It lacks the triumphalism and the culture-conquering religious wars of the last few decades, fueled as it is by its frank Augustinian confessions of sin and brokenness. Like our postmodern blockbusters—Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, pick your HBO/AMC prime time award-winner—this Calvinism is earnest about feeling the painful, terrifying wounds of ourselves and our world.

It doesn’t offer escapism, it doesn’t offer conquest, at least not by us mere mortals. It is unflinching in its encounter with the world’s darkest places because it knows this is not the way it’s supposed to be. Calvinism’s practical theology answers the painful moral questions of the Cynic Kids while offering real evidence, real foretastes of hope for a better world. It is slow theology, working among the ruins—“proximate justice,” Steven Garber calls it—but it is resilient theology, theology manifest in outcomes, in malaria meds and clean water, in fair loans and growing businesses.

Joustra also takes neo-Calvinist credit for evangelicals’ discovery of the importance of institutions:

Public justice is political, but it’s also more than that: it’s the social, cultural, and religious virtue that makes the political possible. It is, in the words of Mike Gerson, the architect of PEPFAR (the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief), “the banality of goodness”—of small, repeated, habituated, ritual acts of long obedience.

And it’s what Jamie Smith calls “loving faithful institutions” in his bracing manifesto in last fall’s Comment magazine. He says young evangelicals are dabbling, experimenting with institutions because they see the lasting power of those social forms, both in the destruction they bring when systems behave badly, and in the renewal when systems are restored. “Institutions,” he says, “are ways to love our neighbors. Institutions are durable, concrete structures that—when functioning well—cultivate all of creation’s potential toward what God desires—shalom, peace, goodness, justice, flourishing, delight.”

We who are already Reformed have a taste of that kind of good inheritance passed down in the structures of churches, of colleges, retirement homes, aid agencies, think tanks, and more. As it turns out, “they’ll know we are Christians by our love” is just a good paraphrase of “they’ll know we’re Reformed by our institutions.”

This neo-Calvinism may, as Joustra puts it, lack “the triumphalism and the culture-conquering religious wars of the last few decades.” But it’s hardly lean on self-promotion. Nor is this boosterism for Dutch Reformed Protestantism (which is indeed impressive on many historical registers) all that candid about the cultural engagement and institution building in which evangelicals were engaged long before Albertus Van Raalte ever set foot in Holland, Michigan. Sunday School, Vacation Bible School, the Women’s Temperance Union, the Young Men’s Christian Association, and the Evangelical Alliance were all up and thriving long before Dutch-Americans translated Abraham Kuyper into English.

In which case, readers may wonder if cultural engagement and institution are all that Reformed. Or could it be that the habit of most Christians is to baptize what they like and do in the idiom of their confessional or communal religious tribe. I for one would surely like to see neo-Calvinist policy wonks and evangelical institution builders taking hope not from their engagement but from the God described in Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 1:

Q. What is your only comfort in life and in death?

A. That I am not my own, but belong— body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.
He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil.
He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation.
Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.

Put not your hope in NGOs, think tanks, or the smartest guys in the Reformed Protestant seminar room.

Being Inflamed Is So Yesterday

From a review of Addie Zierman’s When We Were on Fire: A Memoir of Consuming Faith, Tangled Love, and Starting Over:

. . . the title of Addie Zierman’s memoir is evocative: When We Were on Fire. A good title will tell you a lot about a book, and indeed there is a lot to learn from this one. We know, for example, that the titular “we” are no longer “on fire,” that it happened in the past. We know this is about more than just one person, although whether the “we” is a constant voice or a changing one remains to be seen.

Most telling is that last bit, “on fire,” a resonant phrase for anyone even passingly familiar with the evangelical subculture of the 1990s. “Fire” was the favored metaphor for a deep and burning passion for God. Consuming. Refining. To be “on fire for God” was the highest compliment, the deepest mystery, the truest sign that you were wholly his.

When You Have 'Splainin' To Do and Don't Know It

The Big Kahuna is not necessarily the movie to see on Christmas Day. The options for the Harts are to re-watch Family Man (which is a very clever retread of It’s A Wonderful Life set in contemporary New Joisey) or Metropolitan, both with Christmas themes. (Unfortunately, the copies that we own of each are in VHS, which means having to find the old video cassette player — chore one — and then reckon with the existing shelves and wires — chore two on steroids.) If neither of these is available for free at Amazon Prime, we may trot out My Architect, a wonderful documentary about the Philadelphia architect, Louis Kahn, made by his illegitimate son, Nathaniel. What does My Architect have to do with Christmas? Not much, except that at holidays we turn nostalgic and Philadelphia’s presence in the movie reminds the Harts of our life there. (At the risk of going stream of consciousness, a recent viewing of Stories We Tell, by Sarah Polley, another poignant documentary about fathers and mother, reminded the Harts of My Architect and put us in the mood.)

Speaking of nostalgia during the holiday season, an outing to Ann Arbor yesterday allowed us to see a double-feature (for the price of two admissions, mind you) of Nebraska and Saving Mr. Banks. Nebraska has its charms, as do most of Alexander Payne‘s movies (among them Sideways, About Schmidt, and Descendants). But Saving Mr. Banks stole the show. I for one cannot get enough of Emma Thompson. But the portrayal of a proper Londoner (via Australia) having to reckon with Hollywood was priceless. It was in several respects the flipside of My Week with Marilyn, a movie about Marilyn Monroe’s starring in a Sir Laurence Olivier production, filmed at Pinewood Studios, The Prince and the Showgirl. (Seeing Kenneth Branagh play Olivier is wonderful.) Watching the clash between English formality and American casualness in both these movies is priceless.

This is a long-winded way of making available to Oldlifers — and especially Roman Catholic critics of Oldlife errors — a clip from The Big Kahuna that is arguably the best scene from a movie that gets evangelicalism right and portrays it surprisingly sympathetically. (For those pressed for time, the really poignant lines come around minute 2:50 and run for a minute or so.) And what the movie gets right is a born-again innocence that exalts in its own righteousness without noticing the log protruding from an outlook that overlooks the fundamental tension of the Christian life — being both saint-and-sinner. The scene also exposes the sort of self-righteousness that we often see in Protestants who convert to Roman Catholicism — an exaltation of the “true” church while ignoring all the warts that make Rome less than appealing and the claims of converts less than believable. Modesty is incumbent on all Christians. But for those with a church whose past is as tainted as Rome’s is (give Protestants time, we only have 500 years experience), such modesty is not simply becoming but necessary. The way Phil looks at Bob in this clip is the way I often feel when reading Jason and the Callers.

What does any of this have to do with Christmas? Nothing, really. No problem, though, it’s a secular holiday and I am grateful for the time off to watch movies.

If They're So Smart . . .

couldn’t evangelical academics have found jobs elsewhere?

Pete Enns is almost as worried about the plight facing evangelical biblical scholars as Congress is about Obamacare:

Folks, we have a real problem on our hands, and everyone has to bear some responsibility. Here’s the familiar scenario. The “best and brightest” students in Evangelical seminaries work hard and are encouraged and aided by their professors to pursue doctoral work. Many wind up going to some of the best research universities in the world.

This is a feather in everyone’s cap, and often they are hired back by their Evangelical school or elsewhere in the Evangelical system.

Sooner or later, these professors find out that their degree may be valued but their education is not.

During graduate school they begin to see issues from a different perspective–after all, this is what an education does. An education does not confirm what we already know, but exposes us to new things in order to broaden our horizons.

Once they start teaching, they bring with them the excitement of learning new things, some synthesis of old and new for their students, because they feel such conversations are necessary for intellectual and spiritual health.

Someone listening to this complaint from outside the Reformed and evangelical worlds might actually wonder why the graduate students who become so well educated couldn’t figure out that what they are learning is not what they had formerly understood at their Protestant institution. Or why could they not, owing to their brilliance, find a job at an institution that values learning as they now understand it, say at a secular research university or even a mainline Protsestant institution? And again, if these folks are so smart, why can’t they anticipate the difficulty that may await them if they do take a job at their Protestant alma mater?

Maybe it’s just (all about) I, but one indication of brightness in my experience is learning what is permissible to say and teach in certain contexts. Another sign of smartness is understanding that everyone does not think the way you do and doesn’t even want to.