He Really Went There?

Casey Chalk, formerly a regular contributor to Called to Communion, is increasingly at home writing for The American Conservative. His latest is a case for deporting John Oliver. Chalk tries to distinguish good from bad criticism of the U.S. by ferners internationals:

The reason Hitchens, Scruton, and others like them are effective is because they are indefatigably modest, restrained, and courteous. If they did nothing but scold, they would quickly become tiresome. And when they do criticize, they do so with charity and respect for a country not their own. I was under the impression these were traits that Brits prided themselves as possessing. Not so for Mr. Oliver. His program is filled with caustic insults directed at a panoply of American individuals and institutions. His coverage of the 2016 presidential election was particularly scornful of the American political process. The content is also typically boorish—of all the episodes seen, narry one misses an opportunity to make a joke about sex with animals. Are such things suddenly funny if offered with an English accent?

Since arguments that Roman Catholics did not make for the best citizens or residents of the U.S., I was surprised to see Chalk list Oliver’s anti-Catholicism as a reason for sending him home:

His vitriol against the Catholic Church—still the largest religious institution in the United States—is especially antagonistic: Oliver has suggested that Pope Francis’s opposition to gay marriage demonstrates that the pontiff has “lost touch with reality.” He’s labeled the Church a “vast criminal enterprise,” and sarcastically accused it of “victories for humanity” like the Crusades, forced adoptions, and an “international pedophile exchange program.”

Once the objects of discrimination, Roman Catholics might want to avoid returning the favor.

But the coup de grace was Chalk’s appeal to Patrick Deneen, whose book, Why Liberalism Failed, has become the equivalent to Francis Schaeffer’s How Should We Then Live? for traditionalist conservatives. Instead of conceding as Deneen does that thanks to liberalism, western societies have no core identity, Chalk rejects Oliver as someone who undermines American traditions (in ways similar to Protestant anti-Catholicism):

The America of Oliver and his audience is not one of interdependent communities and time-proven customs, but of “increasingly separate, autonomous, nonrelational selves replete with rights and defined by our liberty, but insecure, powerless, afraid, and alone.” This is perhaps no surprise, given that Oliver broadcasts from New York City, the epicenter of technocratic snobbery and what Charles Murray calls “superzips,” or zip codes with tremendous concentrations of people with high educational attainment and income.

As Deneen observes, “much of what today passes for culture—with or without the adjective ‘popular’—consists of mocking sarcasm and irony.” This is certainly the case with Oliver, who snidely labels many Americans bigoted and backward and pursues a policy of damnatio memoriae that condemns any American tradition that fails to correlate with his anemic, progressivist vision for our nation’s future. Yet as much as Oliver has shone his spotlight on many targets worthy of reproach (e.g. Infowars, unverified scientific studies, multi-level marketing), his larger, self-referential project undermines core elements of American identity, ones we should be most wary of losing in this time of socio-cultural distemper.

To recap:

Chalk thinks that outsiders should be careful in their criticisms of the U.S. unless they go too far and show disloyalty. Protestants accused Roman Catholics of disloyalty by virtue of their obedience to a foreign prince.

Chalk appeals to Deneen to defend American customs and identity. Deneen thinks such coherence and stability is a sham after Hobbes and Locke.

Maybe it’s time for Mr. Chalk to write for Bryan and the Jasons again.


Why Neo-Calvinists Are Like Feminists

Damon Linker comments on the folly of ideological purity in a democracy:

In a democracy, successful political movements go broad. They are ecumenical, seeking to bring as many people as possible into an inclusive coalition, because that’s how elections are won and mandates are forged, and because they understand that politics involves compromise and building bridges of partial agreement and commonality with those who disagree on some important issues but not on others. (Pro-life feminists tell Green that they’ve been inspired to attend the march by “cultural misogyny, the state of education and health care, and a desire for their own daughters to be able to lead.”)

Sects (whether political or religious) have different priorities — like upholding ideological purity, enforcing conformity to official doctrine, policing the boundaries of acceptable opinion, and excommunicating those who fail to toe the party line. They prefer losing to compromising their principles.

So why do neo-Calvinist treat 2kers like they are not Reformed? Remember Lutheran?

And since when is neo-Calvinism the way to approach society and politics? If you think you have the “real” w-w, the one that is True Truth, the one that is orthodoxy in the church, how exactly does that build a political consensus? At least Abraham Kuyper didn’t approach church life or politics that way.

Was Francis Schaeffer an Intellectual?

The latest comment in the very Protestant discussion of why we don’t have Christian intellectuals anymore like Reinhold Niebuhr and John Courtney Murray comes from Jake Meador on the merits of Francis Schaeffer who even attracted a story from Time magazine (though he did not make it on to the cover).

Time‘s description of Schaeffer, however, tells us something about how things had changed during the 12 years between Niebuhr’s cover and Schaeffer’s. In 1960, Time presents Schaeffer as a missionary to the intellectuals, which he no doubt was. But this assumes that Christianity needs missionaries to the intellectuals because the intellectuals are no longer Christian. What had been conflict within the intellectual community 13 years before when they reported on CS Lewis has become an attempt to witness to the intellectual community by 1960. This suggests, in one sense, that Jacobs is right—the Christian public intellectual is dead by 1960, which is why Schaeffer was needed.

I wasn’t reading Time in 1960 but fifteen years later I was reading Schaeffer and the better description of the apologist is not as missionary to intellectuals but missionary to would-be intellectuals. That is, Schaeffer was great for kids who had lost their faith and wanted to talk about the films of Bergman or the novels of Camus. Schaeffer was even more effective for young believers like me for taking the lid off subjects not so much forbidden as ignored. All of a sudden, Schaeffer seemed to make it possible for evangelicals who were so culturally marginal never to have heard of C.S. Lewis to entertain ideas about the arts and sciences, movies and trees, and even politics (DOH! That’s where it all breaks down). In other words, Schaeffer inspired as neo-Calvinists so often do. But when it came to the contents of his arguments, chances are that intellectuals weren’t impressed because Christian professors (who might qualify as intellectuals), the ones who grew up inspired by Schaeffer (like mmmeeeEEEE) weren’t so impressed with the scholarship that underwrote Schaeffer’s arguments.

I myself am not so troubled by the loss of Christian intellectuals because having read Niebuhr and Murray (for a current project) I can’t say that their arguments stand up so well. Whose do? Not many. But what Niebuhr and Murray may have gained in public recognition, they may have lost in faithfulness to their traditions. Niebuhr was by many confessional Protestants’ lights a liberal Protestant. And Roman Catholics today still wonder if Murray sold out Roman Catholic teaching to American political norms. And for what it’s worth, a 2k Protestant is happy to take guidance from non-Christian intellectuals on public life. To insist that public life needs Christian input is a soft, even fluffy, version of a theonomic desire for Christians running things, or at least a Eusebian desire to be part of the establishment.

Meador ends by likening Schaeffer to Tim Keller:

Of course, it’s not all so bleak as that. If we wish to go in the direction Jacobs is outlining and try to identify publicly recognized Christians translating the faith into terms the public square can understand while remaining orthodox, there are some examples.

You could easily argue that both Tim Keller and Russell Moore are doing that well in their own ways. Keller’s Reason for God was a best-seller and he lives in and pastors a church in Manhattan. Moore, meanwhile, has been in the New York Times, the Atlantic, and the Washington Post and is deeply engaged in many of the pressing social questions of the day, particularly on issues of racism and sexuality. . . .

Valuable as their work is (and I have enormous respect and gratitude for both men!), the best either can hope to achieve on a cultural level is helping to move us away from apocalypse and toward cultural dhimmitude. That isn’t meant as a criticism of either man, to be clear, nor is it to underscore the work they are doing. There are many people who have met Jesus thanks to the ministry of Keller and we should never forget how significant that is.

Bringing people to Christ is not the same as being a missionary to intellectuals. For that reason it may be useful to remember the review that Bruce Kuklick, an accomplished intellectual historian of Protestant background but agnostic outlook, wrote on Tim Keller’s The Reason for God in the Fall 2008 edition of the Nicotine Theological Journal:

The editors of the NTJ asked me to review this book. Readers have heralded it, he said, as a sophisticated body blow to secularism, but maybe the author is only talking to the already converted. What did I think?

Keller serves as the astoundingly successful pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, New York. Presbyterian readers of NTJ will forgive me if I say he reminds me of a latter-day Henry Ward Beecher, an effective exponent of Christian ideas to a prosperous northeastern urban audience looking for guidance in the modern world. The book exemplifies the more or less systematic exposition of Reformed Protestantism that Keller’s sermons present, and that he promotes in his ministry.

But no matter what the blurbs from Publishers Weekly and New York magazine tell us, Keller writes not as a thinker but as a clergyman. The book is not designed for careful, logical scrutiny, and going to church differs from sitting in a philosophy seminar. As Keller describes his parishioners, they are good people, sometimes in some mild distress, most often decayed Protestants looking for counsel. But they are not interested in honing their cognitive skills by taking a course in The Critique of Pure Reason or reading David Hume on religion, or even emotionally mastering Kierkegaard on faith or Karl Barth on Pauline Christianity. Their frequent social locus in the American Christian tradition means that Keller does not have to start from scratch with them. The book supposes a basic familiarity with Protestant ideas and the notion that western Christianity has something exceptional going for it. Keller is not exactly preaching to the choir, but he is not lecturing in an international classroom to people with serious intellectual doubts, nor is he straining for truth. Keep Beecher front and center.

Let me give one extended example, which is to me is decisive, and decisive about a fundamental issue. Toward the end of the volume Keller takes up the question of miracles, and in particular the miracle of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. For Keller, and I think for any good Christian, Jesus had really to have been dead and to have come back to life. What is it to believe such a thing? Keller, it seems to me, simply does not deliberate perceptively here. He begins by telling us what he thinks stands in the way of such belief: the presumption that miracles never happen, an outlook that “short circuits” our investigation. But, he argues next, we can’t elucidate everything else that took place later after the resurrection unless we acknowledge the miracle of the resurrection itself. How do we account for all the witnesses? How do we explain the entirely unexpected series of events? How do we come to grips with a brand new set of commitments and a hitherto unthinkable point of view – not foretold or expected by any ancient culture – except on the hypothesis that the resurrection is true? Perhaps more important, how are we to understand the explosive expansion of this new Christian world view? It only could have triumphed if people were transformed by their engagement with some extraordinary truths. Big things, Keller concludes, can only be caused by big things.

Can we accept this approach? In considering whether we are to believe in a miraculous event, we need to recall two factors. First we look at the evidence in favor of an event’s occurring, usually the credibility of testimony. Second we consider the unusualness of the event that the evidence requires us to accept as occurring. The stranger the event, the stronger must be the evidence that it has occurred. A miracle overthrows what I call “laws of nature.” They are propositions about our universal experience, the regularity of our sense perception, that enable us to predict with confidence the occurrence of one event after the occurrence of another. People don’t walk on water, change water to wine, or rise from the dead. If you jump off a bridge, you fall into water; if you have club soda in a can, the twelve ounces of it will come out into a cup; if someone dies, the body decays. We must weigh what is more likely to be false when it is said that a miracle has occurred. Is the testimony mistaken or has a law of nature been abrogated?

To allow for the possibility of miracles, we need only be open to experience. A law of nature cannot proscribe miracles; all it need do is to warn us of their rarity and of what is involved in asserting that they have come about. That is, sufficient testimony might overthrow a prima facie overriding adherence to a law of nature, and the regularity of experience. We can imagine scenarios where we would be obliged to believe that laws of nature have been violated, that something inexplicable in ordinary natural terms has occurred.

But reports of religious miracles have a notorious unreliability – even the Roman Catholic Church tells us that. In all times and places, we have had interested and credulous observers eager to persuade others of the veracity of their peculiar convictions. Provincial self-serving witnesses have repeatedly tried to impose ridiculous stories on our stock of ideas. Over and over religious miracles have come to be rejected. Again and again we find the quality of testimony suspect and never near to meeting the standards of credibility needed to overthrow a natural law. In fact, uniformity exists in the failings themselves: when someone proclaims a religious miracle, we regularly find biased testifiers, a lack of subsidiary evidence, suspicious circumstances. We have available far simpler explanations, and so on.

Put it another way: if we accept the miracles of Jesus, we have good reason to accept others that have more or less indistinguishable support. For example, Keller needs to think about how his privileged supernatural events compare with those promoted by the Mormons. If you already believe Jesus is a special guy, the resurrection is easy to swallow. But if you don’t have that belief in the first place, I don’t see how you make Jesus’ supernatural doings unique. I have two choices: between rejecting religious miracles and accepting the legitimacy of laws of nature; or accepting a lot of the miracles and rejecting laws of nature. We have Jesus arising from the dead, Muhammad touring heaven and hell with Gabriel, and Moroni delivering the golden tablets.

You pay a high price by believing in the Christian miraculous, and are on a slippery slope. You can’t rule out the miracles of any of the “major” religions. You also give license to the existence of zombies and vampires, who are after all, let us remember, first cousins to the resurrection. You are on your way to an environment populated by demons, ghosts, and weird apparitions; bleeding statues, the blind seeing, pictures flying from walls, and devils being exorcised; oracles, dreams with the force of predictions, the dead walking, or talking to us; dolls with pins stuck in them. And god knows what else. You give credence to a world where any sort of unnaturally caused events might occur. Our experience then does not much guide us. We can’t reason much about matters of fact, since we would have a universe in which at any moment we could not rely on the evidence of our senses and not have much of an inkling of how events hooked up.

I don’t expect Keller to deal with this sort of complicated chain of reasoning in his sermons, or even in The Reason for God. Nor do I expect him to be convinced by this group of arguments, however telling they are once one has discarded the veil of conventional respect for our regional Protestant traditions. But in writing his book, he is trying to do more than offer comfort — he is supposed to be sketching a rational account of matters, and his chapter on miracles should not convince anyone who is perplexed by fundamentals. He never takes a hard look at this issue, or others like it.

Undoubtedly I am making too heavy a demand on this volume. But Presbyterians who want to go after skeptics need to keep in mind the different social roles of the Beechers and Kellers of this world and a Machen.

That doesn’t undermine the value of Keller’s work. But intellectual life is a whole lot more demanding than getting noticed by Time magazine or the New York Times.

Imagine This Much Concern About Joel Osteen

When faith is so important to social order and national identity, political woes become spiritual crises:

Many of the evangelical leaders who have endorsed Trump have done so due to fears about what the American church’s future will be in a post-Obergefell America. Will religious liberty for Christian business owners be protected? Will state-level abortion restrictions be done away with? Will Christian universities and seminaries continue to exist? Will Christian parents have the freedom to give their children a Christian education?

All of these concerns are completely valid. Both Matt and myself have been abundantly clear on that point for some time now. We really are facing something of a doomsday scenario in American Christianity.

But freedom to worship or preach the Bible is chopped liver? Even freedom to stigmatize bad preachers?

I could turn out to be wrong and even more foolish than I already appear, but Christians really need to show their faith and take a breath about this election. I remember while studying at L’Abri during the 1976 presidential contest Francis Schaeffer talking about the choice between Jimmy Carter (bad) and Gerald Ford (good) in Manichean terms. I also remember not being convinced.

But the land of the free and home of the brave has a way of turning believers apocalyptic.

Why Credit Schaeffer but not Aristotle?

This is my problem with w-w proponents. When they explain the accomplishments of people with the wrong w-w they play the “common grace” card. Why, of course, folks without a proper w-w understand some truth because ultimately God set it up that way. Listen to a recent account of Aristotle’s abilities:

This does raise the obvious question, what about all those pagans who did get things right? Surely Aristotle, for example, was correct in much of what he said about God, virtue, etc., even if he wasn’t saved? The worldview proponent can happily concede this fact, but it doesn’t prove the existence of universally accessible axioms of reason. Any true beliefs the unbeliever does hold (and in principle there’s no limit to the number of true beliefs an unbeliever may hold) are attributable to common grace. That is, any truth, goodness, or beauty found among unbelievers is a gift from God, but these gifts are not given equally to all. Common grace does not entail common reason, nor can everyone be an Aristotle.

Granted, Aristotle entered the world with certain capacities for which he could not take credit. But can’t we attribute anything to his years of study, his clarity of prose, his competent arguments. Doesn’t he himself deserve praise for some of his accomplishments?

What’s odd about the above rendering of Aristotle and common grace is how much this same w-w apologist has no problem giving credit to Christian w-w proponents, instead of chalking up their insights to “special grace”:

The first Christian to use the term “worldview” was the Scottish theologian James Orr (1844-1913). Orr claimed that our view of Jesus affects our view of everything else in life—of God, of man, of sin and redemption, of the meaning of history, and of our destiny. While Orr gave Christians the building blocks for the idea of a Christian worldview, it was the Dutch theologian and statesman Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) who took the idea and ran with it. . . .

Credit for popularizing the idea of a Christian worldview among evangelicals in North America undoubtedly goes to Francis Schaeffer (1912-1984), who founded the L’Abri community in Switzerland and wrote extensively on apologetics, art, and culture. Schaeffer had a profound impact upon the following generation of evangelicals, including Nancy Pearcey and Charles Colson (see How Now Shall We Live?) and James Sire (see The Universe Next Door). These evangelicals all affirmed the two key insights of Orr and Kuyper: 1) that the Christian faith forms a unified and coherent vision of all of life, and 2) that this vision stands in irreconcilable opposition to all competing non-Christian visions of life.

That’s a double standard.

I thought w-wers were opposed to dualism.

In point of fact, w-w theory has a serious flaw if it fails to recognize the goodness of creation and the accomplishments of creatures who use their gifts with remarkable ability even without the aid of the Holy Spirit’s redemptive work. That seems like all the more reason to give folks like Aristotle even more credit (humanly speaking) than Schaeffer.

The Fine Print about Truth

I recall Francis Schaeffer talking about “true truth” to make the point, if memory serves, that Christians do not endorse relativism. But among the apologists for Rome I don’t recall hearing so many appeals to abstract truth — that is, the idea that the church stands for the truth (but see if you can figure out what that truth is). It’s like Dwight Eisenhower’s old line about America’s faith: “In other words, our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.”

Here’s one apologist on the first leg of the truth-goodness-beauty-three-legged stool:

So, this Church that the Bible tells us was founded by Jesus Christ; this Church that the Bible tells us is the pillar and ground – the upholder and foundation – of the truth; this Church that the Bible tells us is the fullness of Jesus Christ – the fullness of the truth; this Church that the Bible tells us is guided into all truth by the Holy Spirit – the Spirit of Truth; this Church must teach us what? Error? No! This Church must teach us truth. It cannot teach us error. The Church founded by Jesus Christ must teach the truth he fullness of the truth. It cannot teach error!

Does God want everyone to be Catholic? According to the Bible, the Church founded by Jesus Christ contains the fullness of the truth that He has made known to us about Himself. What does the Catholic Church claim about itself? Well, it claims that it contains the fullness of the truth given to us by Jesus Christ. The Bible tells us that the Church founded by Jesus Christ contains the fullness of the truth, and here is the Catholic Church claiming to contain the fullness of the truth, and claiming to have been founded directly by Jesus Christ. If whatever church you are in doesn’t at least claim these things for itself, then you have some thinking and praying to do.

Another appeal to truth that makes the church’s truth qualities more important that Scripture’s:

Truth is truth. It cannot be error, by its very essence and defi­nition. How can truth’s foundation or pillar or bulwark or ground be something less than total truth (since truth itself contains no falsehoods, untruths, lies, or errors)? It cannot. It’s impossible, as a straightforward matter of logic and plain observation. A stream cannot rise above its source.

What is built on a foundation cannot be greater than the foundation. If it were, the whole structure would collapse. If an elephant stood on the shoulders of a man as its foundation, that foundation would collapse. The base of a skyscraper has to hold the weight above it. It can’t be weaker than that which is built upon it. The foundations of a suspension bridge over a river have to be strong enough to hold up that bridge. They can’t possibly be weaker than the bridge, or the structure would collapse.

Therefore, we must conclude that if the Church is the founda­tion of truth, the Church must be infallible, since truth is infal­lible, and the foundation cannot be less great or strong than that which is built on it. Truth cannot be built on any degree of error whatever, because that would make the foundation weaker than the superstructure above it.

Accordingly, given the above biblical passages and many oth­ers, the Catholic “three-legged stool” rule of faith may be defined in the following way:

In the biblical (and historic Catholic) view the inspired, infallible Bible is interpreted by an infallible, divinely guided Church, which in turn infallibly interprets and formulates the true doctrinal (apostolic) tradition.

Here’s another who links truth to freedom (which is oh so American and modern):

The Catholic faith is about freedom because it is about the Truth, the deepest truth about God and about our existence. It appeals to the deepest sanctuary of the heart. If it promotes social institutions, it does so to make space for the voice of conscience in human affairs. Whether it concerns the sacredness of marriage, or of motherhood, or of family, or of life itself, the Church has a responsibility to speak the truth in love.

That sounds like Christianity is an IBM-like institution which supplies the workings that make a society run smoothly. Not sure what the truth is except for something deep.

But that kind of bland identification of Truth with Roman Catholicism, especially with the institutional church instead of with what the Word of God teaches, runs the danger of setting the church above the truth. Rod Dreher relayed the remarks of one of his friends about the dangers of so exalting an institution:

‘Institutionalism’ affects both traditional and progressive Catholics in equal measure. It is one might say – to borrow and misuse a term – the “structural sin” of Catholicism, living in its very bones, in seminaries, parish structures, canon law, etc. Institutionalism can be summarized as something like: ‘the excessive trust in institutional structures – including a complacent belief that the institution takes care of itself, an expectation that those vested with institutional authority can and will exercise sound if not perfect judgment, and finally, and most importantly, the conviction that all problems are institutional ones to be solved by ever-more refined rule-amending, making, or keeping’.

The most obvious manner in which institutionalism manifests itself is in attitudes toward the papacy and ‘creeping infallibility’ (in which the pope is assumed to be infallible even in his ordinary teaching). However, one can also see it among progressive Catholics and their attitude toward Vatican II as well as their oft- vocalized belief that we need a Vatican III to ‘address contemporary problems’ or that this or that rule needs to change. It is this obsession about the institution that makes mincemeat of both the tradition of faith (we need to adapt to the contemporary worldview or else no one will go to church anymore!), cover up evil (we cannot let anyone know about this or else no one will come to church anymore!), or place sole responsibility on Church institutions for failure (if it weren’t for those progressives at Vatican II, everyone would still be coming to church!).

When you look for defenses of or references to truth in the Shorter or Heidelberg catechisms, you don’t find much. The Shorter Catechism refers to truth as one of God’s attributes and defends telling the truth — ahem — in its explanation of the ninth commandment. Heidelberg goes a little farther in equating truth with the gospel:

Question 21. What is true faith?
Answer: True faith is not only a certain knowledge, whereby I hold for truth all that God has revealed to us in his word, but also an assured confidence, which the Holy Ghost works by the gospel in my heart; that not only to others, but to me also, remission of sin, everlasting righteousness and salvation, are freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits. . . .

Question 40. Why was it necessary for Christ to humble himself even “unto death”?
Answer: Because with respect to the justice and truth of God, satisfaction for our sins could be made no otherwise, than by the death of the Son of God.

That may explain why some Protestants don’t convert, because the truth about salvation is more important than the truth abstracted:

. . . when my friend asked how I could remain theologically conservative in spite of my great learning (not as great as he gave me credit for, by the way), I replied somewhat glibly,”I kept reading the Bible and it kept talking about me.” Although I certainly simplified the matter, the truth was that as I read more, learned more, and thought more, the evangelical understanding of the biblical narrative of creation–fall–judgment–redemption impressed itself upon me, continuing to recount the story of my own life while making sense of the world in a way that nothing else that I studied did. I knew that my own life was peppered by self-deception and sin and needed the grace of God offered in Christ. Further, I saw a world populated with human beings who regularly and vigorously sinned against one another. They too needed the grace of God offered in Christ. Finally, as my more progressive colleagues helped me to discern, there were (and are) sinful structures of oppression the permeated the world. Those caught in them–as either oppressed or oppressor–need the grace of God offered in Christ, while the structures themselves need the perfect king to come in righteous judgment and tear them down. In the end, all other explanations regarding the troubles of this world seemed insufficient, while all other solutions regarding how to address them seemed utterly inadequate. And thus I remained (and remain) evangelical.

Will the Real Kuyper Stand Up?

From Crawford Gribben’s recent review of George Marsden’s book on 1950s America (and more):

His conclusion draws from the philosophy and political strategies of Abraham Kuyper (1837–1920), the renowned theologian, newspaper editor, and founder of the Free University in Amsterdam, who also found time to become the Prime Minister of the Netherlands (1901–05).

Kuyper’s theory of “sphere sovereignty” incorporated central tenets of the Calvinism he had inherited, but radically reconstructed its traditional political obligations. The Reformed tradition within which Kuyper operated had long assumed that the role of government was to uphold the moral claims of Scripture, and to effect a confessional culture in which societal norms paralleled those of believers. Kuyper’s great contribution to the Reformed tradition was to overturn this consensus, sometimes at substantial risk to himself, arguing for a more limited view of the responsibilities of government, and emphasizing that it ought not to intrude into the “spheres” of family, church, and voluntary associations. Kuyper argued that believers and unbelievers were divided by an “antithesis” that was simultaneously spiritual and existential, and so advocated the establishment of denominational schools and universities within which believers of different kinds could be separately educated.

This intrusion of sharp religious distinctions into the public square was balanced by Kuyper’s advocacy of “common grace”—the notion that all of humanity, as God’s image-bearers, were recipients of divine kindness—which permitted the construction of a public culture that could be non-confessional and non-denominational. Believers, in other words, could organize in robustly confessional institutions within a broader political environment that respected religious difference while enshrining the non-confessional principles of “natural law.” Kuyper’s utopia looked a lot like constitutional Americanisms, however far it would be from the sometimes theocratic assumptions of modern evangelicals.

This is a Kuyper behind whom I can line up. Church is a distinct sphere with limited responsibilities. Kuyperians use natural law instead of insisting on revealed truth in public life. Christian truth serves not as a basis for driving out the secularists and leftists but offers a strategy for embracing pluralism.

So why is it that the influence of neo-Calvinism flourished precisely during the most contested battles of the culture wars? One account would have to rely on Francis Schaeffer and his use of w-w to show why Christians could never bend the knee to a neutral public space. Along with that has to go a stress upon the neo-Calvinist notion of antithesis which does a handy job of dividing believers from unbelievers — why it doesn’t divide Calvinists from Arminians, or Protestants from Roman Catholics, or Christians from Jews is another matter.

All Down Hill After John Witherspoon?

Anthony Bradley wonders (again) what has happened to Presbyterians and why they lost their momentum. First it was as popular voices among evangelicals, now it’s as dispensers of wisdom about the world:

I am wondering, then, for those who are raising their children in the Presbyterian tradition what resources exists for forming Presbyterian identity in terms of an understanding marriage & family (i.e., the relationship between covenant marriage & covenant baptism in America’s marriage debate), issues related to social & political power & federal political theory (which is derivative of federal theology), divorce and remarriage, war and social conflict, apologetics, and so on? How does a covenantal world-and-life view, and Presbyterian understandings of power structures, unlock the implications for a theology of work & economics when applied to international third world development, and so on?

By extension, I am also wondering what happened to Presbyterians as known and normative leaders of culturally leveraged institutions in American society and culture? Mark Twain and William Faulkner were Presbyterian. More Vice-Presidents of the United States have been Presbyterian more than any other denomination (Presbyterians rank 2nd for the US Presidency). Presbyterians rank 2nd in terms of placement on the Supreme Court in US History. I could go on. . . .

An initial thought is to wonder why Presbyterians need to go to another Presbyterian for instruction on the federal government. Isn’t reading the Federalists and Anti-Federalists (Presbyterian or not?) good enough?

Another wonder is whether Presbyterians have ever been all that influential as Bradley’s post assumes. To meet his criteria — “what Presbyterians are speaking to these issues or leading institutions that are (like think tanks or colleges and universities” — at least three sets of circumstances need to be in play. First, a person needs to be Presbyterian (what kind — Old Side, New Life, Neo-Calvinist — is another question)? Second, such a person needs to be writing on a vast number of public policy type subjects. So far Tim and David Bayly suffice. But then, third, and this is the kicker, the person needs to be sufficiently well known for folks in the pew to consult him or her (sorry, Tim and David). As it stands, lots of Presbyterians have lots of thoughts on all sorts of subjects and publish them (on the interweb). But no one of them stands out with Francis Schaeffer notoriety.

The problem, then, may have less to do with Presbyterian decline than with the diversification of communication technology and the formation of diverse pockets of affinity.

At the same time, Presbyterians need not feel so bad, at least if misery loves company. Bradley’s question applies just as much to Lutherans, Methodists, Episcopalians, and — boy does it ever — to Congregationalists (nee Puritans). Among Western Christians, Rome stands out as distinctly different in this regard since Roman Catholics have an endless supply of public intellectuals who are doing their best imitations of popes, who speak constantly to a host of issues below their pay grade. This may explain much of Rome’s contemporary appeal to converts. If you want a church with all the answers to life’s pressing questions — don’t go to Guy Noir but to the Vatican. But if you believe in the spirituality of the church and the sufficiency of Scripture, you don’t need a Presbyterian pontiff to tell you how to live. You go to church, say your prayers, work dutifully at your callings, and take your lumps.

One last thought about Anthony’s question comes from a period I know relatively well. During the first half of the twentieth century we did have Presbyterians who spoke on any number of issues, were well known and so had pretty large followings. These were William Jennings Bryan, Billy Sunday, J. Gresham Machen, and Carl McIntire. Maybe 1 in 4 isn’t bad. But if that’s going to be the percentage of Presbyterians we should heed when they start to pontificate about all of life, I’ll take my chances with guys who write for American Conservative.

Theologians Who Write about Art

Since Francis Schaeffer has taken a drubbing lately from both secular journalists and Christian secularists, I thought it might be good to remind the younger generation that there was a time when Schaeffer was the lone evangelical talking about art and philosophy, sort of the way that Woody Allen was the lone movie director talking about Russian literature on love and death.

In Art and the Bible (1973), Schaeffer wrote:

Modern art often flattens man out and speaks in great abstractions; sometimes we cannot tell whether the subject is a man or a woman. Our generation has left little place for the individual. Only the mass of men remains. But as Christians, we see things otherwise. Because God has created individual man in His own image and because God knows and is interested in the individuals, individual man is worthy of our painting and of our writing. . . .

. . . a Christian artist does not need to concentrate on religious subjects. After all, religious themes may be completely non-Christian. The counterculture art in the underground newspaper in which Christ and Krishna are blended – here is religious art par excellence. But it is comply anti-Christian. Religious subjects are no guarantee that a work of art is Christian. On the other hand, the art of an artist who never paints the head of Christ, never once paints an open tomb, may be magnificent Christian art. For some artists there is a place for religious themes, but an artist does not need to be conscience-stricken if he does not paint in this area. Some Christian artists will never use religious themes. This is a freedom the artist has in Christ under the leadership of the Holy Spirit.

A post over at No Left Turns reminded me of those heady days when the little man from Switzerland was inspiring young evangelicals to take philosophy classes and go to museums. The post quoted from the Pope Benedict on beauty. Here’s one:

Therefore, may our visits to places of art be not only an occasion for cultural enrichment — also this — but may they become, above all, a moment of grace that moves us to strengthen our bond and our conversation with the Lord, [that moves us] to stop and contemplate — in passing from the simple external reality to the deeper reality expressed — the ray of beauty that strikes us, that “wounds” us in the intimate recesses of our heart and invites us to ascend to God.

No offense to the Bishop of Rome or those in fellowship with him, but Benedict’s sweeping comments on art strike me as having the same sort of broad scope that Schaeffer’s young admirers found disappointing in their intellectual mentor when they began to read more deeply about art and beauty. For some Christians, a theologian writing about art is a novelty, something that makes the young and restless take the faith of the theologian more seriously. The problem for Schaeffer’s admirers, though, which may turn out to be a similar affliction for Roman Catholicism, is that the deeper you go into the faith of your inspiring theologian, the less your aesthetics resonate with the technical doctrine behind the beauty. In other words, the converts to Reformed Protestantism that Schaeffer encouraged turned out in many cases not to care for all of the Reformed rigor they found in Presbyterian churches and upon which the apologist with the funny pants represented implicitly.

But, as I say, there was a time when Schaeffer was the rare evangelical thinker who was writing about such matters. That gave him a large audience. And I do sense that the similar breadth of the recent papacy’s writings on philosophy and culture is also responsible for the appeal of Rome to Christians hoping to preserve western civilization. The question remains how solid a base such a cultural approach to the faith will be for the long, hard road of pilgrimage.

Worldview Politics

As I have come to understand it, a Reformed world-and-life-view is a hard outlook to acquire. It starts and requires regeneration by the Holy Spirit, or so it would seem since a worldview is a basic reality to a person’s existence. Seeing through the glasses of faith, accordingly, requires having faith, something that comes only through effectual calling. This worldview also needs doses of philosophy and theology so that viewers of the world have the intellectual equipment to construct the theories and apply truth to real life. A worldview goes so deep, as readers of Machen keep reminding me, that even the great Westminsterian would say that “two plus two equals four” looks different to a Christian compared to a non-believer. (Though it is still unclear whether all settings in life – from the family dining room to the halls of Congress need to bear all the weight of such metaphysical significance. For instance, does the unbelieving cashier need to admit her reliance on borrowed capital before I receive my change? I don’t think so.)

Since a worldview is such an acquired taste, I have found it unendingly odd to see people without a Reformed world-and-life-view defending those political candidates and their intellectual influences who possess a Reformed world-and-life-view. I find this particularly odd since the proponents of worldview would typically regard those without a worldview as being at odds with their understanding of total truth. I am referring in particular to recent posts by journalists and religious historians who discount the dominionist spin that is still being put to Michele Bachmann and Francis Schaeffer. (Truth be told, I talked to one of these authors – Charlotte Allen – for the better part of an hour while she was preparing her column. And I was frustrated to see that the illumination I may have offered did not make a dent in her aim of discrediting the bias of liberal journalists. She even took down the exact title of my recent book to include in her column. Oh, the missed fame! Oh, the loss of royalties!!!!!!!)

No matter what the folks without a correct worldview make of Francis Schaeffer’s ties to dominionism, it is hard to read his account of the antithesis and find trustworthy people like Ross Douthat, Charlotte Allen, and Matt Sutton who apparently do not have either the faith or the theological and philosophical training to attain to a worldview.

Here’s one example from How Should We Then Live?

. . . in contrast to the Renaissance humanists, [the Reformers] refused to accept the autonomy of human reason, which acts as though the human mind is infinite, with all knowledge within its realm. Rather, they took seriously the Bible’s own claim for itself – that it is the only final authority. And they took seriously that man needs the answers given by God in the Bible to have adequate answers not only for how to be in an open relationship with God, but also for how to know the present meaning of life and how to have final answers in distinguishing between right and wrong. That is, man needs not only a God who exists, but a God who has spoken in a way that can be understood. [81]

I wonder what Douthat, Allen, and Sutton think about the power of their own intellects as they survey the reactions to Bachmann and Schaeffer. Or have they been checking their perceptions against the pages of holy writ?

But if the non-worldviewers are a little uncomfortable with Schaeffer’s distinction between the Bible and autonomous reason, they might experience real pain when reading his application of the antithesis to the American experiment. About the Moral Majority he wrote in A Christian Manifesto:

The Moral Majority has drawn a line between one total view of reality and the other total view of reality and the results this brings forth in government and law. And if you personally do not like some of the details of what they have done, do it better. But you must understand that all Christians have got to do the same kind of think or you are simply not showing the Lordship of Christ in the totality of life. [61-62]

It does seem strange that a Reformed world-and-life-view would find its fulfillment in a political organization comprised of Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Jews, and headed by a fundamentalist Baptist. But we are talking about the United States, which H. L. Mencken called “the greatest show on earth.”

Schaeffer did not stop there. He also argued that the United States was the fruition of the gospel:

The people in the United States have lived under the Judeo-Christian consensus for so long that now we take it for granted. We seem to forget how completely unique what we have had is a result of the gospel. The gospel indeed is, “accept Christ, the Messiah, as Savior and have your guilt removed on the basis of His death.” But the good news includes many resulting blessings. We have forgotten why we have a high view of life, and why we have a positive balance between form and freedom in government, and the fact that we have such tremendous freedoms without these freedoms leading to chaos. Most of all, we have forgotten that none of these is natural in the world. They are unique, based on the fact that the consensus was the biblical consensus. And these things will be even further lost if this other total view, the materialistic view, takes over thoroughly. We can be certain that what we so carelessly take for granted will be lost. [70-71]

Again, I wonder where Schaeffer’s defenders fall on the spectrum of the two competing worldviews, and how much they actually embrace the biblical consensus that allegedly informed the work of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Ben Franklin.

The problem here is not that people should consider Schaeffer to be scary. Like many of his defenders have said, either explicitly or implicitly, he really didn’t mean what he seemed to say. He was not really so intolerant as his antithetical outlook demonstrated. He did not want a theocracy. But if that is so, then just how important is this worldview thing? If it results in high-falutin’ rhetoric and pragmatic reality, then what is the point of promoting all of those books and institutions that teach a worldview?

The problem that really needs some ‘splaining is not whether Schaeffer is scary but the strange disparity between the deep-down diving nature of worldview – it is part and parcel of new life in Christ – and how easily accessible it is, and even attractive, to those without such a worldview. A high octane version of worldview should reveal and make poignant the discrepancies between the lost and the saved, between the philosophically initiated and the believing simpletons. But it does not. A worldview, even of the antitheticial variety taught by Schaeffer, is for non-worldviewers like a puppy mutt – maybe not the first choice to take home from the pound but still a cute dog. Was the antithesis really supposed to be so easily domesticated?

Of course, I understand the angles that historians and journalists have in this contretemps over Bachmann. A writer like Douthat – whom I admire greatly and read for profit – may not qualify as a Kuyperian or neo-Calvinist-lite – but he can see the value of evangelical readers of Schaeffer to electoral politics in the United States. He also sees a way to point out the bias of liberal journalists, such as when they score points against Bachmann’s spiritual influences but not against Obama’s. All is fair in the coverage of religion and politics.

But the reception of Schaeffer and the watering down of worldview sure does cheapen what was supposed to be such a distinct and unique part of Reformed Protestantism. I wonder why more worldviewers are not objecting to the debasement of their valuable coin.