How Smart are Presbyterians?

From James Burtchaell’s history of Christian colleges and universities, The Dying of the Light:

Originally Davidson tied its identity to the Presbyterian church and required that the church serve as the guarantor of the college’s fidelity. When that became outdated the college undertook to vouch for its own fidelity. With the 1972 bylaws it fairly well disengaged itself from any norm or authority for faithful discipleship — Calvinist fundamentals, church, Westminster, Scriptures, or Jesus. The president and twenty-two of the forty voting trustees had to be members of the PCUS. No one else at Davidson College, including the educators, had to be in communion with that church. The only entity binding them together was a statement of purpose, which both Clarence Darrow and H. L. Mencken could perhaps have found their way to embrace. At this very time the moderator of the General Assembly was lecturing the church on their need to learn to live with the new onset of pluralism within their fellowship. . . .

There seems to be a problem in the bloodstream of the Presbyterians that has affected their colleges. The church was, from the beginning, largely composed of an industrious bourgeoisie. They were already well educated, and their Calvinist consciousness of public polity had from the beginning made Presbyterians instinctively supportive of the American civil authorities (as distinct from the British authorities, who had awarded them a hedged citizenship). Over here the Presbyterians were culture-friendly, and from the beginning they marketed their colleges openly: not simply to attract students and income, but because they saw the nation as a divinely blessed commonwealth. In this mood their educators were wholly undisposed to see their colleges as intellectually set apart. For moral purposes they were prepared to make their campuses defensive havens against a threatening environment, but not for intellectual purposes. Marsden and Longfield see this:

In 1935 H. Richard Niebuhr had warned that “if the church has no other plan of salvation . . . than one of deliverance by force, education, idealism or planned economy, it really has no existence as a church and needs to resolve itself into a political party or a school.” By the latter half of the twentieth century most mainline Protestant church schools had resolved themselves into being simply schools. . . Twentieth-century mainline Presbyterians, assuming that they were part of the cultural establishment, have seldom seen American culture as a threat and so have trusted in education. (221, 234-35)

Suffer, Submit, and Suck It Up

One of the interlocutors at this site suggested that neo-Calvinism and biblical theology of an amillennial variety go together well, and that no reasons existed for suggesting tension between someone like Geerhardus Vos and Abraham Kuyper. He linked to an essay that Richard B. Gaffin wrote on theonomy and claimed that Gaffin, a marked proponent of biblical theology in the Vosian tradition, was on board with neo-Calvinism. He even supplied a quotation from Gaffin that showed his neo-Calvinist bona fides:

It will not do simply to dismiss this chapter as the ramblings of someone who has be-
trayed his Reformed heritage—with its ennobling vision of life itself as religion and the whole of life to the glory of God—for an anemic, escapist Christianity of cultural surrender. Without question, the Great Commission continues fully in force, with its full cultural breadth, until Jesus returns; “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” is the mandate of the exalted Last Adam to the people of his new creation. We can not measure the limit of that “everything” and its implications; of it we can only confess with the Psalmist: “To all perfection I see a limit; but your commands are boundless” (119:96). That mandate, then, is bound to have a robust, leavening impact—one that will redirect every area of life and will transform not only individuals but, through them corporately (as the church), their cultures; it already has done so and will continue to do so, until Jesus comes.

Not to pick nits but when this comment referred to this paragraph as the concluding one in Gaffin’s essay I decided to take a look. In point of fact, Gaffin concludes that essay on a decidedly different note, one that fits the allegedly wimpy profile of 2k as opposed to those world-beaters, the neo-Calvinists. Here is what Gaffin wrote in his conclusion:

The comprehensive outlook found in the Book of Hebrews provides a fitting close to
these remarks. Two realities dominate the writer’s marvelous exposition of God’s eschatological, “last days” speech in his Son (1:2). The one reality is Jesus, the high priest in heaven (e.g., 4:14; 8:1). Fulfilling Psalm 110, the exalted Christ is “priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek” (e.g., 5:6; 6:10; 7:17); the New Testament contains no more impressive presentation of the realized eschatological dimension of his person and work than this.

But for whom is the exalted Christ high priest? Who is served by his sanctuary service (8:2) of eschatological intercession (7:25)? The answer to that question is the other reality in view—the church as a pilgrim congregation, a people in the wilderness. Utilizing a broad covenant-historical analogy, the writer compares the church between Christ’s exaltation and return to Israel in the desert (see esp. 3:7-4:11): just as the wilderness generation delivered from Egyptian bondage (picturing realized eschatology) had not yet entered Canaan (a picture of still future eschatology), so the New Testament church, presently enjoying a real experience of the salvation promised in the gospel, has not yet entered into the possession of that salvation in its final and unthreatened form (“God’s rest”).

Two basic perspectives emerge with these two realities. On the one hand, the writer’s realized eschatology leaves no room for a premil position: Once Jesus “has gone through the heavens” (4:14) and “has sat down at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven” (8:1), his return for a provisional earthly rule, prior to the eternal heavenly order, would be retrograde for the writer, a step backward eschatologically. Christ’s return will be the return of the heavenly high priest, not the appearance of Christ temporarily exchanging heavenly ministry for earthly duties. That return will mean the appearance on earth of the heavenly order/sanctuary where Christ is “a high priest forever” (6:20), the manifestation on earth, without delay at his return, of the “heavenly Jerusalem” (12:22), the “lasting city” (13:14), the eternal “rest”-order (4:11).

But the writer is no less indisposed toward a postmil outlook: Until Christ returns the church remains a wilderness congregation; like the Patriarchs in the land of promise, believers are “aliens and strangers on earth” (11:13). That tension is an essential dimension of their identity — aliens in the creation that is theirs by right and whose eschatological restoration has already been secured for them by their high priest-king.

There is no “golden” age coming that is going to replace or even ameliorate these desert conditions of testing and suffering. No success of the gospel, however great, will bring the church into a position of earthly prosperity and dominion such that the wilderness with its persecutions and temptations will be eliminated or even marginalized. That would have to be the outcome if prosperity—understood, for instance, in the terms of Isaiah 65:17ff.—is to be at all meaningful. Such prosperity and blessing for the church are reserved until Christ returns.

The writer of Hebrews operates with a simple enough eschatological profile: the bodily absence of Christ means the church’s wilderness existence, his bodily presence, its entrance into God’s final rest. What he must confront in his readers is a perennial problem for the church, a primal temptation bound up with its wilderness existence: the veiledness, for the present, of messianic glory and the believer’s eschatological triumph; “at present we do not yet see everything subject to him” (Heb. 2:8), with the longing as well as the promise that “at present” holds for the church. All of us, then, are involved in a continuing struggle—against our deeply rooted eschatological impatience to tear away that veil and our undue haste to be out of the wilderness and see the realization of what, just because of that haste and impatience, will inevitably prove to be dreams and aspirations that are ill-considered and all too “fleshly.”

“For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come” (Heb. 13:14).

The point of this exercise is not to expose the error of an Old Life reader. It is to raise a question, though, about the way that 2kers and neo-Calvinists read. It strikes me that neo-Cal’s generally favor readings from texts that highlight a progressive and triumphant understanding of Reformed Protestantism’s effects upon the world. This extends to which passages of Scripture to highlight in exploring a believer’s identity as well as how to read the development of history and culture.

Abraham Kuyper established the model for this sort of reading when in his infamous Lectures on Calvinism he uttered inspirational prose such as the following:

The avoidance of the world has never been the Calvinistic mark, but the shibboleth of the Anabaptist. The specific, anabaptistical dogma of “avoidance” proves this. According to this dogma, the Anabaptists, announcing themselves as “saints,” were severed from the world They stood in opposition to it. They refused to take the oath; they abhorred all military service; they condemned the holding of public offices. Here already, they shaped a new world, in the midst of this world of sin, which however had nothing to do with this our present existence. They rejected all obligation and responsibility towards the old world, and they avoided it systematically, for fear of contamination, and contagion. But this is just what the Calvinist always disputed and denied. It is not true that there are two worlds, a bad one and a good, which are fitted into each other. It is one and the same person whom God created perfect and who afterwards fell, and became a sinner– and it is this same “ego” of the old sinner who is born again, and who enters into eternal life. So, also, it is one and the same world which once exhibited all the glory of Paradise, which was afterwards smitten with the curse, and which, since the Fall, is upheld by common grace; which has now been redeemed and saved by Christ, in its center, and which shall pass through the horror of the judgment into the state of glory. For this very reason the Calvinist cannot shut himself up in his church and abandon the world to its fate. He feels, rather, his high calling to push the development of this world to an even higher stage, and to do this in constant accordance with God’s ordinance, for the sake of God, upholding, in the midst of so much painful corruption, everything that is honorable, lovely, and of good report among men Therefore it is that we see in History (if I may be permitted to speak of my own ancestors) that scarcely had Calvinism been firmly established in the Netherlands for a quarter of a century when there was a rustling of life in all directions, and an indomitable energy was fermenting in every department of human activity, and their commerce and trade, their handicrafts and industry, their agriculture and horticulture, their art and science, flourished with a brilliancy previously unknown. and imparted a new impulse for an entirely new development of life, to the whole of Western Europe. (from Lecture 2)

2k proponents, in contrast, tend to take a more restrained even pessimistic view of Christian existence in this world. Believers have enough trouble overcoming sin in their own lives that taking on the entire world in a project of domination seems foolhardy and not the best use of spiritual resources.

This leaves 2k in a decided disadvantage with the Reformed rank-and-file. Neo-Cals can win people to their side because they are long on inspiration even if short on practical steps toward square-inch subjection. They can rally the faithful for all sorts of “yes, we can projects,” from taking back city hall to reclaiming the proper interpretation of the American or Dutch republics’ foundings. All 2kers can do is tell the faithful to cope; look to the Lord, count your blessings (name them square-inch by square-inch?), receive the means of grace, pray, and be faithful in your callings. This is not a project for changing the world. Most people – Reformed Protestants included – want to know “Can’t we do more!?!”

But if neo-Cals are better at inspiration, they are not so good at close reading. Not only do we fail to see in the New Testament exhortation for Christians to change the world, but we also read terms that 2kers are prone to use and neo-Cals to avoid. Peter and Paul refer to believers as strangers, aliens, and pilgrims. These are not the words that come to mind with neo-Calvinism. The mascot of neo-Cals is the crusader (retired recently by Wheaton College for obvious culturally insensitive reasons; but when have neo-Cals been sensitive to culture let alone people?)

But 2kers can take hope from the original Calvinist, John Calvin. He is hard to turn into a cultural transformer despite the efforts of Kuyper and H. Richard Niebuhr (has any neo-Cal ever asked why Kuyper’s reading of Calvinism is so similar to a liberal Protestant’s?). When you read Calvin you see the biblical themes of exile and pilgrimage. And when he comments on those favorite texts of cultural dominators, he is very short on the inspiration that typifies neo-Calvinism. Here are a couple of illustrations.

Calvin on Romans 8: 37 (“No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”)

We do more than conquer, etc.; that is, we always struggle and emerge. I have retained the word used by Paul, though not commonly used by the Latins. It indeed sometimes happens that the faithful seem to succumb and to lie forlorn; and thus the Lord not only tries, but also humbles them. This issue is however given to them, — that they obtain the victory.

That they might at the same time remember whence this invincible power proceeds, he again repeats what he had said before: for he not only teaches us that God, because he loves us, supports us by his hand; but he also confirms the same truth by mentioning the love of ChristAnd this one sentence sufficiently proves, that the Apostle speaks not here of the fervency of that love which we have towards God, but of the paternal kindness of God and of Christ towards us, the assurance of which, being thoroughly fixed in our hearts, will always draw us from the gates of hell into the light of life, and will sufficiently avail for our support.

Calvin on 2 Cor. 10:5 (“We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.”)

And bring into captivity I am of opinion, that, having previously spoken more particularly of the conflict of spiritual armor, along with the hinderances that rise up in opposition to the gospel of Christ, he now, on the other hand, speaks of the ordinary preparation, by which men must be brought into subjection to him. For so long as we rest in our own judgment, and are wise in our own estimation, we are far from having made any approach to the doctrine of Christ. Hence we must set out with this, that he who is wise must become a fool, (1 Corinthians 3:18), that is, we must give up our own understanding, and renounce the wisdom of the flesh, and thus we must present our minds to Christ empty that he may fill them. Now the form of expression must be observed, when he says, that he brings every thought into captivity, for it is as though he had said, that the liberty of the human mind must be restrained and bridled, that it may not be wise, apart from the doctrine of Christ; and farther, that its audacity cannot be restrained by any other means, than by its being carried away, as it were, captive. Now it is by the guidance of the Spirit, that it is brought to allow itself to be placed under control, and remain in a voluntary captivity.

So the lesson for 2kers is the same lesson for all Christians: suffer, submit, and suck it up. But is contrary to such sucking to wish neo-Cals were better students of the Bible’s and Calvin’s assigned readings?)

Obsessive Cultural Disorder — Over Thinking Culture

Okay, I guess H. Richard Niebuhr was not a pietist, but I am struck by how much attention Protestants give to culture – whether to imbibe, whether to avoid, or how to engage properly. All of this compulsiveness feels like fundamentalists who are spooked by the world and their surroundings and can’t live comfortably in their skin.

Hesitation and self-awareness about culture is unnatural if culture is as basic to human existence as walking upright (if no physical impairments prevent it). We are cultural beings even when we withdraw from culture – hence the phenomenon of Christian rock bands, Christian novels, and Christian radio stations. We are also worldly beings because our bodies are part of the substance of the created order. To live as a human being, even a hermit, is to be in the world and part of a culture – even a culture of one.

What provoked this way too underdeveloped of an idea was an article (via Justin Taylor, via Martin Downes) from the British Evangelical Magazine by Ted Turnau.

Turnau’s main points, below, look less weighty if we insert the word, “language,” for every time he uses “popular culture.” In fact, this is a natural substitution because language is one of the building blocks of culture. For ethnic groups in America who want to preserve their culture, language retention is usually one of the most important battles between first and second generation immigrant communities. And the hierarchy of high, low, and middle-brow culture also lines up with people who know and use language: linguists are high-brow language users, people who know some grammar are middle-brow, and vulgar language might correspond to low or pop culture.

But every human being uses language (with rare exceptions). So why aren’t we so worked up about how to use words? Why no books about Christ and Language (Logos and Words)? Why can’t we simply use it, be careful with it (avoid vulgarity), and learn how it works and how to excel in using it (study more Shakespeare)? In other words, is language threatening? Is it any less “culture” than movies, education, or painting? Can’t we just use it without having to think so much about IT?

To that end, here are Turnau’s main points with my added wrinkle of the thought experiment proposed here. I think it works but I’m sure Rabbi Bret will detect some viral strain of infidelity.

Whatever else popular culture language is, it is not trivial, because it is an expression of faith and worship.

Not all popular culture language is equally meaningful.

Not every piece of popular culture language is appropriate for engagement.

Popular culture Language works by creating imaginative landscapes for us to inhabit.

When thinking about a piece of popular culture language, it pays to know the tricks of the trade.

Every piece of popular culture language is a complicated mixture of grace and idolatry.

Think carefully about how to undermine the idol, and how the gospel applies to the piece of popular culture language you’re sharing with friends.

Look for occasions where you can experience popular culture language together with friends and family (both Christian and non-Christian).

By the way, I am uncomfortable with the formulation that every piece of pop culture is an expression of faith and worship. The reason is that I don’t think we would say the same for language. Language, like culture, is part and parcel of being created in the image of God. It’s not a function or effect of redemption.

This Is Not a Program for Changing the World

The discordant note in the Kuyperian and Niebuhrian conceptions of Reformed Protestantism is to turn Calvinism not into the little engine that could but the big combine that did and did it some more. Aside from the lack of humility inherent in pointing to Reformed Protestantism as a world-transforming faith that affects every aspect of human existence (and is prone to take credit for all the blessings of the modern world — mind you, without ever taking responsibility for global warming or congested highways), this understanding is also false, at least when it comes to Calvin himself. The following quotation from Calvin’s Institutes (II.9.6) suggests the kind of moderation and restraint that is becoming both to a serious profession of faith and to a sober estimate of one’s place in the world:

Therefore, lest all things should be thrown into confusion by our folly and rashness, he has assigned distinct duties to each in the different modes of life. And that no one may presume to overstep his proper limits, he has distinguished the different modes of life by the name of callings. Every man’s mode of life, therefore, is a kind of station assigned him by the Lord, that he may not be always driven about at random. So necessary is this distinction, that all our actions are thereby estimated in his sight, and often in a very different way from that in which human reason or philosophy would estimate them. There is no more illustrious deed even among philosophers than to free one’s country from tyranny, and yet the private individual who stabs the tyrant is openly condemned by the voice of the heavenly Judge. But I am unwilling to dwell on particular examples; it is enough to know that in every thing the call of the Lord is the foundation and beginning of right action. He who does not act with reference to it will never, in the discharge of duty, keep the right path. He will sometimes be able, perhaps, to give the semblance of something laudable, but whatever it may be in the sight of man, it will be rejected before the throne of God; and besides, there will be no harmony in the different parts of his life. Hence, he only who directs his life to this end will have it properly framed; because free from the impulse of rashness, he will not attempt more than his calling justifies, knowing that it is unlawful to overleap the prescribed bounds. He who is obscure will not decline to cultivate a private life, that he may not desert the post at which God has placed him. Again, in all our cares, toils, annoyances, and other burdens, it will be no small alleviation to know that all these are under the superintendence of God. The magistrate will more willingly perform his office, and the father of a family confine himself to his proper sphere. Every one in his particular mode of life will, without repining, suffer its inconveniences, cares, uneasiness, and anxiety, persuaded that God has laid on the burden. This, too, will afford admirable consolation, that in following your proper calling, no work will be so mean and sordid as not to have a splendour and value in the eye of God.

Lest neo-Calvinists and other Reformed Protestants addicted to activity think this the exception that proves the rule of Calvin’s transformationalism, they should also look at the Reformer’s prayers where the same sense of moderation, restraint, and looking up to heavenly realities is part and parcel of the Reformer’s piety. Here is one example:

Grant, Almighty God, that since under the guidance of your Son we have been united together in the body of your Church, which has been so often scattered and torn asunder, — O grant that we may continue in the unity of the faith, and perserveringly fight against all the temptations of this world, and never deviate from the right course, whatever new troubles may daily arise; and though we are exposed to many deaths, let us not be seized with fear, such as may extinguish in our hearts every hope; but may we, on the contrary, learn to raise up our eyes and minds and all our thoughts to your great power, by which you quicken the dead, and raise from nothing things which are not, so that, though we be daily exposed to ruin, our souls may ever aspire to eternal salvation, until you at length really show yourself to be the fountain of life, when we shall enjoy that endless felicity which has been obtained for us by the blood of your only-begotten Son our Lord, Amen.

When conservative Protestants pray this way, the neo-Calvinist response is usually to hurl the epithet of fundamentalism. But if Calvin himself was so other-worldly, how come other-worldliness is not more basic to Reformed Protestantism than changing the world?