Timelines and Bloodlines

It turns out that the shift along racial lines among evangelical and Reformed Protestants is remarkably recent. Some have objected to seeing 2014 as the turning point, but Jemar Tisby seems to provide the smoking gun:

remembering Brown on the five-year anniversary of his killing would be incomplete without acknowledging the impact that this tragedy had on race relations within American evangelicalism.

I know how that day and the subsequent events affected my faith and my relation to those who I once thought of as my spiritual family.

Six days after Brown’s killing, I wrote for the first time publicly about my traumatic encounters with the police.

Every black man I know has harrowing stories of being pulled over, searched, handcuffed or even held at gunpoint. When I encouraged readers to “pause to consider the level and extent of injustice that many blacks have experienced at the hands of law enforcement officers,” the responses disclosed a deep divide.

Tisby goes on to talk about the criticism that he and other African-American evangelicals for questioning police brutality. He then observes:

Black Christians like me and many others began a “quiet exodus” from white evangelical congregations and organizations. We distanced ourselves both relationally and ideologically from a brand of Christianity that
seemed to revel in whiteness.

Now, after this quiet exodus, we find ourselves wandering in a sort of wilderness. Some are rediscovering the black church tradition and moving in that direction for healing and solidarity. Others, often by necessity, have remained in white evangelical spaces but with a new degree of caution. Some of us still don’t have a faith community to call home.

In sum:

Brown and Ferguson highlighted that when it comes to some parts of conservative evangelicalism, whiteness is not a bug, it’s a feature.

Who can judge another’s personal experience? I do not doubt that 2014 was traumatic for Tisby and many African-Americans, though I still don’t see the issue of police brutality as simply indicative of a black-white divide in the United States. In the hyphenated world in which all Christians live, it seems possible to support in general the functions of the police and oppose racism. In other words, opposition to racism should not be synonymous with hostility to law enforcement. I could well imagine, for instance, someone supporting Robert Mueller’s investigation (part of law enforcement) of the 2016 presidential election and detesting racism.

What is a problem, though, is to write a book with a tone of exasperation that white Christians just don’t get it. Not only does Tisby in his book fault white Christians for being tone deaf to race today. He adds that this is the way it has always been. The white church has been racist and always oblivious.

But if it took 2014 for an African-American Christian to see the problem, might not Tisby also have empathy for those who are five years late?

Meanwhile, to John Piper’s credit, his book on racism came out in 2011. He did not need cops in Ferguson, Missouri to see what Tisby saw three years later. Here is how Collin Hansen reviewed Piper’s book:

Tim Keller writes in his foreword that conservative evangelicals “seem to have become more indifferent to the sin of racism during my lifetime” (11). That would indeed be a major problem, since conservative evangelicals have been responsible for so much of the institutional racism of the last 60 or so years. Piper saw racism in the form of Southern segregation. The church of his youth voted in 1962 to ban blacks from attending services. His mother, however, opposed this motion. Piper’s experience explains the burden for writing this book, in which he argues, “Only Jesus can bring the bloodlines of race into the single bloodline of the cross and give us peace” (14). No political platform, lecture series, listening session, or economic program can cure what ails us. Nothing but the blood of Jesus can wash away our sin and make our diverse society whole again. Sadly, white Christians have so often perpetuated racism that we’ve largely lost the moral authority to help our neighbors confront and overcome this sin.

Bloodlines opens with a brief recap of racial history in the United States focused on the leadership of Martin Luther King Jr. and his masterful writing, particularly “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” This historical jaunt may indicate Piper anticipates a youthful readership who did not live through these events. Or maybe he believes the race problem is worse than ever. He writes, “There are probably more vicious white supremacists in America today than there were in 1968” (27).

Either way, no one can argue the church has made sufficient progress on race. Sunday mornings remain largely self-segregated. But Piper sells himself short as a credible leader when it comes to racial reconciliation. He and his church have made commendable and costly investments to live out what they profess about the gospel that unites Jews and Gentiles. I would have gladly read much more than a few appendix pages on Bethlehem’s experience of trial and error. We need theology that exalts the work of Jesus, and we also need examples from churches that have enjoyed God’s gracious favor in the form of racial diversity and harmony.

With Keller and Piper alert to the problem of racism in white Protestant circles in 2011, Tisby’s dating of the racial rift is curious. It is hard to believe he was not reading Keller and Piper.

Advertisements

Border Patrol with Big Green Letters

Joe Carter wants us to be cautious about attributing “cultural Marxism” to AN NEE BODEE!!

Over the past decade online culture and political tribalism have combined to bring ideas once relegated to the margins into the mainstream. We can add the tendency of politicized terms to be used in ways that have one or more connotations for a non-tribalized audience and quite another for those committed to tribalism.

A prime example is the term “cultural Marxism,” which is included in Earnest’s grievances for which “every Jew is responsible.” … When those on the political right make claims about the people at the Frankfurt School conspired to bring down Western culture or equate cultural Marxism with multiculturalism, they are—whether they recognize it or not—using the redefined and racialized meaning given by Lind.*** Of course most Christians who uses terms like cultural Marxism are not kinist. Many of them are merely repeating a term they heard used by fellow Christians and are unaware of the anti-Semitic and racialist origin. Yet it’s disconcerting when conservative Christians use language that originated from a racist worldview perpetuated by anti-Semites.****

. . .Because the term CM has become tainted its continued use by Christians undermines our ability to warn about the dangers of concepts like Critical Theory. We should invent a new term or use words already commonly accepted to refer to the concepts we are discussing. Doing so will help us to be better communicate what intend in a loving manner.

At Tablet Magazine, Alexander Zubatov is not so sure:

A short tour through some notable landmarks should suffice to show how 19th-century Marxism evolved into 20th-century “cultural Marxism” and the culture war of our present day: . . .

It is a short step from Gramsci’s “hegemony” to the now-ubiquitous toxic memes of “patriarchy,” “heteronormativity,” “white supremacy,” “white privilege,” “white fragility” and “whiteness.” It is a short step from his and Marcuse’s reconceptualization of the role of radical intellectuals to our sensationalized and politicized media outlets playing the part of a self-styled progressive vanguard riling up the allegedly oppressed and turning their incoherent rage loose on the rest of us. …It is a short step from the Marxist and cultural Marxist premise that ideas are, at their core, expressions of power to rampant, divisive identity politics and the routine judging of people and their cultural contributions based on their race, gender, sexuality and religion — precisely the kinds of judgments that the high ideals of liberal universalism and the foremost thinkers of the Civil Rights Era thought to be foul plays in the game. And it is a short step from this collection of reductive and simplistic conceptions of the “oppressor” and the “oppressed” to public shaming, forced resignations and all manner of institutional and corporate policy dictated by enraged Twitter mobs, the sexual McCarthyism of #MeToo’s excesses, and the incessant, resounding, comically misdirected and increasingly hollow cries of “racist,” “sexist,” “misogynist,” “homophobe,” “Islamophobe,” “transphobe” and more that have yet to be invented to demonize all those with whom the brittle hordes partaking in such calumnies happen to disagree.

Whatever the merits of phrases like cultural Marxism, I do find it peculiar that Joe Carter has not objected to pet categories by the Gospel Allies’ most celebrated members.

For instance, is Christian hedonism a very good way to describe sanctification?

What about Gospel Ecosystem? Why wouldn’t something like — well — church or communion work? And what’s up with using organic metaphors for urban locales? (Wendell would not approve.)

Can we produce a gospel city movement? No. A movement is the result of two sets of factors. Take for example, a garden. A garden flourishes because of the skill and diligence of the gardener and the condition of the soil and the weather. The first set of factors—-gardening—-is the way we humanly contribute to the movement. This encompasses a self-sustaining, naturally growing set of ministries and networks, which we will look at in more detail below.

If we “should invent a new term or use words already commonly accepted to refer to the concepts we are discussing,” why are some celebrity pastors immune?

Lutherans, Reformed, Baptists Apart

The following is an excerpt from my contribution to On Being Reformed: Debates over a Theological Identity. Here is how Amazon dot com describes the book:

This book provides a focus for future discussion in one of the most important debates within historical theology within the protestant tradition – the debate about the definition of a category of analysis that operates over five centuries of religious faith and practice and in a globalising religion. In March 2009, TIME magazine listed ‘the new Calvinism’ as being among the ‘ten ideas shaping the world.’ In response to this revitalisation of reformation thought, R. Scott Clark and D. G. Hart have proposed a definition of ‘Reformed’ that excludes many of the theologians who have done most to promote this driver of global religious change. In this book, the Clark-Hart proposal becomes the focus of a debate. Matthew Bingham, Chris Caughey, and Crawford Gribben suggest a broader and (they argue) more historically responsible definition for ‘Reformed,’ as Hart and Scott respond to their arguments.

Without further delay, one of the points that came to me in the exchange:

In both the case of Clark and myself, present-day concerns about Christian fellowship and communion inform assessments of the past, not the sort of integration of faith and historical learning that usually transpires in Conference of Faith and History circles where ecclesiology and creeds become barriers to scholars hoping to find fraternity warmed by religion. Pan-denominational efforts like Banner of Truth, ACE, or TGC need a Calvinism that includes Baptists, especially after the resurgence of predestinarian theology in the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant communion in the United States. If Calvinism is narrow and strictly ecclesial, these parachurch organizations lose a potentially big audience for their enterprise. At the same time, confessional historians reveal their own biases as churchmen who use denominational boundaries to inform their reading of the past. The logic is fairly simple: if the United Reformed Churches do not allow Baptist pastors into the pulpit or behind the Lord’s Table, the history of Reformed Protestantism should reflect a similar understanding. Why exclude Baptists from Reformed ministry today but include them in the history of Reformed Protestantism? A scholarly move that is at odds with ecclesiastical practice makes no sense.

Even Lumping Has Its Limits

The six-hundred-pound gorilla in the historiography of Baptists and Reformed Protestantism is Lutheranism. Here the roles reverse, with predestinarian Baptists rarely including Lutherans in their recovery of historic Protestantism and confessional Reformed historians admiring Lutherans for their self-conscious ecclesial and creedal identity. Gribben, Caughey, and Bingham do not mention Lutherans, which makes sense because seventeenth-century English Protestantism showed no signs of a Lutheran influence. Clark and I, in contrast, regard Lutherans as confessionalists who are clearly not Reformed but who take their confessions, practice, and ministry seriously enough to regard broad evangelicalism and its parachurch aspects as solvents of a Protestant communion’s integrity. Consequently, Clark and I have little trouble recognizing and are willing to live with the reality that Lutherans cannot affirm the Westminster Standards or the Three Forms of Unity. For Gribben, Caughey, and Bingham, however, Lutherans are a mystery. According to their logic, if the London Confession is down stream from Westminster, then why not also argue that Westminster is an extension of Heidelberg, which leads back to Augsburg, which leaves Baptists an extension of the same theological movement that Martin Luther started? Instead of talking about Reformed Baptists, why not Lutheran Baptists? Furthermore, if parachurch predestinarians who refuse to baptize babies can claim that John Piper can affirm ninety-five percent of the Westminster Standards, one might also wonder how much of the Augsburg Confession the Minneapolis minister would dispute. Chances are that Piper could not affirm roughly four of the twenty-eight articles (on the sacraments and holy days), which makes him by one measure eighty-six percent Lutheran. Yet, Baptists of a predestinarian bent want to be included not among the Lutherans but Reformed Protestants.

One explanation might be that Luther was too earthy. His piety is much more off-putting than the earnest, worn-on-the-sleeve pursuit of holiness that typified the Puritans. Another factor is cultural. In the English-speaking Protestant world, Baptists and Presbyterians share a common history and culture that makes similarities easier to conceive than thinking of German Protestants, who have no stake in the British monarchy, the English ecclesiastical establishment and the dissenters it created, or American independence, as fellow believers. German and English Protestants have distinct histories and that makes Lutheranism seem foreign to most Anglo-American Protestants while Calvinism feels familiar, part of the religious landscape, for English-speaking Protestants.

In the end, though, the question is not historical or cultural but one of authority, namely, who decides whether Baptists are part of Reformed Protestantism? Do historians and parachurch leaders or is the decision the task of church officers? Of course, a royal commission of federal agency charged with categorizing Protestant groups could readily solve the dispute but those days are long behind. So the duty of policing Reformed Protestantism’s boundaries has to fall to non-governmental agencies.

This has bearings on both the Theological Dark Web and the Ecclesiastical Dark Web: Luther is too dark for evangelicals and Baptists, communions are too complicated.

Did He Read Religious Affections Too Many Times?

Tim Challies explains the come-to-Calvinism moment for the young and restless when John Piper spoke:

So why and how has Piper caught the attention of this generation? I think we can sum it up in one word: authenticity. The college students attending those early Passion conferences, they’re a mix. They’re the last of Gen-X and the very first of the Millenials. A generation that, above all, values authenticity. This rising generation wants genuine, authentic faith and they’ve grown weary of preachers who water down their messages in a desperate attempt to be relevant. In Piper, that rising generation has found their authentic preacher. They’ve found someone who really, really believes what he’s saying and who is not going to pander to them in any way at all. And they honor that. They can’t listen to Piper and be unaffected by his passion. From his unglamorous clothes to his sweeping hand gestures to his dramatic facial expressions, to his booming voice. Students know that Piper truly sees the glory of God and just can’t help but declare it. Even if they don’t know what they believe, they sure know what he believes. And it is contagious. His authenticity is the bridge to his theology. Students are first drawn by his authentic passion, then they’re captivated by his view of God. So when Piper takes the stage toward the end of that rainy day at the conference, hundreds of young people have made sure to shuffle back from the porta potties to their seats. They’re now leaning forward expectantly. They’re ready to hear his passion again. But even they could not have expected what happened next.

Has he not ever seen actors play roles authentically? Since when is passion a mark of being genuine? And why would anyone think they know — I mean epistemologically know — what John Piper believes because of his clothes or body movements? As Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, men look on the outside of a person but God sees the heart. That implies that only God knows for sure whether John Piper is authentic; for those in his church who hold him accountable and his family, they may have a better read on the sincerity of the pastor. But in a big crowd you think you know the state of the speaker? I bet even Jonathan Edwards would caution against that kind of gullibility.

Challies may not know it but he is doing exactly what Philadelphia fans did with Mike Schmidt. The all-star third baseman was not emotional. He was stoical. And the fans thought he didn’t care, that Schmidt was simply going through the motions. When Pete Rose arrived and played in his gung ho way, the fans jumped on the emotional bandwagon. Schmidt was the high strung thoroughbred to Rose’s siss-boom-bah hustle.

And no one knows whether Rose cared about winning more than Schmidt. Not even their hair dressers.

The Answer John Piper Should Have Given

I wrote yesterday about the odd advice John Piper gave to an inquirer about watching television and movies. Even odder was that Piper did not correct said inquirer for asserting this:

Dear Pastor John, hello! I know that I have begged for Christ to receive my heart and life. My repentance is sincere. I have stopped my willful sinning, and I am doing everything I can to live a holy life. My question is about my desire and satisfaction in spiritual discipline and worship. I prefer entertainment to time with God. That’s the honest truth.

Stopped willful sinning?

Hello.

If Piper doesn’t correct that one with some instruction about ongoing sin, simul justus et peccator and all, hasn’t he missed a great teaching opportunity?

That he failed to challenge this framing of the question may be a tell about the Baptist pastor’s understanding of justification and good works.

If Lecrae Can Leave, Why Can’t Orthodox Presbyterians Get Out

Some of us have been saying for a while that Reformed Protestants are not evangelical, but the standard scholarship puts conservative Presbyterians squarely in the evangelical camp. Those different assessments of Presbyterian and evangelical relations make the recent discussion of Lecrae’s departure from white evangelicalism seem partial and shortsighted. But they should give confessional Presbyterians sympathy with black Protestants.

For instance, notice what happens if you change words in Raymond Chang’s defense of Lecrae:

We need to be aware of how we bring unconscious biases to our own litmus tests of whether people of color Orthodox Presbyterians are theologically correct enough based on their emphasis on justice doctrinal issues. Often times, people of color are viewed with greater scrutiny simply because of their skin tone dress. We need to be concerned with the ways our political commitments co-opt our faith commitments. The fact that people equate Christians with a particular political party is problematic, especially if we consider how both parties are deeply flawed. We need to redefine our understanding of organizational fit. This means we need to reconsider what it means to be equipped. For example, is someone equipped for the pastorate if they have racist heterodox tendencies or beliefs? And who gets to decide if they do, white people or the people they disparage?

We also need to be mindful of how networks and credibility is established. Consider who is promoted within evangelicalism through publishing deals. If a Christian publisher looks through their catalogues and white people overwhelmingly occupy the authorial space, it is likely because the people they have come across were developed through their white evangelical network. Consider who speaks at conferences like The Gospel Coalition and Together for the Gospel and you’ll see how people who had local or regional platforms, now have national or international ones. Whether you are aware of it or not, we normalize whiteness in evangelicalism by having an overwhelming majority of white speakers and only one or two plenary speakers of color Orthodox Presbyterians. Consider the ways in which people get mentored. There are tremendous barriers to mentorship felt by Christians of color Orthodox Presbyterians who would say they hold the same faith commitments and convictions as evangelicals do, but don’t either know or have an entry point into these networks (I fortunately, had people who helped me navigate in, but I am a part of the exception, not the rule). Consider who is appointed the most senior level leadership roles and how they are found and determined upon. It cannot be true that only white people are “called” to these positions of authority and influence and people of color Orthodox Presbyterians are not.

If white evangelicalism is serious about representing the unity Christ calls us to in this world, this means you cannot find successors who preach like you do, see the world like you do, and share the same skin tonefashion as you. This means Thabiti Anyabwile or Bryan Lorritts (or any of the small handful of others) Carl Trueman cannot be the only black preachers Orthodox Presbyterian in your conferences (despite their his wonderful gifts). This means that conferences need to provide substantial opportunities for Asians and Latinos and Native Americans Presbyterians, Lutherans, and Reformed to speak as well. This means that senior leadership at churches cannot be satisfied with a disproportionate percentage of white pastors/elders to non-white confessional pastors/elders.

Further, we need to look deeply into the reasons why leaders of color Orthodox Presbyterians who occupy the top spots in Christian (evangelical) organizations and churches do not last. This means we need to have the humility to listen, but not just listen, and act upon the problems we see. This also means evangelicalism needs to allow people of color Orthodox Presbyterians to speak for themselves and on their own terms. We also need to create pipelines for evangelicals of color confessional Protestants to grow in leadership opportunities (see what Intervarsity did with the Daniel Project) because we know that leadership matters and that leadership shapes organizations.

Of course, the difference is that Orthodox Presbyterians already have their own institutions and structures. That institutional basis means that OP’s aren’t necessarily jonesing for leadership in TGC. Since that is true, and since the freedom of religion means that all Protestants have the opportunity to form their own structures (which the black church already has), then why is it that Christians of color or some Orthodox Presbyterians aspire to receive the imprimatur of John Piper, D. A. Carson, and Tim Keller?

Signers and Decliners

Now comes another statement, named for a Tennessee city, with the signatures of more Christian scholars attached to it. I wonder if those who signed “An Open Letter from Christian Scholars on Racism in America Today” will also sign the Nashville Statement on biblical sexuality. Lots of professors are listed on each statement, and yet I can’t help but think each set has reservations about the scholarship practiced by the signers of the other statement.

What is it about statements? The one time Tim Keller and I agreed came in 1996 at the meeting of theologians and pastors that produced the Cambridge Declaration, a statement that expressed concerns about contemporary worship and megachurches. Keller did not sign. Nor did I. My reasons for not signing went along the lines that Matthew Anderson recently gave for not signing the Nashville Statement:

While I am generally ‘statement-averse,’ it seems reasonable to want a succinct depiction of the theological boundaries on these issues. If nothing else, such statements are efficient: they remove much of the work of retelling all of our convictions on a certain matter by giving us a public document to point to. It’s a lot easier to find all the people who are on board with a certain vision of the home, for instance, by asking what they make of the Danvers Statement.

Yet this virtue is also a vice: by creating a public context in which all the people who affirm certain doctrines or ideas are identified under the same banner, statements tacitly shift the playing field, such that to not sign is to signal disagreement.

Ding ding. Statements imply that those who don’t sign are not of the right outlook because those who sign are right. A lot of signaling going on.

Yet, a curious feature of the Nashville Statement is that it includes the heavy hitters in the Gospel Coalition. John Piper, Lig Duncan, D. A. Carson, Al Mohler, Russell Moore, even J. I. Packer and R. C. Sproul. Tim Keller did not sign.

The problem could be that statements are a problem. But Anderson also explains another reason for the Nashville Statement’s deficiency. It specifies a minimal set of norms while leaving aside a broader sexual ethic and biblical anthropology that should provide the source for specific practices or convictions:

With the signers and the drafters of the Nashville Statement, I am persuaded that the current controversies over sex, gender, and marriage are of maximal importance. With those individuals, I agree that there are matters here essential to the truthful, beautiful articulation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. With those individuals, I agree that the crisis in the evangelical church is real, and that those seeking to alter our institutions so that they affirm gay marriage undermine and distort the faith that all Christians, in all places and times have affirmed.

But issues of maximal importance deserve maximal responses. It is possible to say too little, as it is possible to say too much. If I have sometimes erred toward the latter vice in my exposition and defense of a traditional account of sex and gender, I have done so only because the deflationary and minimalist approach to such questions is itself an intrinsic part of the intellectual atmosphere which has left the orthodox Christian view unintelligible to so many.

Meanwhile, secular academics are trying to defend middle-class virtues:

That [mid-twentieth-century bourgeois] culture laid out the script we all were supposed to follow: Get married before you have children and strive to stay married for their sake. Get the education you need for gainful employment, work hard, and avoid idleness. Go the extra mile for your employer or client. Be a patriot, ready to serve the country. Be neighborly, civic-minded, and charitable. Avoid coarse language in public. Be respectful of authority. Eschew substance abuse and crime.

These basic cultural precepts reigned from the late 1940s to the mid-1960s. They could be followed by people of all backgrounds and abilities, especially when backed up by almost universal endorsement. Adherence was a major contributor to the productivity, educational gains, and social coherence of that period.

Imagine if the Christians who signed the Open Letter or the Nashville Statement had joined with Amy Wax and Larry Alexander in a defense of older American norms.

It sure looks like Wax and Alexander could use it:

We, a group of Penn alumni and current students, wish to address white supremacist violence and discourse in America. Even if we are not surprised that Charlottesville can happen, witnessing blatant racism takes an emotional toll on us, some more so than others. And yet, overtly racist acts are identifiable and seem “easy” to criticize. It is nearly impossible for anyone, white, black or otherwise to see what happened in Charlottesville and not admit that a wrong occurred — unless you are a white supremacist yourself, that is.

But at the same time, history teaches us that these hateful ideas about racial superiority have been embedded in many of our social institutions. They crawl through the hallways of our most prestigious universities, promoting hate and bigotry under the guise of “intellectual debate.” Indeed, just days before Charlottesville, Penn Law School professor Amy Wax, co-wrote an op-ed piece with Larry Alexander, a law professor at the University of San Diego, claiming that not “all cultures are created equal” and extolling the virtues of white cultural practices of the ‘50s that, if understood within their sociocultural context, stem from the very same malignant logic of hetero-patriarchal, class-based, white supremacy that plagues our country today. These cultural values and logics are steeped in anti-blackness and white hetero-patriarchal respectability, i.e. two-hetero-parent homes, divorce is a vice and the denouncement of all groups perceived as not acting white enough i.e. black Americans, Latino communities and immigrants in particular.

Wax’s and Alexander’s claims rely on a simplistic, bigoted and archaic notion of culture; a concept purported to be bounded and discrete, a postulate which anthropologists “dismantled” decades ago by showing how such formulations of culture are embedded in systems of political, economic and social oppression.

Against outlooks like this statements don’t have a snowball’s chance in hades.

Reading about Machen in The Reformed Journal

Reformed Protestants 50 and up may have spent some of their reading hours with The Reformed Journal, a magazine of Dutch-American Calvinist provenance that came into existence as a forum for Christian Reformed Church progressives. I read it from my days as a seminary student until 1990 when it folded. I didn’t always agree with the politics or theology, but it was provocative and thoughtful.

Given the “progressive” character of the magazine, I should not have been surprised that TRJ’s regular contributors were slightly sympathetic but underwhelmed by J. Gresham Machen. That outlook bothered me because the deeper I went into the archives, the more impressed I was by the man who started Westminster Seminary and the OPC (with lots of help from others). In light of yesterday’s post with an excerpt from Machen’s testimony at his trial and with some reflections still fresh from the fall Presbyterian Scholars Conference (where several participants were experiencing the joy of post-PCUSA life but still not on board with Machen’s own version of that experience), I reproduce some high or low lights of TRJ takes on Machen.

First comes Rich Mouw’s argument that Machen’s departure actually hurt the cause of conservatism in the PCUSA (one echoed by George Marsden at the Wheaton conference):

Barbara Wheeler and I have argued much about the issues that threaten to divide us, but we share a strong commitment to continuing the conversation. She regularly makes her case for staying together by appealing to a high ecclesiology. The church, she insists, is not a voluntary arrangement that we can abandon just because we do not happen to like some of the other people in the group. God calls us into the church, and that means that God requires that we hang in there with one another even if that goes against our natural inclinations.

I agree with that formulation. And I sense that many of my fellow evangelicals in the PCUSA would also endorse it. The question that many evangelicals are asking these days, though, is whether God expects us to hang in there at all costs.

One of my reasons for wanting to see us stick together is that a Presbyterian split would be a serious setback for the cause that I care deeply about, namely the cause of Reformed orthodoxy. I spend a lot of time thinking about how people with my kind of theology, have acted in the past, and I am convinced that splits inevitably diminish the influence of the kind of orthodoxy that I cherish — for at least two reasons.

First, the denomination from which the dissidents depart is typically left without strong voices to defend orthodox. This is what happened in the early decades of the 20th century when J. Gresham Machen and his colleagues broke away from the northern Presbyterian church.

I know that this is not a very popular thing to say in this setting, but I happen to be a strong admirer of Machen. I think that he pretty much had things right on questions of biblical authority, the nature of Christ’s atoning work, and other key items on the theological agenda. But I have strong reservations about his ecclesiology and I regret that his views about the unity of the church led him to abandon mainline Presbyterianism. As long as he remained within the northern church, he had a forum for demonstrating to liberals that Calvinist orthodoxy could be articulated with intellectual rigor. When he and his friends departed, this kind of witness departed with them.

The evangelicals who stayed on in the northern church generally did so because they were not as polemical as the Machen group; they were also not nearly as inclined as the Machenites to engage in sustained theological discussion. This meant that the quality of theological argumentation in mainline Presbyterianism suffered for several decades — some would even say up to our present time.

Not to let facts get in the way here, but Mouw would do well to remember that the PCUSA brought Machen to trial and excommunicated him. Yesterday’s post shows that Machen was not eager to flee even if it would have been a lot more pleasant. Whether his actions were legitimate or constitutional is another question. But he asked about the constitutionality of PCUSA actions and that didn’t endear him to the people who stayed. In fact, they tried him for having the temerity to question the soundness of the Board of Foreign Missions — as if that’s never happened — and the administrative fiats that condemned dissent.

I too wonder if Mouw considers that from 1869 until 1920 the PCUSA became infected by the social gospel and Protestant ecumenism. During that very same time Princeton Seminary as the voice of Reformed orthodoxy in the northern church was still dominated by conservatives. What happened during the years when Princeton kept alive the theology that Mouw values? Princeton and it’s orthodoxy became marginal and then a nuisance — hence the reorganization of Princeton Seminary in 1929. The idea that had Machen stayed conservatives would have done better is naive and ignores what actually happened before Machen “left.” Plus, what kind of high ecclesiology settles for articulating “Calvinist orthodoxy with intellectual rigor”?

George Marsden and Mark Noll regularly wrote for TRJ and again the returns on Machen were not always positive. First, Marsden:

Both at the time and since critics of Machen have suggested that there was something peculiar about him. Most often mentioned are that Machen remained a bachelor and his very close relationship to his mother until her death in 1931. Neither of these traits, however, was particularly unusual in the Victorian era, which certainly set many of Machen’s social standards.

More to the point is that he does seem to have had a flaring temper and a propensity to make strong remarks about individuals with whom he disagreed. One striking instance is from 1913 when Machen had an intense two-hour argument with B. B. Warfield over campus policy, after which Machen wrote to his mother that Warfield, whom he normally admired immensely, was “himself, despite some very good qualities, a very heartless, selfish, domineering sort of man.” You can imagine that, if someone says things like this about one’s friends, that it might be easy to make enemies. Machen does not seem to have had a great ability to separate people from issues, and this certainly added to the tensions on the small seminary faculty. Clearly he was someone whom people either loved or hated. His students disciples were charmed by him and always spoke of his warmth and gentlemanliness. His opponents found him impossible, and it is a fair question to ask whether, despite the serious issues, things might have gone differently with a different personality involved.

This observation continues to baffle me, as if people do not distinguish public from private statements. Maybe we are only learning that lesson after Donald Trump, but historians generally know that in the archives you find people saying all sorts of things that they wouldn’t say in public. In private we blow off steam, unless we are all walking John Piper’s and sanctified all the way down. I also don’t understand why Marsden starts his sentence on Machen’s personality with the man’s opponents found him impossible. Hello. The feeling was mutual. But Machen as a sanctified believer was supposed to find his adversaries hedonistically delightful?

And finally, Mark Noll’s estimate on the fiftieth anniversary of Machen’s death:

By reading controversies within Princeton Seminary, Presbyterian missions, and eventually the Presbyterian denomination as battles between two separate religions, “Christianity and Liberalism,” Machen undermined the effectiveness of those Reformed and evangelical individuals who chose to remain at Princeton Seminary, with the Presbyterian mission board, and in the Northern Presbyterian Church. By committing himself so strongly to theological and ecclesiastical combat, Machen left successors who were ill-equipped to deal with the more practical matters of evangelism, social outreach, and devotional nurture. By pursuing the virtues of confessional integrity, he opened the door to sectarian pettiness.

No real sense here that blaming the victim is a potential downside of such an interpretation. The perspective seemed so often in TRJ to be that Machen was a man on a mission and looking for a controversy. The bureaucrats and seminary administrators were innocent. (Yes, the lawyer who defended modernists in the 1920s, John Foster Dulles, became the Secretary of State who crafted the Eisenhower administration’s Cold War policies — the very administration that the founding editors of TRJ questioned.) The Presbyterian hierarchy simply responded — with a hammer, mind you — to Machen’s provocations. That could have been the case but no one argued that. They largely reduced Machen to a cantankerous figure who got what most of us would expect if we rock the boat the way he did.

And now in hindsight I wonder what these same men would think of Abraham Kuyper who was also part of a church that came out of the Netherlands’ state church. Didn’t Kuyper’s GKN (Reformed Churches of the Netherlands) make it a lot harder for conservatives who stayed in the NHK (Dutch Reformed Church)? And didn’t Kuyper’s Free University make life more complicated for orthodox theologians who remained at Leiden or Utrecht? (In other words, why wouldn’t it be possible to imagine Machen akin to Kuyper? Why doesn’t the Kuyper glow trickle down to Machen? Because Kuyper became Prime Minister and Machen merely president of the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions?)

And what of John Calvin? Was he wrong to leave France? Did he leave Huguenots in the lurch? Was the Roman Catholic Church worse off without Calvin’s ministry and theological reflection? Or does the mind boggle at the questions you need to start asking other historical figures when you become so demanding of a figure of which you disapprove?

It’s Funny Because It’s True

That was Homer Simpson’s reaction to the video, “Football to the Groin” (as I recall). Good humor has a strong does of reality, that was the lesson implied in Homer’s quip. And Babylon Bee’s top ten books for 2016 also suggest that Old Life criticisms of the Protestant world have a strong resemblance to reality. These indicate that OL and BB share not a w-w but a wariness about evangelical hype and cliches:

1.) Whatever Tim Keller wrote, probably: Honestly, we didn’t read any Tim Keller books this year. But we’re sure that whatever he wrote was pretty good. So the number 1 book of the year is whatever he wrote. Pick your favorite and put it in this slot. Congratulations, Tim!

3.) The Purpose Driven Ferret — Rick Warren: While fans of the Purpose Driven series have hundreds of variants to choose from, Rick Warren may have outdone himself with this special edition of The Purpose Driven Life, written exclusively for the close cousin of the polecat. Your ferret will love learning how to fulfill its God-given purpose as Warren masterfully uses over 250 different translations of the Bible to drive home his point.

6.) Worldview: The Worldview: Worldview Edition — Al Mohler: Al Mohler is right in his wheelhouse when writing about worldviews, and his latest work, Worldview: The Worldview: Worldview Edition is an excellent guide to worldviews and the worldviews that view them in the world.

7.) Hyphenating To The Glory Of God — John Piper: Piper focuses with white-hot, laser-like intensity on, as he puts it, “the all-other-punctuation-mark-surpassing splendor” of the hyphen. Soul-stirring and paradigm-shattering, you should not miss this all-too-important, not-exactly-like-his-usual-books-but-still-vintage-John-Piper work.

9.) ? — Rob Bell: “I was thinking about what I wanted my new book to convey,” Bell said thoughtfully in a short YouTube video designed to promote the May release of New York Times bestseller ?. “And it suddenly hit me—I really have no idea. I mean, about anything.” This masterful work features thousands of question marks arranged on each page in no discernible order, as well as several chapters written in Sanskrit.

The lesson: the way to avoid ridicule is stop doing ridiculous stuff.

What’s Wrong with the Southern Baptist Convention?

Jared Wilson observes for the Gospel Allies the 10th anniversary of the religious reporting that put the New Calvinists on the map, Collin Hansen’s Young, Restless, Reformed. My first take is that it seems odd to celebrate the anniversary of a magazine article. Why not the 20th anniversary of John Piper’s Desiring God, or the 270th anniversary of Jonathan Edwards’s dismissal from First Congregational Church, Northampton?

But stranger is Mr. Wilson’s by-line. He works for Midwestern Seminary, which has been in the orbit of the Southern Baptist Convention since its founding in 1957 and not a subsidiary of The Gospel Coalition.

As an institution of the Southern Baptist Convention, Midwestern Seminary is guided by a board of trustees elected by the Convention in its annual sessions. The trustees in turn elect faculty members and administrative officers. Upon election to the faculty, each professor subscribes to the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 statement adopted by the SBC in 2000.

Each of our faculty members participates in a local Southern Baptist church, teaching classes, serving as a deacon or leading a congregation as an interim pastor. On campus, our faculty is dedicated to equipping men and women in a variety of Christian ministries and is committed to the furtherance of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary students come from a wide variety of cultural, economic and geographical backgrounds. Like our faculty and staff, our students are committed to theological education in preparation for the practice of ministry. Midwestern Seminary has awarded more than 3,500 theological degrees.

Midwestern Seminary derives the majority of its financial support from the SBC Cooperative Program. In addition to Cooperative Program funds and student fees, alumni gifts and endowments from special friends enable the school to further its far-reaching ministry.

Here’s the question: is New Calvinism synonymous with the Southern Baptist Convention or is the former a subset of the latter? Related to this, why does someone associated with New Calvinism not have a higher loyalty to the communion to which he belongs? New Calvinism (and Gospel Coalition) is parachurch, movement oriented. The SBC is a communion. So shouldn’t someone who wants to see churches planted and grow rather put his energies into a real communion than into a movement?

This is the problem with New Calvinism. It seems to be a cover for ecclesiology and churches that have no fellowship with Old Calvinist communions. There’s nothing wrong with being Southern Baptist. At least it’s a church ethos, to modify Walter Sobchak’s phrase. New Calvinism seems mainly sneaky and self-promotional.