Orthodox Presbyterian Lady

At one point in our church life the missus and I were part of a missional work whose name we might have a hand in choosing. To avoid the common and somewhat tired names such as Redeemer or Calvary, I wanted to invoke the name of saints and was thinking especially of a set of Presbyterians with the name John — Muether, Machen, Witherspoon, Knox, and Calvin. To claim their names, I wanted to use Sts. Johns Church, a name that reflected a debt to these Presbyterians and that also acknowledged the Protestant conviction of the sainthood of all believers.

Needless to say, Sts. Johns was an epic fail.

A recent sermon on 2 (two?) John reminded me of this old idea. The epistle begins with this odd construction:

The elder to the elect lady and her children, whom I love in truth, and not only I, but also all who know the truth, 2 because of the truth that abides in us and will be with us forever

Our pastor plausibly argued that this was not an individual communication between the apostle John and a certain woman in the early church. Instead, “lady” was a word synonymous with a congregation or set of congregations in a city. (I also perked up that John referred to himself as an elder — “hey, that’s my office!”)

The last two verses of the epistle also make sense of this rendering of “lady”:

12 Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink. Instead I hope to come to you and talk face to face, so that our joy may be complete.

13 The children of your elect sister greet you.

If John were simply writing to one person, then this would be an odd communication to reach the status of canonical writing. And if it were also about one lady, then John was apparently writing to a set of sisters akin to Jane and Cassandra Austen.

So if lady does refer to a church, then it’s time (#metoo) that we put the word to ecclesiastical use.

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What If Historical Inquiry Isn't Comforting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.