Isn’t This Like a Constitutional Amendment in Favor of Fast Food?

John Fea objects to the American Bible Society’s “Affirmation of Biblical Community” as a break with the institution’s past and an attempt to signal an evangelical brand (yuck):

There is nothing unusual with a religious organization making employees sign a statement of faith or requiring them to practice certain behavior that fits with the teachings of historic Christianity. Christian ministries and colleges, for example, do this as a matter of course.

But the fact that the ABS has decided to adopt such a statement after functioning for 202 years without one does make this development noteworthy. As the author of perhaps the only scholarly history of this storied Christian organization, I can attest that the “Affirmation of Biblical Community” represents a definitive break with the vision of its founders.

It also represents the culmination of a roughly 20-year transformation of the Society from a diverse Christian organization to a ministry with strong ties to American evangelicalism.

Fea is gaining a following, even to the point that Ruth McCambridge calls this a “hi-jacking”:

Here are some of the potentially break-worthy aspects of the Affirmation as reported at Christianity Today:

“I believe the Bible is inspired by God, an open invitation to all people, and, for me, provides authoritative guidance for my faith and conduct.”

“I will seek spiritual maturity through regular Bible engagement…”

“I will seek to refrain from sexual activity outside of the marriage covenant prescribed and exemplified in the Bible.”

If Fea’s point is that ABS never codified its doctrines or morals, he has a technical point. But do technicalities add up to a “break” or “hi-jacking?” Americans love fast-food but don’t have a national affirmation in favor of double-cheeseburgers. If someone in Congress proposed an amendment to affirm McDonalds and Whataburger, would it constitute a break with American norms, or an unusual step in merging the nation’s politics and tastebuds?

Still, the way Fea and others comment on the Affirmation is to suggest the folks at ABS were indifferent to morality and doctrine, or that the Bible Society was never truly in the evangelical camp. I don’t like to do this but I did learn from John Fea that ABS was part of a 19th-century push by evangelical Protestants to form voluntary parachurch agencies and change the world. In his history of ABS, he writes:

At the start of the Civil War, close to half of the population of the United States were evangelical Christians, and most of these evangelicals were sympathetic to the work of benevolent societies. . . . Between 1789 and 1829 the nation’s thirteen largest benevolent socieites — most of them unaffiliated with a specific denomination — spent more than $2.8 million to promote a more Christian and moral nation. . . . Lyman Beecher, perhaps the most vocal champion of a Christian nation and a founder of the ABS, believed that such interdenominational society should supplement the churches as a “sort of disciplined moral militia.” (51-52)

Is it just I or does that sound like Beecher could well affirm the ABS’s recent Affirmation (and might even add a few more items like drinking, smoking, movies, novels, Sabbath desecration)?

Indeed, one of Beecher’s colleagues in founding ABS, Elias Boudinot, was according to Tommie Kidd “the most evangelical founding father” and no slouch in the moralizing business. Here is how Kidd described Boudinot:

Boudinot was a member and president of the Continental Congress, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, and the director of the U.S. Mint from 1795 to 1805. Boudinot became increasingly alarmed about the rise of Deism and the attacks on traditional Christianity by Thomas Paine and others. He helped found the American Bible Society in 1816, and became the president of the American Society for Evangelizing the Jews in 1820 (John Quincy Adams was a vice president of this organization). Boudinot wrote Christian treatises such as The Age of Revelation and The Second Advent, which used prophecies from the Bible to argue that America risked losing the blessings of God if it continued to pursue faithlessness and worldliness.

Kidd then included an excerpt from Boudinot’s book, The Second Advent:

But has not America greatly departed from her original principles, and left her first love? Has she not also many amongst her chief citizens, of every party, who have forsaken the God of their fathers, and to whom the spirit may justly be supposed to say, “ye hold doctrines which I hate, repent, or else I will come unto you quickly, and will fight against you with the sword of my mouth.”

America has been greatly favoured by God, in all her concerns, both civil and religious, and she has much to hope, and much to fear, according as she shall attentively improve her relative situation among the nations of the earth, for the glory of God, and the protection of his people—She has been raised up in the course of divine Providence, at a very important crisis, and for no very inconsiderable purposes. She stands on a pinnacle—She cannot act a trifling or undecided part—She must determine whom she will serve, God or mammon—She stands by faith, and has great reason to take heed lest she should fall, from a vain confidence in her own internal strength, forgetting “the rock from whence she has been hewed, and the hole of the pit, from whence she has been digged.” …

Hearken then, ye who are happily delivered from many of the evils and temptations to which the European nations are exposed. Your fathers fled from persecution: a glorious country was opened to them by the liberal hand of a kind Providence;—a land, literally, flowing with milk and honey;—they were miraculously delivered from the savages of the desert;—they were fed and nourished in a way they scarcely knew how. Alas! what have been the returns, their descendants, of late years, have made for the exuberant goodness of God to them? The eastern states, however greatly fallen from their former Christian professions, were settled by a people really fearing God. “Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do thy first works, or else I will come unto thee quickly and will remove thy candlestick out of its place, except thou repent,” that is, will deprive thee of those Gospel privileges with which thou hast been so greatly favoured.

Again, Boudinot sounds like the sort of fellow who would likely add to ABS’ recent enumeration of biblical convictions. Kidd adds, “Whatever you might think of Christians today who say we need to bring America ‘back to God,’ it is a concern that evangelicals like Boudinot were expressing from the beginning of the nation.”

So just how much is Affirmation of Biblical Community a “definitive break” with the founders of ABS? Fea could well be right that compared to later developments in the Society’s history, when it became more mainline and even “liberal” Protestant, the current statement is a “hi-jacking.” But not with ABS founders who may not have supported Donald Trump but would be as obnoxious now about marriage, sex, family life, and public morality as they were then.

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New Schoolers, Neo-Calvinists, and Fundamentalists

After Darrell Todd Maurina kicked up some dust with his post at the Baylyblog on 2k, he made the following comment:

Men such as Dr. Darryl Hart have accused me in the past of holding the same position as the Bible Presbyterians and Carl McIntyre. That is an important accusation and it needs to be rebutted. If men such as Clark, Horton, Hart, and Van Drunen manage to successfully argue that they are in the heritage of Old School Presbyterianism while their opponents are New Schoolers, great damage will be done to the cause of those who oppose “Two Kingdoms” theology within the conservative Reformed world.

Well, if you look at the historical scholarship, Darrell, it gets even worse than you imagine. Consider first of all one inference that George Marsden drew in his first book, a study of New School Presbyterianism:

The most striking illustration of the similarities between nineteenth-century New Schoolism and twentieth-century fundamentalism is found in the sequel to the Presbyterian division of 1936. The newly formed Presbyterian Church of America itself was divided over a complex set of issues remarkably similar to those of 1837. The majority in the new denomination, led by J. Gresham Machen until his death . . . and then by his immediate associates at Westminster Seminary, took clearly Old School positions on each of the issues. The minority, which withdrew to form the Bible Presbyterian Synod, was led by the militant fundamentalist, Carl McIntire. McIntire, who had envisaged the Presbyterian Church of America as part of a wider “twentieth century Reformation,” soon found that he was not at home in a strict Old School tradition. The specific programs for which he fought were 1) toleration of a doctrine (dispenstational premillennialism) that the majority in the Church considered incompatible with the Westminster Confession of Faith; 2) continuation of the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions, rather than forming an official denominational mission board; and 3) adoption by the General Assembly of a statement that total abstinence from all that may intoxicate is “the only truth principle of temperance – exactly the same statement first adopted by the New School General Assembly of 1840. These programs, together with McIntires’s claim to represent “American Presbyterianism (a former New School phrase), his avid (anti-Communist) patriotism, his zeal for revivalism and legalistic reforms, his emphasis on interdenominational cooperation, and his lack of concern for strict Presbyterian polity – all indicate a continuation of the distinctly New School traditions with the fundamentalist wing of Presbyterianism. . . .

Perhaps the greatest difference between the New School evangelical movement and fundamentalist was that the nineteenth-century movement was largely successful, while the twentieth-century movement was not. The New School was not characterized by an almost total repudiation of the cultural and scientific advances of the age. Rather, it met those challenges without losing its own respectability. The New School thus advanced toward the center of American cultural and religious life, while fundamentalism was forced to retreat to the hinterlands. This, of course, is a crucial difference and makes a characterization of the New School as proto-fundamentalist s misleading as proto-liberal. The New School was in many respects a constructive and progressive religious intellectual movement with marked success in shaping American culture at large. (247, 249)

In case Darrell and other New School-like Protestants get bogged down in McIntire’s peculiarities, the point here is not that Maurina or the Baylys are dispensationalists or tee-totalers. The point is that they put the nation and its politics ahead of their theological and confessional commitments the way New Schoolers did. They want an American Presbyterianism, a faith that shapes America. In contrast, the Old School was willing to consider Reformed Protestantism as something independent or a matter than transcended the nation. The New Schoolers were Americans first and Americans second. Old Schoolers (at least some of them) were Presbyterians first and Americans second. If the United States and Presbyterianism are not the same, the order in which you put “Presbyterian” and “American” matters. (For Presbyterians from Canada or Ireland that makes perfect sense.)

But for those inclined to think that Dutch-American (notice the order) Reformed Protestants escape these parallels and analogies, consider this point that James Bratt made in an article about Kuyper and Machen:

Put in Dutch Calvinist terms: if forced to choose, Machen would let the Christian cultural task give way to the confessional church; Kuyper would force the confessional church to take up the cultural task. Put in American Presbyterian terms, Kuyper had some strong New School traits where Machen had none. To be sure Kuyper’s predestinarianism was at odds with the New Schools Arminian tints and his movement had a low impetus for “soul-saving,” but his organizational zeal was like Lyman Beecher’s in purpose and scale, his educational purposes at the Free University recalled Timothy Dwight’s at Yale, and his invocation of the “city on a hill” to describe the church’s place in a world recalled the charter image of Puritan New England which was ever the New Schools’ aspiration. In fact Kuyper honored New England as the “core of the American nation” and shared its definition of Christian liberty as a communal opportunity to do the right thing. At that Machen would only shudder. He indicted the “angry passions of 1861″ by which New England trampled on southern rights, and defined Christian liberty as the individual’s protection from the wrong thing. When put to the test, Machen endorsed the political model of Thomas Jefferson. At that Kuyper would only shudder back. (“Abraham Kuyper, J. Gresham Machen, and the Dynamics of Reformed Anti-Modernism,” Journal of Presbyterian History Winter 1997 75.4, 254)

So if folks like Maurina are going to talk about lines of historical continuity in the Reformed world, they may want to get their ducks in a row. And by the likes of these historians who taught/teach at Calvin College, the ties among Lyman Beecher, Abraham Kuyper, Carl McIntire, Francis Schaeffer may be stronger than the anti-2kers imagine.

Lyman Beecher was Prophetic

Anti-Catholicism is one of the most difficult topics that I teach on the history religion in the United States. Students today, most of whom were born about the time that the Dude was trying to recover his rug (i.e. the first Iraq War), have no understanding or feel for the sort of animus that Protestants in the U.S. once had for Roman Catholics. One of the most important expressions of anti-Catholicism came as late as 1949 when Paul Blanshard wrote American Freedom and Catholic Power, which was not an obscure monograph but a best-seller.

That sort of anti-Catholicism still haunted the days of my youth, despite the election in 1960 of the first Roman Catholic as president, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. This anti-Catholicism was seriously deficient. It drew its animus not from a defense of the Reformation and the formal (sola Scriptura) and material (justification) principles of Protestantism. Instead, it was rooted in a very anti-2k conflation of Protestantism with liberal society (in the form of republicanism and democracy). Because Roman Catholics were subject to a foreign prince (the pope), and because the Church itself was one of the most feudal and medieval (anti-modern and anti-democractic) of institutions, followers of Rome could not be “good” Americans. They were outsiders and Protestants were insiders. That’s why Protestants had public schools and Roman Catholics needed parochial (in both senses) institutions.

Lyman Beecher put anti-Catholic notions succinctly in his book A Plea for the West where he worried about the influx of Roman Catholic immigrants from Ireland and Germany (at the time a mere trickle compared to what was coming in the 1840s):

If [Roman Catholics] associated with republicans, the power of caste would wear away. If they mingled in our schools, the republican atmosphere would impregnate their minds. If they scattered, unassociated, the attrition of circumstances would wear off their predilections and aversions. If they could read the Bible, and might and did, their darkened intellect would brighten, and their bowed down mind would rise. If they dared to think for themselves, the contrast of protestant independence with their thraldom, would awaken the desire of equal privileges, and put an end to an arbitrary clerical dominion over trembling superstitious minds.

Since 1970 the old Protestant anti-Catholicism has vanished. Some of this owes to the culture wars in which evangelical Protestants have recognized Roman Catholics as some of the surest defenders of traditional morality, especially on matters sexual. Another important factor is that Roman Catholics have “gotten right” with the United States. That is, they have become some of an American way of life’s chief defenders. The process began notably with John Courtney Murray’s book, We Hold These Truths (1960). But it continues and a recent post confirms how American and modern Roman Catholics in the United States have become. Here is what Joseph Pearce has to say:

One of the truths of Christendom which lays the very foundations of freedom is the Christian insistence on the mystical equality of all people in the eyes of God and the insistence on the dignity of the human person that follows logically, inexorably and inescapably from such an insistence. If everyone is equal in the eyes of God, it doesn’t matter if people are black or white, healthy or sick, able-bodied or handicapped, or whether babies are inside the womb or out of it. It doesn’t matter that people are different, in terms of race, age or innate abilities; they are all equal in the eyes of God and, therefore, of necessity, in the eyes of Man also. This is the priceless inheritance of Christendom with which our freedoms are established and maintained. If everyone is equal in the eyes of God and Man, everyone must also be equal in the eyes of the law.

If, however, the equality of man is denied, freedom is imperiled. The belief of Nietzsche, adopted by the Nazis, that humanity consists of übermenschen and untermenschen, the “over-men” and the “under-men”, led to people being treated as subhuman, worthy of extermination and victims of genocide. The progressivist belief of Hegel, adopted by Marx and his legion of disciples, that a rationalist dialectic, mechanistically determined, governs the progress of humanity, led to the deterministic inhumanity of communism and the slaughter of those deemed to be enemies of “progress”. The French Revolution, an earlier incarnation of atheistic progressivism and the progenitor of communism, had led to the invention of the guillotine as the efficient and effective instrument of the Great Terror and its rivers of blood. The gas chamber, the Gulag and the guillotine are the direct consequence of the failure to uphold the Christian concept of human equality and the freedom it enshrines. In our own time, the same failure to accept and uphold human equality has led to babies in the womb being declared subhuman, or untermenschen, without any protection in law from their being killed at the whim of their mothers.

Apart from the connection between freedom and equality, the other aspect of freedom enshrined by Christianity is the freedom of the will and the consequences attached to it. If we are free to act and are not merely slaves to instinct as the materialists claim, we have to accept that we are responsible for our choices and for their consequences.

What is remarkable about this argument is that it is precisely the one that Protestants used to use against Roman Catholics. In other words, especially prior to Vatican II, Rome’s hierarchy was especially skeptical about republican institutions and for good reason given how the French Revolution played out for the Church in France. But now Rome seems to be fully on board with those very institutions that Protestants embraced to justify themselves to the wider world. Winthrop’s city on a hill morphed into Wilson’s war to make the world safe for democracy.

What is also important to notice is that just as Protestants had to adapt (and liberalize) their faith to underwrite the U.S. project by giving up Calvinism’s notions about divine sovereignty and human sinfulness (think Finney and Fosdick), so Roman Catholics like Pearce (anyway) have forgotten that Thomas Aquinas was a predestinarian who believed that the human soul was incapable on its own of free will. In other words, the United States first assimilated Protestants to Americanism and now it appears that it is also working its wonders with Roman Catholicism.

The only immunity appears to be two-kingdom theology. It allows you to defend republican (or sacral monarchical) ways in one realm, and divine sovereignty in the other. No muss, no fuss (if only).

Second Thoughts about Two-Kingdom Theology

I am reading (and reviewing) a book about religion and politics in the United States and came across a quotation from Lyman Beecher — who put novelty into New School — about the influence clergy had on Connecticut politics:

I remember that while at New Haven we had a meeting to consult about organizing a society for the promotion of reform. We met in Judgje Baldwin’s office; and a number of the leading lawyers were invited to meet us, some seven or eight perhaps. We took up the subject, and discussed it thoroughly, Dr. Dwight being the chairman of the meeting, and such men as David Daggett, Judge Baldwin, Rog^ Minot Sherman participating.

That was a new thing in that day for the clergy and laymen to meet on the same level and co-operate. It was the first time there had ever been such a consultation between them in Connecticut in our day. The ministers had always managed things themselves, for in those days the ministers were all politicians. They had always been used to it from the beginning.

On election day they had a festival. All the clergy used to go, walk in procession, smoke pipes, and drink. And, fact is, when they got together, they would talk over who should be governor, and who lieutenant governor, and who in the Upper House, and their counsels would prevail.

That sounds amazingly civilized. So if we can add elders to the consultations between clergy and civil magistrates and maintain the festivities, I’m willing to reconsider distinctions between the temporal and eternal realms.

A Proposal On Which All Anti-2kers May Unite

I know that not all anti-2kers get along. Heck, the Baylys seem to have banned Rabbi Bret from participating in all the fun over at their free wheeling discussions. Meanwhile, Dr. K., who may be the longest winded of 2k critics has appeal to Bret but may be too Dutch for the Baylys. Then there is the transformer of transformers, Tim Keller, who is not outspokenly critical of 2k but whose theology confuses the kingdoms on route to the polis. And despite Keller’s desire to Christianize the culture, it does not measure up to the standards set by the Baylys, Rabbi Bret, or Dr. K.

So I propose the following statement as a basis on which all transformers, left or right, theonomic or benevolently imperial, Geneva or Big Apple, may unite (no fair doing a Google search to look for its origins):

God’s redeeming work in Jesus Christ embraces the whole of man’s life; social and cultural, economic and political, scientific and technological, individual and corporate. It includes man’s natural environment as exploited and despoiled by sin. It is the will of God that his purpose for human life shall be fulfilled under the rule of Christ and all evil be banished from his creation.

Biblical visions and images of the rule of Christ such as a heavenly city, a father’s house, a new heaven and earth, a marriage feast, and an unending day culminate in the image of the kingdom. The kingdom represents the triumph of God over all that resists his will and disrupts his creation. Already God’s reign is present as a ferment in the world, stirring hope in men and preparing the world to receive its ultimate judgment and redemption.

With an urgency born of this hope the church applies itself to present tasks and strives for a better world. It does not identify limited progress with the kingdom of God on earth, nor does it despair in the face of disappointment and defeat. In steadfast hope the church looks beyond all partial achievement to the final triumph of God.

“Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to do far more abundantly than all we ask or think, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.”