Is Donald Trump Mainstreaming Apostasy?

While Mike Horton zeroes in on the personalities associated with Word of Faith who will be speaking or praying (or speaking in tongues) and the presidential inaugural, not to be missed is the rest of the clergy assembled. Among them, Cardinal Timothy Dolan:

Dolan will be the first Catholic to take part in a presidential inauguration in 40 years, since President Jimmy Carter’s in 1977, the Religion News Service reports. Rabbi Marvin Hier will be the first Jewish clergy involved since Ronald Reagan’s in 1985.

His inclusion “may reflect, in part, homage to the Jewish faith of Trump’s daughter and son-in-law,” Black said. Eldest daughter Ivanka Trump, a convert to Orthodox Judaism, is moving to Washington and expected to serve as a stand-in to the First Lady.

The broad faith representation may also reveal a desire to please the American electorate, more pessimistic about the president-elect than any of his recent predecessors. According to the Pew Research Center, Trump’s overall campaign grade is the lowest among any presidential candidate—winning or losing—since it began collecting data in 1988.

White is the only pastor from Trump’s group of evangelical faith advisors scheduled to speak at the inauguration. The Mormon Tabernacle choir is slated to perform. Trump has downplayed the celebrity factor in his confirmed guest list. So far, Carter is the only former president expected to attend.

Horton puts his objection this way:

Thanks to the First Amendment, Christian orthodoxy has never been a test for public office. But it is striking that Trump has surrounded himself with cadre of prosperity evangelists who cheerfully attack basic Christian doctrines. The focus of this unity is a gospel that is about as diametrically opposed to the biblical one as you can imagine.

But is it fair to say “surrounded”? Kevin Kruse, who teaches at Princeton puts it this way:

“The traditional tasks of an inaugural—bringing the country together and setting an uplifting and unifying agenda for the future—are even more pressing for president-elect Trump,” said Kruse. “And that, I suspect, is why he’s enlisted a much larger lineup of clergy to speak at the inauguration than his predecessors. He knows he needs their help in elevating the tone and, in turn, elevating his presidency as well.”

Either way, a confessional Protestant could object to every religious figure scheduled for the inauguration. Especially in the year that Protestants commemorate the Reformation, shouldn’t Calvinists be up in arms about a Roman Catholic bishop at the event? Why single out Paula White? Looks too much like Megyn Kelly?

Who Will Review in that Great Day?

Our Virtuous Commonwealth of Pennsylvania correspondent sends us news of a book, From Heaven He Came and Sought Her, on limited definite atonement. It features chapters by:

Raymond A. Blacketer, Henri A. G. Blocher, Amar Djaballah, Sinclair Ferguson, Lee Gatiss, David Gibson, Jonathan Gibson, Matthew S. Harmon, Michael A. G. Haykin, Paul Helm, David S. Hogg, Robert Letham, Donald Macleod, J. Alec Motyer, cJohn Piper, Thomas R. Schreiner, Daniel Strange, Carl R. Trueman, Stephen J. Wellum, Garry J. Williams, and Paul R. Williamson.

It comes with endorsements from:

J. I. Packer, D. A. Carson, Michael Horton, David Wells, John Frame, Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., Ligon Duncan, and Kelly M. Kapic.

So who is left who teaches theology or historical theology to review this book? And will those people feel all that kindly to a book whose editors overlooked them?

Sometimes publishers go overboard with endorsements and take out of circulation people who should be reviewing the book. Of course, endorsements may sell more books than reviews. But I doubt it.

Which Historical Actors Will Stand In That Great Day?

Something that Bill Evans wrote about 2k has me wondering about the way we use and abuse the past. He made the standard reductio ad hitlerum argument that discredited an idea by historical actors who used it. In this case, Evans tried to show how 2k prevented German Lutherans from standing up to Hitler, and from there it was an easy leap to tar 2k with defenses of slavery:

. . . we do well not to underestimate the impact that our increasingly negative cultural situation has on our theology. To paraphrase Peter Berger on the sociology of knowledge, this cultural context provides a key “plausibility structure” for our thinking. It informs our sense of what is plausible and possible. And so, in the face of an increasingly hostile and seemingly intractable cultural situation many are concluding that real transformation is impossible. It is to be lamented that, in order to provide an ecclesiological framework for such pessimism, some have turned to positions that have been implicated in the toleration of real and palpable evil by Christians. Here I’m thinking of the Two-Kingdoms doctrine employed by some so-called “German Christians” to justify silence in the face of the Nazi regime, and the exaggerated conception of the spirituality of the church as it was used to defend the institution of chattel slavery in the antebellum South.

This was roughly the same time that Mike Horton also tried to separate himself from certain proponents of 2k who defended slavery:

. . . Southern Presbyterian theologians who labored indefatigably to defend slavery may have cloaked some of their arguments in appeals to the church’s spiritual mission, but they were calling the state to perpetuate the institution from the pulpit and classroom lectern. I have in mind especially R. L. Dabney and James Henley Thornwell, who based their arguments on a vision of a Christian society that would make the South the envy of the world and enemy of revolutionaries everywhere. Their arguments for slavery were not based on the spirituality of the church (I’m not even sure how they could be) but on racist dogmas, Scripture twisting, and wicked cultural prejudices that vitiated the gospel. Charles Hodge was exactly right when he said that Thornwell was using the spirituality of the church as a cover for his errors. Assimilating Christ to culture is the sort of thing that the spirituality of the church is especially designed to guard against.

(By the way, the way you use spirituality of the church to defend slavery is to argue, as folks like Charles Hodge did, that the Bible does not condemn slavery. I understand that introduces a touchy subject. But to do justice to the southern Presbyterians, you do need to do justice to their exegetical arguments, something that Eugene Genovese and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese did — and if a former Marxist turned Roman Catholic can perform that feat, surely a Reformed Protestant can.)

You can go to other places to see how these ways of posing the issue don’t do justice to the historical actors. For instance, Matt Tuininga did a good job of showing that Lutherans were as much responsible for the Barmen Declaration as was the Reformed Barth (even though practically no one, neither Lutheran nor Reformed, was interested in severing ties between state and church). And others point to a troubling relationship between at least some neo-Calvinists and those who collaborated with the Nazis who occupied the Netherlands. Meanwhile, I tried to point out that racism was not something that exclusively afflicted the Southern Presbyterian theologians who defended slavery. It even afflicted the pretty good emancipator, Abraham Lincoln, who on the eve the Emancipation Proclamation told a “Committee of Colored Men,” “even when you cease to be slaves, you are yet far removed from being placed on an equality with the white race.” Lincoln added, “It is better for us both to be separated.” (Quoted in Louis P. Masur, The Civil War, 43) (This was the same Lincoln who also said in his first inaugural that slavery was legal according to the Constitution. In other words, slavery was a legally and theological contested issue then even if it is not today.)

The dead, in other words, are people too. Scoring points on their failings does not seem to be particularly charitable or self-interested (since one day we won’t be around to defend ourselves or the limitations of our historical moment). It is not simply bad history to sort through the past for heroes and villains, since part of what historical scholarship attempts to do is understand something that is a foreign place. Such sorting also presumes that we are free from similar historical constraints that color our judgments and actions, or worse, that we reside at a time when moral reflection is as good as it ever was — the ethical parousia.

Of course, Jason and the Callers have a different problem with history — one where they do not seem to be able to comprehend the villainous things their heroes did. And since their heroes are supposed to protect the church from error, it supplies a little glitch in their argument to find that the alleged heroes erred.

But if Jason and the Callers ignore the past, Protestant historical cherry-picking is no less troubling. The past should help us to understand the clay feet that we all have. It should also make us cautious about determining the good and the bad saints. Of course, it is impossible today to defend Nazism or slavery. But part of what history does is help us understand why people even with good intentions (paving the road to hell) were loyal to Hitler or defended slavery. For Calvinists this is Total Depravity 101. Sin afflicts everyone, even when we try to show that we are better than our ancestors, or when we try to discredit our neighbors on the basis of what ancestors did or thought.

History doesn’t come to us wrapped in a pretty package that opens to reassuring truths. Just read the Old Testament. It’s a troubled world back there. It still is.

Not So Fast

Neo-Calvinist lions have buried the hatchet with two-kingdom lambs, at least according to Matt Tuininga’s report on Mike Horton’s roundtable discussion of 2k with Covenant College faculty earlier this week:

When it comes to the two kingdoms doctrine and Christian liberal arts institutions like Covenant College (the college of the Presbyterian Church in America) in Lookout Mountain, Georgia there may not be that much conflict after all. That, at least, is the conclusion to which one might come in response to a panel discussion on the topic yesterday between Michael Horton, a professor at Westminster Seminary California, and several Covenant College faculty.

The proof of agreement (though Dr. K. is not buying) comes from a list of propositions that Horton believes 2kers and neo-Calvinists affirm. I paste them below italicized but offer comments in normal font. I do so not to be disagreeable but to attempt to clarify the disagreements (I still regard Mike as a better drinking companion than Mark Dever, and now we have a lot to discuss over adult beverages):

1) Both clearly distinguish the form of cultural and political engagement obligatory on Christians from the model of Old Testament Israel.

If neo-Calvinists look to the Bible for models of political engagement, where are they looking other than the Old Testament since the New Testament is silent on political strategies unless you count “my kingdom is not of this world” as a form of political engagement. In which case, the neo-Calvinist insistence on biblical politics (see James Skillen) paves the way for theonomy even if Kuyperians are uncomfortable with Greg Bahnsen.

2) Both maintain a sharp critique of the militancy and culture war mindset that marks much of the Christian Right, which has its own version of the social gospel.

Since many neo-Calvinists do actually denounce 2kers for not lending adequate support to the culture wars or for criticizing statements like the Manhattan Declaration (think Chuck Colson, Nancy Pearcey, and some disciples of Francis Schaeffer — say, didn’t Schaeffer have a connection to Covenant?), I am waiting to see the neo-Calvinist critique of culture war militancy. Criticizing the evangelical baptism of the Republican Party and George W. Bush does not count.

3) Each perspective affirms basic neo-Calvinist concepts concerning common grace, the antithesis, and sphere sovereignty.

This is one of the more agreeable affirmations in the list, but the fine print is important. Since some neo-Calvinists construe the antithesis in a way that obliterates the proximate goods of the earthly secular city, or insist that special revelation must interpret general revelation (fine, but what if the Bible is silent on plumbing?), affirmation of antithesis is not going to produce synthesis. Meanwhile, this 2ker finds the notion of common grace unhelpful. Christianity already has good doctrines — creation and providence — that teach what common grace attempts to affirm. Adding grace to something common only gives license for speaking about realms like culture and politics redemptively. As for sphere sovereignty, see here.

4) Both seek to distinguish the work proper to the institutional church (church as organization) and the way in which believers serve Christ and witness to his kingdom in every area of life (church as organism).

Perhaps, but all of that talk about kingdom work and every member ministry leaves me thinking that neo-Calvinists share with evangelicals an inability to understand the kingdom of Christ aright, that is, as a realm of redemption (as opposed to creation and providence). In other words, the American Historical Association is not but the visible church is, as the Westminster Confession teaches, the kingdom of Jesus Christ.

5) Both agree that Christians cannot bring the kingdom of God to earth through their cultural work.

If this is true, why did Abraham Kuyper describe the cultural task as holy?

6) Each perspective insists that Scripture has much to say about how Christians should be involved in culture through their vocations.

Maybe, but 2kers are much more cautious about reaching for their Bibles to justify their political, philosophical, or scientific convictions and tasks. That is to say, that 2kers come closer to the Belgic Confession’s distinction between the books of general and special revelation than Kuyperians do. Those cosmological passages (e.g. Col. 1:15-20) give neo-Calvinists inches that look like the entire canon.

7) Both agree that the church must proclaim what the word of God says about God’s law to the state, while avoiding false claims to expertise in matters of economics or policy.

Actually, 2kers are much more inclined to cite Westminster Confession chapter 31.4 on the church’s duty to refrain from meddling in civil affairs, while neo-Calvinists (or those inspired by its broad claims) are inclined to tell government officials how they are godless nincompoops.

8) Both affirm that while the actual objective work of Christians often looks similar to that of unbelievers, in terms of motivation, worldview, and sometimes objective results such work is profoundly different.

Some 2kers wonder whether anyone can be as self-conscious as w-w language suggests. They even think that when a mother sees her child spill a plate of spaghetti over the new dining room carpet she is not necessarily thinking about how she can glorify God or extend Christ’s Lordship when she instructs little Sammy about the importance — for the eleventh time — of staying in his chair, sitting up, and not playing with his food. Some 2kers even think that this believing mother will act to rear her child in ways common to most female parents (as part of the created order) rather than consulting a Kuyperian handbook on child discipline and carpet cleaning. (She may wish for a neo-Calvinist cookbook that would yield a recipe for spaghetti sauce that little Sammy would eat.)

9) Both affirm the value of Christian parachurch organizations like colleges and seminaries, while at the same time preserving the liberty of Christians to participate in non-Christian organizations as well.

The irony here is that denominational colleges like Covenant and Calvin fail to meet neo-Calvinist criteria of sphere sovereignty and in so doing put their respective churches in an awkward place of having to oversee matters over which their pastors and elders have no competence (such as the arts and sciences, since the Bible does not reveal German, Shakespeare, or Austrian economics).

I apologize if these comments rain on the warm and fuzzy fog that descended on Lookout Mountain, but many points of disagreement remain to be clarified.

And one of the greatest is the very criticism that 2kers regularly endure from neo-Calvinists. Notions of sphere sovereignty, church as organism or institute, w-w, and cultural engagement are not in the Reformed confessions. In other words, they have never been confessional matters, that is, until neo-Calvinists expressed shock — simply shocked — that 2k thinking is going on here. Do 2kers ever receive praise for defending the gospel (as in justification by faith alone), the regulative principle (of Reformed worship), the importance of keeping the Lord’s Day holy, what the Second Commandment says about images of God, or maintaining a lively opposition to the errors Roman Catholicism? 2kers have taken positions on all of these pieces of Reformed faith and practice that have been central to Reformed Protestantism’s development and witness. Neo-Calvinists, in contrast, have been largely silent on these same topics. Yet, neo-Calvinists react to 2k as if its teachings were a denial of the fundamentals of the Christian religion.

That is why some 2kers (me, anyway) are not going to join any common affirmation with neo-Calvinists until Kuyperians show that they can tell the difference between Reformed Protestantism’s central and peripheral matters.

Postscript: Matt also summarized Horton’s presentation with these lines about the spirituality of the church:

[Horton] clarified that the two kingdoms doctrine does not amount to a distinction between material and immaterial things but between the present age and the age to come. For that reason he rejected versions of the doctrine of the spirituality of the church that have been used to argue that the church should not speak out against patent evils like the racial slavery of the Antebellum South.

This is the second time within the last month or so that Mike has taken a swipe at the spirituality of the church. Without getting into a lengthy discussion, I would try to correct this assertion by noting that the reason some Presbyterians did not speak out against slavery was not to preserve the spirituality of the church. The reason was that Paul and Jesus and Abraham and Moses did not speak out against slavery. Whether or not Presbyterians read the Bible correctly, they were starting with Scripture and from that followed the spirituality of the church — as in the church may not speak where the Bible is silent. It is the same idea that led and leads some Presbyterians to oppose the church’s support for the Eighteenth Amendment and the church’s ban on women serving in the military.

Can Epistemologically Self-Conscious Calvinists Get Along?

A letter to the editor in a recent issue of New Horizons set me thinking once more about the objections to two-kingdom theology that prevail among those Reformed Protestants most attached to Dutch Reformed figures or ideas. The assertion in question stated that “our epistemological self-consciousness must be thoroughly present at every point of the discussion of [interactions between Reformed Protestants and Roman Catholics].” The letter took exception to comments Michael Horton made about Immanuel Kant and the moral law that provides a basis for believers’ cooperation with non-believers in the common realm: “Even the philosopher Immanuel Kant retained an infallible certainty of ‘the moral law within’ after rejecting supernatural religion.” William Dennison, the letter writer, rues Horton’s assessment of Kant and argues that “any true Van Tilian should be deeply disturbed by such a statement.”

The point worth reflecting on here is not the rival assessments of Kant or whether Horton was actually endorsing Kant. It is instead the impression created that epistemological self-consciousness will lead to a rejection of Kant. I myself remain worried about the kind of pride and even self-delusion that the project of epistemological self-consciousness may nurture. In fact, this past Sunday at the URC in Anaheim the congregation confessed sins corporately in ways more in keeping with the “heart is desperately wicked, who can know it” than with the possibility of bringing Christian truth to bear on all parts of our waking existence.

The thing is, I am pretty confident that Mike Horton is self-conscious of being Reformed and of the claims of Christ upon his thoughts and actions. I am not sucking up to Mike. I am simply raising the possibility that epistemological self-consciousness does not produce uniform judgments. One epistemologically self-conscious believer may recognize value in Kant’s morality, another may esteem Hegelian idealism. But does a disagreement in judgment mean that one party is guilty of epistemological appeasement? Will the epistemologically self-conscious agree on whether or not to eat meat offered to idols?

The two-kingdom payoff is that most of the proponents of 2k that I know have a long list of theological reasons for such advocacy. In other words, 2k is not simply a capitulation to secular society as if 2kers are going along to get along. Instead, 2k stems from serious reflection on the truths revealed in Scripture and confessed among Reformed churches. I get it that many don’t see it that way. But disagreement with other ways of construing the relationship between church and state, or between the eternal and temporal realms (such as neo-Calvinism or theonomy) does not mean that 2k lacks epistemological self-awareness. In fact, some of us would claim that 2k takes more biblical and theological claims into account than other efforts to bring a Reformed w— v— to bear on politics.

So if the epistemologically self-conscious may have different assessments about the value of Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony or about the merits of Quantum Theory, is epistemological self-consciousness any guarantee of victory in debate? I don’t know how it could be (and I am awfully aware of this knowledge thanks to a second cup of coffee).

Christ and Whatever

This video has been making the rounds and it reminded me of how inexact the current evangelical understanding of culture is. Many assume that culture is everything that the church or religion is not and so Christianity and culture need to be brought into a coherent relationship. The problem is that this understanding of culture is about as precise as the adolescent quip “whatever.”

For instance, here is an on-line dictionary definition of culture:

1. the quality in a person or society that arises from a concern for what is regarded as excellent in arts, letters, manners, scholarly pursuits, etc.
2. that which is excellent in the arts, manners, etc.
3. a particular form or stage of civilization, as that of a certain nation or period: Greek culture.

In other words, culture used to refer generally to the arts, education of a liberal variety, morals, manners, and languages. This definition arose chiefly in the eighteenth and nineteenth century when European nations were caught up with their superiority over barbarian continents and peoples. That’s not meant to be a swipe against the notions of higher, lower, and middle-brow cultures. It is to suggest that we are using the word today when talking about “the transformation of culture” in a different way than it was originally employed. Since language is essential to culture, the idea of transforming English or Dutch or Swahili according to — what, Christian rules of language? — makes about as much sense as transforming culture.

What is not used nearly as much — in fact, seldom — by evangelicals is the phrase “civil society” and this is much closer to what people mean when they talk about transforming culture. Civil society refers to all of those spheres of life outside control by or regulation from the state. It is comprised of clubs, community organizations, schools, and voluntary associations of all kinds including churches, for starters. And what characterizes civil society, as opposed to culture, is pluriformity and diversity. A healthy civil society is one in which people form distinct associations to address separate parts of human existence. A Kuyperian might be tempted to speak of sphere sovereignty when thinking about civil society but in a healthy society voluntary associations far outnumber the spheres.

But what is particularly frustrating about contemporary appeals to culture and its need for transformation is that the Bible fails to yield a definition of culture or describe a Christian one for that matter. The notion of culture is much later than Hebrew or Christian times and the concept is simply absent in Scripture. That sure is an oddity if Christians are more then ever agitated to Christianize the culture.

Of course, the remedy, as usual, is to read the likes of a Russell Kirk, T. S. Eliot, or Joseph Epstein on culture and what makes for a wholesome one, and let the Bible speak for itself about matters of faith and practice. Authors who do not go to the Bible for the details of a healthy culture do go to another divinely revealed book whether they know it or not — general revelation. If evangelicals spent more time reading secular authors on culture, and less time trying to find cultural patterns or norms in holy writ, they might deflate the scope of culture and find less reason to transform it. And that in turn might elevate the importance of word, sacraments, and prayer.