Moderate Presbyterians, Irish or American

Seeing the looks on Ben Preston and Craig Lynn’s faces last week while recording a session on J. Gresham Machen, I worried not only that American indelicacy had run up against Irish sensitivities, but also that the Orthodox Presbyterian habit of being opinionated had offended the moderate sense of the Presbyterian Church of Ireland ministers.

As it happens, while waiting for a meeting with staff at Union College (Ireland’s equivalent of Princeton Theological Seminary), I found a copy of the Presbyterian Herald, the Irish equivalent of New Horizons. I read an article about church attendance that I am not sure could have been published in the OPC’s magazine. The author wrote this:

Christian ought to be encouraging of and encouraged by para-church organisations which seek to spread the gospel. Being committed to such enterprises, however, before the local church is idolatry, for God will not share the glory of his church with another (Isaiah 42:8).


Membership of and support for para-church organisations, whether mission agencies, evangelicist bands or cultural/religious institutions must all come after commitment to the local church and never before.

Imagine what American Protestantism would look like if The Gospel Coalition adopted that set of priorities.

David French is to Conservatism what Tim Keller is to Presbyterianism

This is a follow up and updates this in the light of even more chatter.

Sohrab’s Ahmari’s critique of French-ism, the outlook of the evangelical attorney and Iraq War veteran, David French (not to be confused with Moby), who writes for National Review was over the top. But it did capture a problem in French’s above-it-all-I-just-follow-the-Declaration-and-Constitution self-fashioning. That is one of putting convictions into practice and forming institutions to maintain them.

French says his outlook consists of:

“Frenchism” (is that a thing now?) contains two main components: zealous defense of the classical-liberal order (with a special emphasis on civil liberties) and zealous advocacy of fundamentally Christian and Burkean conservative principles. It’s not one or the other. It’s both. It’s the formulation that renders the government primarily responsible for safeguarding liberty, and the people primarily responsible for exercising that liberty for virtuous purposes. As John Adams said, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

The problem is, as William F. Buckley saw when he founded National Review, that holding up the ideals of classical liberalism requires taking sides. You nominate candidates, vote in elections, and decide on laws and policy. You may believe in the Bible, by analogy, but you need to interpret it, write a creed, institute a polity, and decide who may be ordained to ecclesiastical office. Simply saying that you believe in the founding or in the Bible without taking a side politically or denominationally is to fly in a hot air balloon above the fray — except that you’re receiving a pay check from either a magazine that has for over fifty years been taking the movement conservative side of interpreting the founding or a denomination that has identified for forty years with a American conservative Presbyterian rendering of the Bible.

Both French and Keller don’t want to be partisan or extreme which is why they reach for the high-minded origins of either the U.S. or Christianity. They don’t want to fight alongside others. They may employ their own arguments either in court or as a public theologian but having the backs of others in a particular group is not the way they seem to carry it.

No Machen’s Warrior Children here.

This is why Rod Dreher sees Ahmari’s point, namely, that French positions himself above the clamor of division or controversy:

I concede that I’m more of a classical liberal than I thought I was, in that I resist a coercive political order. I am willing to tolerate certain things that I think of as morally harmful, for the greater good of maintaining liberty. Not all sins should be against the law. Again, though, there’s no clear way to know where and how to draw the line. Sohrab Ahmari uses Drag Queen Story Hour as a condensed symbol of the degrading things that contemporary liberalism forces on the public.

I am a thousand percent behind Ahmari in despising this stuff, and I am constantly mystified by how supine most American Christians are in the face of the aggressiveness of the LGBT movement and its allies, especially in Woke Capitalism. I am also a thousand percent with Ahmari in his general critique of how establishment conservatism tends to capitulate to cultural liberalism.

But French has the virtue of being virtuous, which is why Alan Jacobs sees the National Review correspondent as merely being a good Christian:

I disagree with David French about a lot of things — especially what I believe to be his sometimes uncritical support for American military action — but I admire him because he’s trying. He’s trying to “take every thought captive to Christ.” I believe that if you could demonstrate to David French that positions he holds are inconsistent with the Christian Gospel, he would change those positions accordingly. Among Christians invested in the political arena, that kind of integrity is dismayingly rare.

Hey, Dr. Jacobs! I try too. But the day I see you come alongside confessional Presbyterians and say, “they are simply trying to live out the Christian gospel” I’ll book a flight to Waco and buy you a drink.

But Jacob’s reaction is precisely the problem. To regard French’s politics as simply trying to be consistent with Christianity — aside from being a violation of two-kingdom theology — is to ignore that politics requires getting dirty and making compromises. It is not a place to pursue holiness and righteousness — though it is an occupation worthy of a vocation.

So, while David French takes his stand with Burke, Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Jesus (as if those add up to anything coherent), French-ism is nowhere in Matthew Continetti’s breakdown of contemporary conservatism — trigger warning for #woke and Neo-Calvinist Christians who want their politics to come from either the prophets or the apostles:

The Jacksonians, Mead said, are individualist, suspicious of federal power, distrustful of foreign entanglement, opposed to taxation but supportive of government spending on the middle class, devoted to the Second Amendment, desire recognition, valorize military service, and believe in the hero who shapes his own destiny. Jacksonians are anti-monopolistic. They oppose special privileges and offices. “There are no necessary evils in government,” Jackson wrote in his veto message in 1832. “Its evils exist only in its abuses.”

…Reform conservatism began toward the end of George W. Bush’s presidency, with the publication of Yuval Levin’s “Putting Parents First” in The Weekly Standard in 2006 and of Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam’s Grand New Party in 2008. In 2009, Levin founded National Affairs, a quarterly devoted to serious examinations of public policy and political philosophy. Its aim is to nudge the Republican Party to adapt to changing social and economic conditions.

…Where the paleoconservatives distinguish themselves from the other camps is foreign policy. The paleos are noninterventionists who, all things being equal, would prefer that America radically reduce her overseas commitments. Though it’s probably not how he’d describe himself, the foremost paleo is Tucker Carlson, who offers a mix of traditional social values, suspicion of globalization, and noninterventionism every weekday on cable television.

…The Trump era has coincided with the formation of a coterie of writers who say that liberal modernity has become (or perhaps always was) inimical to human flourishing. One way to tell if you are reading a post-liberal is to see what they say about John Locke. If Locke is treated as an important and positive influence on the American founding, then you are dealing with just another American conservative. If Locke is identified as the font of the trans movement and same-sex marriage, then you may have encountered a post-liberal.

The post-liberals say that freedom has become a destructive end-in-itself. Economic freedom has brought about a global system of trade and finance that has outsourced jobs, shifted resources to the metropolitan coasts, and obscured its self-seeking under the veneer of social justice. Personal freedom has ended up in the mainstreaming of pornography, alcohol, drug, and gambling addiction, abortion, single-parent families, and the repression of orthodox religious practice and conscience.

For those keeping score at home, that’s Jacksonians, Reformocons, Paleocons, and Post-Liberal conservatives. None of them are “classical liberals.” History moves on and requires people to choose.

PCA Blues

Maybe I can beat Aquila Report with the scoop on this one (thanks to our chortling correspondent). In response to Lane Keister’s post about how the Federal Visionaries won a rightful place within the PCA, Lee — a Pirates fan who pastors in Nebraska, so he must be reliable (whatever) — posits this (which is “what I’m sayin’” but better said):

Lane thinks the FV guys won and took over, and I think that a 3rd party took the opportunity run off the TR’s (for lack of a better term) and gain complete control. I think the “evangelical middle” as Lane refers to them has always had designs on running this denomination.

Let me take you back to the Presbyterian Pastors Leadership Network and 2002. They pushed Good Faith Subscription and a change in the way of GA taking original jurisdiction. Now the change to BCO 34-1 and original jurisdiction failed, but the PPLN won. 40 Presbyteries agreed, it just was short of the 2/3rds required. Thus the majority of the PCA thought Presbytery discipline was enough. Couple that with the Good Faith Subscription, which in my opinion gave more wiggle room to those who disagree with the confession, and the groundwork is set.

That lead nicely into Presbyterians and Presbyterians Together in 2006 (which is no longer on the internet but my summary is still up). This was a clear call from many men that prosecution of others would not be tolerated. This was not so much the FV men courting the evangelical middle, this was the establishment of the PCA saying they wanted the FV men and could do without the TR guys. Lots of Covenant Theological Seminary men signed this document. This is of course the same year that The Missouri Presbytery Report of FV came out, which was an attempt to split the middle, and would later serve as the basis for clearing Rev. Jeff Meyers, who was on the committee. So, too, by the way, were Bryan Chapell, C. John Collins, and David Chapman of Covenant Seminary.

Then comes the 2007 FV report at GA. Now this was heralded by the TRs as a great moment, but really it meant nothing. This is one reason it was able to get such a wide margin vote. The groundwork had been laid that Presbyteries could let in whoever with Good Faith and that the prosecutors in trials are the bad guys. And this report was in no way judicial so why fight it.

Then Lee goes through the case against Steve Wilkens and finally comes to TKNY:

Enter into the debate now the powerful Tim Keller. Published author, featured in magazines, and pastor of a huge church in New York City. Keller gives a speech in June of 2010 about what is so great about the PCA. While I disagree with a lot of Keller’s historical analysis, the main point of Keller’s paper/talk was to promote the idea that the PCA is a diverse body and should remain that way. Clearly then those who are trying to get rid of a subgroup are in the wrong. There was a lot that went into the Strategic Plan that the PCA bounced around and they did change some of it, but they still created “safe spaces” and they advanced their overall agenda of the PCA being a “big tent” denomination, a “big tent” that included the FV. Only those who do not want a “big tent” are not welcome.

The point Lee helpfully makes is that history rarely offers up watershed moments. Most historical episodes are part of developments that have long been percolating in seemingly insignificant acts or statements. It is only historians (and screenplay writers) who turn the ordinary into drama. (That’s why they pay one of us the big bucks.)

Shooting Fish in a Barrel

Back around the time that Justin Taylor was yet again calling attention to Calvinist anger issues, Pat Robertson made some embarrassing comments about people suffering from Alzheimer’s. No need to repeat those words here since so many made sure that so many more did not miss Robertson’s embarrassment.

What is noteworthy about the recent Robertson kerfuffle, especially from the perspective that sees sappiness afflicting evangelicals, is discerning what prompts sunny-side up bloggers at the Gospel Coalition to exchange a happy-faced button for one with a frown. Since Justin linked to Russell Moore’s piece on Robertson for Christianity Today, we have one example. Since Justin also went on record against Rob Bell even before he had read the book on hell, we have another. And then we have the posts about angry Calvinists.

That tallies up to Pat Robertson, Rob Bell, and angry Calvinists as all worthy of Gospel Coalition opposition. If I do my math aright, that means that TGC is against extremism and for moderation (read: nice). My calculations may be off. But I’m reasonably confident of my findings.

Which is why I would find more instruction from TGC bloggers and writers if they took on not so easy targets, that is, if they could show discernment in situations requiring tough calls rather than simply condemning what is obviously worthy of condemnation. (What makes Downfall a great movie is that Hitler and the Nazis emerge as three-dimensional figures.) Do they not see that even the good guys sometimes are wrong? And do they not see that you might help out the good guys not by linking to their latest inspiring video but by actually criticizing said guy of goodness when he goes bad.

To that end, I have an instance of good evangelicals going off the rails in ways that surely would have benefitted from a court room more than an echo chamber. It’s from a while ago, so it is of no real relevance to today’s conversations, except to note that evangelicals can be a fickle lot and in need of hectoring

What I am referring to is “A Protestant Affirmation on the Control of Human Reproduction,” a statement originally published in 1968 in Christianity Today with Carl Henry’s and Harold Lindsell’s blessing. I only know about this because one of my colleagues at Hillsdale, Allan Carlson, is coming out soon with a book on evangelicals and contraception, which is a fascinating and troubling read. Here is what the nice and orthodox evangelicals (remember, they didn’t want to be mean like fundamentalists) thought was biblically permissible and evangelically acceptable in 1968:

The Bible does not expressly prohibit either contraception or abortion;

The prevention of conception is not in itself forbidden or sinful providing the reasons for it are in harmony with the total revelation of God in the individual life;

The method of preventing pregnancy is not so much a religious as a scientific and medical question to be determined in consultation with the physician;

There may be times when a Christian may allow himself (or herself) to be sterilized for compelling reasons which appear to be the lesser of two evils;

About the necessity and permissibility for [abortion] under certain circumstances we are in accord;

The prescriptions of the legal code should not be permitted to usurp the authority of the Christian conscience as informed by Scripture;

Changes in state laws on therapeutic abortion that will permit honesty in the application of established criteria and the principles supported in this statement should be encouraged;

Much human suffering can be alleviated by preventing birth of children where there is a predictable high risk of genetic disease for abnormality; [and]

This Symposium acknowledges the need for Christians’ involvement in programs of population control at home and abroad. [quoted in The Family in America, Fall 2010]

Sometimes, even the nice guys, like the mean, wrong, and crazy guys, go off the rails.

Update: for the entire piece by Allan Carlson which includes the affirmation above, go here.

Moderation Coalition

Is it just me, or has a pattern emerged among the leaders of the Gospel Coalition – namely, to regard Reformed Protestants as extreme?

First, Ray Ortlund compared TR’s to the Judaizers in Paul’s Galatia.

The Judaizers in Galatia did not see their distinctive – the rite of circumcision – as problematic. They could claim biblical authority for it in Genesis 17 and the Abrahamic covenant. But their distinctive functioned as an addition to the all-sufficiency of Jesus himself. Today the flash point is not circumcision. It can be Reformed theology. But no matter how well argued our position is biblically, if it functions in our hearts as an addition to Jesus, it ends up as a form of legalistic divisiveness.

Then came Tim Keller who riffed on Martin Lloyd Jones to warn against what Reformed Protestants are known for – arguing about doctrine:

However, whenever Lloyd-Jones takes up the importance of doctrine, he always points out that there is a danger on the other extreme. He speaks of some Christians and says “There is nothing they delight in more than arguing about theology” and they do this in “a party spirit” (p. 24). One of the signs of this group is that they are either dry and theoretical in their preaching, or they can be caustic and angry. They have “lost their tempers, forgetting that by so doing they were denying the very doctrine which they claimed to believe” (p. 24). In short, ministers who go to this extreme destroy the effectiveness of their preaching. What is the cause of this? Lloyd-Jones answers that they have made accurate doctrine an end in itself, instead of a means to honor God and grow in Christ-likeness. “Doctrine must never be considered in and of itself. Scripture must never be divorced from life” (p. 25).

And now John Piper warns against the tendencies of pride among the Reformed.

Reformed people tend to be thoughtful. That is, they come to the Bible and they want to use their minds to make sense of it. The best of them want to make sense of all of the Bible and do not pick and choose saying, “I don’t like that verse. That sounds like an Arminian verse, so we will set it aside.” No! Fix your brain, don’t fix the Bible.

The kind of person that is prone to systematize and fit things together, like me, is wired dangerously to begin to idolize the system. I don’t want to go here too much, because I think the whiplash starts to swing the other direction, and we minimize the system, thinking, and doctrine to the degree that we start to lose a foothold in the Bible. . . .

Hanging on with the danger I am speaking of is pride—a certain species of pride. There are many species of pride, and this is just one of them. You can call it intellectualism. There is also emotionalism, but that isn’t the danger we are talking about right now. Intellectualism is a species of pride, because we begin to prize our abilities to interpret the Bible over the God of the Bible or the Bible itself.

This is a strange tendency with the Gospel Coalition since in the evangelical world, GC draws much more from the Reformed than the Wesleyan side of adherents. The only explanation can be that hanging around with Reformed-leaning types the way that Ortlund, Keller, and Piper do, they apparently do not want to be confused with the mean, proud, or idolatrous type of Reformed Protestant. This explanation gains plausibility when you consider that Lutherans and Dispensationalists are not too shabby when it comes to doctrine and intellectualism. And yet, no one seems to bring these Protestants up, even though the United States has many more Lutherans and Dispensationalists than it does Reformed Protestants. (Compare the enrollment at Dallas Seminary to both Westminsters, or membership in the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod to the PCA and the OPC combined!!!)

What is bothersome about this constant refrain of “Reformed meanies” is the failure of Ortlund, Keller, and Piper to acknowledge that the Reformed faith came to these men and their libraries (not to mention their communions in the case of Keller), not through avoiding extremes but by way of contending militantly for the faith. If we didn’t have belligerents like Bullinger, Ursinus, Knox, Erskine, Hodge, or Van Til, we would not have a Reformed faith from which to draw, no matter how moderately we try to do it. And the reverse is also true: when Reformed Protestants are not militant, that faith withers and eventually dies.

In which case, when will the Gospel Coalition folks understand that moderation leads to equivocation?