Luxury Denominations

Paul Helm took time to review/respond to On Being Reformed, the public debate between some Baptists (and others who aspire to be Reformed) Reformed Protestants who still hold either to the Three Forms of Unity or the Westminster Standards (yes, with revisions about the magistrate ALREADY!). Along the way, Helm makes an observation that has something to do with differences between the US and the UK.

This debate has smothered a different approach, that of verstehen, of ‘smelling the coffee’. It is one thing to argue the (false) claim that our confessions of faith have remained unchanged since the Reformation, another wonderful thing to live by their gracious doctrines. With others, to rejoice in the privilege of being ‘in Christ’. As already stated, it is a singular, remarkable providence that three of our English confessions are word for word almost identical in Reformed soteriology, including the classic catholic trinitarian and incarnational positions. We could therefore unite here, and encourage each other thereby, even strengthening our grasp of our respective confessions, like ironing sharpening iron. Is that not a distinctive form of Reformed religion, whether or not we are credobaptist or paedobaptist, even if different in our ecclesiology and in the administration of baptism. At a time when the faith is increasingly under threat, and our family life as Christians is being undermined, and as there are various popular distortions as well as ancient heresies freely peddled, to have the strengthening of distinctive Christian fellowship is a traditional activity that should outweigh our marginal confessional differences. Perhaps fostering such fellowship requires a little more social ostracism, and perhaps that will come.

As I understand it, in the UK, Calvinistic Protestants don’t have the luxury of forming separate denominations the way American Protestants do. Whether it stems from laws having to do with the established church and dissenting groups, or the small number of serious minded Protestants who regard John Calvin, John Knox, and John Owen highly, British Protestantism has fewer possibilities and resources than Protestants in the land of the free and home of the brave. Here, despite the OPC’s tiny size (don’t snicker), the United States has made Christians (and other believers) wealthier and has provided structures (or lack of them) that makes easier the challenge of establishing new institutions (congregations, denominations, schools, colleges, seminaries).

That may not make America great, but it does indicate that the US is different from the UK and the old world.

The difference that the United States makes for religion is even evident among American Jews. The Pew Research Forum conducted a survey of Jews in the US and Israel that indicates some of the differences that place and nation make for religion. Consider the following:

American Jews are a highly educated and, on the whole, warmly regarded religious minority in a very large, Christian-majority country. Jews represent about 2% of the U.S. adult population of roughly 300 million people. Only about one-third of American Jews say that either “all” (5%) or “most” (27%) of their close friends are Jewish. A substantial proportion (44%) of U.S. Jews who are married say their spouse is not Jewish – including a majority of those who have gotten married since 2000.

By contrast, Jews make up about 80% of Israel’s adult population of 8 million. The vast majority of Israeli Jews say that either all (67%) or most (31%) of their close friends are Jewish, and nearly all married Jews in Israel have Jewish spouses. There’s also very little conversion between major religious groups in Israel, while in the United States, religious switching is remarkably common, including many U.S. adults who have drifted away from organized religion altogether. In our 2013 survey, one out of every five Jewish Americans said they do not identify with any religion, even though they also said they had at least one Jewish parent or were raised Jewish, and they consider themselves Jewish in other ways aside from religion (such as culturally or ethnically). In Israel, by contrast, nearly all Jews say their religion is Judaism.

Or this:

Most American Jews are part of organized Jewish denominations or “streams,” which include the relatively large Reform and Conservative movements as well as Orthodox Judaism. In Israel, only about 5% of Jews identify as either Reform or Conservative. Instead, Jews in Israel generally place themselves into one of four informal categories of Jewish religious identity. These labels – Haredi (ultra-Orthodox), Dati (religious), Masorti (traditional) and Hiloni (secular) – are not connected to formal Jewish organizations or denominations, but instead are loose identity groups (similar, for example, to an American Christian calling herself an “evangelical” rather than a “Southern Baptist”).

Even better, watch part of the short interview with the Israeli woman who married an American Orthodox rabbi.

America is weird and that means we have the luxury of reading the confessions in ways that other Protestants do not or cannot.

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Liberalism Does Not Frame 2k

When I read Jake Meador’s index of political theologies, I was generally in agreement and thought he accurately describe 2k. I guess my biggest disagreement was over his definition of liberalism:

When I speak of liberalism, I am referring to something broader than just left-wing politics or even some brand of liberalism realized in a single discipline, such as theological liberalism.

At its heart, liberalism is concerned with how human beings know things. As a system, it is suspicious of knowledge not derived from empirical observation. Thus it is suspicious of the claims of religious faith as they inform social life. Religious practice is fine for individuals, but any attempt to enforce a set of religiously based moral norms beyond the religious individual or maybe a voluntary religious community is suspect because the knowledge is not sure enough to justify political application. Indeed, this skepticism goes beyond a skepticism toward religious faith and goes so far as a skepticism toward any kind of comprehensive moral system that claims to be true in anything beyond a particular, local sense. We simply do not trust our moral judgments enough to think they can be binding in anything beyond an individualistic, voluntaristic sense. When this epistemological agnosticism becomes pervasive in a social order, you basically have some species of liberalism.

In an odd way, these instincts can make liberalism like a more traditional Christian sort of social order. It tells us that men should be persuaded rather than coerced into belief. It tells us that there is, as one friend put it, a “just area of sovereignty,” that each person possesses. However, the way that liberalism arrives at these ideas is not necessarily through the belief in a God who rules over creation and endows his creatures with dignity, honor, and freedom. Rather, they arrive at it through a lack of confidence in the ability of anybody to wield coercive authority justly or to infringe upon a person’s autonomy.

I don’t understand why you conceive of a political order in epistemological or philosophical categories. For mmmmmeeeEEEE, liberalism was mainly a way to overcome divine right monarchy that extends from Hammurabi through to those audacious claims for the papacy by canon lawyers in the thirteenth century down to French and British kings (among others) who objected to checks upon their power. The question that liberalism (classical) tackled was not how we know but what authority is legitimate. I guess you could push that back to epistemology. But why unless you privilege philosophy?

Meador went on to describe 2k’s relationship to liberalism this way:

The best way to get at the key difference between this group and the Radical Anabaptists is to highlight the differences in how they see the church’s relationship to civil society. For these thinkers, there is no problem with Christians participating in civil society. Indeed, such participation is inevitable. That is why Dr. Moore heads up an organization dedicated to protecting religious liberty and why Dr. Leeman and a number of his colleagues with 9 Marks pastor in Washington D.C. and support church planting efforts in the capitol city.

However, the good that these thinkers hope to achieve in all societies outside of the institutional church is purely natural while the goods they hope to achieve within the church are supernatural. The institutional church is, in Leeman’s understanding, an embassy for the Kingdom of God. Thus the institutional church as such is an institution of a qualitatively different sort than any other physical, visible institutions in the world. Likewise, Drs. VanDrunen, Hart, Clark, and Trueman have all at various times gotten very nervous about what they see as an attempt to sacralize work that is rightly understood as secular.

Thus there are two core pieces that unite the Post-Liberal Retreatists:

First, they have what I take to be a realistic and appropriately sober assessment of our cultural state.

Second, they see the work to be done in non-ecclesial institutions as being primarily defensive not only in our current moment, but in principle.

The positive work of taking hold of supernatural goods happens primarily in the institutional church. Thus the Post-Liberal Retreatists are suspended, as it were, between the Post-Liberal Protestants and the Radical Anabaptists. They share a similar read of the current cultural moment with both groups. Like the Post-Liberal Protestants, they still have a place for Christian participation in civil society. Like the Radical Anabaptists, they see the work of the institutional church as being qualitatively different than the work Christians do outside the church and essentially constructive in a way that civil society participation cannot be. So they would say, with the Anabaptists, that the church is a polis, but that it is not a comprehensive polis in the way that the Anabaptists use the term.

That sounds fair enough. But it locates 2k too much within the categories of the pre-modern and modern West. In fact, much of the blow back that 2k receives comes from Protestants who have a soft spot for Christian establishment in the form of the confessional state, whether Geneva’s City Council, Scotland’s monarch, or the Netherlands’ republic. Most critics of 2k want a Christian society of some kind. 2k is suspect, then, because it won’t support such a desire or programs to achieve such a society.

But what if Christendom or post-Christendom are not the only options? What about pre-Christendom? Here the idea is not that the time before Constantine was ideal but that a religiously diverse or even a religiously hostile environment is normal. It’s what Jesus and the apostles faced. Those are the conditions under which the church emerged and the canon established. For that reason, modern Christians should not think that either Christendom or a Christian friendly liberal government (like the U.S. before 1965) are the default settings for the church. Christianity can persist in any number of circumstances. It can be like the Old Testament promised land, like the Israelites in exile, like the early church under the domination of Rome, or even like Scottish Presbyterians in covenant with a divine-right monarch. Christianity is flexible. It’s not tied to one political order.

This perspective seems to inform Proto-Protestant in his assessment of political liberalism. Notice that he starts by identifying the way that Rome used to regard liberalism and the United States:

Classical Liberalism so poignantly represented by the United States was viewed as poison and a triumph of the secular over the sacred. Rome sought to protect its flock from the influences of American ideology. Classical Liberalism was the spawn of the Reformation’s triumph of the individual. The lone man was allowed to challenge and cast down all authority. This is the sociological aspect to Luther that many Protestants have failed to grasp. The individual gets to decide what is right and wrong and the Reformation unleashed epistemological uncertainty and the social chaos which began the long process of dismantling Christendom.

The Reformation led to Modernism and as a consequence Post-Modernism and now Nihilism.

Undoubtedly there is some truth to this narrative and the post World War II period has brought about a time of intellectual reconsideration on the part of Evangelical Protestants and not a few defections to both Rome and Constantinople. The political Papacy utterly defeated by the late 19th century reformed its teaching and came up with a new paradigm for the industrial secular age. Consequently it allied first with Fascism then with the West (in general) at the conclusion of the war. It began to build a new empire, one wed to the Capitalist forces so dominant in the Protestant world and joined the fight (real or imagined) against world Communism. Today Rome no longer rules a geopolitical realm but instead reigns over a vast financial empire and has regained a little of its lost ground.

Evangelicals have been forced to reckon with the problems of Christianity wed to Classical Liberalism and as I’ve written elsewhere there are tendencies both toward revisionist history and increasingly in the direction of abandoning Liberalism for a more Roman Catholic-friendly Throne and Altar type paradigm.

So if Protestants don’t follow Roman Catholics, where do they turn? The Bible and in so doing they abandon the sufficiency of Scripture. Protestants have made Scripture do more than it was supposed to:

There is undoubtedly much that is valid in the critique of Classical Liberalism and in what the Reformation unwittingly unleashed. And for this reason the glorification of Protestantism which is at its zenith in this 500th anniversary year, ought to be weighed carefully if not rejected.

But the truth of the critique is limited to the sociological realm.

The true problem is not individualism (which can indeed work to destroy society) but the attempt to formulate Sola Scriptura into a comprehensive societal worldview. That was a rival philosophical project rooted in speculation and dependent on speculative philosophical coherence… thus it fragmented.

The Reformers only began to toy with this question. Luther, perhaps the more conservative of the Reformers was content to sustain the Medieval-Renaissance order and sit under the protection of a so-called Christian prince. Calvin’s Geneva moved in the direction of Authoritarian Republican government. Zwingli took up the sword (so to speak) and died by it on the battlefield.

It was in the 17th century that Protestant Scholasticism began to earnestly reckon with the implications of the Reformation applied to society. It was at this point that Sola Scriptura as a social organising principle failed. Rightly so I would add, as the New Testament nowhere even envisions a Christian State/Christendom project. In fact it repudiates the very notion of it.

In wedding Reformation theology to the Christendom project the Protestant Reformers and certainly the Scholastics after them undermined their own vision and sowed the seeds for epistemological collapse. They employed (and even exploited) the Scripture for something it was not meant to be used for. In the end their project exploded into the 17th century Wars of Religion and ultimately undermined not only their social vision… but their theological and ecclesiastical hopes as well….

But even granting the narrative that Liberalism and Modernism were the natural outgrowth of Protestant theology applied to society, then such a notion must be condemned as sub-Biblical. It does not represent New Testament doctrine either in its concepts of values. Confidence in reason? I think not. Rights? The individual? Progress? None of the concepts are found in the New Testament. Only deformed Judaizing hermeneutics can locate them through distorted readings of the Old Testament.

If liberalism is not the basis for evaluating politics or its reaction to Christendom, the proper starting point for political theology is as Paul Helm recently observed Christ’s teaching that his kingdom is not of this world. Proto-Protestant explains what that means for 2k (even if he does not self-identify as 2k):

Speaking generally if both paradigms were and are wrong, what then are we to make of the so-called and very misnamed Judeo-Christian West? Not much. As a society it has some very good things about it and many that are rightly condemned. Christian it is not. And the more it is associated with Christianity the more problematic it becomes.

As pilgrims we understand that this world is not our home. We look for a city to come, a new heavens and new earth. We can live and function as the salt and light Oracular Church in any culture and civilisation. That said, some will be more pleasant than others. But pleasant isn’t always better, especially if it leads to laxity, complacency and confusion. Though not pleasant the most spiritually vivacious times of my life have been during periods of hardship and opposition. It’s not pleasant to live that way but the antithesis becomes razor sharp which spiritually speaking is healthy. It’s a good place to be. If goods, lands, and prosperity are set aside and no longer important to me, then hardship becomes certainly less hard. The yoke of suffering, the burden of Christ to which we are called, becomes a little lighter.

And though on a practical level I lament the downfall and paganising trajectory of the West … spiritually speaking it’s probably the best thing that could happen. The widespread apostasy is like a forest-burn. In the end it will make for a healthier forest. The forest to which I refer is not society, but the Church. Don’t ever confuse the two.

While on the one hand I celebrate the fact that the Protestant Classical Liberal narrative is being exposed as a lie… both doctrinally and historically, I am concerned that many Protestants are quickly succumbing to an equally problematic lie… the Pre-Liberal Throne and Altar vision of Medieval Roman Christendom.

If Jake Meador had started with the church in exile and Christians as pilgrims as the frame for his index, he might have used a this-worldly (immanentize the eschaton) vs. an otherworldy (don’t immanentize the eschaton) division. That one even pits 2k against Anabaptists since the latter regard (as I understand it) the company of believers as an outworking of “the perfection of Christ.”

History Doesn’t Have Sides (take it from a professional)

Citizens of the U.S. have become used to presidents talking about “the right side of history”:

Most recently, during his December 6 Oval Office address on terrorism, Obama said: “My fellow Americans, I am confident we will succeed in this mission because we are on the right side of history.” It’s a phrase Obama loves: He’s used it 15 times, in debates; at synagogues; in weekly radio addresses; at fundraisers. Obama is almost as fond of its converse, “the wrong side of history,” which he has used 13 times; staffers and press secretaries have invoked it a further 16. (These figures are all based on the archives of the American Presidency Project at the University of California Santa Barbara.)

But the expressions are hardly original to Obama. Bill Clinton referred to “the right side of history” 21 times over his time in office, while his staffers added another 15. Clinton also mentioned the “wrong side of history” several times. Ronald Reagan, for his part, wryly resurrected Leon Trotsky’s relegation of the Mensheviks to the “dustbin” or “ash heap of history.” Speaking to the British Parliament in 1982, the Gipper said, “The march of freedom and democracy which will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash-heap of history as it has left other tyrannies which stifle the freedom and muzzle the self-expression of the people.”

That kind of naivete from the smartest people in the country (minus Reagan, of course) makes you (okay mmmmeeeeEEEEE) wonder what it feels like to lose and be on the wrong side of history (now Democrats know how Jerry Falwell felt in 1993).

But this is not simply an American problem. Paul Helm (not licensed as a historian) points out that history is not so readily categorized as right or wrong. But it is the legacy of the Enlightenment and a departure from Augustinianism:

This idea of history having a ‘side’, which is liberal, enlightened and so on, harks back to the enlightenment of the 18th century, to the emergence of what David Hume called ‘these enlightened ages’, in sharp contrast to the side of the ‘dark ages’ of medievalism. The idea is that such a surge as the Enlightenment, having begun, is inevitable, tending unstoppably in one direction. This side of history is on the move to better times, and so if we wish these times for ourselves and others, we had better get on the right side. And that direction becomes ‘obvious’ to those with enlightened minds.

The forces of darkness, of barbarism and superstition, are history’s other side, its faltering side, the side of those intent on ‘turning the clock back’, impeding or interrupting and so delaying its progress. Sooner or later history’s other side is to be decisively supplanted by the enlightened. So that dark side is destined to fail. The light side of history will succeed. Who wants to be left behind? So do not get left behind, for the Light and its forces will ultimately triumph over Darkness, reason against unreason, liberty against slavery, and so on. This is somehow connected with what Herbert Butterfield and others referred to as the Whig interpretation of history. Though this seems to have been, insofar as it existed, a gentler version of the current ‘sides of history’ view, at least insofar as it is view of history that is the outcome of ongoing parliamentary debate. In fact it may be said that so long as freedom of speech and the working of government and opposition in Parliament continues, the enlightened ages continue.

One implication is a lesson for those who think progressively about Christianity making the world a better place (read transformationalism). Don’t mimic Enlightenment progressivism:

Also linked with the winning side of history view is the idea of Western leadership and hegemony, which causes the rising sun to shine on the Sunny Side until the entire world basks in it. These are the engines of light. Currently these are the forces of globalism, international corporatism, and the waging of the war against global warming. Its personal ‘values’ include unlimited tolerance, and the freedom from offendedness of various kinds, along with the renouncing of the vestiges of nationalism and popularism, two currently-favoured examples.. Though it is said that we are living in a post-Enlightenment period, the confidence of the Enlightenment persists. Whatever ‘post-modernism’ is, it is not pessimistic.

The solution? Thinking like aliens and strangers, not conquerors and transformers:

It is a feature of living ‘between the times’ that God’s activity in history, his macro activity we might call it – cannot be correlated with the ebb and flow of history. Why is this? Because there is now no fixity between the events in history and the saving purposes of God. The only possible exception is the history of the church. But that is also rather uncertain. During the eras if special revelation – in the call of Abraham, and the history of Israel, and of course in the coming into flesh of the eternal Son, there is redemptive history in something like the usual sense of history. There were times in which the purposes of God with those with eyes to see, could be discerned. Through the ebbing and flowing, a trajectory of the divine redemptive purpose is discernible. But no longer. There is no ‘open vision’. Attempts to make a connection between historical states as the centuries roll, and the redemptive purposes of God are doomed. . . .

Such an understanding of history and the place of the Christian church in it throws into sharp relief the New Testament teaching on Christians as pilgrims and strangers, whose citizenship lies exclusively in a future city whose maker and builder is God. Any ‘Christian’ activity which seeks to impact dimensions of this present age and its cities –through social policies, political agendas, or arts and crafts – as so many expressions of Christian faith, inevitably compromises the root importance of a pilgrimage of men and women who otherwise may agree on little else, but whose eyes and hopes are in the New Jerusalsem. Besides these, the questions of history, its various sides and significances, matter not.

Helm should add, this outlook is not inspiring. No conferences on “Embrace the Suck” or “Endure the Uncertainty.”

What’s To Prevent the Nationality of the Church?

I have already wondered where the PCA’s corporate confession of the sin of racism will lead. Sean Lucas’ article on the spirituality of the church in the freshly e-minted theological journal, Reformed Faith and Practice, makes me wonder more.

One of the takeaways of Lucas’ article is the fair point that Southern Presbyterian ministers and assemblies used the spirituality of the church to avoid speaking out about Jim Crow or even to defend white supremacy. Lucas makes that point stick when he observes the way that Presbyterians ignored the spirituality of the church when it came to alcohol or evolution:

And southern Presbyterians had a difficult time knowing where the line was between spiritual and secular realms. One example of this was the church’s long-standing support and advocacy of abstinence from alcohol. From 1862 on, the southern Presbyterian General Assembly repeatedly advocated teetotalism, reprobated the sale of beverage alcohol, and urged people to “use all legitimate means for its banishment from the land.” Finally, in 1914, as the political process began that would produce the Volstead Act, the General Assembly declared, “We are in hearty favor of National Constitutional Prohibition, and will do all properly within our power to secure the adoption of an amendment to the Constitution forever prohibiting the sale, manufacture for sale, transportation for sale, importation for sale, and exportation for sale of intoxicating liquors for beverage purposes in the United States.” Notably, there was no hue and cry in the Presbyterian papers by conservatives about this action as a violation of the spiritual mission of the church.[11]

Another example of blurring the lines between the so-called spiritual and secular realms occurred in the 1920s over the teaching of evolution in the public schools. In North Carolina, the key leaders who opposed evolution both in the public schools and at the University of North Carolina were Presbyterian ministers, Albert Sidney Johnson and William P. McCorkle. In 1925, the Synod of North Carolina adopted resolutions that called for “a closer supervision to prevent teaching anything [in the public schools]…[that contradicted] Christian truths as revealed in the Word of God.” They also “demanded the removal of teachers found guilty of teaching evolution ‘as a fact.’” Again, beyond the rightness or wrongness of the action, the main point here is that the spirituality of the church doctrine did not prevent these Presbyterians from intermeddling in civil affairs outside the “spiritual” realm of the church.[12]

But does inconsistency really invalidate the principle? Political conservatives argue for U.S. independence in foreign affairs and then turn around and support a big military and wars of intervention in the Middle East. So we forget the policy and just send more troops to Syria? Or do you perhaps think about reaffirming the wisdom of the policy in the face of the inconsistency and ask for practice to reflect doctrine?

The problem is that Lucas is not merely calling for the PCA to be consistent. He wants the church to bring transformational grace to the world:

. . . the way forward for all of us will be our common commitment to what the church as church should be and should be doing. Central to that life together will be the ministry of the Word, the administration of the sacraments, and prayer. And as we use these effectual means of our salvation, what we will find is that the grace that comes to us through them will transform us. It will drive us out into our world to share the Good News of Jesus, but also to live that transforming Gospel in tangible ways, as we love justice and mercy, as we extend ourselves in risky ways into the lives of our neighbors. This Gospel will not leave us alone and cannot leave us the same. After all, King Jesus is making his world new now through you and me—his grace transforms everything.

That sounds pretty good, as if the world will be better when we stop erecting boundaries that cut “off the ‘spiritual’ from the rest of life.” But surely, Lucas recognizes the value of making distinctions between the civil and ecclesiastical realms. I mean, would he want the PCA to affirm a motion that called for the United States to make Christianity the official religion? Or would he want the PCA to endorse a roster of political candidates — Clinton over Trump? Or how about the PCA being salt and light with the State Department and opening diplomatic talks with North Korea? Does the ministry of the word, administration of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, or church discipline give the PCA leverage to apply its spiritual insights to the secular and temporal affairs of U.S. politics? Why stop with national borders? Why not Europe? Why not the world? I can’t believe Lucas favors that kind of mission creep. But from the Baylys in the Rust Belt to Tim Keller in NYC, many in the PCA want the communion to be transformational. Is race really the way to do this?

This is an odd development since the point of the spirituality of the church seems evident to many who are not even Machen groupies. Paul Helm once again contrasts favorably two-kingdom theology to the medieval one-kingdom approach among those nostalgic for Christendom:

The current focus on the Two Kingdoms has been on secular society and the fact that it is distinct from the church. That’s freedom, we rightly think, to be free from such things as the obligation to transform culture in the name of Christ. But actually it is only one side of freedom. Christian freedom has not only to do what we are commanded to do or to abstain from doing by the government of the day, but also from what some church or sect, or social group or cultural mood, may try to require of us, or do require of us, that would be sinful. Not permitted by the Word of God, but forbidden by it.

Meanwhile, Carl Trueman comes out for the Benedict Option precisely because of the inherent problems of ecclesiastical overreach:

Maybe the Benedict Option and my own proposed Calvary Option are really two ways of saying the same thing—that the church needs to be the church and Christians need first and foremost to be Christians before they engage the civic sphere. Maybe our current problem is therefore not that society is secularizing but rather the opposite—that the American church is finally being forced to desecularize. This will be painful. It will involve hard choices. It will involve increasingly obvious differences between the church and the world.

I doubt either Helm or Trueman would disapprove of efforts to acknowledge the racism that sometimes lurked among the proponents of the spirituality of the church. But does that acknowledgment necessarily involve abandoning a distinction between the kingdom of grace and the civil kingdom, between grace and the world, between redemption and external justice?

Why you can’t apologize for racism (in other ways) and continue to support the spirituality of the church is beyond me.

Paul Helm Shows 2k Isn’t Hard to Understand or Affirm

Dr. Helm is on a roll. First he defends 2k from charges of quietism and includes this poignant remark:

Those who advocate a Christian view of this or that fail to recognize the seriousness of what they are proposing. To have a Christian view of X is to be committed to proclaiming it as the word of God which Christians have an obligation to uphold and propagate.

In other words, redeeming culture or doing things Christianly may inspire, but the claims bite off more than the claimants can chew — namely, invoking Christianity brings norms that believers seldom apply to the variety of callings in which they find themselves.

Then, Dr. Helm observes how John Owen could have used a dose of 2k for the brief time he believed that England was the greatest nation on God’s green earth:

What happened to Owen’s theology can be explained in two phases. In the first phase his understanding of the accepted Reformed understanding of the secret will and revealed will distinction changed shape during the Commons sermons. As we saw earlier the distinction, as Owen understood this, is between what God decrees, reserved to himself, and what he requires, his revelation. Owen extended the revealed will, the promises, from ‘generals’ to include the particular contemporary and future events in the British Isles about which he preached to the House of Commons, going beyond what he had said were secrets to include the unfolding events of the Civil war and their significance, and in particular to the military operations in Ireland. He daringly attributed to what he said of these the character of God’s revealed purposes, long prophesied, in turn giving rise to Christian precepts.

It is likely that his relative youth, sudden promotion to Cromwell’s side, and the way of thinking exhibited in his sermons, had turned his mind. He believed he was in the cockpit of the unfolding of God’s plan for England, foretold by the prophets, and that he was their mouthpiece. The outcome was assured.

If it can happen to the orthodox Puritan, Owen, perhaps we can give Ted Cruz a pass.

You Can't Spell Presbyterian with "Me"

My personal advice to any American Protestant is never to interrupt a debate between two English dissenting Protestants about celebrity pastors, but when one of them, Paul Helm, calls the other, Carl Trueman, a Presbyterian perfectionist, afflicted with “Bannerman’s Disease,” and “the zeal of a convert,” I can’t resist.

There are books of Church Order to be read, the contents of which are mastered by the lawyer-types of the church, and I confess that I do not find these a very satisfying genre. But besides this, I know without looking, that presbyterianism, like any such human system, leaks all the way. It leaks through nods and winks, through unattributable comments, through what is said and what is not said. Human society cannot be otherwise. We all know of poor people who have to protest their innocence all the way up, in courts of law and in Christian denominations, and that have been ruined by the attendant exposure, quite apart from the weeks and months of strain while documents are prepared and friendly counsel advised and the day of judgement awaited…. I say, in such circumstances thank God for religious consumerism. At least the aggrieved party can walk away, find another place of worship, and still earn a living.

I fancy that Carl goes on about this because he suffers from a sort of presbyterian perfectionism. Call it Bannerman’s Disease. A cynic might say that he has the zeal of a convert. When he bids us all to think with him of the church of Christ as a remnant, as living its life as if in exile, I’m with him all the way. And as I said in the post, I agree with critiques of the Big Men such as his. But not with the cure-all of Presbyterianism. The Black Book does not solve the bugbear of accountability. And the point is, if there’s nothing better in the Church of Christ that presbyterianism, let’s at least acknowledge its flaws. Carl recognizes the imperfections of the human natures of those that thumb the Black Book, and this is welcome. And this was my point. A perfect system administered by those with imperfections is de facto imperfect. Spurgeon famously said (from memory) ‘For me “lead me not into temptation” means “keep me off the committee”’.

Helm is right in a general Protestant church-is-imperfect sort of way that Presbyterianism leaks. But the system of church government that Calvin developed has real assets that Helm too readily ignores. Imagine, for instance, a faculty meeting where provost, department head, senior professor, and lecturer are all equal and you have some sense of the dynamics of session or presbytery. Or imagine a meeting of politicians where queen, prime minister, and back benchers are all equal, with the same authority, same access to debate, the same number of votes — 1. Presbyterianism is the great leveler and is no respecter of celebrity, age, fame, or Facebook friends. And because the meetings of elders are regular and absences must be excused by the wider body, to be Presbyterian is to be involved in a regular pattern of attendance where you are just one more member with no more rank or privilege than the guy sitting next to you. You have 12 books. He doesn’t have a Masters degree. You have journalists from national publications seeking an interview. The guy next to you fixes leaking toilets. In Presbyterianism, if you both are ordained you are both equal.

For the sake of the temptations that had to accompany his fame, Spurgeon should have said, “committees, put me on more of them.”

And even in those odd circumstances where a single officer has broad power thanks to the consolidation of finances and administration — say in a denominational committee — in Presbyterianism that rule of one becomes a secretary of a committee. The head of the foreign missions committee, does he have powers of the purse and can he influence votes? Maybe. But he’s merely a “general secretary” in Presbyterian church government. That means he is doing the bidding of the committee on foreign missions, which is a sub-committee of the whole assembly.

You want to knock the pride out of celebrity pastors? Make them Presbyterian.

If Presbyterianism checks the sort of privilege to which bishops are prone, it also beats congregationalism. To be sure, the democratic nature of congregational polity could also restrain the kind of egotism that afflicts celebrity pastors. But more often than not, the politics of local congregations witness large clans or members with large wallets having more sway than other members or families. And pastors of independent churches often resemble bishops since they function in a capacity above the rest of the church and have no formal peers in ministry.

What Helm fails to see is that Presbyterianism, if all officers go to meetings and submit to their fellow presbyters (if they don’t, they’re not Presbyterian), by its very nature humbles the proud. And face it, famous preachers are prone to pride as much as any other celebrity. But among those churches where Presbyterian government is most evident and Roberts Rules most consulted, celebrity is hardest to discern in the deliberations of assemblies.

Presbyterianism is not a perfect solution to either the parachurch (Gospel Coalition) or helicopter church (Rome), but it has its moments.

The Evangelical Presbyterian W-w

Okay, remember this is a blog and most of the posts here are merely thinking out loud. And if all of us revealed all of our thoughts, we would likely surprise — even shock — many of those who know us.

So here is today’s conundrum: why is it that John Frame is almost as popular as Tim Keller? I say almost because TKNY obviously rocks. Yes, I concede a degree of envy. Any human, aside from Bryan Cross, would. Keller may not have the looks and charisma of a Billy Graham (neither does Frame nor — all about me — do I), but from his perch in NYC, the cosmopolitan capital of the world (for New Yorkers anyway, I’m not sure that Londoners or Romans or Istanbulus agree), and with his steady stream of books on the front shelves of national book chains and his easy access to religion journalists who don’t want to travel to Wheaton or Waco to report on evangelicalism, Keller is remarkably useful.

But what about John Frame? He has not (nor have I) been on any of the major conference circuits (Ligonier, T4G, TGC, ACE), he is not (nor am I) an exceptionally riveting speaker, and he has not (nor have I) broken through to the secular trade book market. Plus, for the last 30 years or so, he has labored in remarkably out of the way places (so have I) — the d’oh!s of Escondido and Oviedo. And yet, he continues to be the leading systematic theologian among evangelical Presbyterians. World magazine’s recent recognition of Frame’s Systematic Theology offers support for this conclusion.

Could it be that Frame’s appeal stems from his biblical literalism and devotional pietism? According to Paul Helm, these are the chief attributes of Frame’s body of work:

What motivates Frame’s theological work? I’d say, besides what has already been mentioned, a hermeneutic. The Bible, particularly the Bible’s language about God, is to be interpreted literally wherever possible. The genre of literal description is to prevail unless there s a very strong reason to disallow it. As Kevin Vanhoozer might say, the spirit of Carl Henry lives in KJV’s old teacher, John Frame. So wherever possible what God is said to be in Scripture, God literally is.

This hermeneutic is in evidence in Frame’s attitude to change in God, and to his various perspectives in time and in space, as we saw in our earlier piece on Frame’s outlook. ‘When he is present in our world of time, he looks at his creation from within and shares the perspectives of his creatures’. (570 ) ‘God engages in a conversation with man, as an actor in history. The author of history has written himself into the play as the lead character, and he interacts with other characters, doing what they do.’ (571) It would not be surprising if Frame has imbibed some of the modern outlook of the Christian religion as consisting in personal interaction between God and his creatures, despite holding that if one rejects libertarianism then the strongest argument for God being in time vanishes.

As already noted, another strong theme in Frame’s systematic theology is his concern that theology should be readily applied in the life of the believer. This is understood as having an everyday relationship with God as he interacts with his people. Such an interactive God must change, he thinks. It is important for obvious reasons that theology should be user-friendly, though it should not be forgotten that, say, Stephen Charnock’s Existence and Attributes of God contains numerous ‘applications’ in the Puritan style. Charnock’s theology is by no means purely cerebral. And – while we are on the topic – the nature of the worship of God will clearly be affected by the worshippers understanding of God. Worshipping a God who is at our shoulder is likely to be different from worshipping one who is simply ‘Our Father in heaven’. But that’s another topic.

As insightful as the post is, I do disagree with Helm’s opening that Frame “generally does not present his views polemically.” That may be true for his systematic theology, but once a warrior child it’s hard to avoid the combat.

No Need to Apologize to Me

Though a short note to Tullian Tchividjian (hereafter Double T because who can spell that?) may be in order.

Mark Jones apologizes to me — 15 seconds of my 15 minutes? — in his double-dare to Double T to debate sanctification:

Commenting on what typically happens after times of revival – sorry, D.G. Hart – James Stalker wrote: “it is no unusual thing to find the initial stage of religion regarded as if it were the whole. Converts go on repeating the same testimony till it becomes nauseous to their hearers as well as unprofitable to themselves. In the religion of many there is only one epoch; there is no program of expanding usefulness or advancing holiness; and faith is only the constant repetition of a single act.” Indeed.

If I read this right (and I am still feeling a little foggy after the flight to Dublin), Jones is saying that revivalism tends to lock converts into a certain pietistical predictability. That sounds negative. Isn’t this one more strike against revivalism? Shouldn’t Jones be thanking me for leading the charge against revivalism?

But aside from (all about) me, I do wonder about a couple of matters in this kerfuffle between opposite points on the North American Presbyterian compass. First, we have yet another theological imbroglio among PCA pastors in which the courts of the church seem to have little or no bearing. No one seems to think of this as a denominational problem even though both men are part of the same communion. Could that be because the PCA has no real theological center, even avoids striving for one? To be sure, the Federal Vision was another theological problem on the PCA’s watch and some did try to remedy that situation. But it has apparently been left to presbyteries to decide. In the meantime, ministers can talk, act, and teach what they want with seemingly little sense of obligation to what will pass in the wider communion. (What happens in NYC, stays in NYC.)

Second, the conversations about sanctification are long, historical, sometimes exegetical, and incredibly abstract. Consider Paul Helm’s reflections on the controversy surrounding Double T:

Summarising, the idea that the law is no longer to be the moral guide, a point often insisted on by those dismissed as ‘antinomian’ (rather unjustly it seems to me) is clearly mistaken. The relevance of the moral law is a view endorsed by Christ and spelled out by the apostles. So in the most extended discussion of the nature of sanctification in the New Testament, Romans 12 and 13, the command to love one’s neighbour (12.9), and not to remain indebted (13.7), the laws forbidding adultery, stealing, covetousness are summed up, as Christ himself taught, as particular instances of ‘you shall love your neighbour as yourself’. (13. 8-10) But the law in not thought of primarily as obligations, duties, but as structural directions for the new life.

And this may be thought of as providential given the varieties of circumstance that the New Testament international church of Christ may find itself in. Without being relativistic, there may be across the world and down the centuries very different ways in which the injunctions are to be taken to apply to one thing and another. We must never forget that New Testament church is an international jurisdiction, by comparison with the Old Testament theocracy. . . .

All these forms of language in themselves strongly imply that Christian moral character is formed from the inside out, by means of the renewal of the mind, by the development of those seed-graces planted in regeneration. Morality is considered not of a code of separate acts of obedience which then develop in the agent corresponding habits of mind, but as an inner renewal which brings about the practice of the appropriate actions in a properly motivated manner.

This is useful, especially the point about the varieties of circumstance that confront believers. And it is these varieties that are so far from view in the shoving contest between alleged antinomians and neo-nomians. No one really asks a simple question like: so I am home from a not-so-hard day at work and it is the customary hour for an adult beverage and maybe a little ear-time with Phil Hendrie. Should I or should I not do this in my life of sanctification? Should I instead turn to Scripture with a time or prayer? Or maybe I should try to earn a little extra money with some on-line sales scheme in order to give more to foreign missions. Or maybe I should cut the grass a couple days early so that I can spend my entire Saturday in preparation for the Lord’s Day. Can I get a little help here?

Or to give the problem even greater concreteness, can someone claim to be more sanctified now than she was ten years ago even while being impolite — interrupting someone else who is speaking — to make this claim?

Which makes me wonder if we should postpone all talk about sanctification until the talkers are willing to mention specifics. The only people allowed to talk about it, in the meantime, are pastors who are preaching on texts related to the topic, church officers and parents who are catechizing children, and church officers doing the rounds of family visitation. I will grant an exemption to scholars who are writing commentaries or works of theology, but they must confine their remarks to the manuscript. Otherwise, sanctification may be a subject best left alone lest it become something so ethereal that we can affirm it without ever having to talk about how the dying to self goes in real time.

Calling the Bluff of A2K

A2K (anti-two kingdom theology) selectively reads history. This is a point made frequently here. This selectivity is evident whenever someone invokes John Calvin or John Winthrop to put 2k down, as if the down-putter really wants to return to a society where adultery is a capital offense. (Could we settle for a misdemeanor?) I understand that A2K thinks that 2kers are also selective historically. We too invoke Calvin on the difference between the temporal and spiritual realms. But that doesn’t mean that we are blind to Geneva’s laws. It is possible to understand a theological point that may not bear political or social fruit at the time someone is making the point.

Now comes Paul Helm to repeat the point about historical selectivity:

Most adherents to the Confession of faith in fact adhere ex animo to a sanitized version, cleansed of references to Presbyterianism as the state religion. This is no small change. No more the Crown Rights of the Redeemer. Ever since the Solemn League and Covenant was rejected in England, this has been the de facto position here, different in the US in the eighteenth century, awaiting the passing into law of the Constitution and its various amendments, one of which concerned the separation of church and state.

The Westminster Confession says inter alia regarding the civil magistrate –

….they whom, upon pretence of Christian liberty, shall oppose any lawful power, or the lawful exercise of it, whether it be civil or ecclesiastical, resist the ordinance of God. And for their publishing of such opinions, or maintaining of such practices, as are contrary to the light of nature, or to the known principles of Christianity, whether concerning the faith, worship, or conversation; or to the power of godliness; or such erroneous opinions or practices, as either in their own nature, or in the manner of publishing or maintain them, are destructive the external peace and order which Christ has established in the church; they may lawfully be called to account, and proceeded against by the censures of the church, and by the power of the civil magistrate. (XX.IV)

This went off stage de facto in England in the seventeenth century, when Puritanism failed as a political project, and it failed in America some time later de jure .

The move from intolerance to what was by today’s standards limited tolerance is not a change that was prompted by theological reasoning or doctrinal revision, but it was wholly political, due at least in England to the presence in society of dissenting groups whose vigour and Christian orthodoxy and place in society could not be gainsaid. They were hear to stay.

Such a politically-inspired change had important consequences for Christology. No more are kings regarded as the foster fathers of the church, or queens their nursing mothers. (Isa. 49 22f.) Or rather, such passages have been ‘revisited’. No more is it thought that Christ has established ‘external peace and order….in the church’. No more is state support for the Reformed religion, nor state persecution of others on behalf of Reformed congregations, regarded as support for the one true religion that the state had an exclusive obligation to protect. No more are these things the norm for Confession-believing Presbyterians. Freedom of conscience. Pluralism. Toleration-Calvinism.

These comments are not meant to apply to Covenanter congregations of today. Maybe they are still praying for the fulfilment of Isaiah 49 stricto sensu for their own, and for others. But they do apply, obviously, to others who claim their pedigree by their adherence to letter of the Confession. That’s self-confessedly ‘paleo-Calvinism’ as one Covenanter said to me. And so the question is, is the dominant form, adherence to the purged Confession of Faith, let us call such a position ‘tolerant confessionalism’, a significant change in ‘Calvinism’, the Calvinism of Calvin and of the authors of the Solemn League and Covenant? It could hardly be said not to be.

These changes, both in doctrine and in practice, were not small. They obviously affected the whole ethos of Reformed religion. How much of a deviation from the original outlook was it? Does the abandonment of the early view of establishment compare in seriousness, centrality and the like compared with, say, the abandonment of exclusive psalm-singing, or of the Presbyterian ecclesiology of the early Reformed churches by Congregationalists and Baptists? Since the body of Presbyterians is not governed by a magisterium, who is to say what the answer is? How reads your Calvinometer? Nowadays there cannot be an ‘Old Calvinism’ but only an ‘Older’, not a ‘New’ but a ‘Newer’. No one possesses the copyright of the noun.

This means that we need a new category. In addition to New Calvinism, Neo-Calvinism, Old Calvinism, and Paleo-Calvinism, we need Neo-Paleo-Calvinism.

Old Life is simpler, Occam’s razor and all that.

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.