Religious Freedom — For Everyone

That is what Russell Moore says is one of his biggest policy priorities. Religious freedom certainly is on the lips of most U.S. Christians.

But when you hear someone like Peter Lillback, you begin to think that religious liberty is only for religious Americans (thanks to our Texas correspondent):

A careful reading of the First Amendment shows us that the concern that motivated our Founding Fathers was to protect the conscience from governmental encroachments. Twenty iterations of the language for the First Amendment ensued in the congressional debate before the final version was sent to the House on Sept. 24, 1789. Not once in any of those 20 attempts to write the First Amendment did the phrase “separation of church and state” appear. The word conscience, although it does not appear in the final form, occurs in 12 of these iterations.

Clearly, the drafters of the First Amendment wanted to protect conscience from government, not protect government from religion. This is where public theology comes in, calling for the application of religious principles to every area of life, including politics.

Washington called religion and morality “indispensable pillars” of America’s political happiness. In his farewell address, he noted, “experience has taught us that morality is impossible for a people unless it is brought to us through religious teaching.”

But what about freedom for gays and lesbians and trannies? And how in the world to you bring religion into politics and allow freedom for people to play football on Sunday, get a divorce on non-biblical grounds, or be exempt from police following home a guy who has just picked up a girl at the local bar?

In other words, lots of religious conservatives want protection from government so that they can use government to take away freedoms (okay, call it moral licentiousness) from other Americans.

That’s why the rhetoric of religious liberty is not simply hollow but disingenuous. If only Lillback and other anti-naked public square types were libertarians like J. Gresham Machen:

Against such tyranny, I do cherish some hope that Jews and Christians, Roman Catholics and Protestants, if they are lovers of liberty, may present a united front. I am for my part an inveterate propagandist; bu the same right of propaganda which I desire for myself I want to see also in the possession of others. What absurdities are uttered in the name of a pseudo-Americanism today! People object ot the Roman Catholics, for example, because they engage in “propaganda.” But why should they not engage in propaganda? And how should we have any respect for them if, holding the view which they do hold — that outside the Roman church there is no salvation — they did not engage in propaganda, first, last, and all the time? Clearly they ahve a right to do so, and clearly we have a right to do the same. (“Relations between Christians and Jews”)

I see right away that folks like Moore and Lillback will read Machen and think, exactly. We want freedom for religious groups. Seldom do religious conservatives admit, thought, that they are advocating freedom for that which they oppose, meaning, that I suppose Lillback and Moore do not favor Roman Catholicism but are on the side of Luther and Calvin.

So if they can advocate freedom for that with they disagree, then where do they stop? If freedom for the wrong religion, why not freedom for the wrong morality? (And get this, if everything starts from one’s presuppositions, isn’t LBGT really a religion? And so isn’t a case for religious liberty a case for LBGT on Van Tillian grounds?)

The test then is how wide are you willing to draw the circle of freedom. Here’s how wide Machen’s circle was:

Tolerance, moreover, means not merely tolerance for that with which we are agreed but also tolerance for that to which we are most thoroughly opposed. A few years ago there was passed in New York the abominable Lusk Law requiring private teachers in any subjects whatever to obtain a state license. It was aimed, I believe, at the socialists, and primarily at the Rand School in New York City. Now certainly I have no sympathy with socialism. Because of its hostility to freedom, it seems to me to be just about the darkest thought that has ever entered the mind of man. But certainly such opposition to socialism did not temper in the slightest degree my opposition to that preposterous law. Tolerance, to me, does not mean merely tolerance for what I hold to be good, but also tolerance for what I hold to be abominably bad. (Ibid)

Advertisements

Westminster Seminaries’ PR Problem (and Covenant Seminary’s Teflon)

Now that Glenn Beck seems to have moved on from the faith of the founders to the faith behind the Pledge of Allegiance, taking stock of the minor celebrity of a Westminster Seminary president courtesy of the talk-show enfomationist is possible. What stands out is how little controversy Peter Lillback’s ideas about the faith of George Washington or the Christian origins of the United States created.

One looks in vain through Google’s various search oppositions for a blogger or writer who questions Lillback’s interpretation. Sure, some have emerged. The folks over at American Creation have given serious attention to Lillback’s claims on behalf of Washington. Also, another student of the founding history professor, Brad Hart (no known relation) subjects Lillback’s Washington to the kind of inspection you’d expect from an Orthodox Presbyterian. But aside from the efforts of your humble oldlife servants, the conservative Reformed world seems to be willing to give Lillback a pass. (By the way, of some interest in this regard is the absence of news about Lillback’s appearance on the Beck show at the WTS website. When one of your faculty or administrators appears on a nationally televised broadcast – or even in the pages of the London Times – your institutional public relations engines generally rev, not to mention when one of your faculty member’s books ascends to number one at Amazon.)

Meanwhile, the folks at Westminster California can’t get off their beach blanket to enjoy the surf without the anti-2k bullies kicking sand, talking trash, and heaping scorn. (Many of these kerfuffles have received comment at oldlife. Curious readers should take advantage of the search capacity and look for “Westminster.”) Whether it is Machen’s Warrior Children, two-kingdom theology, the framework hypothesis, the republication doctrine, or natural law, the faculty at WSC have the reputation of being viral among many people (or is it a vocal minority?) who lead and flock to conservative Reformed and Presbyterian communions in the United States.

One can plausibly conclude that Lillback’s ideas are much more acceptable than those, for instance, of Meredith Kline, the apparent font of WSC’s worst features. For those who are genuinely concerned about the insights of biblical theology – and Kline was certainly in the tradition – this is a depressing even if unsurprising conclusion. Change happens slowly and convincing American Protestants, with habits of considering the United States as the New Israel, that their nation is not the site of God’s redemptive plan but that his work of salvation takes place in the church, an institution that transcends races, nations, and languages, is a hard sell. Even so, it is surprising that more people who have a background with WTS, another institution where biblical theology runs deep if not in the same direction as Kline, would not be more vocal in raising questions about Lillback’s understanding of the United States’ religious meaning and its first president’s faith.

What makes this lack of interest in Lillback’s understanding of Christian America all the more remarkable is that it goes beyond how to read George Washington to how to interpret the Bible. Lillback’s non-profit organization dedicated to faith and freedom in America, the Providence Forum, has published a Faith and Freedom Guide to Philadelphia in which the city’s top fifty historic sites are paired with biblical texts that illustrate the religious significance of the history made in the United States’ first capital. For instance, the nation’s first Supreme Court building comes with these remarks: “The Bible’s teaching on the importance of the judges maintaining justice is declared in Deuteronomy 25:1, ‘When men have a dispute, they are to take it to court and the judges will decide the case, acquitting the innocent and condemning the guilty.’” This may seem harmless enough but it is likely not the best way to divide rightly the word of truth.

When the guide comes to the Masonic Cathedral, across the street from City Hall, the brochure goes off the rails:

The Masonic Order is an international, secret fraternity that played a significant role among the officers of the American revolution. The most famous member of the Masonic Order was George Washington. While their history is debated, the tradition argues that Masonry can be traced to Hiram, who helped build the temple of Solomon that is recorded in 1 Kings 6-7. Their classic symbol is a builder’s square with a compass and the letter G. This symbol is called “GAOTU,” which is an acrostic for “Great Architect Of The Universe” suggesting the geometric orderliness of the universe that argues for a creator and designer of all things. Genesis 1:31 says, “And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good. And the evening and the morning were the sixth day” (KJV).

Not only is an effort to find a biblical origin for Free Masonry highly dubious on historical and theological grounds, but the guide seems to have little awareness that Reformed and Presbyterian churches in Europe and the United States have staunchly opposed to membership in Masonic Lodges as activity worthy of discipline. The only explanation for this intellectual construction of Masonry would appear to be George Washington’s membership. So instead of using Masonry against Washington as something that would raise questions about his orthodoxy, his identity as a Mason becomes a reason to delve into the Free Masons’ biblical origins. This raises an important question for WTS and her alumni – if it is wrong to read the Old Testament through the lens of Ancient Near Eastern Cultures, is it any better to read it through the squint of contemporary America’s culture wars?

And through it all, Covenant Seminary goes on its merry way with a president who has shepherded through the PCA’s Strategic Plan and takes a very different estimate of the United States founding from Lillback. The lack of response to Bryan Chapell’s video about America’s Christian identity, combined with his slugging percentage in PCA politics, suggests there is hope for WSC faculty who would like to enjoy the waves.

If George Washington Is Orthodox, What About Barack Obama?

Glenn Beck and Peter Lillback have teamed up again to keep the sacred fire of a civil religion burning, a strange fire that appeals to both Republican Mormons and Republican Presbyterians. Soon after his appearance on the Glenn Beck show, Lillback posted an article for the host’s website on whether or not the founders were religious. (Lillback is responding to a post at Media Matters that contends that Lillback has distorted Washington’s views.)

To make his case, the president of Westminster (Philadelphia), much like he did in his book on Washington, quotes extensively from America’s first president and other founding era worthies. Here are a few of the proof texts for the importance of religion to the original United States government.

Lillback cites a 1776 resolution from the Continental Congress that called for a national fast:

In times of impending calamity and distress; when the liberties of America are imminently endangered by the secret machinations and open assaults of an insidious and vindictive administration, it becomes the indispensable duty of these hitherto free and happy colonies, with true penitence of heart, and the most reverent devotion, publickly to acknowledge the over ruling providence of God; to confess and deplore our offences against him; and to supplicate his interposition for averting the threatened danger, and prospering our strenuous efforts in the cause of freedom, virtue, and posterity.

Lillback also offers evidence from Ben Franklin to support the idea that the founders believed in the power of prayer:

In the beginning of the Contest with Great Britain, when we were sensible of danger we had daily prayer in this room for the Divine protection – Our prayers, Sir, were heard, and they were graciously answered. All of us who were engaged in the struggle must have observed frequent instances of a superintending providence in our favor.

To that kind providence we owe this happy opportunity of consulting in peace on means of establishing our future national felicity. And have we now forgotten that powerful Friend? Or do we image we no longer need His assistance?

I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth: that God governs in the affairs of man. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid? We have been assured sir, in the Sacred Writings that ‘except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it (Ps. 127:1).’ I firmly believe this, and I also believe that without His concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better than the builder of Babel. We shall be divided by our little partial local interests; our projects will be confounded and we ourselves shall become a reproach and bye word down to future ages. I therefore beg leave to move that, henceforth, prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven and its blessing on our deliberation be held in this assembly every morning. . .and that one or more of the clergy of this city be requested to officiate in that service.

Where does all of this material lead? The point of this exercise, at least for Glenn Beck’s audience is to point out bias in both the media and academy against the idea that religion was important to George Washington and company. Lillback writes: “if truth matters to the media, and it must if Media is to really Matter, then the truth of George Washington’s words must really matter as well” He adds that “it is unmistakably clear for those who will read the original sources, and not blindly rely on the unsubstantiated historical revisionism that so often passes as scholarship today, that faith mattered greatly to our Founders.”

Is it just me or does Lillback raise the stakes of truth and impartiality in ways that may be a tad uncomfortable for himself? After all, can the media really be faulted for following the work of historians who have taught and written about eighteenth-century British politics instead of a Presbyterian parson whose own training was in sixteenth-century theology? (By the way, for an interesting, civil, educational, and religiously sympathetic discussion of the American founding, readers should go to American Creation.) Of course, Lillback has a 1,200-plus page book behind his claim. But doesn’t it seem a tad biased for this book to be published by Lillback’s own book imprint? So if Lillback wants to avoid the error of media bias or historical revisionism, then shouldn’t he found an outlet for his historical scholarship a few steps removed from his own editorial control?

This problem of bias becomes even trickier when you consider that Barack Obama has spoken favorably about Christianity and his own faith in ways even more Christo-centric than Washington. Recall, for instance, the current president’s words at the White House Easter prayer breakfast. (For the entire speech, go here.)

Of all the stories passed down through the gospels, this one in particular speaks to me during this season. And I think of hanging — watching Christ hang from the cross, enduring the final seconds of His passion. He summoned what remained of His strength to utter a few last words before He breathed His last breath.

“Father,” He said, “into your hands I commit my spirit.” Father, into your hands I commit my spirit. These words were spoken by our Lord and Savior, but they can just as truly be spoken by every one of us here today. Their meaning can just as truly be lived out by all of God’s children.

So, on this day, let us commit our spirit to the pursuit of a life that is true, to act justly and to love mercy and walk humbly with the Lord. And when we falter, as we will, let redemption — through commitment and through perseverance and through faith — be our abiding hope and fervent prayer.

If you were as inclined to read Washington’s generic affirmations of providence as charitably as Lillback does, wouldn’t you also be inclined to view Obama as an evangelical Christian? Well, the reply might be, “Obama tolerated Jeremiah Wright and so that indicates the flaws in his devotion.” But Washington’s associations were not always so clean or holy. As the folks over at American Creation have explored, Washington made favorable comments about the Universalists. One could also point out that Washington was a Freemason. So it’s not as if Washington’s faith is squeaky clean compared to Obama’s.

In which case, the reason why Washington gets an orthodox grade and Obama fails has more to do with politics than religion. Why a Federalist is more attractive to Republicans than a Democrat is not entirely obvious since the political antagonisms that divided Federalists from Democratic-Republicans during 1790s about how to be a republic free from European political pressures are a long way from issues that divide today’s Republicans and Democrats over how best to be a superpower – an entity that the founders would hardly recognize. I for one would prefer Washington’s politics to the current convictions that dominate the city named after him. But Lillback’s point is not supposed to be about politics. It’s supposed to be about taking religion seriously. So then shouldn’t we take Obama’s religion seriously? And shouldn’t Obama’s assertions indicate that the bias of secular, liberal America is not nearly as partial as Lillback and Beck assume? Or that there is plenty of bias to go round?

But if Lillback’s point is finally about the need for the media and academy to take religion seriously, perhaps he could have pointed the way by not making too much of the civil religion that went with being a colonial white Protestant of British descent. In fact, one way to take religion seriously would be to follow the counsel of the psalmist who advised not putting our trust in princes. This was the instruction that led Martin Luther to write, “That word above all earthly powers, no thanks to them abideth.” If the psalmist and Luther were right, then a serious approach to the religion of the Bible might well teach that the search for a Christian America is a foolish enterprise the fortunes of the kingdom of grace don’t depend on presidents, senators, or monarchs.

Taking religion seriously might also mean taking irreligion seriously. Part of the point of the exercise of finding a devout and orthodox George Washington appears to be to discredit those Americans who are not as inclined to think about Christianity the way that our first president did. If we can show that the American republic was originally much more friendly to religion than the current regime, the logic seems to go, then Christians have the upper hand over secularists when it comes to understanding the character and identity of the United States.

The problem with this debating tactic for Presbyterians who live in the United States – aside from the religious freedom granted by the Constitution – is that American Presbyterians’ own confession of faith recognizes a similar responsibility of the magistrate to protect the religion, as well as the irreligion, of all citizens. About a decade after John Witherspoon signed the Declaration of Independence, he helped to revise the Presbyterian Church’s confession of faith in a way that went like this:

Civil magistrates may not assume to themselves the administration of the Word and sacraments; or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven; or, in the least, interfere in matters of faith. Yet, as nursing fathers, it is the duty of civil magistrates to protect the church of our common Lord, without giving the preference to any denomination of Christians above the rest, in such a manner that all ecclesiastical persons whatever shall enjoy the full, free, and unquestioned liberty of discharging every part of their sacred functions, without violence or danger. And, as Jesus Christ hath appointed a regular government and discipline in his church, no law of any commonwealth should interfere with, let, or hinder, the due exercise thereof, among the voluntary members of any denomination of Christians, according to their own profession and belief. It is the duty of civil magistrates to protect the person and good name of all their people, in such an effectual manner as that no person be suffered, either upon pretense of religion or of infidelity, to offer any indignity, violence, abuse, or injury to any other person whatsoever: and to take order, that all religious and ecclesiastical assemblies be held without molestation or disturbance. (WCF, 23.3)

One way to read this piece of Lillback’s own confession is to suggest that Westminster’s president has not taken religious seriously enough. Not only does he seem to conflate civil religion with the genuine article, but he appears to have neglected his own communion’s teaching about the freedoms for believers and unbelievers that the state should protect. Rather than scoring points in the culture wars against liberals, Lillback’s argument boomerangs on everyone who thinks that taking religion seriously applies only to the “other” side.

What Glenn Beck and Peter Lillback Need to Know about the Church and Social Justice

The church’s mission is not social justice if, by such equity we mean the punishment of wickedness and the reward of virtue. One way to substantiate this assertion is by looking for the word “justice” in the church’s corporate witness. A word search reveals in the Belgic Confession, for instance, that justice appears in the discussion of God’s treatment of sin and the remedy in Christ (Article 20) and in the work of the magistrate (Article 36). A similar use of the word occurs in Calvin’s catechism where he talks about the justice of God in punishing sin (Q. 154), and penalties for stealing (Q. 205). Calvin also speaks of justice in connection with the second petition of the Lord’s prayer (Q. 269), and the respect for justice that accompanies sanctification (Q. 290). In the Westminster Confession, “justice” appears only in chapter three on the eternal decree (3.7), providence (5.1), the work of Christ (8.5), justification (11.3), the function of the civil magistrate (23.2), and the last judgment (33.2). If the earliest Reformed Protestants believed the church should promote social justice, they were remarkably silent both about that part of ecclesiastical duty and the very idea itself.

If by social justice, like the way that Peter Lillback used it on the Glenn Beck show, one means various ways to improve a person’s material circumstances, such as education for the ignorant, relief for orphans, welfare for the poor, food for the hungry, and medicine for the sick, the matter of the church’s duties is contested. Word and deed advocates insist that the church carries out such work indiscriminately, that is, it provides welfare to everyone irrespective of their standing within the church (no matter whether a given congregation has the capacity to provide medical or educational assistance). Word and sacrament advocates in contrast hold that diaconal work is an important and necessary ministry but that the church’s role in alleviating misery extends only to the saints (except in extraordinary circumstances). Even then, the diaconate’s commission is not nearly as broad as the welfare state’s. Diaconal work is not an excuse, then, for the church to establish hospitals, orphanages, schools, and kitchens under the oversight of the church. The doctrine of sphere-sovereignty has long put limits on the church and given many of these functions to the family.

By the way, why exactly should the church be involved in the work of humanitarian relief or social justice when a perfectly good nation exists – in the United States, anyway – for carrying out such functions? Political conservatives may well object to the idea that the American government is perfectly good or whether the state should have nanny-like responsibilities. The Bible may not vindicate the political conservative position, but given the affinity of Mr. Beck and Dr. Lillback to the Republican party, and hence to some form of conservatism, one might think that objections to the culture of dependence fostered by the welfare state (one of the many unintended consequences of good intentions) might occur to anyone who thinks the church should give out aid as freely as the state. In fact, Paul’s counsel to Timothy in his first letter (chapter five) indicates that the apostle himself was well aware of the problem of giving assistance to the undeserving poor (in this case, widows).

So if the church’s mission is not social justice or material welfare (beyond the work of the diaconate), then why is the church constantly tempted to pursue social justice? In his interview with Beck, Lillback implied that the problem of social justice comes when it is part of a liberal theological package. What he fails to see is that the church’s involvement in social reform and political activism is the way by which churches become liberal. In other words, no good form of ecclesial social justice exists. Even if the church still preaches the gospel, social justice is the means by which the church loses sight of her purpose and the significance of her message. The reason is that to argue that the church has an obligation to pursue a political or social agenda (or even a program of material welfare), the church has already become confused about the gospel and its benefits. In the words of the sociologist, Peter Berger, social justice is a form of “works righteousness.”

Three historical examples might help to make this point plausible. The first comes from the reunion of the Old and New School Presbyterians in 1869. The language of the plan for reunion was lush with references to the political circumstances of the United States after a grueling Civil War. The implicit logic was that the nation needed a Presbyterians to unite as much as it had needed to avert southern secession. Here is how the report put it:

The changes which have occurred in our own country and throughout the world, during the last thirty years – the period of our separation – arrest and compel attention. Within this time the original number of our States has been very nearly doubled. . . . And all this vast domain is to be supplied with the means of education and the institutions of religion, as the only source and protection of our national life. The population crowding into this immense area is heterogeneous. Six millions of emigrants, representing various religious and nationalities, have arrived on our shores within the last thirty years; and four millions of slaves, recently enfranchised, demand Christian education. It is no secret that anti-Christian forces – Romanism, Ecclesiasticisim, Rationalism, Infidelity, Materialism, and Paganism itself – assuming new vitality, are struggling for the ascendency. Christian forces should be combined and deployed, according to the new movements of their adversaries it is no time for small and weak detachments, which may easily be defeated in detail. . . .

Before the world we are no engaged, as a nation, in solving the problem whether it is possible for all the incongruous and antagonistic nationalities thrown upon our shores, exerting their mutual attraction and repulsion, to become fused in one new American sentiment. If the several branches of the Presbyterian Church in this country, representing to a great degree ancestral differences, should become cordially united, it must have not only a direct effect upon the question of our national unity, but reacting by the force of a successful example on the old World, must render aid in that direction, to all how are striving to reconsider and readjust those combinations, which had their origin either in the faults or the necessities of a remote past.

Now this reunion had not addressed the theological problems that had created the Old School-New School split in the first place, namely the teaching of the New Haven Theology and the denial of the federal theology on which the Presbyterian Church’s confession depended. By the 1860s those doctrinal problems seemed to be insignificant compared to the pressing needs of the nation. This was the church of Charles Hodge, by the way.

Only four decades later, the ecumenical spirit that led Old and New School Presbyterians to lay aside differences prompted American Protestants more generally to join hands to form the Federal Council of Churches. And the reason for this amazing act of ecclesial generosity was not a church synod or council that had steered a path through the polity, sacramental, and doctrinal divisions among American Protestants. Instead, the reason for unity was social justice, namely, the need for the churches to address antagonisms within the American economy and the nation’s politics that were dividing citizens of the United States along class lines. So the Federal Council’s first act was to write a new creed, a social one:

We deem it the duty of all Christian people to concern themselves directly with certain practical industrial problems. To us it seems that the churches must stand —

For equal rights and complete justice for all men in all stations of life.

For the right of all men to the opportunity for self-maintenance, a right ever to be wisely and strongly safeguarded against encroachments of every kind.

For the right of workers to some protection against the hardships often resulting from the swift crises of industrial change.

For the principle of conciliation and arbitration in industrial dissensions.

For the protection of the worker from dangerous machinery, occupational disease, injuries and mortality.

For the abolition of child labor.

For such regulation of the conditions of toil for women as shall safeguard the physical and moral health of the community.

For the suppression of the “sweating system.”

For the gradual and reasonable reduction of the hours of labor to the lowest practicable point, and for that degree of leisure for all which is a condition of the highest human life.

For a release from employment one day in seven.

For a living wage as a minimum in every industry, and for the highest wage that each industry can afford.

For the most equitable division of the products of industry that can ultimately be devised.

For suitable provision for the old age of the workers and for those incapacitated by injury.

For the abatement of poverty.

To the toilers of America and to those who by organized effort are seeking to lift the crushing burdens of the poor, and to reduce the hardships and uphold the dignity of labor, this Council sends the greeting of human brotherhood and the pledge of sympathy and of help in a cause which belongs to all who follow Christ.

Mind you, this statement, approved by the Presbyterian Church in which Benjamin Warfield was a minister, failed to supply proof texts for these proposals, thereby avoiding the “thus, sayeth the Lord” motivation that social justice needs. Even more telling was that these churches believed they could unite on points of public policy even while divided on liturgical, polity, and doctrinal matters that the Lord had indeed commanded. In other words, the social and political problems of the hour were obscuring the church’s basic teachings and practices.

A similar understanding of the relationship between the religious and the social, or the theological and political is at work recently in the Manahattan Declaration, the very statement that Lillback recommended to Beck at the end of their interview, when he said:

I would like to tell all of your listeners and Glenn, you personally, that you need to put your signature on the Manhattan Declaration. Chuck Colson spoke to me about this some months ago and he said, “Would you help me sign it?”

And I had the privilege of being one of the first 100 signatories. And basically, he said this — we need to bring together the movement of people across this country who are willing to die for what they believe in. And the things that are being challenged where the government is going to come to force us out of the convictions are the sanctity of life, our definition of historic marriage and our resounding commitment to protect rights of conscience of religious liberty.

In the Manhattan Declaration, not only have the differences among Protestant denominations been placed in the background compared to the pressing social demands of the sanctity of human life and religious liberty. Also Roman Catholics, Protestants, and Eastern Orthodoxy are now united in the name of Christ and for the sake of the gospel to advocate certain moral and social causes in the public sphere. One paragraph from the Declaration supplies the “thus, sayeth the Lord” part that the Federal Council missed:

We, as Orthodox, Catholic, and Evangelical Christians, have gathered, beginning in New York on September 28, 2009, to make the following declaration, which we sign as individuals, not on behalf of our organizations, but speaking to and from our communities. We act together in obedience to the one true God, the triune God of holiness and love, who has laid total claim on our lives and by that claim calls us with believers in all ages and all nations to seek and defend the good of all who bear his image. We set forth this declaration in light of the truth that is grounded in Holy Scripture, in natural human reason (which is itself, in our view, the gift of a beneficent God), and in the very nature of the human person. We call upon all people of goodwill, believers and non-believers alike, to consider carefully and reflect critically on the issues we here address as we, with St. Paul, commend this appeal to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.

The specific public questions that demand a Christian response are as follows:

Because the sanctity of human life, the dignity of marriage as a union of husband and wife, and the freedom of conscience and religion are foundational principles of justice and the common good, we are compelled by our Christian faith to speak and act in their defense. In this declaration we affirm: 1) the profound, inherent, and equal dignity of every human being as a creature fashioned in the very image of God, possessing inherent rights of equal dignity and life; 2) marriage as a conjugal union of man and woman, ordained by God from the creation, and historically understood by believers and non-believers alike, to be the most basic institution in society and; 3) religious liberty, which is grounded in the character of God, the example of Christ, and the inherent freedom and dignity of human beings created in the divine image.

Meanwhile, these Christians who disagree on the gospel – and hence worship God in different communions – are agreed that the matters they address are on the order of the very gospel that divides them. The Declaration states:

We are Christians who have joined together across historic lines of ecclesial differences to affirm our right—and, more importantly, to embrace our obligation—to speak and act in defense of these truths. We pledge to each other, and to our fellow believers, that no power on earth, be it cultural or political, will intimidate us into silence or acquiescence. It is our duty to proclaim the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in its fullness, both in season and out of season. May God help us not to fail in that duty.

These examples indicate that when churches engage in social or political programs invariably they lose their theological bearings and become liberal – as in, they lose sight of what is orthodox. (I personally do not think that everyone who signed the Declaration sees the tension between their own church’s faith, and the problems of cooperating with Christians who are not in fellowship with their communion. I also don’t know why they could not have formed a committee or association to pursue these matters without appealing to Christ or the gospel. One obvious reason is that a non-religious appeal lacks urgency and purposefulness.)

Conceivably, a historical example might be found that disproved this rule about social and political involvement generating liberalism – though the state churches of Europe would seem to vindicate this point in spades. But behind the historical record is a theological principle, namely, that when a church confuses the benefits of redemption with the comforts of a better life or the equitable workings of the state it has misunderstood the significance of the message it proclaims. Calvin, for what it’s worth, called such confusion, a “Judaic folly,” as in confusing the earthly Jerusalem with the heavenly one.

So what Beck needs is a better account of why social justice is code for liberal theology. Lillback missed a golden opportunity when he failed to tell Beck what the confession of his own denomination teaches about the mission of the church:

Unto this catholic visible church Christ hath given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world: and doth, by his own presence and Spirit, according to his promise, make them effectual thereunto. (WCF 23.3)

P.S. Apologies to NORM! if this is more scholarly than blogs tend to be.

Lillback on Machen on Beck


(Or, why isn’t Christianity and Liberalism outselling Sacred Fire at Amazon?)

PCA pastor, Peter Lillback, invoked J. Gresham Machen the other night on the Glenn Beck show to clear up the host’s confusion about social justice and the churches. Beck, of course, thinks “social justice” is code for liberalism, big government, and Obamanian tyranny. But Lillback, who belongs to a communion where social justice in the form of “word and deed” ministry are prevalent, thinks a better, kinder, gentler, orthodoxer version of such justice exists. And on the show he did so by turning to, Machen, the most articulate defender of the doctrine of the spirituality of the church.  Unfriggingbelievable!

Here is an excerpt from the interview:

BECK: OK. I wanted — let’s start at the beginning.

And, Peter, maybe you can help me. Just on — first of all, never happened — this is not in any founding document, social justice or any of that stuff, right?

LILLBACK: The phrase “social justice” cannot be found in Constitution or the Declaration of Independence.

BECK: OK. It also isn’t — it’s not found in the Bible.

LILLBACK: No.

Mr. Snerdling, stop the tape. God is not found in the Constitution, nor is Jesus Christ mentioned in George Washington’s deistical piety, but does that prevent folks from attributing Christianity to America’s founding documents and fathers?

BECK: OK. Give me the origins of social justice.

LILLBACK: Well, let’s start in the context of Westminster Seminary. The man who started the school where I’m the president, J. Gresham Machen, wrote a book that revolutionized the 20th century. It was called “Christianity and Liberalism.”

And basically what he said is, is that liberals claim to be Christians, they use all kind of Christian vocabulary, but they give them different meanings. And that Christianity and liberalism are two different religions.

And that is the core of what you deal with now, really, a century after Dr. Machen started Westminster Seminary. The words are Christian, but they have been redefined. . . .

LILLBACK: Well, let’s put it this way: Going back into the late 1800s, there were others that were wrestling with social problems.

BECK: Right.

LILLBACK: And we think of the name Washington Gladden or Walter Rauschenbusch. These were great theologians that were trying to address problems of orphanages and lack of education.

Stop the tape again! Gladden and Rauschenbusch, the leaders and theorists of the Social Gospel were “great” theologians? If so, in what class does that put Warfield and Hodge?

BECK: Right.

LILLBACK: And there have always been social problems that need to be addressed and they were calling the church to do it.

But what had happened is that they begin to lose focus in the truth of the Bible. They stopped believing — as you called it — the individual character of salvation. Instead of one coming to the cross to find Jesus Christ as a crucified, buried and risen savior, the one who saved sinners, they started to turn to society. And they said salvation is when the society feeds you, when it gives you clothes, when it gives a better hospital.

BECK: Right.

LILLBACK: When it keeps your house from burning.

Now, all of those things were good, but that’s not the gospel. Those are implications of the gospel.

And what liberalism did is that it said, we no longer can believe in Jesus as God or Jesus crucified and risen and coming again. We can’t believe that. So, what we’ve done is we kept all the language and we’ve changed its meaning.

And that is social justice thinking: It’s liberalism in the cloak of Christianity. That was Dr. Machen’s fundamental insight.

This is a very confused reading of Machen, Christianity, and liberalism, and we shouldn’t fault the Mormon Beck for not being able to raise the right questions. Lillback seems to be saying that liberals abandoned the notion of salvation in Jesus Christ for a salvation by society (whatever that means – “nation” or “state” or “government” would be more precise since there is no Department of Society Office where I obtain my food stamps). By implication, Lillback also suggests that Machen is in line with his own and the PCA’s (unofficial) understanding of word and deed Christianity. On this view, word (gospel) and deed (social activism or justice) must go together and as long as they do the church is being faithful to its calling. The error is when you abandon the word and only retain the deed.

It should go without saying that bad things always happen when you abandon the word. But Lillback doesn’t seem to consider that word and deed ministry may also be the start of a process of abandoning the word that allows deed ministry to color the reading of the word. This certainly seems to be Machen’s point in articulating and defending the doctrine of the Spirituality of the Church, a teaching that reflect’s Calvin’s own view about the spiritual nature of the kingdom of redemption, reaffirmed in chapters 25 and 31 of the Confession of Faith, developed by subsequent theologians and stated succinctly by Machen. When asked to give a talk to the American Academy of Social and Political Scientists in 1933, a time when lots of deeds were needed in the United States, Machen refused to take the social justice bait:

There are certain things which you cannot expect from such a true Christian church. In the first place, you cannot expect from it any cooperation with non-Christian religion or with a non-Christian program of ethical culture. . . .

In the second place, you cannot expect from a true Christian church any official pronouncements upon the political or social questions of the day, and you cannot expect cooperation with the state in anything involving the use of force. Important are the functions of the police, and members of the church, either individually or in such special associations as they may choose to form, should aid the police in every lawful way in the exercise of those functions. But the function of the church in its corporate capacity is of an entirely different kind. Its weapons against evil are spiritual, not carnal; and by becoming a political lobby, through the advocacy of political measures whether good or bad, the church is turning aside from its proper mission. . . .

The responsibility of the church in the new age is the same as its responsibility in every age. It is to testify that this world is lost in sin; that the span of human life — nay, all the length of human history — is an infinitesimal island in the awful depths of eternity; that there a mysterious, holy, living God, Creator of all, Upholder of all, infinitely beyond all; that He has revealed Himself to us in His Word and offered us communion with Himself through Jesus Christ the Lord; that there is no other salvation, for individuals or for nations, save this, but that this salvation is full and free, and that whosoever possesses it has for himself and for all others to whom he may be the instrument of bringing it a treasure compared with which all the kingdoms of the earth — nay, all the wonders of the starry heavens — are as the dust of the street. (“The Responsibility of the Church in the New Age,” Selected Shorter Writings, pp. 375-76)

What Lillback needed to educate Beck about was the reality that evangelicals, like Charles Erdman and Robert Speer (who were effectively New School Presbyterians), and who like Lillback regarded humanitarian good deeds as an implication of the gospel, were opposed to Machen and what he was doing at Westminster. One reason is what Machen was telling graduates of Westminster about the source of the only real justice and satisfying righteousness, namely, the kind that comes through the work of Christ and the church’s ministry of reconciling sinners to God, like when in 1931 he told WTS graduates:

Remember this, at least – the things in which the world is now interested are the things that are seen; but the things that are seen are temporal, and the things that are not seen are eternal. You, as ministers of Christ, are called to deal with the unseen things. You are stewards of the mysteris of God. You alone can lead men, by the proclamation of God’s word, out of the chrash and jazz and noise and rattle and smoke of this weary age into the green pastures and beside the still waters; you alone, as ministers of reconciliation, can give what the world with all its boasting and pride can never give – the infinite sweetness of the communion of the redeemed soul with the living God. (“Consolations in the Midst of Battle,” Selected Shorter Writings, p. 205)

Perhaps Westminster Philadelphia needs a refresher course on its founder? I know. Beck can include Machen in his Founders Friday segments. Watch the sales of Christianity and Liberalism soar.

Putting a Point on Two Kingdoms


Posts and comments have been flying fast and furious over at the blog of those two crazy guys, Brothers Tim and David Bayly (they admit that they are “out of their minds”) about two-kingdom theology. It started over a week ago with acrimony surrounding the experimental Calvinism of Jonathan Edwards and Martin Lloyd-Jones, but quickly descended into mud-slinging about who has picketed abortion clinics the most, thus proving that the conversion experience is hardly otherworldly.

One of the points to surface in these debates is the cockamamie idea (to them) of the separation of church and state. As I have tried to point out, if you don’t believe in the separation of church and state, what is the alternative? One to which a Bayly Bro alluded was Calvin’s Geneva, with a nice scoop of scorn for those Calvinists who have departed so far from the pater familia of Reformed orthodoxy and Christian politics. But when I try to bring up the idea that idolaters and heretics were not welcome in Geneva – ahem, can anyone say Servetus? – I receive another helping of scorn. I simply don’t know what I’m talking about because executing heretics is not what they are talking about. Then why bring up Calvin?

I may not know what I’m blogging about, but I definitely don’t know how you can promote Calvin’s ideas on church and state and not see the pinch that might be coming in this greatest of nations on God’s green earth for Mormons and Roman Catholics (for starters). I’m not sure Baptists would be secure either since they do rebaptize. (Just trying to show I’m not selective in my dogmatic intolerance.) And the Baylys have the nerve to call me utopian. What land of chocolate (props to the Simpsons) would execute Servetus and keep Orrin Hatch?

And then along comes Rabbi Bret to the rescue. Mind you, he has been banished (it could be a self-imposed exile) from the Bayly Bros land of chocolate blogging for extreme remarks, so I am not implying that he speaks for the Baylys. But I am not sure how the Baylys and other versions of Christian America, from an orthodox George Washington and a federally envisioned Moscow, Idaho, to the transformation of New York City, can avoid having a Christian influence on society that stops at religious intolerance without limiting Christian influence to mere morality (quite like the liberal Protestant project, mind you, where the Bible was good for ethics but lousy for doctrine).

Here is how Rabbi Bret puts a point on it:

A second problem with the idea of a Christian advocating some version of “it is only fair that in a pluralistic culture that no faith, including Christianity, ever be preferred by the state” is that such a statement is treason against the King Jesus Christ. All Christians should be actively working for the elimination of false faiths from our culture and for the elimination of the influence of false faiths upon our civil-social / governmental structures. Any Christian who advocates the planned continuance of religious and cultural pluralism is a Christian who is denying the King Jesus.

If we need to be subject to King Jesus in all of our lives, and if we want his rule in every walk of life, including Manhattan for those who can afford it, then how do we tolerate other faiths in our nation? If the Bible is the norm for all of life, including politics, why doesn’t the state assume the same opposition to false religion as the church? We don’t tolerate heterodox teaching or unrepentant immoral living in our churches, so why would a nation that has Christian standards be more lenient than the church? Wouldn’t that nation be the civil version of the mainline Protestant churches before the sexual revolution? (This question has the ring of plausibility since it suggests why so many Protestants are inclined to conclude that the founding fathers, who were hardly orthodox, were highly orthodox. If orthodoxy is synonymous with morality, then the criteria for judging Christ’s rule shifts significantly.)

But aside from questions this raises about holding back on fully applying God’s word to all of life, including Roman Catholic neighbors, what about being subject to the government ordered by a constitution that preserves religious liberty? If those who say public education is a legitimate option for Christians can be accused of denying the legitimacy of Christian education, can’t those who continue to live with a regime guided by the U.S. Constitution be blamed for supporting idolatry? And if the toleration of unbelief by law is so awful, a sign of disloyalty to King Jesus, then when are folks like Rabbi Bret and the Pastors Bayly going to do more than blog or picket and actually follow the example of many Calvinists and resist tyranny? Is it really fair to accuse 2k advocates of bad faith when the accusers themselves won’t engage in the sort of armed insurrection practiced by Calvinists in sixteenth-century Holland, seventeenth-century England, and eighteenth-century America?

Where Bret seems to part company with the Baylys (and the Christian school advocate, Kloosterman) is over the magistrate’s enforcement of the first table of the law. Bret favors it, while the others seem to think that the magistrate should acknowledge the first table but not enforce it. That sure doesn’t seem to be Calvin’s theory or practice with Servetus who was executed for a defective view of the Trinity (the First Commandment by my reckoning). But even if you allow for this weasely distinction, then haven’t you introduced an area where all that Christ has commanded is not enforce? Christ commands people to have only one God. The magistrate theoretically believes this but lives with subjects who believe in many Gods. Huh? I wonder where exactly the biblical instruction comes for rulers to distinguish the first and second tables of the law so that the latter becomes legislation but not the former.

At the end of the day, it seems to me that the Covenanters had a good position on all this, even if I disagree with their starting place. They refused to participate in the U.S. regime because it did not acknowledge Christ as Lord. They would not run for office or vote in elections (up until about 1980). That seems like a good way of keeping your distance from a regime that tolerates other faiths and doesn’t acknowledge the Lordship of Christ. But folks like Bret rail against the United States and then run for Senate on the Constitution Party ticket – the God-denying Constitution, that is.

For 2k advocates along with your average conservative Presbyterian, Bret’s and the Baylys’ complaints are no skin off our backs. American Presbyterians revised our confession of faith and we now confess that the magistrate has a duty to protect the freedom of all people, no matter what their faith or level of unbelief. According to Bret’s logic, my communion is guilty of treason against the Lord Jesus Christ. And yet, the Covenanters, who would have disagreed vigorously with the American revisions of the WCF, never once considered (to my knowledge) severing fellowship with the OPC because of these differences on church and state.

In which case, are the Christian transformers of the U.S.A. making a mountain out of a mole hill? Or is it better to say that they are like Peter, defending his lord with a sword, when that way of doing things has passed away and a new order is in place, a spiritual regime for a spiritual institution – the church – which is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ?