All Political Sermons are Bad

In the spirit of J. Gresham Machen, remember that if you don’t mix religion and politics, you don’t have to perform the contortions that allow you to affirm Civil Rights legislation (as a work of God) and oppose Prohibition (not as a work of God even though Protestants did think it was a work of God). Just keep politics out of the church.

But that’s not what Christians do.

And American Presbyterians have been guilty for a long time before liberal Protestants went all in on the Social Gospel. Mark Tooley reminds:

This week I studied at the Army War College at Carlisle Barracks in Pennsylvania, a fort dating to the 1700s, when President George Washington led an army there in route to suppress the Whiskey Rebellion. Farmers in western Pennsylvania had revolted against the authority of the new republic to tax the whiskey they distilled from grain otherwise expensive to ship from their remote frontier.

Quickly realizing this threat to the new nation’s cohesion, Washington in 1794 summoned the militias from Pennsylvania and nearby states into an army of 13,000 that he personally led against the rebellion. At an evening celebration of greeting for the President and his army, the town of Carlisle illumined a special proclamation simply declaring: “The Reign of the Laws.”

Such a poignant and wonderful exclamation: “The Reign of the Laws.” The people saluted Washington, but they, like he, did not place their faith in his personal rule but in impartial law as the antidote to anarchy.

While in Carlisle Washington worshiped at the stone Presbyterian church, which I visited, and where he heard Dr. Robert Davidson preach “A Sermon on the Freedom and Happiness of the United States of America.” Washington described it in his diary: “Went to the Presbyterian meeting and heard Dr. Davidson preach a political sermon, recommendations of order and good government and the excellence of that of the United States.”

Washington’s summary was fair and succinct, but the sermon merits elaboration, both for illustrating how Christians in early America viewed God’s purposes for their nation, and for modeling, at least in part, how we today might view government, justice and nationhood providentially.

The sermon is based on King David’s question in 2 Samuel 7:23: “And what one nation in the earth is like Thy people, even like Israel?” Pastor Davidson warned against being “carried away by the spirit of the times, to substitute mere political harangues in the place of the Gospel of Christ,” recalling, per Proverbs 27:34, that “righteousness exalteth a nation; but sin is a reproach to any people.” And he noted the “duties of citizens are not to be considered as topics foreign to the Gospel” as the “Gospel views man in every condition in which man can be placed.”

Davidson heralded the “great goodness of God to our own state and nation in particular; our high and many privileges, the gratitude due from us to God for them; and the wise improvement which we ought to make of them.” As a national comparison, Davidson recalled:

The history of the Jewish nation, if read with suitable views, and especially in order to gain an acquaintance with the ways of God to men, would be one of the most instructive that could merit our attention. …We see how much superior, in point of privileges, the Jewish nation was, to all the other nations around them.

As God had showed unmerited and unprecedented favor to the Hebrew nation, Davidson urged considering the “great goodness of the Divine Being to our state and nation in particular; – our high privileges; the gratitude which we owe to God for them…” And he recalled:

This part of the New World presented itself as a place of refuge for those who wished to enjoy religious and civil freedom, unmolested, and to the greatest extent. They hoped that here they could worship God according to their consciences, and would be at a secure distance from all the insults of tyranny.

After reciting the British oppressions precipitating the American Revolution, Davidson declared the new independent nation had the “freest and best form of civil government, which could be learned from the wisdom and experience of ages,” and that with “all the imperfections” still “is one of the most free and excellent under the sun.”

Of the American republic, Davidson further rhapsodized:

This is a government, which all the real friends of freedom in the old world appear to admire; and under the wings of which the oppressed of every nation would wish to take refuge. Here is liberty and equality, according to the just acceptation of those favorite terms; liberty, civil and religious to the utmost extent that they can be, where there is any government at all; and an equality of rights, or provision made for the equal protection of the lives and properties of all. That all men should be equal, as to abilities, station, authority, and wealth, is absolutely, in the present state of things, impossible. But where every citizen has a voice in making the laws, or in choosing those who make them, and is equally under their protection, – there is equality.

I for one (why not five) am convinced that modernism did not begin with adapting Christianity to biology, higher criticism, or immigration reform. It began when Christians, like Pastor Davidson, started to adapt Christianity to modern nations like the United States. Once you start making the Bible say things it doesn’t, it’s hard to stop.

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Christians and the Life of the Mind

A popular perception out there is that Tim Keller is a version — maybe the most popular one — of a Protestant intellectual. Back when Nicholas Kristof interviewed Keller in the pages of the New York Times (can you believe it? A CHRISTIAN IN THE PAGES OF THE NEW YORK TIMES!!!!! No, I’ve never heard of Ross Douthat), Scot McKnight wrote a favorable piece about how Keller is defending Christianity against the skeptics and cynics of our times:

Kristof is no H.L. Mencken and Tim Keller is no Willam Lane Craig nor is he a Rob Bell. He’s a conservative, Reformed, Presbyterian pastor with a lot in his noggin’ about how to respond to Manhattan singles and marrieds and wealthy-wannabes and educated. He’s done this well. He just told Nicholas Kristof he will need to join the throng of believers in the resurrection. In a pastorally sensitive way. No doubt Kristof got the message.

Maybe his critics would do themselves a favor by looking in the mirror and asking if they are reaching with the gospel and converting skeptics and cynics and doubters. If not, maybe they could look at Tim Keller and ask Why is he? I know I do.

Maybe.

But can’t we ask if Keller has as much in his noggin’ as the promoters promote? Here’s one reason for asking: the recent piece in ByFaith magazine which indicates what Keller will be doing once he retires from regular preaching. He will be training pastors for ministry in urban settings:

When it comes to the urban environment, ministry here requires also a knowledge of urban life dynamics, urban social systems, cross-cultural communication, non-western Christianity, and many other subjects not covered in ordinary seminary programs. I also want to give more than the usual help on both expository preaching, on developing a life of prayer, on leading the church in an adverse cultural and financial environment, and on reading that provides cultural analysis and insight. The combination of the M.A. (which in two years covers all the academic material, including languages and exegesis) together with the City Ministry Year will provide much more space for these than an ordinary M.Div. can.

For one thing, this was precisely the sort of agenda that William Rainey Harper took to the University of Chicago Divinity School almost 120 years ago — the idea that modern (read urban) times need new ways of doing ministry.

For another, how does someone with at most a D. Min. have enough intellectual chops to discern which books to read on urban life dynamics, urban social systems, cross-cultural communication? And is Keller proposing for pastors what medical specialists endure — 12 years of training (9 beyond the basics of Greek, Hebrew, exegesis, systematics, church history, etc.)?

In other words, the different parts of an urban setting require specialists in academic disciplines that go way beyond the competency of a specialist in the Bible or even a Ph.D. in historical science. To suggest that a person with a D. Min. is competent to adjudicate sociology, political science, urban studies, history, economics, demographics, anthropology and communications is not intellectual but borders on middle brow if not anti-intellectual.

And not to be forgotten, once you’ve mastered planting a church in Manhattan, are you really prepared to minister to the outer boroughs — Trump country?

Forensic Friday: More Machen

Very different is the conception of faith which prevails in the liberal Church. According to modern liberalism, faith is essentially the same as “making Christ Master” in one’s life; at least it is by making Christ Master in the life that the welfare of men is sought. But that simply means that salvation is thought to be obtained by our own obedience to the commands of Christ. Such teaching is just a sublimated form of legalism. Not the sacrifice of Christ, on this view, but our own obedience to God’s law, is the ground of hope.

In this way the whole achievement of the Reformation has been given up, and there has been a return to the religion of the Middle Ages. At the beginning of the sixteenth century, God raised up a man who began to read the Epistle to the Galatians with his own eyes. The result was the rediscovery of the doctrine of justification by faith. Upon that rediscovery has been based the whole of our evangelical freedom. As expounded by Luther and Calvin the Epistle to the Galatians became the “magna Charta of Christian liberty.” But modern liberalism has returned the old interpretation of Galations which was urged against the Reformers. . . . it has returned to an anti-Reformation exegesis, by which Paul is thought to be attacking in the Epistle only the piecemeal morality of the Pharisees. In reality, of course, the object of Paul’s attack is the thought that in any way man can earn his acceptance with God. What Paul is primarily interested in is not spiritual religion over against ceremonialism, but the free grace of God over against human merit.

The grace of God is rejected by modern liberalism. And the result is slavery – the slavery of the law, the wretched bondage by which man undertakes the impossible task of establishing his own righteousness as a ground of acceptance with God. It may seem strange at first sight that “liberalism, of which the very name means freedom, should in reality be wretched slavery. But the phenomenon is not really so strange. Emancipation from the blessed will of God always involves bondage to some worse taskmaster. (Christianity and Liberalism, pp. 143-44)

Good point here on why the forensic is prior to moral renovation, not to mention the ricochet against the legalism inherent in the “Lordship of Christ” over all things without first establishing the saviorship of Christ.