If Only Princeton Seminary had Read Sarah Posner on Tim Keller

They would have spared themselves a lot of grief (though one has to raise questions about Posner’s reasons for opining the way she does). Way back in 2009, the liberal journalist saw through the public relations success of New Calvinism’s favorite urban pastor/apologist:

Counterfeit Gods is an attractive, compact volume that a busy urbanite might tuck in his murse alongside his iPhone. It’s got a “there’s-an-app-for-that” sort of answer for the anxiety of contemporary city living. It’s a handy Jiminy Cricket to set you straight when you might be thinking of having sex with someone you’re not married to, contemplating a risky investment opportunity in the hopes of hitting the jackpot, or staying late at the office instead of having dinner with the family. While you’re at it, you might remind your spouse not to over-schedule the kids, because Jesus doesn’t like that, either.

Imagine: Wall Street casts its eyes upon Saint Timothy instead of Timothy Geithner! Dalton minus the uptight parents! A Manhattan nightlife free from casual sex! Coffee shops and bars purged of political ideology and discourse!

Such “counterfeit gods” ail the suburbs, too, but they are already saturated by big box mega-churches to counteract the false idols of Sam Walton-inspired strip malls and hyper-competitive Saturday morning soccer tournaments for six year-olds. Keller doesn’t bother with them. His schtick is to break into the untapped urban market for potential believers.

It’s hard to see, though, how New York’s wide swaths of spiritual diversity would take to Keller’s air of Christian superiority. For him, the Bible “comprises a single story, telling us how the human race got into its present condition, and how God through Jesus Christ has come and will come to put things right.” See? It’s that simple.

The focus isn’t eternal salvation, but rather remaking the cultural and political world. He offers a way of making sense of what Jerry Falwell-style fundamentalists might call the scourge of secular humanism. Instead of spiritual warfare against these satanic enemies, Keller asks his readers to confront them as biblical figures might have rejected false idols.

Thus, the hovering, over-protective mother might take lessons from Abraham: let God test your love for the children by letting them be free. The man who lusts for someone other than his wife might learn from Jacob’s misguided quest for the more beautiful Rachel. Jacob’s wife, Leah, provides cues for anyone looking for love and sex and transcendence in their romantic lives, rather than through God. The inevitable result of looking for everything in romantic love, Keller maintains, is “bitter disillusionment.”

One would think the Jacob-Leah story might yield some feminist deconstructions. But feminism, apparently, is also idolatry. Every such political ideology, Keller maintains, creates a sort of idolatry of its own. “An ideology,” he writes, “like an idol, is a limited, partial account of reality that is raised to the level of the final word on things.” Keller can’t see, somehow, that our body politic was designed to be secular, and that a religious prescription for its ills—itself portrayed as a final word—is one of the scourges that has, over the last four decades or so, led to the single-minded extremism he decries.

Keller is a favorite of flagship evangelical magazines like Christianity Today and World, but he receives glowing coverage in mainstream outlets as well. “While he hardly shrinks from difficult Christian truths,” observed a 2006 profile in the New York Times, “he sounds different from many of the shrill evangelical voices in the public sphere.” Keller, the piece went on, “shies away from the label evangelical, which is often used to describe theologically conservative Protestant Christians like him, because of the political and fundamentalist connotations that now come with it. He prefers the term orthodox instead, because he believes in the importance of personal conversion or being ‘born again,’ and the full authority of the Bible.”

This assertion—that biblical orthodoxy is somehow apolitical—was put to the test recently when Keller became one of over 100 original signatories to the Manhattan Declaration unveiled on November 20th. Billed as a statement of “religious conscience,” the Manhattan Declaration is something more, something unmistakably fundamentalist and quintessentially political, a regurgitation of the religious right’s assertion that sexual and gender rights are somehow a threat to good Christians’ religious liberty.

You Can Take the Curmudgeon out of Presbyterianism . . .

But you can’t take Presbyterianism out of the Curmudgeon.

The best priest we know serves up even more reasons for thinking New Calvinism is a sham:

Drs. Moore and Mohler have also been involved in another SBC fight. They are Calvinists in a denomination that has embraced evangelism and church growth of first of the Second Great Awakening sort (100 verses of “Just As I Am” waiting for one more sinner to be converted or one more backslider rededicate) and then of the church growth/contemporary church sort (rock bands, smoke machines, and preachers sitting on stools). But large number of Southern Baptists have embraced what they call “Calvinism” (How is a credo-baptist really a Calvinist?), or “the doctrines of grace” (“soteriological Calvinism, though one must also ask what kind of soteriological Calvinism denies a means of grace, baptism, to children?). The tension between traditional Baptists and the so-called Calvinistic Baptists is another fault line in the Convention, though a piece of plywood has been put over crack.

To keep it straight, the Gospel Coalition attracts and promotes Calvinists (think Tim Keller and the PCA) who do not minister as Calvinists, that is, Calvinists who look the other way when it comes to worship and the ministry of the word. To be sure, New Calvinists care about ministry, but their concern is for relevance, influence, size (matters). Their concern is not like Calvin’s or Bucer’s or Ursinus’ to make ministry conform to Scripture — Reformed according to the Word.

That is where tranformationalism goes. It sups with practices designed to be strategic, to win a hearing, to sit at the table. And all along, the freedom to minister word and sacrament, follow the regulative principle, administer church discipline is still overwhelmingly available. The problem is that the traditional means of grace and serious worship won’t rise above the hum drum of congregational life to amount to a movement, a following. Shouldn’t New Calvinists trust the God-ordained means of grace? Or do they know something God’s word doesn’t?

It reminds me of Hughes Oliphint Old’s point about contemporary worship:

In our evangelistic zeal we are looking for programs that will attract people. We think we have put honey on the lip of the bitter cup of salvation. It is the story of the wedding of Cana all over again but with this difference. At the crucial moment when the wine failed, we took matters into our own hands and used those five stone jars to mix up a batch of Kool-Aid instead. It seemed like a good solution in terms of our American culture. Unfortunately, all too soon the guests discovered the fraud. Alas! What are we to do now? How can we possible minister to those who thirst for the real thing? There is but one thing to do, as Mary the mother of Jesus, understood so very well. You remember how the story goes. After presenting the problem to Jesus, Mary turned to the servants and said to them, “Do whatever he tells you.” The servants did just that and the water was turned to wine, wine rich and mellow beyond anything they had ever tasted before.

Do Southern Baptists Need a Pope of Public Policy?

What could possibly go wrong? A communion appoints an officer to represent members’ views within the corridors of the most powerful nation on God’s glowing earth. And all the members — who are Protestants, mind you and not used to submitting to church hierarchy — are going to agree with all that the officer says or the agency he leads? Heck, even in the little old OPC where the stakes are considerably lower than the Southern Baptist Convention, you cannot get church members to agree with the editor of New Horizons magazine.

So why are so many people concerned and surprised that Southern Baptists are challenging Russell Moore at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission? Funny the way president-elect Trump winds people up.

I (all about me) have nothing against what Dr. Moore seems to be doing. I do suspect sometimes that he’s trying to soften the edge of the religious right in a way that Tim Keller tries to make Christianity less objectionable. Maybe Aaron Sorkin and David Simon have poisoned me to suspect that public statements always come through spinners and handlers who are looking at polls and access to power or gatekeepers. But some of Dr. Moore’s recent statements do seem to have more the fingerprints of building coalitions than those of “thus, saith the Lord” or even, “this is what Southern Baptists believe, gosh darn it.”

Here’s the problem. Moore heads an agency whose mission more Kuyperian than Williamsian (think Roger Williams):

The ERLC exists to articulate every priority and every agenda item in terms of where it fits in seeking the kingdom of God in this era, in order to equip churches to stand before the watching world with the sort of quiet confidence that characterized Jesus.

The kingdom is an “already” present reality (within the life of the church) but also a “not yet” future hope (as we await the coming of Jesus). This kingdom come includes not just worship, but righteousness (ethics), freedom (religious liberty), communion (society), authority (politics), and “the glory and honor of the nations” (culture). Seeking first the kingdom of God should not dampen our concern for ethics but should instead heighten it. After all, the priorities of the King must become the priorities of his kingdom colony, the church. Therefore, the kingdom of God sets both the content of our concern and the tone with which we speak.

That’s pretty broad. Southern Baptists might want to take note that Kuyperians and 2kers disagree about the nature of the kingdom (or kingdoms), so Christ as king is hardly a consensus building affirmation. Worse, hardly clear is the understanding that such a view of God’s kingdom emerges organically from Baptist theology and experience. As dissenters for a long time in England and low on the list of Anglo-American Protestants, some might be surprised to see Southern Baptists doing their impersonation of Puritans or their descendants, the United Church of Christ. Once up a time, Southern Baptists (I’ve heard) saved string so they could send foreign missionaries to India.

So this presence in the capitol of the world’s most powerful nation seems out of character for those little old Southern Baptists.

But if you are going to enter that environment as an ambassador of the Southern Baptist Convention, please don’t tell us you are doing so in a non-partisan way:

There is no more effective evangelical leader than Moore. Under his leadership the ERLC has grown in reach and influence, hosting numerous seminars on a variety of issues with policy-making attendees from both sides of the aisle. Additionally, the ERLC plays a vital role in a number of conservative coalitions. I have witnessed House and Senate leadership offices ask for Moore to personally participate in various events to lend legitimacy and gravitas.

Too often evangelical leaders get pigeonholed into partisan identities. This is not the case with Moore. Both parties see him as a leader transcending partisan divide and stereotypes. This is because Moore and his team balance speaking truth to power while achieving real policy victories.

Being Southern Baptist is non-partisan? This is the affliction that haunts American Protestantism. We somewhere along the line — think the Second Glorious Awakening (if the Brits can have a Glorious Revolution . . . ) — believed that Protestantism is a public faith. It is the religion of the United States. That didn’t work out real well for Roman Catholics or Jews or Mormons. But it had its moments and gave the United States a measure of national identity and spiritual overtones to reasons for fighting tyranny and authoritarianism. That conviction also hollowed out the gospel from the mainline churches. Access to power became something to protect lest the offense of the gospel and calls to repentance offend. The irony is that this mainline Protestant agenda for a Christian nation left the mainline churches without a voice once they questioned America for being too white, male, anti-Communist, Christian, and hetero. The mainline lost both the nation (it was never Christian but sexist and racist) and their place at the table (do mainline pastors even have access to the boards of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton?).

The solution to Dr. Moore’s woes is to close down ERLC and let the Southern Baptist Convention be a church that is fully Baptist (whether particular or general). We have public policy agencies for matters like religious liberty, marriage, civil society, and human dignity. Sometimes even the Democrats and Republicans consider those matters. Not to mention that the Roman Catholic Church has a far greater reach than Southern Baptists.

Let the church not be non-partisan, earnest, well-meaning, tolerant, or humanitarian. Let Southern Baptists be Southern and Baptist. (Or be really Kuyperian and form an Anti-Secularist Political Party.)

The Parachurch with the Mind of a Superpower

In 1922 G. K. Chesterton said of the United States it was a “nation with the soul of a church.” He was referring in part to the difficulty he had finding an adult beverage, Prohibition being the law of the land thanks to the support of both modernist and fundamentalist Protestants.

Seldom noticed is that American evangelicals think they are the center of world Christianity. Consider this report on what the recent presidential election says about evangelicalism:

Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, of the Southern Baptist Convention, said the campaign reminded him of the Vietnam War in the way it divided families; he’d heard from spouses who couldn’t discuss it, or watch the news together anymore.

Not everyone sees a major split, though.

“There’s always been a minority of evangelicals that are more liberal in their political leanings,” said Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr., one of Trump’s earliest and most vocal evangelical supporters, “and it’ll always be that way, but it’s less divided than I’ve seen it in a long time.”

But Moore makes a distinction even among those who voted for Trump: There were “reluctant Trumpers,” who regarded the candidate as the lesser of two evils, believing he was more likely to appoint a Supreme Court justice who was pro-life than his opponent, Hillary Clinton.

Then there were “the people who have actively sought to normalize” Trump as the candidate of choice.

“For me, I think the bigger issue is with the political activist religious right establishment that, in many cases,actually waved away major moral problems,” he said, citing the Access Hollywood tape, in which the now president-elect talked about grabbing women by their genitals and forcibly kissing them.

Moore, who has been a vocal opponent of Trump, said that among those evangelicals who were “Never Trump,” or “reluctant Trump,” reconciliation is already underway. But he said those evangelical leaders who have “repurposed the gospel itself in order to defend a political candidate” reveal a problem bigger than a political election.

Falwell sees the divide in evangelicalism as being between its leaders.

“The evangelical rank and file closed in behind Donald Trump long before most of the leaders did,” he said, because those in the pews were “tired of business as usual” and excited by Trump’s choice of Mike Pence as running mate.

For the Rev. Sammy Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, the schism is between white evangelicals and African-American born-again Christians, and, as a result of the election it “just grew larger.”

The story links to reactions from historians (and other academics) who study evangelicalism and so you would think might be aware of different ways of evaluating born-again Protestantism, such as global Christianity:

History professor John Fea; authors Preston Yancey, D.L. Mayfield, and Skye Jethani; and author and activist Shane Claiborne all have distanced themselves from, if not abandoned, the label. While still identifying as evangelical, former Christianity Today editor Katelyn Beaty wrote she “can’t defend my people. I barely recognize them.”

Earlier this week, Fuller Theological Seminary issued a statement that was nothing short of remarkable for the influential evangelical institution.

“To whatever degree, and in whatever ways, Fuller Theological Seminary has contributed, or currently contributes, to the shame and abuse now associated with the word evangelical,” said the statement, signed by president Mark Labberton and president emeritus Richard Mouw, “we call ourselves, our board of trustees, our faculty, our staff, our students, our alumni, and our friends to repentance and transformation.”

Ever since Philip Jenkins wrote The Next Christendom, global Christianity has become “hot.” Scholars have been amazed at the growth of evangelicalism in Africa, South and Central America, and Asia for starters. Jenkins even argued that by 2050 Christianity in the global North (Europe and North America) would be in the rear view mirror of the churches in the global South.

But when it comes to politics, American evangelicals put the born-again in evangelical Protestantism. What do Canadian, British, Swiss, Nigerian, Australian, Costa Rican evangelicals think about Donald Trump? Did the election divide evangelicals outside the United States? I surely doubt it. But no one really knows because American journalists only follow the cues of American evangelicals.

So why do American evangelicals think that their religious identity hangs in the balance thanks to what happens in the nation’s electoral politics? (The short answer is that U.S. evangelicals, like their mainline predecessors are Christian nationalists and have trouble separating national from religious identity.) Especially when the evangelical academy is supposed to aware of the non-American church among the people of color around the world (and celebrates those Christians when the campaign season is over), all of a sudden the future of evangelicalism depends on white Protestants’ votes in U.S. elections? It’s hard to think of a faith more parochial, nationalist, and introverted.

And yet, somehow the people who voted for Trump are bigoted, intolerant, and mean nationalists.

Evangelicals need to get out more. They need to go to an Orthodox Presbyterian Church General Assembly and hear reports from fraternal delegates who minister in churches in places like Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Asia, Scotland, and Switzerland. If they did, maybe their understanding of the church would be more like the one that prevails in the OPC — a communion that transcends national boundaries but ministers in a low key way (if you aren’t all that impressed with word and sacrament) chiefly in a particular nation. As near as I can reckon, neither SCOTUS’s ruling on gay marriage nor the 2016 presidential election is threatening to divide our little, off the radar, church.

That proves once again the Old Life maxim: the higher your estimate of the nation, the weaker your ecclesiology (or vice versa).

Total Lordship of Christ = Christ Tells Us Everything

Thanks to another of our southern correspondent comes Doug Wilson’s latest sovereignty-of-God brag. He faults Russell Moore for only wanting a Christian public square about race but not about sex:

The theological problem has to do with how we define righteousness for the public square. Russell Moore doesn’t want to build a Christian nation except on racial issues, which is like wanting a nation to be Christian every day between 9:45 am and 11:12 am. If Jesus is Lord of all, we must listen to Him on racial issues in the public square. If He isn’t, then we don’t have to. What we don’t get to do is pick and choose. Under the new covenant there is no unique chosen nation, of course. In the new covenant, every nation must be discipled, and there is no exceptionalism there. But whether you want righteousness in tiny slivers, or righteousness across the board, you still have to define it.

Sorry, Pastor Wilson, but you are picking and choosing all the time. Welcome to the novos ordo seclorum; find your inner 2k self. What is Christ’s will about the military? Read the Old Testament for “holy” war and invade Mexico? What does Christ reveal about idolatry and blasphemy? Send Jews and Muslims packing (the way King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella did)?

Theonomists are all bluff. They don’t virtue-signal. They obedience-signal. Worse, they know they’ll never have to live with their braggadocio.

The Trump Effect

Have journalists figured out that religious celebrities don’t speak for the religious?

The evangelical left is preaching to its enrollment:

“I’m ready to admit we’re a group of leaders without followers,” said Ron Sider, Distinguished Professor of Theology, Holistic Ministry and Public Policy at Palmer Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. “But we will always have our seminary and college courses to make it feel like we’re preaching to a congregation of believers.”

How many Americans today see themselves as peace, Earth and neighbor-loving, and Jesus-following Christians, and as evangelicals?

“Beyond us?” Sider asked, motioning around the focus group of the lefty evangelicals convened by The Literalist. “Pretty sure it’s just us.”

“We’ve written more books about the Evangelical Left than there are actual progressive voters who self-identified as evangelical,” added Clinton spiritual advisor Tony Campolo. “We thought if we got covered in Religion News Service enough, people would follow. Turns out that didn’t work.”

Rusell Moore speaks more for himself than his convention:

During this election season, Moore has sometimes appeared out of place in his own denomination—a Trump detractor leading a church largely peopled by Trump supporters. But he seemed comfortable in this uncomfortable position, perhaps because he has learned to accept the limits of his ability to change the world, or even to understand it. Moore thinks that the idea of a moral majority is wrong, and was probably wrong when it was created: he suspects that earnest, orthodox Christians have always been outnumbered.

So what will journalists do when the pollsters stop canvassing voters? Take a cab cross town and chat with Tim Keller?

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)