Less Devotion is More

Lots of Christians, evangelicals following the lead of Neo-Calvinists, like to know that their faith matters. (Thanks to Chris Gehrz) Here’s one recent appropriation of the Clapham Sect, a group of English evangelicals which included William Wilberforce, and that give evangelical activists goose bumps because of Wilberforce’s involvement in abolishing the slave trade:

Clapham Spirituality acknowledged that conversion was not an end unto itself, but was the beginning of one’s Christian journey. That journey was characterized by key spiritual disciplines that were tools used by the Holy Spirit to strengthen the faith and godliness of genuine believers. The most important personal disciplines were daily Bible study and prayer—what modern evangelicals often call the “daily quiet time.” The most important corporate disciplines were family worship, which occurred daily in the home, and corporate worship, which occurred every Lord’s Day in the parish church, which for most members of the Clapham Sect was Holy Trinity Church in Clapham. . . .

In addition to combating slavery, the Clapham Sect was committed to pushing back against other social evils. The Society for Bettering the Condition and Increasing the Comforts of the Poor was an effort by wealthy Anglican evangelicals to alleviate poverty among the lower classes. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which Wilberforce and other Clapham Sect members joined, championed animal rights two centuries before the cause became politically correct. The Society for the Discharge and Relief of Persons Imprisoned for Small Debt, originally an evangelical initiative, sought to reform the oppressive practice of placing debtors in prison, effectively ending their wage-earning potential. Clapham Sect members also championed prison reform, education reform, healthcare reform and (in the case of some members) the abolition of capital punishment. Clapham Spirituality recognized that, for evangelicals, cultural influence was a matter of moral stewardship.

Clapham Spirituality was not only committed to what we might today call matters of social justice; it was also zealous for the spread the gospel to all people. The Clapham Sect started the British and Foreign Bible Society to make the Bible available to those who had little access to the Scriptures. The Church Missionary Society, also a Clapham initiative, was intended to train laymen to be evangelists in foreign nations under British control. Though it took a few years for the CMS to become viable, within a generation it was a vibrant evangelical mission society within the Church of England. The Society for the Suppression of Vice, which included heavy Clapham Sect involvement, was, among other priorities, committed to defending Sabbath observance so that unbelievers would attend worship services and be exposed to the gospel. The Clapham Sect also championed Sunday Schools as a key means of teaching literacy and evangelizing children and, hopefully, their parents. Clapham Spirituality championed both gospel advance and the pursuit of justice.

Contemporary evangelicals could use a healthy dose of Clapham Spirituality. Spiritual formation begins with conversion and is cultivated through personal and corporate spiritual disciplines. Spiritual formation includes faith-based activism that includes both the Great Commission to make disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:19–20) and the Great Commandment to love the Lord and love our neighbors (Matt. 22:36–40). As with the Clapham Sect, our spiritual transformation should inspire us to serve others through acts of mercy and clear gospel proclamation. We should leverage whatever public influence we might have for the sake of pursuing shalom, especially among our most needy and/or defenseless neighbors. We should pour ourselves out in sharing the good news of Jesus Christ here, there and everywhere. Like Wilberforce and his colleagues, we should not be afraid to champion personal holiness and civic virtue, public justice and gospel advance. A revival of Clapham Spirituality offers a fruitful way forward for evangelicals committed to engaging the culture as evangelicals.

But if these positive outcomes stem faith-based activism, what about the consequences of applying faith to international conflict. Philip Jenkins’ new book, The Great and Holy War, contains all sorts of instances that might encourage evangelicals to keep at least part of their spirituality to themselves. The Bishop of London in 1915 said:

kill Germans — do kill them; not for the sake of killing, but to save the world, to kill the good as well as the bad, to kill the young as well as the old, to kill those who have shown kindness to our wounded as well as those fiends. . . . As I have said a thousand times, I look upon it as a war for purity, I look upon everyone who died in it as a martyr.(71)

The Bishop of Carlisle added:

But in this war there move and work spirits deeper, stronger, more revolutionary than any or all of these — spirits of good and evil, powers of heaven and principalities of hell, invisible spirits of goodness and wickedness of which men are the instruments and the world the visible prize. . . . This present war is essentially a spiritual war; a war waged on earth but sustained on either side by invisible powers. (72)

Not to be outdone, Protestant clergy from Harry Emerson Fosdick to Billy Sunday signed a statement that urged the U.S. in 1916 to enter the war. Here is how their faith-based argument went:

The just God, who withheld not his own Son from the cross, would not look with favor upon a people who put their fear of pain and death, their dread of suffering and loss, their concern for comfort and ease above the holy claims of righteousness and justice, and freedom and mercy and truth. Much as we mourn the bloodshed [of war], we lament even more than supineness of spirit, that indifference to spiritual values which would let mere physical safety take precedence of loyalty to truth and duty. The memory of all the saints and martyrs cries out against such backsliding of mankind. Sad is our lot if we have forgotten how to die for a holy cause.

. . . the question of all questions for our immediate consideration is this: shall the ancient Christian inheritance of loyalty to great and divine ideals be replaced by considerations of mere expediency?

Perhaps Sarah Palin did not fall too far from the Clapham Sect Tree.

The Dark Side of Civil Religion


Sarah Palin — can you believe it — has once again inserted the cosmic foot folly into her mouth by likening water boarding to baptism. I wonder if she had made similar remarks about the mode of baptism — say, by comparing Baptists’ immersion practices to torture as opposed to the humane treatment of Presbyterians sprinkling infants and adults — if she would have received as much flack. (You do know the old joke that at the exodus, God sprinkled the Israelites but dunked the Egyptians.) Or what if Palin had switched the object of water boarding from terrorists to Don Sterling? Might that have complicated the offended thoughts of many Americans?

Still, the point Mollie Hemingway makes about civil religion is worth mentioning (thanks to Rod Dreher):

I’ve long defended Palin against the offensive treatment she’s received at the hands of a blatantly biased media, a media that collectively lost its mind the moment she entered the national stage. But that hardly means she must be defended at all times. … This is a perfect example not just of civil religion but also how civil religion harms the church. Civil religion is that folk religion that serves to further advance the cause of the state.

That still doesn’t mean that commenting on Palin’s faux pas one shows great discernment. So to complicate Palin’s comparison of torture to baptism, consider the substance of John Danforth’s homily at the funeral for Ronald Reagan:

Reagan’s most challenging test came on the day he was shot. He wrote in his diary of struggling for breath and of praying.

“I realized that I couldn’t ask for God’s help while at the same time I felt hatred for the mixed-up young man who shot me,” he wrote.

“Isn’t that the meaning of the lost sheep? We are all God’s children, and therefore equally loved by Him. So I began to pray for his soul and that he would find his way back to the fold.”

He was a child of light.

Now consider the faith we profess in this church. Light shining in darkness is an ancient biblical theme. Genesis tells us that in the beginning, darkness was upon the face of the deep. Some equate this darkness with chaos.

And God said, “Let there be light, and there was light. And God saw that the light was good.”

Creating light in darkness is God’s work.

You and I know the meaning of darkness. We see it on the evening news: terror, chaos, war. An enduring image of 9/11 is that on a brilliantly clear day a cloud of darkness covered Lower Manhattan.

Darkness is real, and it can be terrifying. Sometimes it seems to be everywhere. So the question for us is what do we do when darkness surrounds us?

St. Paul answered that question. He said we must walk as children of light. President Reagan taught us that this is our mission, both as individuals and as a nation.

The faith proclaimed in this church is that when we walk as children of light, darkness cannot prevail. As St. John’s gospel tells us, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

That’s true even of death. For people of faith, death is no less awful than for anyone else, but the Resurrection means that death is not the end.

The Bible describes the most terrible moment in these words: “When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until in the afternoon.”

That was the darkness of Good Friday. It did not prevail. Very early on the first day of the week when the sun had risen, that’s the beginning of the Easter story.

The light shines; the Lord is risen.

If only Danforth would have received the same amount of outrage that Palin justifiably is receiving.

The deity of civil religion is a demanding god. It gives life and inspiration to millions when it generates a comforting fusion of the life of Jesus Christ with the life of a not-so religious president. This god takes away when it encourages people like Palin to confuse the sweetness and light of generic faith with the sour and dark of torturing persons suspected of terrorism.

Perhaps the application of this little encounter with the god of civil religion is to just say no (sorry for the split infinitive). Deny this god’s existence in good first-commandment fashion. Then we can avoid elevating our presidents to canonized saints and leave our dear sister Sarah some other means to derail American conservatism.

Now Maybe Billy Graham Will Run

Those shrieks you hear this morning are coming from Michigan where in the burgs of Grand Rapids and Hillsdale, author and editors are bemoaning the news that Sarah Palin is not going to run for the presidency. One of the first reviews of From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin at Amazon asserts that the book does not even mention Sarah Palin, as if her insertion in the title were merely a ploy to increase sales. In point of fact, the introduction discusses at some length Palin’s performance as Vice-Presidential nominee during the 2008 elections. But a Palin bid for the GOP nomination in 2011-2012 would have perhaps given more visibility to books with Sarah’s name in the title.

Truth be told, the book devotes a lot more attention to evangelical reflection about the United States and its government than to electoral politics. In fact, one of my frustrations with the interviews I have been doing — most of them pleasant and welcome — is that I have yet to talk about any of the figures in the narrative, such as Richard Mouw, Carl Henry, Ralph Reed, Jim Skillen, or Michael Gerson. I understand the appeal of talking about a race. That’s why people go to the track and play the ponies. But the problem for evangelicals is not simply the possible thinness of the political candidates they produce, but the way that even the smartest evangelicals reflect on American politics, which is a combination of biblicism and moral idealism.

In which case, Sarah’s decision may actually help out the long term sales of the book since she will continue to be a voice that illustrates the weaknesses of the evangelical mind and From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin will be a guide to those defects.

What Makes Neo-Calvinism Biblical?

Carl Trueman wrote a series of posts about how churches go liberal. Among the culprits are celebrity pastors, pastors who publicly reject a denomination or church’s professed standards, and their enablers, pastors who pursue peace and purity of the church to avoid controversy.

As the Baylys point out — and this is truly scary when you are 2k and find yourself agreeing with 2k haters — Trueman’s post lacks specifics; it’s an abstract account of how churches go liberal (which is surprising since at Westminster Trueman is sitting on a gold mine of evidence about how American Presbyterians lost their way).

One further abstraction that Trueman may have noted was the tendency for Christians to identify their own ideas with the Bible, thus turning the thoughts and words of men into those of God. To avoid the problem of abstraction, I offer the case of — yet again — neo-Calvinism. I understand Baus will go berserk but at his prodding I cracked open Roy Clouser’s Myth of Religious Neutrality and found the following argument identified by Clouser himself as “radically biblical”:

In the context of scientific or philosophical theory making people are generally quite earnest about what they are doing, quite anxious to be as clear as possible, and have nothing to gain by proposing or defending a theory they do not believe. Thus, the possibility of deception rarely interferes in the world of theory making. Of course, the obstacle of cultural difference remains and can perhaps only be overcome by experiencing and appreciating the other culture. But at least one of the two major difficulties with recognizing presuppositions is reduced to a minimum when we are dealing with highly abstract theories.

These features of presuppositions are important because it is by acting as presuppositions that religious beliefs exercise their most important influence on scientific and philosophical theorizing. This point therefore sharply distinguishes the radically biblical position from all the other positions concerning the relation of religion to theory making, including the position of the fundamentalist. The radically biblical view does not seek to find statements in Scripture on every sort of subject matter to establish religious influence. What we want to say is that the influence of religious beliefs is much more a matter of presupposed perspective guiding the direction of theorizing than of Scripture supplying specific truths for theories. (pp. 103-104)

First, I’m not sure why we need a radically biblical understanding of theory making. Why can’t we have Christian liberty about how we make theories — as opposed to the theories we hold. This seems like the philosophical version of the helicopter mom who home schools and doesn’t allow her daughters to eat any nuts for fear of any allergies.

Second, is the Bible given to us to turn us into philosophers? Clouser may think this is a fundamentalist question because it expects to find specific answers from Scripture. But he could simply talk about various philosophies of theory making without using the Bible as an adjective. So why the need to turn a common activity into a supernatural one?

Second, part two, was Paul concerned about theory making? He interacted with philosophers but doesn’t seem to say much about how to do philosophy or the theories of the mind? And what happens when you turn a philosophical theory into the accepted reality for everyone in the church, from Joe the Plumber to Sarah Palin? Do people need to be smart to be Christian?

Third, presuppositions don’t appear to be all that analogous to regeneration. I can see the import of the illumination of the Holy Spirit for understanding and accepting truths in Scripture that had been previously antithetical to my understanding of God, myself, sin, and salvation. But do we need to turn regeneration into a construct of philosophy.

Fourth, and back to the point — if you end up calling human endeavors that are common “biblical,” do you lose sight of what the Bible really teaches and what it doesn’t teach? No matter what the motives may be for overreach — and I generally concede that they are good in Clouser and many neo-Calvinists’ cases — why don’t these smart guys ever see where extending the category of “biblical” beyond the Bible leads? Do historians really need to come to the rescue with specifics from church history like the effects of world-and-life viewism on the Christian Reformed Church where to be Reformed was all Kuyper and Bavinck and very little Dort or Belgic?

BTW, I fear the strained exegesis that this post is inviting.