Will Kevin DeYoung be Reduced to One Cheer?

I cannot give a thumb up the way Scott Clark did to Kevin DeYoung’s post about the spirituality of the church. As Scott implies, DeYoung’s point is useful for showing that the doctrine was part of the Reformed churches’ toolkit well before the sectional crisis in antebellum America. It was not the product of Presbyterians defending slavery. DeYoung is also helpful on showing that the doctrine protects the jurisdiction of the church from that of the magistrate or king.

the magistrate and the minister exercise jurisdiction over different spheres. The magistrate can only deal with external things. That is, he cannot make laws that demand certain affections or compel the conscience to believe certain things. The minister, on the other hand, has the right to judge inner dispositions and outward obedience, though the minister mainly deals with spiritual things (as his sphere) and only “handles external things for conscience cause.”

The problem comes when, and I’m not happy to put it this way, he quotes Charles Hodge:

Hodge strongly disagreed with Thornwell’s contention that since the church was only to preach the gospel that the church had no right to open her lips against the slave trade (p. 289). “Yes,” says Hodge (who was mostly a moderate when it came to slavery itself), “the Bible gives us no rule for deciding the litigated questions about public improvements, a national bank, or a protective tariff or state rights. But it does give us rules pronouncing about slave-laws, the slave-trade, obedience to magistrates, treason, rebellion, and revolution” (pp. 289-90).

This understanding of the spirituality of the church, then, keeps church and state distinct but allows ministers to pontificate when they read the Bible a certain way. Here is where the matter of the sufficiency of Scripture is crucial to the spirituality doctrine. The point of keeping pastors out of politics wasn’t simply to maintain checks and balances or some kind of differentiation of spheres. It was mainly to limit ministers to expounding the word of God. If the Bible speaks to a particular matter, ministers should speak to it. But where the Bible is silent, ministers should also keep quiet.

Okay, then, clever readers may be wondering, doesn’t the Bible speak to slavery? Well, it does but maybe not in the ways that Hodge or DeYoung or Frederick Douglass would find encouraging. Does anyone want to open the Bible to Exodus 21 and instruct southern slave owners about slave policy and tell the abolitionists to back down?

“Now these are the rules that you shall set before them. 2 When you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, and in the seventh he shall go out free, for nothing. 3 If he comes in single, he shall go out single; if he comes in married, then his wife shall go out with him. 4 If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master’s, and he shall go out alone. 5 But if the slave plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free,’ 6 then his master shall bring him to God, and he shall bring him to the door or the doorpost. And his master shall bore his ear through with an awl, and he shall be his slave forever.

Or how about reparations (as Jemar Tisby advocates)? Should 2 Samuel 21 be the church’s standard?

Now there was a famine in the days of David for three years, year after year. And David sought the face of the Lord. And the Lord said, “There is bloodguilt on Saul and on his house, because he put the Gibeonites to death.” 2 So the king called the Gibeonites and spoke to them. Now the Gibeonites were not of the people of Israel but of the remnant of the Amorites. Although the people of Israel had sworn to spare them, Saul had sought to strike them down in his zeal for the people of Israel and Judah. 3 And David said to the Gibeonites, “What shall I do for you? And how shall I make atonement, that you may bless the heritage of the Lord?” 4 The Gibeonites said to him, “It is not a matter of silver or gold between us and Saul or his house; neither is it for us to put any man to death in Israel.” And he said, “What do you say that I shall do for you?” 5 They said to the king, “The man who consumed us and planned to destroy us, so that we should have no place in all the territory of Israel, 6 let seven of his sons be given to us, so that we may hang them before the Lord at Gibeah of Saul, the chosen of the Lord.” And the king said, “I will give them.”

That sort of puts a point on it.

And how about the John-the-Baptist 30-year diet?

John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. (Matthew 3:4)

Don’t even start on the John-the-Baptist line of men’s ware for those offended by the Gillette commercial.

So the spirituality of the church is not simply about distinctions between church power (spiritual) and state power (civil). It is also about the sufficiency of Scripture regarding the way of salvation.

Sometimes Scripture does speak to social and political matters. But because the biblical authors were so distant from ours, following their counsel about monarchy or about executing adulterers may not be what God wants his church circa 2020 to do. In other words, the Bible comes packaged in all sorts of historical circumstances that good interpreters generally know how to render so that women who don’t wear hats to church do not have to meet frequently with session or consistory.

If the Bible is a guide to life, then I guess you can consult it for political hot button issues like abolition and reparations. And if humans have no recourse to wisdom about daily living, including social and economic policies, then some Christians may think the Bible is the only source of answers. But if the Bible is an account of how God reconciled sinners to himself and how the church ministers that plan of salvation to God’s people, then Christians need to use the best insights from the unregenerate and the redeemed to achieve a modicum of peace and order this side of glory.

Now This Would be Funny (or not)

Unlike this:

Tim Keller: (Walks outside on beautiful fall day, inhales deeply, and sighs contentedly) This is such a lovely day that you could never imagine unless you accepted that yesterday was so much more oppressive than you ever dared imagine (and then he sat on the bench at the bus stop to pose for pictures).

Rachel Held Evans: What exactly are you implying about Kathy Keller?

Keller: Umm. Nothing, really. I just am saying that this particular day is pleasant because I get to have lunch with New York Times reporter, Nick Kristof.

R. Scott Clark: You know that bus doesn’t go to Nebraska.

Keller: (Starts walking east on 83rd Street) Why would anyone want to leave the city?

Evans: You don’t know any reporters of color?

Keller: I don’t have to respond to critics. Never have, never will

Sasse 2020

I am calling the bluff of those who throw around the label “R2K.”

Listen to the interview Scott Clark did with Senator Ben Sasse and tell me where he is wrong. Sasse has a smart understanding of the U.S. political system, the nature of civil society, and his own calling as a Christian and many other duties. Imagine that, he can speak American and Reformed.

And if Sasse doesn’t measure up because of 2k views, are the critics of 2k going to support the dominionist Ted Cruz, the Opus Dei Rick Santorum, or the liberal moderate Southern Baptist Mike Huckabee? (Are they so particular about their pastor?)

I don’t know what the Senator’s plans are or whether he can clear all the hurdles of a primary campaign. But if you want a Reformed Protestant who sounds more like Yuval Levin than Mark Levin, Sasse is your guy.

Sunday School as Open Forum?

Scott, Aimee and (here I tread in rake territory) Todd try to sort out the differences between Sunday school teaching and authoritative church instruction. I tend to sympathize with the point made (I hear) by Carl and Aimee that women can do whatever non-ordained men do (except of course when it comes to reproduction). And I think Scott’s points about the flimsy origins of Sunday school as a church institution should make all Christians re-think the mechanisms by which churches instruct the faithful. Need I remind folks of the fun that even H. L. Mencken had at Sunday school (even though the Christian religion didn’t really take hold):

The one thing I really remember about that Sunday-school is the agreeable heartiness of the singing. It is, of course, the thing that all children enjoy most in Sunday-schools, for there they are urged to whoop their loudest in praise of God, and that license is an immense relief from the shushing they are always hearing at home. . . .

My favorite then, as now, was “Are You Ready for the Judgment Day?” — a gay and even rollicking tune with a saving hint of brimstone in the words. . . . We grouped it, in fact, with such dolce but unexhilarating things as “In the Sweet By-and-By” and “God Be With You Till We Meet Again” – pretty stuff, to be sure, but sadly lacking in bite and zowie. The runner up for “Are You Ready?” was “I Went Down the Rock to Hide My Face,” another hymn with a very lively swing to it, and after “the Rock” come “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus,” “Throw Out the Lifeline,” “At the Cross,” “Draw Me Nearer, Nearer, Nearer, Blessed Lord,” “What A Friend We Have in Jesus,” “Where Shall We Spend in Eternity?” . . . and “Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Revive Us Again.” . . . It was not until I transferred to another Sunday-school that I came to know such lugubrious horrors as “There Is A Fountain Filled with Blood.” The Methodists avoided everything of that kind. They surely did not neglect Hell in their preaching, but when they lifted up their voices in song they liked to pretend that they were booked to escape it. (Happy Days, 178-79)

Not sure Sunday school is the best method of delivery for passing on the faith.

The problem however goes beyond the qualifications posed. What session wants to deal with questions and complaints that arise from non-ordained teachers providing instruction on subjects revealed in Holy Writ? It’s one thing for a woman or non-ordained man to teach math, plumbing, banking or baking. But what about a Christian view of math, plumbing, banking, or baking? Doesn’t the Christian character of the instruction indicate some kind of normative (hence authoritative) instruction? I mean, if I offer a Christian view of history, should Christians not feel a certain pull in the direction of considering this is THE way believers should think about history? Or are Christian views of subjects simply optional for Christians (that’s accepting the premises of w-w thinking).

How much more is instruction seemingly normative if a woman or non-ordained man is teaching the Bible or confession related material? Do such teachers come with a disclaimer — what you are about to hear is just one person’s opinion? If advertised that way, what church members would come (if not for having to find a place to wait while children are in Sunday school)? And if Sunday school is just a place for Christians to opine, is that a good way to prepare for worship (if services follow Sunday school)? Can I really get another member’s objectionable opinions out of my head simply because the pastor invokes God’s presence?

So the issue isn’t one of office, ordination, or even the history of Sunday school as an institution. The issue is the content of the instruction. If that content includes material that comes from the church’s standards — Bible and confession — then the setting involves some version of binding address. At that point, a session will likely want the teaching to reflect the norms of the communion. And at that point we are in the ballpark of having officers who have been vetted and approved for teaching up front behind the podium for — wait for it — Sunday school.

In Defense of Neutrality

When did “neutral” become such a dirty word (along with Lutheran; is it because Lutheran’s cuss?)? It’s a perfectly fine word to use on colors such as beige, ivory, taupe, black, gray, and white. It also works when describing countries like the United States before 1917 or Switzerland to this day. It’s a word that any of us going to court hope is in play with the judge hearing our case — though fair comes close. In sports, if an umpire is wearing the colors of one of the competing teams, we would definitely wonder about his (or her) — watch out — neutrality. By the way, if your run a word search for the word at the ESV websit, you get verses that include the word, “natural.” Which makes me think that the neo-Calvinists gremlins got into Crossway’s software.

Scott Clark explains that the aversion Reformed Protestants have to “neutral” — not because they are flashy dressers — owes to the influence of Dutch (neo) Calvinism:

Anyone who is familiar with the work of Abraham Kuyper or Herman Bavinck or Cornelius Van Til knows that the idea of “neutrality” is consistently and thoroughly rejected by the framers of much of modern Dutch Reformed theology and thus, were the 2K (as people like to put it) guilty of introducing it into Reformed theology that would be a great, even fatal flaw. In this discussion, “neutrality” means “a sphere of life which is un-interpreted by God’s Word” or “an un-normed sphere of life” or “an un-interpreted sphere of life” over which the Christian or even an unbeliever would be able to say, “This is mine.” This is a truly legitimate concern. Reformed theology opposes human autonomy (self-rule). Abraham Kuyper was absolutely correct to say, “There is not one square inch of the entire creation about which Jesus Christ does not cry out, ‘This is mine! This belongs to me!’””

For proponents of the so-called 2K ethic, the question is not whether Jesus is sovereign but how. As I understand the neo-Calvinist movement (van Prinsterer, Kuyper, Bavinck, Van Til, Berkhof, et al) they all taught two complementary principles: antithesis and common grace (Gemeene Gratie). As I understand the so-called 2K model, it is an attempt to describe the way common grace functions relative to the antithesis.

So if the question is only about the ultimate day of judgment when the goats and lambs go their separate ways, then who could defend using neutral to describe persons standing before a holy God?

The problem is that with the exception of the keys of the kingdom, when pastors and elders administer God’s word and open and shut the kingdom of heaven, most us using the English language are dealing not with ultimate but proximate realities. And in this world of sports, politics, law, and interior design, neutral is a good thing.

Here’s one example, Ross Douthat (via Rod Dreher) on the problem of guns in the United States:

With 300 million guns in private hands in the United States, it’s very difficult to devise a non-intrusive, “common-sense” approach to regulating their exchange by individuals. Ultimately, you need more than background checks; you need many fewer guns in circulation, period. To their credit, many gun control supporters acknowledge this point, which is why there is a vogue for citing the Australian experience, where a sweeping and mandatory gun buyback followed a 1996 mass shooting.

The clearest evidence shows that Australia’s reform mostly reduced suicides — as the Brady law may have done — while the evidence on homicides is murkier. (In general, the evidence linking gun ownership rates to murder rates is relatively weak.) But a lower suicide rate would be a real public health achievement, even if it isn’t immediately relevant to the mass shooting debate.

Does that make “getting to Australia” a compelling long-term goal for liberalism? Maybe, but liberals need to count the cost. Absent a total cultural revolution in America, a massive gun collection effort would face significant resistance even once legislative and judicial battles had been won. The best analogue is Prohibition, which did have major public health benefits … but which came at a steep cost in terms of police powers, black markets and trampled liberties.

Does any policy on gun use and restrictions rise to the level of “neutral”? Maybe not. But neither does this issue of public safety and personal freedom achieve the ultimate heaviosity of the anti-thesis. Most matters stemming from our common life together — Augustine’s heavenly city living in the earthly city — do not have a Christian solution. So turning “neutral” into an expletive really does nothing to help pilgrims living in exile, except to tempt some to think their real home is in a low-lying delta below sea level (and I’m not talking about New Orleans).

With Friends Like These

This caught my eye (from under the bus). Matt Tuininga calls me a friend and I guess that’s supposed to weaken the sting of what’s included:

But Scott Clark’s version and Darryl Hart’s version is not the Reformed version. And it is not just their conclusions about religion in the public square that are different. These are fundamentally different political theologies.

Yes, Calvin argued, and rightly so, that the church should only proclaim what the Word teaches. The church should stay out of public policy debates. Yes, Calvin argued, and rightly so, that the kingdom of Christ is spiritual. It cannot be conflated with the moral transformation of secular society. But Calvin also affirmed that the Word teaches much about society and that the church must proclaim these teachings. And when he said that the kingdom of Christ is spiritual he meant essentially that the kingdom of Christ is eschatological, not that it has no implications for material social life (as I show here). Remember, we are talking about the theologian who recovered and reestablished the diaconate as a spiritual, materially oriented office (again, as I show here). I have written much about this and will not rehash it all here.

Scott and Darryl are both friends to me, and I am grateful for all they have done for me over the years. But their thinking on these points is not clear and it is not helpful. It is hardly likely to persuade anyone tempted to embrace the Social Gospel, given that it merely presents an individualistic and virtually neo-Platonized gospel as the alternative.

On the way to this characterization, Matt waves at the Bible but does little more when he writes:

Appealing to J. Gresham Machen’s doctrine of the spirituality of the church, which he identifies with John Calvin’s two kingdoms doctrine, Clark argues that “social concerns” are outside of the scope of the gospel. Thus Machen, in his official capacity as a gospel minister, “refrained from speaking to social concerns because of the teaching of the New Testament. Read on its own terms, the teaching of the New Testament about the Kingdom of God is remarkably silent about the pressing social concerns of the day.”

Does Clark forget how much the New Testament has to say about justice for the widow and the orphan, good news for the poor, the oppression of the weak, marriage, slavery, the breakdown of social barriers (between Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, Barbarian, Scythian), violence, reconciliation, sharing with those in need, the diaconate, obedience to civil authority, families, peacemaking, or any other number of vices and virtues that pertain to relationships between human beings. What version of the New Testament is he reading? In what world are these not pressing social concerns?

Paul actually put tight limits on the aid widows could receive. The poor included the Centurion who had servants (who were sort of like slaves). Yes, Paul wrote about marriage but he hardly set up a parachurch organization, Focus on the Family. And Paul and Peter talked a lot about submitting to those in authority (and to the surrounding social order); that hardly made them transformational and hardly allowed for readers to spot where those apostles paying honor to — wait for it — Nero were hoping for a new Christian social order. A string of words that have a certain register in Sociology 101 hardly makes the New Testament a playbook for a Social Gospel.

For some reason, though (maybe it’s a Dutch thing), Matt doesn’t put David VanDrunen in Plato’s cave with Scott Clark and me. I don’t have any idea why (though I have a few hunches) because VanDrunen could not be clearer about the spirituality of the church and the New Testament’s silence about building a just, moral, and spiritually transformed society (thanks to Zrim for doing the typing):

The Lord Jesus Christ did not come to raise up followers who would transform the cultures of this world. Christ came as the Last Adam to achieve the original goal of the First Adam under the covenant of works: the new heaven and new earth. By his perfect obedience, death, resurrection, and ascension Christ has succeeded. By virtue of his achievement Christians, by faith, share in his verdict of justification, his heavenly citizenship, and his everlasting inheritance. Redemption does not put Christians back on track to accomplish the original goal of the First Adam through their own cultural work—Christ has already done that on their behalf perfectly and finally. Misunderstanding this point is perhaps the fatal flaw of neo-Calvinism. Until the day when Christ returns he has ordained that his people be pilgrims in this world and be gathered together in the church.

It would be difficult to overemphasize the importance of the fact that the church was the only institution that the Lord Jesus established in this world during his earthly ministry. Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God; that is, the new creation, the original goal of the human race under the covenant of works. Yet if we scour the Gospels we find but one institution that Jesus associates with the kingdom and but one to which Jesus points to find the power and the ethic of the kingdom at work here and now. Jesus did not establish the family or civil government, but simply affirmed their legitimacy. He did not lay out plans for kingdom businesses. Families, governments, and businesses already existed under God’s providential rule and were common in the cultures of this world long before the kingdom was announced. Jesus established his church. Unlike the cultural institutions of this world, Jesus promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against the church alone. He entrusted the keys of the kingdom of heaven to the church alone. He commissioned disciplinary procedures reflecting the ethic of the Sermon on the Mount for the church alone. He promised, to the church alone, that where two or three are gathered in his name he himself will be there among them.

Christ came, in other words, not to transform the cultures of this world but to win the kingdom of God, the new creation, which will be cataclysmically revealed out of heaven on the last day, and to establish the church, for the time being, as a counter-cultural institution that operates not according to the cultures of this world but in anticipation of the life of the age-to-come. The church has its own doctrine, its own worship, its own government, its own discipline, its own ministry of mercy, and its own strange ethic of non-violence and forgiveness that defies the wisdom of this world. Jesus and his apostles did exert great effort to shape a culture: the church’s culture. The New Testament makes clear, of course, that Christians must live and work among the cultures of this world, and should be just, honest, loving, and industrious as they do so. But the only culture-shaping task in which the New Testament shows any serious interest is the formation of the church. In light of such considerations I suggest that the only Christian culture—in the profoundest sense of the term—is found in the ministry and fellowship of true churches of Christ operating according to the teaching of Scripture alone.

I wonder if that also sounds neo-Platonic.

To correct Matt, 2kers, even the unhelpful ones, do think the gospel is social. The gospel society is the church, which may explain why some of us are active in our communions and congregations. Maybe Matt did not mean to discount that. But it sure does seem that the church trumps society even for the Westminster Divines who were thinking about the place of Christianity in a society torn apart by civil war:

The visible church, which is also catholic or universal under the gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation. (25.2)

The church is social and proclaims the gospel. Society is not the church and it does not proclaim the gospel. (I’m sure there’s a logical fallacy in there somewhere.)

Authenticity, Schmauthenticity

Ever since the First Pretty Good Awakening (at least), a kind of conservative Protestant has looked for indications of genuine faith — such as religious affections, or unwillingness to compromise with worldliness (read holiness) — to distinguish real Christianity from one that simply goes through the motions. (The search for certainty comes in other forms. Think of the “logic” that concludes with papal supremacy as the guarantee that inauthentic Christianity won’t prevail. Then we have the politicized Protestantism that looks for public square displays of moral outrage as indicators of the real deal.)

The First Pretty Good Awakening’s brief against nominal Christianity — going through the motions — raises serious problems for means of grace (confessional) Protestants since going to church, singing the psalms, receiving the Lord’s Supper, hearing the word read and preached are the very God-ordained motions that real Christians go through. Can singing be faked? Sure. The awakeners’ answer, then, was to find some form of Christian devotion that avoided dissimulation. One of the more recent examples of this quest for authenticity was charismatic or Praise & Worship worship (redundancy intended). Here, supposedly, was a vibrant display of worship, with music that would always yield the desired spiritual vigor.

Turns out that even charismatic worship can be faked (thanks to our Presbyterian-in-exile):

The lights are dim, candles are lit, the music swells as the lead vocalist goes up an octave for the climactic end of the song, and throughout the room dozens of college students raise their hands as they sing with abandon. It’s a powerful moment in the worship service. Then the song stops. The students drop their hands open their eyes. In front of me two of the girls who had their hands raised a few seconds earlier are having a conversation about their afternoon plans. Then the music starts up again, they end their conversation, close their eyes, and throw their hands up in the air again.


The solution is not to find the next devotional fix that will show when faith is real. It is instead to abandon QIRC and be content with the means that God has ordained, and the struggles that accompany seeing only by faith.

Too Long to Tweet

Scott Clark has also picked up the discussion about conservative Presbyterian influence. In what may amount to the comment of the day, he replied with the following:

Influence is mediated and the the media have fragmented. There was a time when one of us might have snuck into a position of influence, when the media were more centralized and controlled by a few elites (yes, I think that much of the mainstream political media is controlled by a relatively small number of elites but we’re talking religion and theology here) but those days are mostly behind us.

The SBC is something like 16 million people. The entire NAPARC world is 1/2 million at most. Even if we add the sidelines we still don’t get to a million people. Even if the real SBC constituency is only 6 million, as some say, we’re still only a tiny percentage. There are (or were when I last looked) 60 million American evangelicals, most of whom operate with Anabaptist assumptions. They don’t even know we exist and they aren’t looking for us.

I suppose that you and I assess the state of the NAPARC world rather differently. The 2K argument is really about Christ and culture and I think the C and c argument is a pressing issue facing the URCNA right now. For a variety of historical reasons some of our congregations are not outward looking, not because they are taken up with intramural theological fights, but because they make assumptions that are deeply rooted in various cultures and those assumptions are not subject to criticism. The 2K argument, which has been a sometimes ugly affair, is a symbol of a deeper problem.

You seem dismissive of the matter of intinction but I think it’s a significant issue because, like the 2K argument, it signals a more profound problem. If people can simply withdraw the cup from the laity largely on a pragmatic basis, what else can churches do? What are the limits of ecclesiastical authority? What are the limits of pragmatism? Who authorized sessions to remove the cup from the laity? Don’t those sessions realize the cost of recovering the cup for the laity in the Reformation? Do they care? Is the supper a means of grace or the way to close a sale? I worry about those sorts of things and so I’m happy to see people in the PCA pushing back against the practice of intinction.

Lumpers, Splitters, and Historical Honesty

I could not help but think of a recent post at CTC while preparing for class on Turkey and the United States today. In his chapter from Islam and the West, “Other People’s History,” Bernard Lewis takes aim at those who accuse Orientalists (those who study the Middle East, China and India for starters) of intellectual imperialism, as if the study of non-western civilizations arises from a “predatory” or “larcenous” interest in “other people’s cultural possessions.” He goes on to say that scholarship should be competent, fair, honest, and not distorted by “loyalties and purposes.” But these considerations “are of no importance to those who believe that all scholarship or, rather, all scholarly discourse is ideological and that their ideology, and therefore their scholarly discourse is better or stronger because it is openly avowed and, more especially, because it is theirs.” He goes on to describe this disregard for even-handed scholarship in the following way:

“You want to study in my archives, read my literature, talk to my people, work on my history? Then you must pay your respects to my point of view, you must promote my national aspirations as I may from time to tie define or redefine them.” To comply with this requirement, the historian must choose for himself and demand of others a presentation of history that includes only what in the present climate of opinion is seen as positive and excludes, and if called upon denies, anything that in the present climate of opinion is seen as negative. (122)

This description of biased history resembles Ken Howell’s description of the “Classic” Roman Catholic approach, in “Three Frameworks for Interpreting the Church Fathers,” for examining the early church (and arguably for the rest of Roman Catholic history). What Howell describes is not necessarily cynical about “objective” historical frameworks. But he does affirm that “true” historical account has to conform to a certain bias in favor of “the home team.”

An honest historian working within the Classic Catholic Framework (CCF) will face all the diverse and varied expressions of Christian belief brought forth from the relevant texts. He will, however, ask different questions about those texts from those who work in the CPF (Classic Protestant) or the MCF (Modern Critical). Central to inquiry in the CCF is the notion of witness. Witnesses point to something greater and more enduring than themselves. In the CCF, the goal is to study the relevant witnesses in order to discover the deposit of faith which is the doctrinal content of the Christian faith. This approach assumes continuity across space and time. That continuity may not be total or exhaustive but it has essential qualities and characteristics which are transmitted over time.

Howell’s goes on to contrast this with how Protestants approach the early church:

The problem posed by the Protestant interpretation of early church history was as follows: how do you know what in the Fathers should be taken as binding and what should not? The Protestant answer was clear if not always easy to apply in practice: measure the Fathers against Scripture. Of course, the learned Roman Catholics believed this was an insufficient answer. How does one know if one’s interpretation of Scripture, which is being used as the criterion of judging the Fathers, is correct? The criterion of “the unanimous consent of the fathers” turned the Reformation’s answer on its head. It said that the way we know what interpretations of the Scriptures are legitimate is by the universality, antiquity, and consensus of the fathers. In this view, what was unanimous among the fathers, such as the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist, was binding on the church. What was not unanimous, such as how the creation narratives of Genesis were to be interpreted, was not binding.

I know that in Reformed circles some historians have argued, following the Dutch Calvinist w-v notion, that “objective” history is impossible and that the bias of faith in understanding the past adds value — it sees the hand of God at work or the importance of religious “values” where a non-believing historian miss them. Howell not only seems to follow this rejection of academic neutrality, but he adds criteria for studying the past that in my view rig the game before it even starts. He says that a historian needs to find continuity and unanimity among the church fathers.

This is sometimes what historians call lumping. That is, they take all positions and force them into a kind of consensus so that difficulties, tensions, even contradictions are ironed out of history. On the other side are splitters who recognize disagreements, discrepancies, rivalries, and discontinuities. I myself prefer the splitting model if only because the vacuous term “evangelical” is supposed somehow to make sense of the Assemblies of God and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, or Calvinism is supposed to make sense of Scott Clark and Nelson Kloosterman.

If you pushed most historians, even though they complain about lumpers in their ranks, most would concede that the craft of history errs on the side of splitting because humans rarely agree, ideas are contested, and free societies (at least) inherently nurture disagreements (though the history of the human race is littered with intellectual combat). This is why Howell’s use of the word “honest” is curious. A Roman Catholic historian who must find consensus and unanimity may be honest. But people who see differences where others see the same thing can well ask whether the lumpers are truly being fair to the past. Funny, not even the Bible approaches salvation history as a lumper does it is hard to imagine a time in the sagas of the Israelites or the really early church (REC) when everyone agreed.

Will Piper, Carson, and Keller Alone Be Left Standing (or why don't rappers rap about Native Americans)?

Readers at Old Life know that Puritanism is not on the A-list of favorite topics (unless it is to kvetch about experimental Calvinism). But the recent discussion of Propaganda’s song, “Precious Puritans,” has me reaching in my apologetics tool box (as if John Frame taught me nothing or that I ever heard of Propaganda before).

The issue so far seems to be whether or not to criticize heroes. Anthony Bradley, defender of Propaganda, argues for a sensible outlook on historical actors:

Those who would reject the Puritans because of their white supremacy will themselves struggle to find much of anyone in Western Christianity to embrace. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God in some way (Rom. 3:23), including all of those we hold in high esteem. There is an obvious “no” because this is not how the Bible teaches Christians to engage in cultural and historical analysis. We are to eat the meat and spit out the bones. This includes those who are both inside and outside the tribe. There is much meat in the Puritans but there are also massive bones.

Thabiti Anyabwile concurs at his Gospel Coalition blog (though the irony is rich since TGC is pretty averse to criticism of its theological celebrities):

That’s why we need people less infatuated than ourselves to tell us the plain truth we miss. As I read the exchanges, the folks who seem to have the greatest difficulty with the song are the folks who seem (sometimes they say so) to have the highest appreciation for the Puritans. That’s the pedestal Prop mentions. By definition, raising someone to a pedestal means lifting them beyond critique and realistic assessment. If we “pedestalize” our heroes, we’re bound to miss things and we need others to point to it. But, we don’t like to have people kicking around our pedestals. Our idols may topple and fall. For instance, I don’t like people kicking around the pedestal of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I grew up with a grandmother who kept a cheesy painting of Jesus, King, and Kennedy hanging on her living room wall. Jesus was elevated in the center of the picture, with the requisite soft yellow halo, while King and Kennedy appeared on his left and right. Makes you wonder if the painter ever heard King’s “Drum Major Instinct” sermon. But many evangelicals have the habit of mentioning plagiarism and adultery and “liberal theology” whenever Dr. King’s name is raised. And there’s something in me that kicks back, defends, guards the pedestal and remembers the painting.

2kers, Matt Tuininga and Scott Clark, approve generally the points made by Bradley and Anyabwile. First Tuininga:

. . . we need to ask what it was about Puritan piety that made them so vulnerable to the vices and injustice of racism and exploitation. Of course, the Puritans were not unique in this.

And Clark:

If nothing else, this is yet another reminder of the folly of the “golden age” approach to history, the idea that says “if only we could get back to period x.” Such a program will always disappoint because it always depends on a mythologized view of a past, a story about a past that never really existed. Colonial America was not a golden age, not if one was an African bought and sold by “godly men” who, as creatures of their time, were unable to criticize the peculiar institution of American slavery.

What is missing from this discussion is not a defense of the Puritans or of slavery — though I would suggest it is possible to defend the Puritans without defending slavery — but what is lacking is a critique of the holier-than-thou anti-slavery meme. Of course, slavery is unjust and of course, racism is despicable. But is it possible to see problems with the anti-slavery? The charge of slavery, like that of racisim, paints with a broad brush. It lacks nuance. It renders the world manichean, akin to the old line about pregnancy — you can’t be a little bit with child. In which case, if you owned slaves or are guilty of racism, no need ever to consider anything you have to say. You will forever be known as a slaveholder and racist the way that we now know Jerry Sandusky as a one dimensional pervert.

For instance, is it possible to make distinctions between orthodox slaveholders and Unitarian ones? If so, is it possible to say that the orthodox slaveholder’s theology is better than the Unitarians? In which case, is it possible to read slave holders’ theology and benefit from it? Can we separate aspects of historical actor’s life or does his wickedness go all the way down? The differences between Reformed confessionalism’s 2k posture, which separates holy, common, and profane matters all the time contrasts here with Reformed pietism which disdains all such distinctions under the canopy of “all is religious.” Of course, if we can’t separate matters, then readers should avoid Old Life at all cost not because I own slaves but because I — can you believe it — sin.

In other words, inherent in the anti-slavery position is not a form of genuine Christian reflection but one of perfectionism. This is a one-strike and you’re out scorched earth policy, with certain sins achieving red-letter status. If you break those, we’ll never hear from you again. This has happened with the American founders, slaveholders and chauvinists that they were, among large sectors of the academy. It also explained why mainline churches don’t read older theologians — the PCUSA’s awkward attitude to Princeton Seminary’s bi-centennial is an example. This trend seems to be afflicting evangelical Protestants. No surprise there since nineteenth-century evangelicals fell prey to this binary perfectionism back in the antebellum era.

And if a similar cultural perfectionism is seeping into the evangelical world, when will denunciations of imperialism, colonialism, capitalism, and the West more generally follow? The lyrics of Propaganda’s song point out the problem.

Pastor, you know it’s hard for me when you quote puritans.
Oh the precious Puritans.
Have you not noticed our facial expressions?
One of bewilderment and heartbreak.
Like, not you too pastor.
You know they were the chaplains on slave ships, right?
Would you quote Columbus to Cherokees?
Would you quote Cortez to Aztecs?
Even If they theology was good?
It just sings of your blind privilege wouldn’t you agree?
Your precious Puritans.

So what is the pastor to do? If he says, “the English theologian,” before quoting doesn’t he bring up all the enormity that went with English colonialism? What will the Native Americans in the congregation think? Or how about “the Calvinist theologian”? All monarchists who think well of the Stuarts will be put off with that nasty business of regicide. Or how about if the pastor quotes a male theologian, will feminists quiver and melt?

Are all of these offenses equal? Probably not and it would be hard to find any monarchist these days. But other minorities do have their list of offenses and if we only listened to the pristine, we’d be left quoting Mrs. Piper, Mrs. Keller, and Mrs. Carson.

Perhaps the best way out of this dilemma is to toughen up. After all, how happy were the early Christians hearing the apostle Paul quoted in their worship services? Wasn’t he the guy who helped kill Christians? In fact, if we apply our standards of social justice all the way through the past, we will have to close the good book altogether. The reason is that none of the Bible’s saints could withstand our moral rectitude.