Why the PCA Needs the Spirituality of the Church

Regular readers of Oldlife know about the imbroglio between the Brothers Bayly and those who hold two-kingdoms and the spirituality of the church. The major objection apparently is that these doctrines won’t let the church do what activists on certain moral issues want the church to do in the public square (you know, bad ju ju versus do do). In which case, the spirituality of the church is offensive because it restrains the spiritual and moral dynamic necessary for fighting the culture wars over sex and its illegitimate consequences.

But the Baylys are not alone in wanting the church to be a culture-shaping institution. Tim Keller has recently written (thanks to oldlife reader Zeke Zekowski for the link) at his blog about the need for the church to be engaged in culture making. He writes:

Most of the young evangelicals interested in integrating their faith with film-making, journalism, corporate finance, etc, are getting their support and mentoring from informal networks or para-church groups. Michael Lindsay’s book Faith in the Halls of Power shows that many Christians in places of influence in the culture are alienated from the church, because they get, at best, no church support for living their faith out in the public spheres, and, at worst, opposition.

(A minor quibble here is that I’m not sure Lindsay shows any such thing in a work of sociology that shakes the pom-poms for evangelicals rising in elite sectors without the slightest sense of ambivalence about the theology of glory deeply embedded in [and should be haunting] the evangelical quest for greatness.)

A major kvetch is this: why do Christians pursuing communications and the arts need the church to have their hand held more than plumbers, bakers, farmers, Home Depot check-out clerks, and subway train engineers? How much does the church support the work of the average Mary or Joe? And do these modest workers complain about the church not affirming them? One would think that the perks that come with putting your name on a piece of art or a newspaper column might make up for the lack of gratification that comes with changing the filters in the boiler room of the twelve-floor apartment building.

Keller continues:

At the theological level, the church needs to gain more consensus on how the church and Christian faith relate to culture. There is still a lot of conflict between those who want to disciple Christians for public life, and those who think all “engagement of culture” ultimately leads to compromise and distraction from the preaching of the gospel. What makes this debate difficult is that both sides make good points and have good arguments.

I remain baffled why cultural engagement is a pressing need for the church. I would think it pretty important to shepherd members of Christ’s body in the notion that they are a royal priesthood, a holy nation, whose identity in Christ far transcends the work they do no matter how creative or dull. The church, it seems, has plenty of work to do to confirm Christians in the truth that even when they cease being culture makers or low-level grunts, they are still priests and citizens of a heavenly kingdom with all the affirmation that comes with belonging to Christ, in body and soul, in life and in death. Instead of taking on the task writing a confession for cultural engagement or policy prescription, better is the work of catechizing the faithful in the truths of God, man, sin, salvation, and the church. Those teachings are more important and lasting, even if they do not produce great art or Christian manuals of plumbing.

But without such a consensus on the spirituality of the church and the Christian’s otherworldly identity, communions like the PCA are in danger of becoming balkanized into either the arts-and-culture congregations, or the culture-war churches. Not only are the arts and the politics of nation-states not taught in the PCA’s confessional standards, but very difficult is the task of finding a “thus, sayeth the Lord” for such cultural ambitions.

So irony of ironies, the Baylys and Keller are on the same page in rejecting the spirituality of the church for the culturality of the church. And in so conceiving the church, pastors in the same communion end up driving each other bonkers. Keller doesn’t want the Baylys’ crusading activism and the Baylys don’t want Keller’s urban-chic programming. Wouldn’t the spirituality of the church put an end to these squabbles and make the PCA even more effective than it apparently already is?

Postscript: a good question related to this post is why the OPC does not appear to suffer from the culturality of the church, at least not in the same degree. Maybe it is because the OPC is so small we have enough sense not to beat our breasts about being change agents in the culture. We have enough trouble paying the bills of our standing committees, presbytery committees, and struggling congregations to take on the planet’s policies and art. But it could also be that the spirituality of the church that Machen taught the first generation of the OPC, leavened with the potent supplement of amillennialism taught by Vos, Murray, and Kline, has made Orthodox Presbyterians less impressed with the good, but ultimately fading, culture of this world.

The Virus is Spreading – Spooky

virusApparently the Westminster California hermeneutic has now infected the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. Ligon Duncan recently issued a statement that clarified difference among ACE members on whether or not to sign the Manhattan Declaration. (For some of the diversity among evangelicals or conservative Protestants, go here.)

Duncan wrote:

The Alliance has not historically weighed in on social ethical issues, not because they are unimportant, nor because it is inappropriate for Christians to do so, but because of the mission of the Alliance which is “to call the twenty-first century church to reformation, according to Scripture, so that it recovers clarity and conviction about the great evangelical truths of the gospel and thus proclaims these truths powerfully in our contemporary context.” Specifically, we are an alliance of confessional Protestants (and heirs of the historic Reformed Confessions) who work together to “promote the reform of the church according to Scripture, and to call the church to be faithful to the Scriptures, by embracing and practicing the teaching of Scripture concerning doctrine, life and worship.”

So if the Bible speaks to all of life, including marriage, and the sanctity of human life, and ACE is committed to reforming the church according to Scripture, then why wouldn’t the Alliance advocate the Manhattan Declaration for the church in ministering the word of God? Could it be that even when the Bible does speak to some moral matters, it does not do so in a way suitable for the larger society?

In other words, could it be that the kind of distinction between kingdoms for which Westminster California is notorious is not so radical but even appeals to the good confessing evangelicals that constitute ACE? Hmmmm.

Where is Justin Taylor When You Need Him?

MeSome bloggers use their page as a clearance house for what others are saying – sort of like Matt Drudge does the news. So if you want to know what John MacArthur thinks about the Manhattan Declaration, you could go here. Such places allow you to keep tabs on the doings and whereabouts of certain evangelicals with star power.

Others use the blog to promote their own appearances, merchandise, and ideas published elsewhere. Of course, Oldlife promotes the views of its editors and sometimes reprints material first published in the Nicotine Theological Journal (a subscription would make a nice stocking stuffer, by the way). But we have resisted using this e-space to publicize current activities and duties. This is supposed to be a place to discuss what it means to be Reformed – not a vehicle to learn about the Muether or Hart family vacation plans.

All of this is a way of explaining the awkwardness of what follows: I have posted a piece over at Front Porch Republic on the Manhattan Declaration. Because some of the comments in recent weeks have asked for my impressions of the statement, this notice is a tad more understandable. And because the specter of J. Gresham Machen hovers over the keyboards of the NTJ’s editors, and because my study of Machen has clearly informed my take on the Declaration, mentioning that post here also makes sense. But self-promotion still feels odd.

And so to complete the circle, readers may also be interested to know that I will be dining today (dv) at lunch on hot pork sandwiches purchased at Reading Terminal Market while watching – I haven’t yet decided – either Barton Fink or Blood Simple. This is less a Thank-God-It’s-Friday moment than it is a reaction to the end of the semester at Temple University. Later today, my wife and I will be watching films from Temple’s city archives at the program of Secret Cinema, a wonderful cultural resource in Philadelphia. On Sunday, we will be worshiping with the saints a Calvary OPC, Glenside.

Question: Who cares? Answer: I do and my wife does sometimes. It’s hard to tell if our cats, Isabelle and Cordelia, even think.

Peculiar, Idiosyncratic, Vinegary, Nonsensical

These are just some of the words used to describe this pilgrim’s efforts to explain, defend, and promote a Reformed understanding of two-kingdom theology and the spirituality of the church. Thanks to David Strain, I get another chance and readers have an opportunity to expand my vocabulary.

I first met Pastor Strain at a Reformation Day conference in Douglasville, Georgia. He was then a Free Church minister to a congregation in London. Now he is a PCA pastor in a setting even more southern. His background, outlook, and location are reasons for keeping up with his posts at Letters from Mississippi.

Summer Reading

“I don’t read books, I write them.” The first time I said that I knew it didn’t sound good. And that was the point because it was actually more a joke on me than on those who haven’t written books. Historians do not write because they are necessarily wise. And the way historians write means that they have less time to read books they would prefer to ponder. Too often I’ve spent an evening with an Edwards, Buswell, Bushnell, or Beecher and had to pass on Epstein, Berry, Machen or Meilaender. Even worse, sometimes I’ve had to read what I’ve written.

Current duties – a volume on the history of the OPC to commemorate the denomination’s 75th anniversary – forced me to take a look at a piece written about a decade ago on Orthodox Presbyterians and secularization. It was entitled, “Reconciling Two Kingdoms and One Lord: Twentieth-Century Conservative Presbyterians and Political Liberalism in the United States,” and presented at a conference at the Vrijgemaakt seminary in Kampen sponsored by the Archives of the Free University.

The conclusion is reprinted below may complicate perceptions that the editors of the NTJ are not sufficiently on board with Vos and Van Til. What is even more interesting than the views of the editors is that Vos and Van Til can be read against each other, at least when it comes to understanding the saeculum.


>. . . the OPC relied upon three separate doctrinal strands to maintain the integrity of the church and her witness in the face of political liberalism and its secularizing effects. First, J. Gresham Machen bequeathed to the OPC the Southern Presbyterian tradition of the spirituality of the church which put limits on church power while also preventing it from intervention in spheres beyond its domain, such as politics. Second, John Murray outlined the implications of divine sovereignty for public life when he affirmed the church’s duty to speak on civic affairs because God had ordained both the church and the magistrate and so ruled over each. Finally, Cornelius Van Til worked out the inferences of the sufficiency of Scripture when he asserted that Christ’s lordship over all things made the Bible relevant for all walks of life. These three doctrines have greatly shaped the way that American Calvinists have reacted to the de-Christianization of American society, as the example of the OPC demonstrates. Furthermore, the way Orthodox Presbyterians applied these doctrines appeared to vary according to whose interests or territory were at stake. When they needed to defend the prerogatives of the church or the independence of Christian schools, Orthodox Presbyterians have relied upon the sort of logic that undergirded Machen’s defense of the church’s spiritual mission. But when American society appeared to be growing more tolerant of immorality, usually defined on pietist terms that sees godlessness in certain forms of immoral behavior, then Orthodox Presbyterians turned to notions about God’s sovereignty or the Bible’s relevance to all walks of life for the work of the church and also for the regulation of public life.

This explanation of the theology at work in Orthodox Presbyterian responses to the secularization of American politics reveals that Reformed teaching on politics as it played out among conservative Presbyterians has not been sorted through systematically. Although political liberalism represents a tradition of state craft quite compatible with the separation of religious and public spheres implied by sphere sovereignty — a notion very similar to the spirituality of the church — American Calvinists have generally regarded the reduction of religious references in public life and the prevalence of certain kinds of worldliness in society as a betrayal of both divine sovereignty and biblical authority. Although God was still sovereign and the Bible was still true when Christ suffered the unjust penalty of dying on the cross, for the Orthodox Presbyterian sampled here the proof of God’s rule and biblical authority is only substantially compelling when righteousness and divine truth prevail in civic life. In other words, despite knowing cognitively that different standards apply for the city of God, i.e., the church, and the city of man, i.e., the state, the doctrines of divine sovereignty and biblical sufficiency have tended to take precedence over sphere sovereignty and the spirituality of the church. As such, conservative North American Calvinists like those in the OPC have often demanded from the state the same kind of obedience and truthfulness that Christ requires of his bride. . . .

. . . perhaps the most significant doctrine in the OPC’s theological arsenal for coping with secularization and political liberalism may be the Vossian one that teaches about the gradual and varied unfolding of redemptive history. If, as biblical theologians have argued, the church in the period between Christ’s first and second advents is a pilgrim people, wandering in the wilderness until Christ leads them upon his return into the promised land of the new heavens and the new earth, then Orthodox Presbyterians like pastor Davison could legitimately have thought about his life in places like New Jersey more like Midge Decter thought of hers in St. Paul. In his comments on the epistle to the Hebrews, Orthodox Presbyterian theologian, Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., builds upon the insights of Geerhardus Vos to argue that the eschatology of the New Testament implies that “there is no ‘golden’ age coming that is going to replace or even ameliorate these desert conditions of testing and suffering.” Gaffin adds that “no success of the Gospel, however great, will bring the church into a position of earthly prosperity and dominion such that the wilderness with its persecutions and temptations will be eliminated or marginalized.” This eschatological reality means that as long as Christ is absent from the church, her “final rest” cannot be located in temporal or earthly conditions. For this reason, the situation of Protestants in the United States is actually more similar to that of Jewish Americans than that of the founding fathers or the Puritans who set out to make America a “city on a hill.” In which case, if Orthodox Presbyterians had reflected on and followed the insights of Vos for public life, they might have come to evaluate political liberalism and secular society less like nativist Americans and more like immigrants to the United States.