I May Come to the Garden Alone, But Stay (in part) Because of Who’s There

Is it okay for conservative Presbyterians to talk about the perseverance of the saints in terms of social psychology? Not exclusively, but at least a little? The idea is that we certainly depend on the work of the Spirit to endure hardships and doubts. But what if the work of the Spirit includes the people around us, in our homes, congregations, friendships, social networks?

Part of what got me thinking about this was an exchange a while ago between Glenn Loury and Steven Teles about the former’s Christian background and how he experienced tensions between the fairly unsophisticated faith of his charismatic congregation and the intellectual cast of his peers at an Ivy League university. This was not simply a question of faith versus reason. It was one of whether Loury knew other academics who were Christian and, by virtue of associations with them, make his own Christian belief plausible. Here’s a link to that conversation.

These thoughts returned after reading Tommie Kidd’s post about Philip Jenkin’s reflections on fertility and religiosity. First Jenkins (via Kidd):

… there is an inverse relationship between the fertility rates of a community and that society’s degree of religious fervor and commitment. High fertility societies, like most of contemporary Africa, tend to be fervent and devout. Conversely, the lower the fertility rate, and the smaller the family size, the greater the tendency to detach from organized or institutional religion. That shift from high to low commonly takes place in a short time, a generation or so. Fertility rates thus supply an effective gauge of trends towards secularization. What follows is a bare sketch, but I will deal with it in much greater detail in a book that I am currently working on–especially on issues of causation and correlation.

The classic example of demographic/religious change is modern Europe. Not coincidentally, the Europe that has become so secular since the 1960s has also, in these same years, pioneered an epochal demographic revolution of historically low fertility rates. Those rates are at their lowest in such countries as Spain and Italy, where they stand today around 1.3 or 1.4, and they have dipped well below that.

(Ahem. What am I missing about Humanae Vitae, Spain, and Italy?)

Then Kidd:

Religious adherence does have a lot to do with kids. In spite of horror stories about how many youth group kids “leave the faith,” people who took a break often come back into church when they get married and start having kids. Anecdotally, I know of parents who readily admit that they only go to church for the sake of their kids. I recently had a conversation with someone who said they would not go to a certain church because of a lack of children and children’s programs. My family would certainly have to re-evaluate our involvement at our current church if we felt like their programming for teenagers was inadequate (thankfully, it is terrific).

I too know of people who became pillars of Reformed congregations after having kids and recovering the faith that they had mainly abandoned during young adulthood.

But the point I am raising goes beyond families and child rearing. It has to do with the people with whom we hang out and how they keep us in the faith. You may have a doubt or two, but because you know other folks for whom these thoughts are not troubling, you may be inclined to go with the flow until you find a resolution. Conversely, without people in your faith tribe who reinforce your beliefs by virtue of their smarts, humor, outlook, sartorial display, or friendship, if you hit a period of doubt, are you more willing to consider unbelief?

Our dependence (if that’s not too strong) on other believers need not be at odds with the work of the Spirit. After all, the Spirit is also behind providence, which are God’s most “holy, wise, and powerful, preserving and governing all his creatures and all their actions.”

So it’s not social psychology or pneumatology. It’s both/and, a win win.

Or maybe not.

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Isn’t This Like a Constitutional Amendment in Favor of Fast Food?

John Fea objects to the American Bible Society’s “Affirmation of Biblical Community” as a break with the institution’s past and an attempt to signal an evangelical brand (yuck):

There is nothing unusual with a religious organization making employees sign a statement of faith or requiring them to practice certain behavior that fits with the teachings of historic Christianity. Christian ministries and colleges, for example, do this as a matter of course.

But the fact that the ABS has decided to adopt such a statement after functioning for 202 years without one does make this development noteworthy. As the author of perhaps the only scholarly history of this storied Christian organization, I can attest that the “Affirmation of Biblical Community” represents a definitive break with the vision of its founders.

It also represents the culmination of a roughly 20-year transformation of the Society from a diverse Christian organization to a ministry with strong ties to American evangelicalism.

Fea is gaining a following, even to the point that Ruth McCambridge calls this a “hi-jacking”:

Here are some of the potentially break-worthy aspects of the Affirmation as reported at Christianity Today:

“I believe the Bible is inspired by God, an open invitation to all people, and, for me, provides authoritative guidance for my faith and conduct.”

“I will seek spiritual maturity through regular Bible engagement…”

“I will seek to refrain from sexual activity outside of the marriage covenant prescribed and exemplified in the Bible.”

If Fea’s point is that ABS never codified its doctrines or morals, he has a technical point. But do technicalities add up to a “break” or “hi-jacking?” Americans love fast-food but don’t have a national affirmation in favor of double-cheeseburgers. If someone in Congress proposed an amendment to affirm McDonalds and Whataburger, would it constitute a break with American norms, or an unusual step in merging the nation’s politics and tastebuds?

Still, the way Fea and others comment on the Affirmation is to suggest the folks at ABS were indifferent to morality and doctrine, or that the Bible Society was never truly in the evangelical camp. I don’t like to do this but I did learn from John Fea that ABS was part of a 19th-century push by evangelical Protestants to form voluntary parachurch agencies and change the world. In his history of ABS, he writes:

At the start of the Civil War, close to half of the population of the United States were evangelical Christians, and most of these evangelicals were sympathetic to the work of benevolent societies. . . . Between 1789 and 1829 the nation’s thirteen largest benevolent socieites — most of them unaffiliated with a specific denomination — spent more than $2.8 million to promote a more Christian and moral nation. . . . Lyman Beecher, perhaps the most vocal champion of a Christian nation and a founder of the ABS, believed that such interdenominational society should supplement the churches as a “sort of disciplined moral militia.” (51-52)

Is it just I or does that sound like Beecher could well affirm the ABS’s recent Affirmation (and might even add a few more items like drinking, smoking, movies, novels, Sabbath desecration)?

Indeed, one of Beecher’s colleagues in founding ABS, Elias Boudinot, was according to Tommie Kidd “the most evangelical founding father” and no slouch in the moralizing business. Here is how Kidd described Boudinot:

Boudinot was a member and president of the Continental Congress, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, and the director of the U.S. Mint from 1795 to 1805. Boudinot became increasingly alarmed about the rise of Deism and the attacks on traditional Christianity by Thomas Paine and others. He helped found the American Bible Society in 1816, and became the president of the American Society for Evangelizing the Jews in 1820 (John Quincy Adams was a vice president of this organization). Boudinot wrote Christian treatises such as The Age of Revelation and The Second Advent, which used prophecies from the Bible to argue that America risked losing the blessings of God if it continued to pursue faithlessness and worldliness.

Kidd then included an excerpt from Boudinot’s book, The Second Advent:

But has not America greatly departed from her original principles, and left her first love? Has she not also many amongst her chief citizens, of every party, who have forsaken the God of their fathers, and to whom the spirit may justly be supposed to say, “ye hold doctrines which I hate, repent, or else I will come unto you quickly, and will fight against you with the sword of my mouth.”

America has been greatly favoured by God, in all her concerns, both civil and religious, and she has much to hope, and much to fear, according as she shall attentively improve her relative situation among the nations of the earth, for the glory of God, and the protection of his people—She has been raised up in the course of divine Providence, at a very important crisis, and for no very inconsiderable purposes. She stands on a pinnacle—She cannot act a trifling or undecided part—She must determine whom she will serve, God or mammon—She stands by faith, and has great reason to take heed lest she should fall, from a vain confidence in her own internal strength, forgetting “the rock from whence she has been hewed, and the hole of the pit, from whence she has been digged.” …

Hearken then, ye who are happily delivered from many of the evils and temptations to which the European nations are exposed. Your fathers fled from persecution: a glorious country was opened to them by the liberal hand of a kind Providence;—a land, literally, flowing with milk and honey;—they were miraculously delivered from the savages of the desert;—they were fed and nourished in a way they scarcely knew how. Alas! what have been the returns, their descendants, of late years, have made for the exuberant goodness of God to them? The eastern states, however greatly fallen from their former Christian professions, were settled by a people really fearing God. “Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do thy first works, or else I will come unto thee quickly and will remove thy candlestick out of its place, except thou repent,” that is, will deprive thee of those Gospel privileges with which thou hast been so greatly favoured.

Again, Boudinot sounds like the sort of fellow who would likely add to ABS’ recent enumeration of biblical convictions. Kidd adds, “Whatever you might think of Christians today who say we need to bring America ‘back to God,’ it is a concern that evangelicals like Boudinot were expressing from the beginning of the nation.”

So just how much is Affirmation of Biblical Community a “definitive break” with the founders of ABS? Fea could well be right that compared to later developments in the Society’s history, when it became more mainline and even “liberal” Protestant, the current statement is a “hi-jacking.” But not with ABS founders who may not have supported Donald Trump but would be as obnoxious now about marriage, sex, family life, and public morality as they were then.

The Problem with Cessationism

Cessationists apparently have the reputation of not believing in miracles after the apostolic age:

No issue has been more controversial among Protestants in the past 40 years than the charismatic gifts and the role of miracles in the post-apostolic age. The issue was controversial in previous eras of Protestant history, too, although theological lines were not usually drawn as hard and fast as they are between “cessationists” and “continuationists” today.

In the 1700s and 1800s, suspicion of claimed miracles was connected to anti-Catholicism. Protestant critics saw the Catholic tradition as riddled with fake claims of miracles. Ridiculing the fake miracle claims of Catholics (such as icons bleeding a liquid that turned out to be cherry juice) became a staple of Reformed polemics against the Catholic Church. So when seemingly miraculous events happened in Protestant churches, even sympathetic observers warned against the threat of bogus miracles.

Odd, but the cessationists I know all affirm the ongoing reality of miracles. How could you ever believe in people lost in sin becoming regenerate without resorting to the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit?

The real problem comes with the “gift” of speaking in tongues. Why do we need ongoing revelations from God if scripture is sufficient?

1. Although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men unexcusable; yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of his will, which is necessary unto salvation. Therefore it pleased the Lord, at sundry times, and in divers manners, to reveal himself, and to declare that his will unto his church; and afterwards, for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan and of the world, to commit the same wholly unto writing: which maketh the Holy Scripture to be most necessary; those former ways of God’s revealing his will unto his people being now ceased. (CofF 1.1 emphasis added)

6. The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men. (CofF 1.6 emphasis added)

Continuationists who want to defend tongues are in the same predicament as Roman Catholics who defend the continuing infallible teaching of the magisterium and the authority of tradition. Does God’s word have all we need for salvation and godliness? Or do we need ongoing revelations for becoming right with God? If you make an infallible pope or a Spirit-filled Christian the arbiter of Christianity, you deny the sufficiency of Scripture.

Selah.

Interpreting the Bible

Tommie Kidd and Gerald McDermott try to salvage providential history. Of course, such an exercise is dangerous:

Over-readings of God’s providence were relatively easy targets of ridicule for the new skeptics and deists of the eighteenth century. For them, Edwards’ kind of interpretation raised obvious questions with no easy answers. Does an absence of drought or worms mean that people are without sin? What did it mean when non-Christians around the world enjoyed abundant harvests, and heavily Christian regions went without? And what of Matthew 5:45’s statement that God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust”? Many traditional Christians abandoned close providential readings of current events because, with all due respect to Edwards, those interpretations are easier to defend when no one is asking difficult questions about them.

But we lose something without it:

Yet Gerald McDermott suggests that we also lost good things when we gave up on providential readings of history. Christians certainly believe that God is the Lord of history, and that all things have meaning and purpose within God’s economy. No ruler comes to power, and no nation falls, without God’s sovereign permission. Providential interpretations of a nation’s suffering and turmoil remind us that we stand under universal moral standards. No matter how powerful and wealthy, no nation (perhaps especially those with high rates of professed Christian faith) can expect to provoke God forever with no consequences.

We didn’t already have those assertions from simply reading the Bible? And if we read the Bible and cogitated on its status as God’s word, we might notice that God is the one who interprets history, which is what happens in the pages of Holy Writ — something happens, and we learn its meaning from the apostles and prophets. When things happen and God doesn’t interpret, why would we ever think we have the capacity to fill the void?

Even so, Kidd will not relent:

The most appropriate occasions when we can make modest assertions about God’s historical interventions are when we detect dynamics of reaping and sowing. For example, the financial meltdown of 2008 was clearly connected to irresponsible practices and products, like the infamous “credit default swaps.” At a minimum, we can say that in 2008, God let our nation reap what we had sown financially. We are still trying to recover from the disaster that ensued.

Well, knowing that you reap what you sow is something that farmers understand without the aid of providential history. The challenge for arguments like Kidd’s is the dark side of providential history (and the fall more generally). If God let the nation reap what the banks had sown, isn’t it also the case that God let the banks sow?

Are providentialists really up to tackling the problem of evil? I don’t think so.

The Adam Option

If we wish to right the wrong that the Supreme Court has done, then, we must do more than change the law. We must change the culture. That’s no easy task, and again it is not obvious how we should begin.

That’s one of Phil Lawler’s observations after the Court’s recent decision on same-sex marriage. One way to change the culture, I know right off the top of my head, is not the Benedict Option. The Benedict Option literally means no sex and no kids. And the one way that heterosexuals could change the culture in a heart beat is out-reproduce homosexuals. Think about it (but not to long). What’s so hard about that? One kind of sex results in kids, the other doesn’t. Birth rates alone will change demographics and all sorts of cultural bi-products follow. Think of all the weeping and gnashing of teeth over Europe being overrun by Muslims who out-reproduce Christians Europeans and think again how those changing demographics are supposed to transform Europe.

It could happen here — families overwhelming singles.

Caleb Bernacchio and Philip de Mahy think that the Benedict Option still has possibilities but not the way that Rod Dreher frames it:

The question facing Dreher and other proponents of the Benedict Option is how it is possible to recover not only the Benedictine vision of prayer but also the Benedictine vision of work as prayer, under the conditions of advanced modernity. Work shapes one’s character; it will either be a school of virtue or, all too often, of vice. Modernity largely understands work as instrumental. To become anti-modern in a constructive manner, we must challenge the way that modernity diminishes the importance of work as a means of character development.

St. Benedict’s solution was revolutionary for its time because it recognized that neither the life of work nor the life of prayer can be pursued independently of the other.

I still don’t see room for sex. I am still left wondering what happened to these Benedictines once they die. For the Benedict Option to succeed, don’t you need to have kids and pass on your faith and “values” to them? And where do you see sex or kids in a monastery?

Dreher himself is pondering his critics and has recently come up with this as a better formulation of the Benedict Option:

The early Benedictine monks followed the Rule of St. Benedict, which directed how they were to organize their monastic communities to serve God. Benedict taught that they were to focus on prayer and work, and the common life. The five principles I have discerned from reading the Rule are:

Order
Stability
Discipline
Community
Hospitality

It should go without saying that a method for living out these principles is going to look very different for lay people living in the world than for vowed religious living in single-sex communities behind monastery walls. I think whatever forms the Benedict Option takes, we have to understand that it’s going to be diverse, depending on local needs, and particular religious traditions. How Catholics live it out won’t look exactly like how Southern Baptists live it out. How urban Christians live it out won’t look exactly like how rural Christians live it out. The ultimate goal, though, is developing communities that can be islands of stability, sanity, and goodness in a fast-moving and chaotic culture that works against all of those things.

Fine, but weren’t families islands of stability, sanity, and goodness in a fast-moving and chaotic culture? And weren’t congregations also there to produce some of those same cultural goods? What happened to family and church? One answer is that families and churches didn’t do that great a job of passing on strict codes governing sex, marriage, and ambition? Did the pursuit of a Republican president in the White House and overturning Roe v. Wade also bring some strong winds and heavy rains to those islands of stability? I think so.

But those islands are still there. Climate change hasn’t obliterated them. Be fruitful, multiply, and catechize (but not that doorstop of a catechism produced by John Paul II — Luther’s Small, Heidelberg, or the Shorter Catechism should do).

Tommie Kidd gets the last word on what was the Adam (okay, ladies) the Adam-and-Eve Option:

How different, then, are the traditional Christian practices of family life? (None of the following are exclusively for Christians, nor do all professing Christians practice them.) Marriage between a man and a woman, marital vows before sex, viewing children as a blessing from God, and a responsibility to raise those children in the fear of the Lord. Limits on “screen time” which allow for more reading, more outside play, and more sleep. Family dinners and prayer, church attendance, reading in the Bible and other edifying, educational books.

These and countless other small counter-cultural aspects of Christian family life today may not strike us as “retreat,” but they are conscious decisions not to assimilate to the patterns of mainstream culture. We may even find it hard to maintain these standards in the context of church, where many of the parents of our kids’ friends are not choosing the counter-cultural path. Nevertheless, for “paleo” evangelicals the Benedict Option is unquestionably the route we’ll need to take in the coming days. It is the way of fidelity for Christians, as the world around us sloughs off what remains of our quasi-Christian culture.

Less American Than Thou

Thanks go to Tommie Kidd for actually recognizing that confessional Protestantism may be a category distinct from evangelicalism (all about me alert):

The second group are Reformed/confessionalist Christians, often associated with traditional Presbyterian or Reformed denominations such as the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. This is the easiest category of the four, because many of these Christians would tell you that they are not evangelicals, even if the media would regard them as such. Some of these folks will tell you that they might be evangelicals, but that the doctrines and confessions of Reformed Christianity are the center of their faith, not the born-again feelings of typical American evangelicals. D.G. Hart is one of the preeminent examples of the Reformed critics of evangelicalism.

But Professor Kidd is not going to abandon evangelicalism. He merely wants to create space between evangelicalism and American nationalism (read exceptionalism):

there are many evangelicals who have reservations about the blending of American national history with their faith. Our faith needs to be focused on Christ, the paleos say, and rooted in the deep, wide tradition of orthodox church history. We do not base our faith, in any sense, on the personal beliefs of Jefferson, Washington, or Adams. Especially when viewed from the perspective of the global church, American civil religion looks peculiar, at best. Yes, Christianity played a major role in the American founding, but that fact does not place the founding at the center of Christianity. The paleos admire many of the founders, but do not wish to read the founders alongside Scripture, as Barton would have us do in his Founders’ Bible.

This concern would be a lot more forceful if Professor Kidd were to identify with a particular communion rather than a generic evangelicalism no matter how paleo (like Oleo?). He may so identify in his personal life, but he like a lot of historians who write in Conference on Faith and History (instead of a Conference on Church History) circles claim to belong to Christianity without actually being restrained by the shape and teaching of a particular church. And this is where Kidd’s description of confessional Protestantism could take a correction. Yes, the doctrines of Reformed Protestantism are important to confessional Presbyterians but that is at least because those doctrines are confessed by a communion and bind its officers and members together (in some way).

The alternative to an ecclesial Protestantism is the very sort of evangelicalism with which Kidd seemingly identifies. And part of the reason why evangelicals since Whitefield have held the visible church in low esteem is because it gets in the way of those cooperative endeavors from orphanages and Sunday school to solving world hunger and forming academic guilds. When the United States broke with Theodosius and disestablished religion, Christians did not give up national churches but they — evangelicals included — turned the nation into a church.

If paleo-evangelicals like Kidd want to disabuse evangelicals of their nationalism, a quick remedy would be to turn denominational or churchly by adopting a higher allegiance to the church (and letting it be tested by submission to ecclesiastical authority) rather than turning a critical eye to the nation. But the problem there for Protestants on both the evangelical “right” and the mainline left is that allegiance to a particular church and its teachings, liturgy, and government looks sectarian — sort of like attachments to states like Michigan or Pennsylvania look backward. The solution to one big, vacuous, and uncritical allegiance (American exceptionalism) is not another big, vacuous, and uncritical allegiance (evangelicalism).