The White Man’s Burden

With all the talk of intersectionality and white privilege, it now turns out that white men themselves can play the victim card. We too are oppressed and marginalized as Pete Enns recently discovered:

White male privilege really is a thing, I never see it from the outside in, and I was never challenged to critique white male privilege as an expression of my faith. Rather, it was allowed to fit far too comfortably with my faith.

Not being an oppressed person puts me at a disadvantage. I rarely need to cry out as the psalmists do about being treated with injustice, prejudice, with violence. I don’t need to worry about being pulled over by uniformed protectors of the public. There are many more places I can go and things I can do because I am part of the dominant culture.

And I don’t worry about my competence or value being questioned because of my gender. I am the default, the norm. I do the judging.

An iteration of the Christian faith that doesn’t see the problem here, really see it, is its own refutation.

But here come some complications when men of privilege grasp for the ring of oppression:

Was the fact that Pete was a victim of white male domination at WTS its own form of oppression? On the scales of social justice this instance of maltreatment (according to some) does not itself rise to the level of what people of color have experienced. But Pete needs to see that white male privilege only goes so far when it collides with other white men with privilege. Ten years ago the Psalms would have made total sense of Pete’s experience.

But that raises a question about using as expressions of lament the prayers of kings, which is much of the OT Psalter. Should a victim of oppression really appeal to a prayer from an officer who according to social justice warriors is inherently oppressive? After all, the left has taught us that the wealthy and powerful are chief among the perpetrators of injustice. So how do you sing the songs of lament of the wealthy and powerful, like kings as opposed to the oppressed people (who haven’t left much of a paper trail)?

One last wrinkle: can a white Christian man really appeal to the text of Hebrews even if that is his academic specialty? Isn’t this a form of cultural appropriation? If Oberlin College students have taught us about authentic tacos in the cafeteria, and if Pete wants to approve the arguments that currently fuel the politics of identity, hasn’t he gone to the wrong place if he turns to the Psalms? Wouldn’t T.S. Eliot be a better fit for a white Christian man if he were — hypothetically of course — to experience oppression?

The gods of social justice are a demanding bunch. Call on them at your peril if your complexion is pink or ruddy.

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New Calvinist Exceptionalism

After the recent controversies surrounding Darrin Patrick, C. J. Mahaney, and James MacDonald, I was surprised to see Jeff Jue be so positive about the New Calvinism. He even appeals to the spirit of J. Gresham Machen and Westminster Seminary:

It is committed to the Reformed tradition.

The theme of this year’s T4G was “We Are Protestant: The Reformation at 500,” and the theme of TGC’s 2017 National Conference will be “No Other Gospel: Reformation 500 and Beyond” (April 3 to 5 in Indianapolis; browse list of speakers and talks, and register here). Reformed theology is at the heart of WTS, and it’s what we’ve been teaching since J. Gresham Machen founded the seminary in 1929. So it’s a great encouragement to partner with others who share our commitment to the Reformed tradition.

In 2014 John Piper gave a series of lectures at WTS on the New Calvinism. At one point he stated, “There would be no New Calvinism without Westminster Seminary.” He was referring to the numerous influential books written by WTS faculty members. Perhaps it was an overstatement, but Piper’s comment reminded me of the historical connection between WTS and the New Calvinism.

To Serve the Local Church

Just as WTS is an independant organization with a confessional identity wanting to serve the church, the same is true of sister ministries like T4G and TGC.

And while we have some differences among us, the New Calvinist movement—as represented this week by T4G—is an opportunity to share the rich truths of the Reformation with yet another generation of pastors and churches.

I would have thought that Carl Trueman’s jab on the Gospel Coalition’s “Machismozing” was more typical of that Old Westminster spirit.

But what do I know? It is the season of spin.

Westminster II

Looks like (and we’ve known this for some time) that Protestants have as much trouble with hermeneutics of continuity and discontinuity as Roman Catholics. Something funny happened in the 1960s. Bishops met in Rome — was it hard to get a cab, a table at a trendy Italian restaurant? And at Westminster Seminary (Philadelphia) the second generation of faculty came along, most of whom had studied with the first generation. But the second generation decided it wouldn’t color within the lines drawn by the original faculty. Sounds like Vatican II, doesn’t it?

Evidence of the challenges of historical and institutional continuity comes from a post on Facebook at Tremper Longman’s page (made available at Greenbaggins). Tremper calls it Middle Westminster, an odd phrase if you think in historical categories of the West. Weren’t the Middle Ages also the Dark Ages? That surely is not what Tremper means to communicate since for him, Middle WTS is the good WTS. For support, he includes comments by Clair Davis:

The history of WTS divides itself naturally into three great epochs: before me, during me, after me. I came on faculty in 1966 at the same time that Ed became the first president, and retired as Sam was taken away as our leader. So Middle WTS is the same as My Time! Ed had a broader agenda than showing up liberals, so closely related to his own powerful work with the Word. He got around in the broader evangelical world and appreciated what we could give them. I give him so much credit along with Ed Clowney Redivivus George and Sam for broadening us up to look at the Bible itself, but I suspect that growing evangelical desire for more than the old WTS offered also played a large part.

Especially after Meredith moved on Ray Dillard became our leader, in OT and also in godly theology for life generally. The OT people had the only departmental prayer meeting! I am so glad they had room for Erik Davis too. Al led them and us all on after Ray’s early death. But what an amazing crew: add on Tremper Longman, Peter Enns, Bruce Waltke, Doug Green, and Mike Kelly, and so many great grad students.

It was all about learning more and more about God’s Word, with all that learning other Semitic cultures could provide. I hope my Church History big picture way of thinking doesn’t blur the uniqueness of our OT—but the rise of Jay Adam’s and David Powlison’s and Ed Welch’s biblical counseling was going on at the same time. Then add in Harvie Conn, with his provocative questions and deep answers. I see our Old Testament department leading the way, but so many “cultural” things were happening at the same time! We all knew our God-given calling was to be “relevant,” to push the evangelical and Reformed world to think bigger than it ever had, to go far beyond hassling liberals and getting the grammar right. I believe myself that we succeeded mightily. To God be the glory, with credit to Ed Clowney and George Fuller and Sam Logan and Harvie Conn and CCEF (the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation) and those amazing students, asking better and deeper questions of us and demanding answers.

Clair’s reflections come at the conclusion of Doug Green’s teaching career at WTS. As Tremper explains, Green’s departure is one more piece of the “Westminster Diaspora.” I agree with Clair and Tremper that it is sad to see Doug leave WTS. I consider him a friend, thanks in part of the placement of the coffee maker in the work room outside my office in Montgomery Memorial Library which allowed him and me to talk about any number of things. At the same time, I’m pretty sure Doug would concede that WTS in the 1990s was a shaky place where confessionalists like myself and envelope-pushers like him (and Tremper, and Pete Enns, and Clair Davis) co-existed but rarely found themselves on the same page.

The question I had then is the same question I have now: why did administrators and board members think you could sow the fabric of continuity onto the inherent discontinuity between Old School Presbyterian types and New Life folks who were in awe of Tim Keller (the elephant in this historical room)? As if TKNY would bring us all together.

If Clair can lament the loss of Middle Westminster, can’t folks who think as Machen did that the Reformed faith is grand bemoan the loss of Early Westminster? What exactly happened to make the convictions of the original faculty either wrong or irrelevant? And did anyone actually make a case for changing course, pointing out where the older generation was wrong or shortsighted, and chart a better way based both on Reformed heritage and biblical teaching? Of course, John Frame has picked his winners and losers among the original faculty and derided those (like mmmeeeEEE) who still see merit in Machen’s founding vision for Westminster and his forthright defense of Reformed Protestantism. But Frame was not at Westminster Philadelphia in the 1990s. He didn’t need to be. The clear sense was that the Machen thing was passe.

And as I often said to friends and wife during the 1900s, the Machen thing may well have been irrelevant. But that requires an argument especially at an institution that prides itself on intellectual achievement. And an argument requires some awareness of what Machen tried to accomplish, and the context in which he tried.

Above all, shrugging off Machen and the original faculty of Westminster required a degree of loyalty for those whose work took place in places like Machen and Van Til Hall. I mean, if students at Princeton University can insist on removing Woodrow Wilson’s name from all associations with the institution, can’t Westminster faculty and administrators come up with a way to rid themselves of the bad parts of their institution’s past (Machen was after all a racist by today’s standards and even a family friend of Wilson)?

Or could it also be that the same sort of candor that Machen demanded of liberal Presbyterians has been in short supply among those Middle Westminster types who benefited from the institution’s reputation but failed to acknowledge it — even worse, disparaged it?

I wish Doug all the best. But the history of Westminster demands more scrutiny and awareness than those from the Middle period have been capable of producing.

Why Westminster Is Independent (even if Scotland isn't)

From Mr. Murray’s own typewriter (included in the OPC Report of the Committee on Theological Education, Minutes of the General Assembly, 1945, 79-80)

The conclusion at which we arrive, therefore, is that certain phases of a seminary curriculum fall quite properly into the category of the theological education conducted by the church an: that other phases of such a curriculum are no part of the church’s responsibility.

It is highly important to remember, however, that though the church is obligated to teach the whole counsel of God, it does not follow that the teaching of the whole counsel of God may be given only under the auspices of the church. There are other auspices under which it is just as obligatory to teach and inculcate the Word of God. Such teaching should be given by parents in the instruction and nurture of their children. But the life of the family is not conducted under the auspices of the church. Such teaching should also be given in the Christian school in all of its stages and developments. The Christian world and life view as set forth in Scripture is the basis of the Christian school, and so the whole range of Scripture truth must, in the nature of the case, be presented if the education given is to be thoroughly Christian in character. But the Christian school, whether at the elementary or the secondary or the university stage, should not be conducted under the auspices of the church. The teaching of the Word of God given in the family and in the Christian school will indeed, as regards content, coincide with the teaching given by the church, but this coincidence as regards content does not in the least imply that such teaching should be given under the auspices of the church.

In like manner a theological seminary should teach the whole counsel of God. A great deal of the teaching must therefore coincide with the teaching given by the church, and, furthermore, a great deal of it is the teaching that may properly be conducted by the church and under its official auspices. It does not follow, however, that the teaching of the Word of God given in a theological seminary must be given under the auspices of the church. The mere fact that, in certain particulars, the type of teaching given is the type of teaching that may and should be given by the church and may also properly be conducted under the official auspices of the church does not rove that such teaching must be conducted under the auspices of the church. This does not follow any more than does the-fact that the teaching of the Word of God given in the home and in the school is in content the same as may and should be given by the church prove that the family and the school should be conducted under the auspices of the church. A theological seminary is an institution which may quite properly be conducted, like other Christian schools, under auspices other than those of the church, and a great deal of its work is of such a character that the church may not properly undertake it.

It is highly necessary that the theological discipline preparatory to the discharge of the Gospel ministry be as comprehensive as that provided by the curriculum of theological seminaries. But the church may not properly undertake the conduct of such comprehensive, theological education. In the interest of the most effective instruction, however, it is well that the comprehensive course of study be conducted under unified auspices. Since comprehensive theological education may not be conducted under the auspices of the church and since it may properly be conducted under auspices other than those of the church, it follows that a theological seminary, affording comprehensive theological education under
non-ecclesiastical auspices, is not only highly proper but also promotes the interests of effective theological education and guards the principle that the church must limit itself to those activities which Holy Scripture defines as its proper function.

Let’s see the anti-republicationists and pro-hymn singer deal with that.

What A Difference A Day Makes

If Westminster Seminary were hoping for a media bump from its decision to sue the federal government over the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Affordable Care Act, they couldn’t have picked a worse day. The seminary’s press release did reach at least one Roman Catholic website, but events at the Vatican absorbed most news coverage. A small Protestant seminary was no match for God’s new vicegerent.

Publicity tactics aside, Westminster’s decision to sue the federal government is an odd twist in the institution’s long associations with the spirituality of the church and biblical theology. The suit comes in the form of a protest against federal policy but it masks a chance to make a public pronouncement against abortion:

The Complaint, submitted to the federal district court in Houston, Texas, states federal agency defendants are violating Westminster’s rights under the First Amendment, and related statutes, to the free exercise of religion, by requiring the Seminary to provide health insurance to its employees that covers, and thereby promotes, their use of abortion-inducing drugs. Westminster believes this is in direct violation of one of the most basic tenets of its religious foundation – the sanctity of life – the understanding that every human life is created in the image of God.

So instead of explaining how Obama Care will hurt the Seminary, its president, Peter Lillback, uses the podium to protest abortion:

“It is indisputable that every human embryo, formed the moment a human egg is fertilized, has a unique human identity,” said Westminster President Peter Lillback. “That is a human life the Affordable Care Act we are challenging would destroy. In Westminster’s view, this mandate is the antithesis of the federal government’s solemn responsibility ‘to promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty’ for its citizens.”

Declaring the sanctity of human life is fine, but taking the government to court (or jumping on a case already before the courts) is another. Paul’s example of going to court in Acts 24-26 would hardly be the model for such litigiousness. His motivations were first of all self-defense and evangelistic. Posturing does not come to mind. (And if some think “posturing” is too cynical a read, how exactly do they think the editors at the Philadelphia Inquirer are looking at it — if they noticed?)

Equivocation on the politicized nature of this decision — and the press release to publicize it, mind you — comes in the responses supplied at the WTS website:

Q: Does filing the lawsuit involve Westminster in a political cause?
A: Westminster is not a partisan institution. Joining this lawsuit is an expression of our deeply held religious beliefs. We are united in this action with many other religious institutions that are standing for religious freedom unrelated to any partisan cause.

That is not an answer.

Q: Shouldn’t Westminster concentrate on its core mission?
A: Teaching the whole counsel of God is at the core of our mission. Westminster’s commitment to the whole counsel of God includes matters of public theology. Thus, when necessary, the Board and faculty must be prepared to speak and to act our deeply held Biblical convictions that from time to time require appropriate civic engagement.

Westminster already does plenty of speaking and acting. It teaches, holds conferences, its faculty and board members preach, and I am sure many of these people take actions in the civic realm that testify to their convictions. But a law suit? Isn’t 1 Corinthians 6:7 part of God’s whole counsel? “To have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather suffer wrong?” If you want to say that Paul is only talking about lawsuits by Christians against fellow believers, then what about 1 Timothy 2:1-2: “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.”

Wherever you look in the New Testament, Christians were not trying to rock the boat aside from the God-appointed means of preaching the word of God and worshiping the author of that word. And that was a different kind of boat-rocking, not one so close to show-boating.

Good and Necessary Consequence?

Mike Horton often laments that the evangelicals who become excited about confessional Protestant theology often do not realize that the new teachings and practices they adopt are at odds with older parts of their born-again devotion and conviction. Mike likens this to a notebook in which the student puts in new pages but neglects to take out the old and erroneous pages. In which case, someone might insert a page for worship that is formal, liturgical, and reverent, and fail to remove the page that says it’s okay to go home after the service and watch professional football.

To Rabbi Bret’s credit, his intellect is keen enough to see the tensions among pages in his notebook. He recently posted his disagreement with J. Gresham Machen on the pastor’s responsibility to master and minister the Word of God. In his convocation address for Westminster Seminary, Machen asserted:

We are living in an age of specialization. There are specialists on eyes and specialists on noses, and throats, and stomachs, and feet, and skin; there are specialists on teeth—one set of specialists on putting teeth in, and another set of specialists on pulling teeth out—there are specialists on Shakespeare and specialists on electric wires; there are specialists on Plato and specialists on pipes. Amid all these specialties, we at Westminster Seminary have a specialty which we think, in comparison with these others, is not so very small. Our specialty is found in the Word of God. Specialists in the Bible—that is what Westminster Seminary will endeavor to produce.

But Bret thinks this is too narrow a reading of Scripture or the work of ministers.

The idea that being alone a specialist on what is in the Bible is enough to successfully minister in our current culture is just not true unless included in that idea of Bible specialty is also the ability to take what’s in the Bible and apply it every area of life.

For example, what’s in the Bible will never tell us about existentialism or post-modernism, or communism but can any minister really be of any value if they have no understanding of how these philosophies are impacting the people he is seeking to minister God’s word from?

If ministers are to specialize what ministers need to specialize in is integration, or inter-disciplinary studies. Is a minister prepared if he specializes on what is in the Bible, while along the way, discovering that Jesus Christ is Lord of all, if the minister doesn’t know what that might begin to look like in family life, the law realm, or the educational realm?

Ministers simply have to understand that Christian theology is the integrating point that gives unity to all the differing specialties. The Bible is that integrating point and because it is that integrating point what the Bible has to say between its covers, covers all areas that aren’t explicitly between its covers. If we do not believe that God’s word is the integrating point that gives unity to diversity then the world we live in will not be a Universe but a Multi-verse where all the particulars (specialties) can find no relation to one another.

So again, to Bret’s credit, he sees that he needs to take the Machen page out of his notebook to accommodate his biblicism and world-view pages. We appreciate the clarity and honesty.

What deserves attention, though, is that the Bible nowhere says that the ministry needs to be the integration point for all specialties. Somehow I missed that in Paul’s instructions to Timothy on ministering the word (2 Tim 3:14-4:4). Paul is fairly clear about ministering the word and the sufficiency of Scripture. The apostle himself knew a thing or two about Greek philosophy but he doesn’t tell Timothy to master Epicureanism or Stoicism – as if your average first-century or twenty-first Christian is trying to implement the ‘ism’s of the mind in his everyday activities; even the mental people – academics or pastors – are never so self-conscious.

Also questionable is Bret’s belief that someone could actual be the master of all specialties in order to integrate them. Given Bret’s own reading of economics, politics, or history, I’d say he might spend a little more time with the experts before thinking that he is the master of all intellectual insights and capable of definitive judgments. Ironically, it seems that Bret follows Machen in thinking he is an expert on the Bible and because the Bible speaks to all of life, the good Rabbi is an expert on all of life. Again I say, huh?

Bret’s comments are another important reason for 2k – which is to reign in excessive interpretations of the religious meanings of culture, not to mention the pride that generally comes with such assessments.

But to Bret’s credit, he does sense that he needs to give up Machen to retain Rushdoony. We continue to be amazed and amused that he keeps the CRC page.

Talk About Justification Priority

Peter Leithart has posted an excerpt from his Reformation Day sermon. I suppose I should find this encouraging to see a man who does not wear tradition readily, but enjoys the “creative tension” that he learned at least while studying at Westminster Seminary, affirm the blessings of Protestantism. But like so much that Leithart writes, the points that lead to agreement are cheek-by-jowl alongside matters of serious contention.

So first for the encouraging bit. To the question, “Is the Reformation dead?” Leithart responds without hesitation:

We don’t believe so. We believe that the achievements of the Reformation are still worth defending, that the work of the Reformation is still worth preserving. The Reformation recovered biblical truths that had either been rejected or buried in late medieval Catholicism. In themselves, the Reformation slogans are just slogans, but they get at central biblical truth.

But then comes the contentious part. Standing for the Protestant Reformation may not mean maintaining the doctrines of the sixteenth century in a dogmatic way:

If defending the Reformation means nothing more than repeating the Reformation slogans or assenting to (or claiming to assent to) the Reformation confessions; if defending the Reformation means we carry on with business as usual, carry on in the way the Reformation churches have always carried on; if being Protestant means we stay still – then the Reformation has become a kind of tribalism.

If that is what being Protestant means, then the Reformation has been turned upside down and inside out. It began as a protest against fossilized and distorted tradition, and it will cease to be genuinely Protestant if it becomes another kind of traditionalism. The Reformers called for a reform of the church according to the word of God, but the Reformers knew that the work of reforming the church would not end in their generation, or ever.

If being Protestant means simply trying to preserve or recapture the sixteenth century, then the Reformation is already dead and deserved to die.

This hostility to tradition evokes similar words from John Frame with whom Leithart studied at Westminster. In his defense of biblicism, Frame wrote that “The notion that Scripture addresses, to some extent, every important human question, produced at Westminster a high quality of theological creativity. We often associate orthodoxy with stagnancy and traditionalism. But at Westminster, the commitment to sola Scriptura propelled it in the opposite direction.” Frame added:

During my student years, I was never asked to read any of the Reformed confessions, or Calvin’s Institutes, except in small bits. I never read any official standards of church government or discipline, not to mention Robert’s Rules of Order. We used Hodge and Berkhof in our systematics classes, but for the most part we were graded not on our reading but on our knowledge of Murray’s lectures. After graduation I became ordained in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, and I confess I was rather surprised at the seriousness with which my fellow ministers took the Confessional Standards and Presbyterian traditions. Eventually I became more like my fellow Orthodox Presbyterian (and later Presbyterian Church in America) elders, but not without some nostalgia for the openness of theological discussion during my seminary years.

Would Leithart say the same of his years at Westminster? The answer is anyone’s guess. But the idea of theological creativity is one that links Leithart to Frame and Westminster Seminary of a certain era. As valuable as questioning and creativity may be in Reformed theology, the Federal Vision is not a very good way to carry on the tradition of the Reformation. I would assume that Frame agrees with that assessment. Leithart obviously does not (though I am not sure that even the Federal Vision capture and tame the footloose and highly original Leithart).

The oddest and least successful part of Leithart’s sermon comes in his paean for justification by faith:

For Paul, justification is not only a work of God but a work of all of God, a seamless work of the Father, Son and Spirit, like all God’s works.

When we do that, we find that justification by faith includes or implies everything that we want to say about a twenty-first century Reformation.

Justification means being made right with God through Christ, through the faithful death of Christ.

Justification by faith means that righteousness is given to us, not through the law but through the cross, which we receive by faith.

Justification means that Christ lives in me, and I no longer live and the life I live in the body I live by faith in the Son of God.

Justification means that God has created a community of the justified, a community united without division of Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, Lutheran or Methodist, Baptist or Catholic.

Justification means that righteousness has come, the righteousness by which God will restore the world.

Justification means that God’s promises to Abraham have been fulfilled, and that we are swept up in that fulfillment.

Justification means that God is blessing the families of the earth through the seed of Abraham.

Justification means that the Spirit has been given to those who hear with faith, the Spirit that fulfills the promise to Abraham, the Spirit of righteousness and justice, the Spirit of life and renewal.

Justification, finally, means that this is all God’s work, and that all of God has done all this. The Father sent the Son whose death brought righteousness, which is the gift of the Spirit. The Father counts as righteous those who are in the Son, and shows His acceptance of us by giving us the Abrahamic promise, the Spirit. Justification means that the Triune God is God, Just and the justifier of those who have faith in Jesus.

Justification means that in Christ’s death and resurrection, the Triune God has revealed His righteousness, the undying commitment of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit to their own eternal communion, the eternal, undying, triumphant commitment to incorporate us, the seed of Abraham, into that communion.

Maybe, but why can’t justification simply mean an act of God’s free grace wherein he pardons all our sins and accepts us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ, imputed to us and received by faith alone?

That is a whole lot clearer than Leithart’s list of meanings, and it indicates why some of us still prefer the era of Reformed orthodoxy to the one of Reformed biblicism – it’s just better.

Now He's Channeling Glen

Not Glen Beck but Uncle Glen, that is.

Carl Trueman is on a roll and a recent post gives his objections to celebrity pastors. A friend told Trueman about an inquirer who came to him with a doctrinal question because the inquirer’s own pastor was too busy on the speaking circuit to meet with his congregant.

To which Trueman responds:

What was interesting was that this person was a member at one of the flagship Reformed evangelical churches in the US where the pastor is seen as one of the great hopes for the spread of gospel churches in the post-Christian world. In fact, this church member had actually tried to speak to this pastor about the issue, but had not been able to get an appointment. The church leader was simply too busy, with countless external demands on his time; and now, presumably protected by a praetorian guard of personal assistants and associate pastors, he was essentially as unavailable to the masses in his large congregation as the average rock star is to the punters who buy his concert tickets. . . .

I am immensely grateful that I have only ever held membership in churches of a size where the pastor has always been accessible and available. Indeed, my pastors have always even known my name, my wife’s name, my kids’ names, and even what sports they play (this latter may seem trivial but it has been peculiarly important to me: my kids may not always enjoy going to church; but they have never doubted that the pastor actually cares for them; and that is something for which I am more grateful than I can articulate). Indeed, each of my pastors has cared about his people, not as a concept or a good idea or as an indeterminate mass, but as real, particular people with names and histories and strengths and weaknesses; and this surely reflects the character and love of God who, after, calls his sheep by name and cares for us all as individuals. If I gave you the names of said pastors, few reading this post would ever have heard of them: they have written no books; they have never pulled in huge crowds; and they have never spoken at megaconferences. But they have always been there when even the humblest church member has called out for advice, counsel or even help with bailing out a flooded basement.

This sounds a lot like the point that avuncular Glen made in the pages of New Horizons to his nephew James:

The problem with your attraction to Pastor Strong’s church is that you may be succumbing to unhealthy standards for a pastor. Yes, this man does much of what a minister is supposed to do, and he does it in a much more visible way than most. He studies Scripture, expounds and applies it, leads worship, and apparently assumes his responsibilities as a presbyter both in his session and in his presbytery. I say “apparently” because someone who travels the way he does, especially when he is in book-promotion mode, is not going to be available for some regularly appointed session and presbytery meetings, not to mention any committees on which he might serve. He is also an effective speaker, and I have heard a number of recordings that attest to his powers of delivery (though I am not as sure that he preaches as much as he “gives a talk”).

As I say, Pastor Strong does the things that pastors are supposed to do in a very visible or public way. This means that he is ministering the word to a wider audience than that of his congregation. But when folks read his books or listen to his online sermons, Strong is not acting in his capacity as a minister because he has no relationship to the reader or listener. They are not members of the congregation that called him. They did not take vows to submit to him in the Lord, and he has not made promises ratified by real people to minister the word faithfully to anyone who picks up his book in a bookstore. In other words, he has no personal, and therefore no pastoral, relationship to remote listeners and readers.

Granted, you say you would like to become a member of his congregation, and this would put you in a real relationship to Strong. But then comes the flip side of the problem I have just described. How can a man who is as busy as he is have time for a personal relationship with his congregants? What generally happens in situations like Strong’s is that he is at the top of a large pastoral staff in which the pastors without star power have the day-to-day responsibilities of shepherding the flock. At least that accounts for the pastoral oversight that Christians need. I can well imagine the disappointment you will experience if you move to Boston only to discover that you had more access to Strong during his visit to Rutherford than you do in the place where you worship.

Think of it another way. Have you ever heard of a celebrity dad? Well, of course, there are dads who are celebrities because of their work outside the home (Brad Pitt might qualify). But do you know any dads who are celebrities because of their activities as a father and husband? Bill Cosby’s character on his hit television show comes to mind, but that still isn’t the real thing. We do not know what Bill Cosby was like as a father because most of the duties of fathers are hidden from the public eye—taking out the trash, cleaning up after a child’s upset stomach, praying over the family meals. These are not tasks that create celebrity because they are unexceptional and do not attract publicity.

Some might argue that I am simply setting into motion a set of expectations that tolerates average or even mediocre men in the ministry—those without the ability to attract large audiences. Perhaps so, since I believe what Paul writes about God using earthen vessels to accomplish his purposes. The skills of the pastor are not what make his ministry effective; rather, it is the power of God that saves. My point, though, is not to deny the value of excellence. It is rather to underscore the quiet and routine ways in which the pastoral ministry transpires. Pastoral ministry is not flashy, but we need it in the same way that we need fathers and mothers to be in the home, not on speaking tours about parenthood.

It is good to know that Westminster Seminary has someone who understands the personal and routine nature of the pastoral ministry. Back in the day when I was at WTS, a certain transforming pastor in a large metropolis had a reputation at the seminary so large that he not only walked on water but hovered over it. Now, perhaps, sanity about the work of a pastor is reemerging at Machen’s seminary.

What Glenn Beck and Peter Lillback Need to Know about the Church and Social Justice

The church’s mission is not social justice if, by such equity we mean the punishment of wickedness and the reward of virtue. One way to substantiate this assertion is by looking for the word “justice” in the church’s corporate witness. A word search reveals in the Belgic Confession, for instance, that justice appears in the discussion of God’s treatment of sin and the remedy in Christ (Article 20) and in the work of the magistrate (Article 36). A similar use of the word occurs in Calvin’s catechism where he talks about the justice of God in punishing sin (Q. 154), and penalties for stealing (Q. 205). Calvin also speaks of justice in connection with the second petition of the Lord’s prayer (Q. 269), and the respect for justice that accompanies sanctification (Q. 290). In the Westminster Confession, “justice” appears only in chapter three on the eternal decree (3.7), providence (5.1), the work of Christ (8.5), justification (11.3), the function of the civil magistrate (23.2), and the last judgment (33.2). If the earliest Reformed Protestants believed the church should promote social justice, they were remarkably silent both about that part of ecclesiastical duty and the very idea itself.

If by social justice, like the way that Peter Lillback used it on the Glenn Beck show, one means various ways to improve a person’s material circumstances, such as education for the ignorant, relief for orphans, welfare for the poor, food for the hungry, and medicine for the sick, the matter of the church’s duties is contested. Word and deed advocates insist that the church carries out such work indiscriminately, that is, it provides welfare to everyone irrespective of their standing within the church (no matter whether a given congregation has the capacity to provide medical or educational assistance). Word and sacrament advocates in contrast hold that diaconal work is an important and necessary ministry but that the church’s role in alleviating misery extends only to the saints (except in extraordinary circumstances). Even then, the diaconate’s commission is not nearly as broad as the welfare state’s. Diaconal work is not an excuse, then, for the church to establish hospitals, orphanages, schools, and kitchens under the oversight of the church. The doctrine of sphere-sovereignty has long put limits on the church and given many of these functions to the family.

By the way, why exactly should the church be involved in the work of humanitarian relief or social justice when a perfectly good nation exists – in the United States, anyway – for carrying out such functions? Political conservatives may well object to the idea that the American government is perfectly good or whether the state should have nanny-like responsibilities. The Bible may not vindicate the political conservative position, but given the affinity of Mr. Beck and Dr. Lillback to the Republican party, and hence to some form of conservatism, one might think that objections to the culture of dependence fostered by the welfare state (one of the many unintended consequences of good intentions) might occur to anyone who thinks the church should give out aid as freely as the state. In fact, Paul’s counsel to Timothy in his first letter (chapter five) indicates that the apostle himself was well aware of the problem of giving assistance to the undeserving poor (in this case, widows).

So if the church’s mission is not social justice or material welfare (beyond the work of the diaconate), then why is the church constantly tempted to pursue social justice? In his interview with Beck, Lillback implied that the problem of social justice comes when it is part of a liberal theological package. What he fails to see is that the church’s involvement in social reform and political activism is the way by which churches become liberal. In other words, no good form of ecclesial social justice exists. Even if the church still preaches the gospel, social justice is the means by which the church loses sight of her purpose and the significance of her message. The reason is that to argue that the church has an obligation to pursue a political or social agenda (or even a program of material welfare), the church has already become confused about the gospel and its benefits. In the words of the sociologist, Peter Berger, social justice is a form of “works righteousness.”

Three historical examples might help to make this point plausible. The first comes from the reunion of the Old and New School Presbyterians in 1869. The language of the plan for reunion was lush with references to the political circumstances of the United States after a grueling Civil War. The implicit logic was that the nation needed a Presbyterians to unite as much as it had needed to avert southern secession. Here is how the report put it:

The changes which have occurred in our own country and throughout the world, during the last thirty years – the period of our separation – arrest and compel attention. Within this time the original number of our States has been very nearly doubled. . . . And all this vast domain is to be supplied with the means of education and the institutions of religion, as the only source and protection of our national life. The population crowding into this immense area is heterogeneous. Six millions of emigrants, representing various religious and nationalities, have arrived on our shores within the last thirty years; and four millions of slaves, recently enfranchised, demand Christian education. It is no secret that anti-Christian forces – Romanism, Ecclesiasticisim, Rationalism, Infidelity, Materialism, and Paganism itself – assuming new vitality, are struggling for the ascendency. Christian forces should be combined and deployed, according to the new movements of their adversaries it is no time for small and weak detachments, which may easily be defeated in detail. . . .

Before the world we are no engaged, as a nation, in solving the problem whether it is possible for all the incongruous and antagonistic nationalities thrown upon our shores, exerting their mutual attraction and repulsion, to become fused in one new American sentiment. If the several branches of the Presbyterian Church in this country, representing to a great degree ancestral differences, should become cordially united, it must have not only a direct effect upon the question of our national unity, but reacting by the force of a successful example on the old World, must render aid in that direction, to all how are striving to reconsider and readjust those combinations, which had their origin either in the faults or the necessities of a remote past.

Now this reunion had not addressed the theological problems that had created the Old School-New School split in the first place, namely the teaching of the New Haven Theology and the denial of the federal theology on which the Presbyterian Church’s confession depended. By the 1860s those doctrinal problems seemed to be insignificant compared to the pressing needs of the nation. This was the church of Charles Hodge, by the way.

Only four decades later, the ecumenical spirit that led Old and New School Presbyterians to lay aside differences prompted American Protestants more generally to join hands to form the Federal Council of Churches. And the reason for this amazing act of ecclesial generosity was not a church synod or council that had steered a path through the polity, sacramental, and doctrinal divisions among American Protestants. Instead, the reason for unity was social justice, namely, the need for the churches to address antagonisms within the American economy and the nation’s politics that were dividing citizens of the United States along class lines. So the Federal Council’s first act was to write a new creed, a social one:

We deem it the duty of all Christian people to concern themselves directly with certain practical industrial problems. To us it seems that the churches must stand —

For equal rights and complete justice for all men in all stations of life.

For the right of all men to the opportunity for self-maintenance, a right ever to be wisely and strongly safeguarded against encroachments of every kind.

For the right of workers to some protection against the hardships often resulting from the swift crises of industrial change.

For the principle of conciliation and arbitration in industrial dissensions.

For the protection of the worker from dangerous machinery, occupational disease, injuries and mortality.

For the abolition of child labor.

For such regulation of the conditions of toil for women as shall safeguard the physical and moral health of the community.

For the suppression of the “sweating system.”

For the gradual and reasonable reduction of the hours of labor to the lowest practicable point, and for that degree of leisure for all which is a condition of the highest human life.

For a release from employment one day in seven.

For a living wage as a minimum in every industry, and for the highest wage that each industry can afford.

For the most equitable division of the products of industry that can ultimately be devised.

For suitable provision for the old age of the workers and for those incapacitated by injury.

For the abatement of poverty.

To the toilers of America and to those who by organized effort are seeking to lift the crushing burdens of the poor, and to reduce the hardships and uphold the dignity of labor, this Council sends the greeting of human brotherhood and the pledge of sympathy and of help in a cause which belongs to all who follow Christ.

Mind you, this statement, approved by the Presbyterian Church in which Benjamin Warfield was a minister, failed to supply proof texts for these proposals, thereby avoiding the “thus, sayeth the Lord” motivation that social justice needs. Even more telling was that these churches believed they could unite on points of public policy even while divided on liturgical, polity, and doctrinal matters that the Lord had indeed commanded. In other words, the social and political problems of the hour were obscuring the church’s basic teachings and practices.

A similar understanding of the relationship between the religious and the social, or the theological and political is at work recently in the Manahattan Declaration, the very statement that Lillback recommended to Beck at the end of their interview, when he said:

I would like to tell all of your listeners and Glenn, you personally, that you need to put your signature on the Manhattan Declaration. Chuck Colson spoke to me about this some months ago and he said, “Would you help me sign it?”

And I had the privilege of being one of the first 100 signatories. And basically, he said this — we need to bring together the movement of people across this country who are willing to die for what they believe in. And the things that are being challenged where the government is going to come to force us out of the convictions are the sanctity of life, our definition of historic marriage and our resounding commitment to protect rights of conscience of religious liberty.

In the Manhattan Declaration, not only have the differences among Protestant denominations been placed in the background compared to the pressing social demands of the sanctity of human life and religious liberty. Also Roman Catholics, Protestants, and Eastern Orthodoxy are now united in the name of Christ and for the sake of the gospel to advocate certain moral and social causes in the public sphere. One paragraph from the Declaration supplies the “thus, sayeth the Lord” part that the Federal Council missed:

We, as Orthodox, Catholic, and Evangelical Christians, have gathered, beginning in New York on September 28, 2009, to make the following declaration, which we sign as individuals, not on behalf of our organizations, but speaking to and from our communities. We act together in obedience to the one true God, the triune God of holiness and love, who has laid total claim on our lives and by that claim calls us with believers in all ages and all nations to seek and defend the good of all who bear his image. We set forth this declaration in light of the truth that is grounded in Holy Scripture, in natural human reason (which is itself, in our view, the gift of a beneficent God), and in the very nature of the human person. We call upon all people of goodwill, believers and non-believers alike, to consider carefully and reflect critically on the issues we here address as we, with St. Paul, commend this appeal to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.

The specific public questions that demand a Christian response are as follows:

Because the sanctity of human life, the dignity of marriage as a union of husband and wife, and the freedom of conscience and religion are foundational principles of justice and the common good, we are compelled by our Christian faith to speak and act in their defense. In this declaration we affirm: 1) the profound, inherent, and equal dignity of every human being as a creature fashioned in the very image of God, possessing inherent rights of equal dignity and life; 2) marriage as a conjugal union of man and woman, ordained by God from the creation, and historically understood by believers and non-believers alike, to be the most basic institution in society and; 3) religious liberty, which is grounded in the character of God, the example of Christ, and the inherent freedom and dignity of human beings created in the divine image.

Meanwhile, these Christians who disagree on the gospel – and hence worship God in different communions – are agreed that the matters they address are on the order of the very gospel that divides them. The Declaration states:

We are Christians who have joined together across historic lines of ecclesial differences to affirm our right—and, more importantly, to embrace our obligation—to speak and act in defense of these truths. We pledge to each other, and to our fellow believers, that no power on earth, be it cultural or political, will intimidate us into silence or acquiescence. It is our duty to proclaim the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in its fullness, both in season and out of season. May God help us not to fail in that duty.

These examples indicate that when churches engage in social or political programs invariably they lose their theological bearings and become liberal – as in, they lose sight of what is orthodox. (I personally do not think that everyone who signed the Declaration sees the tension between their own church’s faith, and the problems of cooperating with Christians who are not in fellowship with their communion. I also don’t know why they could not have formed a committee or association to pursue these matters without appealing to Christ or the gospel. One obvious reason is that a non-religious appeal lacks urgency and purposefulness.)

Conceivably, a historical example might be found that disproved this rule about social and political involvement generating liberalism – though the state churches of Europe would seem to vindicate this point in spades. But behind the historical record is a theological principle, namely, that when a church confuses the benefits of redemption with the comforts of a better life or the equitable workings of the state it has misunderstood the significance of the message it proclaims. Calvin, for what it’s worth, called such confusion, a “Judaic folly,” as in confusing the earthly Jerusalem with the heavenly one.

So what Beck needs is a better account of why social justice is code for liberal theology. Lillback missed a golden opportunity when he failed to tell Beck what the confession of his own denomination teaches about the mission of the church:

Unto this catholic visible church Christ hath given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world: and doth, by his own presence and Spirit, according to his promise, make them effectual thereunto. (WCF 23.3)

P.S. Apologies to NORM! if this is more scholarly than blogs tend to be.