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Secularization In ‘Christian’ America (Part 2)

(This is the second half of the abridged version of Chapter 2, “The Slipperiness of Secularization”  from Dr. Carl Trueman’s book, Republocrat: Confessions of a Liberal Conservative (P&R Publishing).  To read Part 1, click this.)

RepublocratSecularization, Subtle and Speciously Orthodox

Yet there are other ways that secular values creep in to orthodox churches. This point has been made again and again by David Wells, the retired professor of theology at Gordon Conwell Seminary, starting with No Place for Truth (1993) and finishing with The Courage to be Protestant (1998). In this latter book, in many ways a summary of his thesis as a whole, David points towards the way in which the therapeutic concerns of modern America, the substitution of the language of ‘values’ for morals, and the rise of a me-first individual rights culture has come to dominate not only the secular American landscape but also that of the evangelical church. On his account, both megachurches and Emergent churches represent not so much counter-cultures but different accommodations to the prevailing culture. The former is the church’s equivalent of the big box store with its careful managerial techniques and pragmatic, market-driven, pile ‘em high sell ‘em cheap mentality; while the Emergent churches (representing a reaction to such crass consumerism) have actually imbibed the slippery epistemologies and eclecticism of postmodernism, which is itself arguably connected to consumerism.

David Wells’ indictment is damning: what he argues is that many churches are as secular in their ambitions and methods as any straightforwardly secular organization. The difference, we might perhaps say, is that the latter are just a whole lot more honest about what they are doing. But, while David’s criticisms are primarily focused on megachurches in the church growth/ Willow Creek tradition and on what we might, for want of a better term, call the evangelical left, is there a case to be made for saying that secular values also pervade the churches which at least think of themselves as traditionally Protestant in the way that David favors?

I believe so, and in a number of significant ways. First, take the ‘rights’ culture which is so typical of the wider world in which we live, where litigation and lobby groups seem to proliferate. Certainly, we can all express dismay at the people who are so inept that they do not realize coffee is hot and, to their great surprise, burn themselves when they spill it and then proceed to sue the vendor for not telling them about the temperature of the steaming liquid in their cups. We have all no doubt rolled our eyes at the latest innocuous action of some employer which has been deemed offensive – and therefore oppressive – to whatever the minority of the month is. There is a clear silliness going here; after all, if I took offense and felt oppressed and psychologically damaged every time an American comedian made a joke about British dentistry, I would never have the emotional energy to lift myself out of bed in the morning.

But rights culture is no monopoly of the Left in either politics or the church. The Left may have their rights to a completely secular public space, to abortion, to gay marriage, but the Right too has its litany of rights as well: to carrying firearms, to cheap gas, to minimal taxation. Now, let me be clear: I am not here drawing any moral equivalence between any one of the rights and any other; what I am pointing out is the way in which the language of Left and Right is typically couched in that of individual rights, whatever the specific issues involved might be.

This plays itself out in the church. What is the vow most often breached, even in conservative, confessional churches? It is the vow each member typically takes to submit to the leadership of the church. While the wording varies from church to church, here is that used in my own denomination, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church:

Do you agree to submit in the Lord to the government of this church and, in case you should be found delinquent in doctrine of life, to heed its discipline?

The assumptions of this vow are clear: Christianity is a corporate phenomenon; it is bigger then me and my own agenda; and it involves disciplined obedience within the church, obedience to which we are bound by vow.

There are those, of course, who argue that church membership is not mentioned in Scripture and is therefore unbiblical. This is not the place to address this objection; suffice it here to say that church membership is the practical expression of clear principles of mutual commitment to each other and respect for an established leadership which are both stated in the Bible. The real problem, I suspect, with many who argue that church membership is unbiblical is not that their consciences are wounded by the notion, but rather that they want to avoid commitment. They want to treat the church as they treat, say, a supermarket or a cinema: they go along and take what they need without the troublesome issues created by a personal commitment.

That is surely the reason why this is the vow that strikes hardest against both the consumer-as-king mentality and the suspicion of authority and power structures that is typical of both the Left and the Right in the secular sphere. It is also the vow which has been most weakened by that thing which lies at the very heart of the American dream: the automobile.

My point here is that those who are confessional and rock-solid in their doctrinal commitments need to realize that secular values can yet pervade the way they think about church; and the Christians of the political Right can be as guilty of this as anyone – perhaps even more guilty, with its radical individualism as opposed to the typically more communitarian Left.

A nation which has a profound sense of the Frontier, of the need for each person to look after themselves, and not to rely on others, has many strengths, and these things are surely part of the reason for America’s tremendous success in the twentieth century. Further, the very structure of America government which, by and large, seems chaotic to the outsider through all of its checks and balances, embodies a deep distrust of power and hierarchy at its very core; hardly surprising, given the fact that its basic shape was hammered out in the heat of a rebellion against a British monarch. But the downside of this is that Americans can be very suspicious of anyone in authority, and that spills over in to the church; and, when it does so, it represents not biblical teaching but the incursion of secular individualism. There is an obvious irony to criticizing a Joel Osteen for presenting a secular message in the language of Christianity, or the Left for selling out on moral issues and doing so in the name of Christ, when church discipline in Reformed and Presbyterian circles has all but collapsed in the face of  ‘I’ll just treat church as another aspect of the consumer culture’ mentality whereby, as soon as my itch isn’t scratched, or I am asked for some practical demonstration of commitment, I just jump into my automobile and rive to the next church where I can better preserve my anonymity.

The Patriot’s Bible and Beyond

Another area where a secular mentality impacts the church is the identification of the nation of America with God’s special people. Again, I need to be clear what I am not saying here: I am not saying that those Christians who want a place in the public square for the Christian voice are guilty of a secular mindset; many of such simply want their faith to shape the way they think politically, and that is a perfectly legitimate notion. Nor am I concerned with those Christians who are also strongly patriotic; patriotism, love for one’s homeland, is a generally a good thing as long as it does not morph into an uncritical nationalism or racism. What concerns me is the so-called extreme wing of the ‘Christian America’ type movements, where the boundary between church, state, and sometimes even biblical history, becomes rather dangerously blurred. An extreme example is provided by the editors of the Patriot’s Bible, an edition of God’s word which is sold on the basis of its connection to the founding of the USA. Even if we set aside the problem of connecting the American Revolution to Paul’s teaching on civil obedience in Rom. 13, the promotional video for the Bible is stunning. A series of images and captions make the point: Adam and Eve, and George and Martha Washington – first families; Moses and Lincoln – freedom fighters; Jesus and the disciples, and the Continental Congress – Founding Fathers. In case anyone has missed the point, the video ends with the statement, `Sometimes history does repeat itself.’ Really? Well, no, in this case it actually doesn’t repeat itself. Biblical, salvation history is not repeated or recapitulated in the history of the United States or any other nation, for that matter. To claim such is puerile, blasphemous nonsense, as bad, if not worse, as anything Osteen might say in a sermon; and it represents nothing other than the secularization of the gospel message to an idolatrous degree.

Yet even the Patriot’s Bible pales in comparison to a painting entitled ‘One Nation Under God,’ which portrays holding the US Constitution, surrounded by figures from American history, including the noted Deists Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine. Now, I am a personal admirer of a number of aspects of Jefferson and Paine, but orthodox Christians they emphatically were not, and to include them pictorially in some nostalgic plea for a Christian nation is historically ignorant, blasphemous and, quite frankly, risible. It would be fascinating to know what the artist’s view of the faith is: presumably some form of Unitarianism? Patriotism is a civic virtue, and certainly not in itself sinful; but make no mistake – notions of patriotism, so dear to the American Right, can also stand alongside the most secular and heretical visions of Christianity, and can even co-opt such as part of their agenda.

The Celebrity Syndrome

One final aspect of the secular nature of much conservative Christianity is its increasing preoccupation with superstars. This is important, because so often we identify the secular mindset with content – prosperity doctrine, social gospel, straight-down-the-line anti-supernatural liberalism; sometimes, however, the secular mindset is evident not so much in content but in form, a more slippery and surreptitious thing; and it is in this category that I would place the superstar phenomenon. Confessional superstars might be thoroughly orthodox; they may even not like being superstars; but the people and churches who treat them as such betray the creeping secularism in their own mindsets.

Paul is very clear in his letters to the Corinthians. Corninth was a culture where orators, public speakers, were the rock stars of their day. They prided themselves on their ability to declaim eloquently on any given topic, they attracted disciples and fans, and they carried weight within the wider culture. The problem Paul highlights in the Corinthian church, particularly in his first letter, is that members of the church were using the standards of the secular world in order to judge the quality of their own church leaders. The result was a set of factions, or perhaps even better, fan clubs, within the church, focused on different great preachers; and Paul, being, according to his own account, not a physically or rhetorically impressive man, was being dismissed as a second-rater. We can perhaps summarize the Corinthian problem by saying that the church had developed an essentially secular mentality: the criteria of the non-Christian world that surrounded them had come to control how they thought about the ministry and its representatives.

Cults of personality are very bad things; the role of the preacher is to point to Christ and, in that context, to be as invisible as possible. The preacher who brings attention to himself would seem to be, by Paul’s standards, a failure; more than that, a congregation which focuses on the preacher has failed to understand the power and logic of the cross and has capitulated to a secular mindset. Yet the conservative church in America is, arguably, driven to a large extent by such cults of personality.

There are a number of pieces of evidence which point towards this. First, there is the number of parachurch ministries that have sprung up which are focused on the big personality, and frequently named after said personality. Ironically, the movement popularly known as the Young, Restless and Reformed is in the vanguard of such celebrity dominated ministry.  Then there is the proliferation of big conferences with big name speakers, again a staple of the YRR. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with such; but it is clear from even a casual glance at the internet or even conversation after church that these things have fostered a church equivalent of stardom where it is not the gospel or even the church that provides the focal point, but Speaker X or Speaker Y. It has also fed in to a church culture where a few high-profile celebrity pastors and scholars seem to believe that no issue has been properly addressed until they have definitively spoken to it.  Such power plays are profoundly secular.

It is very clear that the Lord has blessed the church of today with some remarkably talented individuals who have been used to do remarkable things. One thinks of Tim Keller in New York or  John Piper in Minneapolis. The danger is that, in focusing on such men, we create unrealistic expectations and distorted notions of what normative ministry should be: the evidence that the church models developed by these men can be transplanted with success elsewhere is highly equivocal; more likely, their success is rooted in God using their own remarkable gifts and contexts – the right men in the right place at the right time for something great, if you like. For most pastors, life is likely to be far more ordinary, church far smaller and poorer and the fruits of ministry far less spectacular.

More importantly, we must recognize the preoccupation with such personalities for what it is: a distraction from the very thing for which these men have themselves worked so hard – a single-minded focus on Jesus Christ. So from whence does the problem come? It comes from imbibing the obsessions of the wider culture with big personalities. The world has Access Hollywood, the church has – well, you insert the name. But the name has to be of someone who is able to build a big church, gain a big name, and offer a sanctified equivalent of the movie star magic. This is secularization of the church just as surely as the Patriot’s Bible or the social gospel of Walter Rauschenbusch.

Conclusion

Secularization is slippery; it hits us where we least expect it; and there is naught here for the comfort of conservative evangelicals.  Arguably, those who call themselves confessional evangelicals and yet who build their ministries around cults of personality and slick conferences are in real danger of merely aping the values of secular culture. What is needed is continual reformation which takes us back to the standards of God’s word again and again, drives us to repentance, and leads us to put our trust once again in Jesus Christ rather than any set of political policies, or patriotism, or just a nebulous sense that we are better than the rest.

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Who is Oprah Reading?

Eckhart Tolle? Yes.

Rhonda Byrne? Yes.

Elizabeth Gilbert? Yes.

Rob Bell? Yes!

Our friend Derek Rishmawy who blogs at the Christ and Pop Culture channel at Patheos.com gives us the news on Oprah’s latest spiritual guru. He’s got a great perspective. Here’s a glimpse:

Yes, the moment has arrived. After encouraging us to learn from Tolle about ‘The Power of Now’, pushing us to unlock ‘The Secret’ with Byrne, and exhorting us to let Gilbert teach us to ‘Eat, Pray, Love,’ Oprah has added Rob Bell to her list of must-read spiritual gurus. This month the media mogul picked Bell’s recent offering What We Talk About When We Talk About God as her ‘Super Soulful Book of the Month,’

Now, this could go sideways in a hurry; but Derek cautions us to think a little more generously, and I think he’s right. It’s not the book I would ask Oprah to endorse, but it’s certainly a step up from her other spiritual best-sellers.

Follow the link to Derek’s post and join the conversation there.

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Jim Gilmore on the Death of Robert Farrar Capon

Our good friend, Jim Gilmore, was asked to comment over at the Out of Ur blog on the death of Episcopal priest and author Robert Farrar Capon whose book on the parables we commended to you during the White Horse Inn series on the parables. Jim’s comments are rich (which we’ve come to expect from Jim): rich with personal insight, heart felt commentary, and humor.

Here’s a preview:

Robert Farrar Capon. Died September 5, 2013. Age 88.

Died. Capon would want it described this way. Not “passed away.” Not “departed.” Not “went to be with the Lord.” He died. Dead. Dead. Dead.

Many who will write tributes to the pastor, chef, and author, will undoubtedly call attention first and foremost to Capon’s delightful book,The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary ReflectionChristianity Today has already commented that Capon was “most notably” known for this work, a theological thought-tickler presented as a lamb recipe for eight, served four times. This focus is understandable, as the book is a truly unique treasure. I love the chapter in which Capon skewers the cocktail party; I think it the book’s climatic moment. To Capon, the cocktail party provides the host with an excuse to not be a host, flitting about here and there, never taking responsibility for the conversation among his guests. (Hmm … in this sense, I suppose all of today’s so-called “social media” is really just one big cocktail party!) Capon used the cocktail party as a foil to advance his case for the dinner party as the ideal social form of entertaining—for amusing ourselves delightfully to death. I’ve put his advice into practice. First, I helped stage a sizeable two-day business event in which every meal (breakfast, lunch, and dinner) was held at rectangular tables-of-eight for conversations-of-eight. (Hotel “banquet rounds” for ten inherently kill whole-table conversation.) And at home, my wife and I now sit as hosts in the middle of the long side of the dining room table when having three other couples over for dinner—that is, we’re not seated at either end, as had previously been our custom.

Read the rest at Out of Ur.

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Sanctification: “Justification in Action”?

We get a lot of great questions sent to us.  Here’s one that I’d like to address because I hear it a lot these days.  The writer asks:

Here is the issue as stated: ‘Sanctification is NOT  “justification in action.”  Justification is a finished work. Sanctification is powered by regeneration, not justification.  The New Birth enables the believer to work with the Holy Spirit. Justification is a finished work apart from sanctification.  I’m sure you’ve written on this, just not sure where.

Yes, I’ve written at length on this subject in various places, including (more recently) my books The Christian Faith and Pilgrim Theology.  In a nutshell, though…

What I’m hearing, on one hand, are comments about sanctification being simply the outworking of our justification, and, on the other hand (often in reaction), that sanctification has nothing to do with justification but is simply the fruit of our union with Christ.

I think that Scripture clearly refuses this false choice.  Although I can’t make the full case here that I do elsewhere, let me summarize my conclusion.  It’s standard Reformed theology.  And, though perhaps nuanced a bit differently here and there, I think it’s substantially the same as the Lutheran view as well.

Faith is produced by the Spirit through the gospel.  This faith that rests in Christ for justification also receives Christ for sanctification.  In other words, union with Christ is not piecemeal.  We don’t have the forgiveness of sins through one act of faith and sanctification from another.  Faith embraces Christ for all he is and gives: freedom from both sin’s guilt and tyranny.  One day, as faith is turned to sight, we will also be liberated from sin’s presence.  So saving faith bears the fruit of love, and love expresses itself in good works as we serve our neighbors.  Here’s the order, then: Gospel – Effectual Calling/Regeneration – Faith – Love – Works.  God sanctifies those whom he justifies.

Looking at this from the “big picture,” then, sanctification is guaranteed by our union with Christ (through faith, given to us by the Spirit through the gospel in effectual calling).  It’s not only justification, but all spiritual blessings in Christ that ensure our sanctification.  Examining it in terms of the traditional “order of salvation” (ordo salutis), our gradual renewal and conformity to Christ (sanctification) is based on the imputation of Christ’s righteousness in justification.  Without that legal basis, there is no adoption, no sanctification.

So on one hand it’s reductionistic to say that sanctification is the consequence simply of justification (without including election, redemption, and the new birth).  And it’s dangerous, in my opinion, to say that sanctification is “justification in action.”  Justification is complete: a once-and-for-all judicial verdict based on the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.  Justification is therefore not “in action.”  It is finished.  Rather, it’s faith that is “in action,” always looking to justification as the security that allows us to move forward in confidence rather than fear.  Although in the act of justification faith is only a “resting and receiving,” because it receives Christ with all of his benefits it cannot be dead, but is immediately active in love and good works.  We are not only declared righteous, but grafted into the Righteous Vine, producing the fruit of the Spirit.

Ironically, those who see justification as absorbing the whole horizon of our blessings in Christ end up turning it into something more than the declaration that it is.  Yet those who fail to see a logical dependence of sanctification on justification within our union with Christ leave sanctification suspended in midair.  They fail to see the decisive role of justification in giving assurance of peace with God throughout the Christian life.

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Does the Two-Kingdoms Distinction Necessarily Lead to Apathy and Indifference Toward Social Issues?

Guest post from the Reverend Ken Jones, Pastor of Glendale Baptist Church (Miami, Florida) and Co-Host of White Horse Inn.

 

Recently Dr. Anthony Bradley—a good friend and co-author with me—(we both contributed chapters to Glory Road and he was the general editor of a book to which I contributed a chapter) offered a rather scathing indictment against the so-called “two-kingdoms” position, sparked by a statement by Carl Trueman in support of the view.  Before offering my opinion, I will first offer Trueman’s statement and then Dr. Bradley’s indictment:

In short, they (Christians) will be those whose faith informs how they think and behave as they go about their daily business in this world.  Christianity makes a difference through the lives of the individual Christians pursuing their civic callings as Christians, not through the political posturing and lobbying of the church.

Anthony Bradley responded on his Facebook page:

Friends, if you ever wonder why Presbyterians turned a blind eye to Black suffering during slavery and sat on the sidelines during the Civil Rights Movement, it’s the position stated above.  This sounds good on paper, but if the church has no social witness, history demonstrates that ‘individual Christians’ will simply remain individualistic….

He allows for hyperbole in asserting, “Presbyterians turned a blind eye to Black suffering …”. (After all, slavery and related issues led to significant splits within the Presbyterian Church as early as 1857.)  Furthermore, Presbyterians (theologically liberal though they may have been) such as William Sloan Coffin and Eugene Carson Blake were on the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement of the ‘60s.

But my concern is not to defend the smattering of Presbyterian voices of opposition to slavery and segregation.  The issue for me is whether or not “two kingdoms” thinking necessarily results in apathy and non-involvement on these matters.

Let me offer three observations.

First, Presbyterians were not the only evangelicals that used the “spirituality of the church” as the basis for not voicing opposition to slavery or segregation.  E. V. Hill once quipped, “The civil rights marches and protests of the ‘60s may not have been necessary if Billy Graham had spoken out against racial segregation in the ‘50s.”  To his credit, Jerry Falwell publicly acknowledged in the ‘70s that he and other conservative Baptists were wrong in not publicly denouncing racial segregation.  Most notably, in 1960 the all black National Baptist Convention president refused to make the Civil Rights Movement a part of the convention’s platform, which led to the formation of the Progressive National Baptist Convention the following year.

That brings me to a second observation.  All institutional non-involvement did not lead to group apathy or individuals on the sidelines.  I grew up in a National Baptist church during the Civil Rights Movement of the ‘60s.  While our church did not side with the progressives, many individuals within our church (including the pastor) partnered with groups such as the NAACP, SCLC, and other local and national organizations that were fighting for change.  Our church called racial segregation a sin and members were challenged as citizens to make their voices heard.  Congressman John Lewis of Georgia is a good example.  He was a licensed Baptist preacher from a conservative Baptist church who marched and participated in freedom rides and the March on Washington.  He did so not in the name of his church but as an individual working with other individuals and organizations on the front line.

Here’s my final point.  In my estimation, it is healthy and helpful to revisit some of the church’s missteps on these critical issues of social justice.  Fear of being labeled with the social gospel tag caused inertia on the part of many evangelicals, both black and white.  Some may have done so while claiming fidelity to “two kingdoms,” I don’t know.  But it is precisely for the sake of theological integrity that I think the world can benefit from a clear and consistent “two kingdoms” perspective.  In other words, consistent “two kingdoms” thinking allows one to engage the issues of the day and become co-belligerents with people without religious convictions, all for the sake of justice, without compromise and without confusion.  It would be wrong to assume that Southern Presbyterian indifference or apathy toward Black suffering during slavery and the civil rights struggles was a natural and logical consequence of “two kingdoms” thinking.  That would be similar to assuming that the apartheid of South Africa was a natural and logical consequence of the Kuyperian Calvinism that it professed to follow.

If one wants to debate the merits or demerits of “two kingdoms,” there’s room for that.  It is a stretch, however, to blame the church’s sins of social justice on a “two kingdom” theology when there were (and are) plenty of Christians–from many different perspectives–who share the blame.

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Two Kingdoms and Slavery

A few years ago I had the privilege of speaking at a conference on Karl Barth at Princeton Seminary.  In one unforgettable moment, George Harinck, history professor at the Free University of Amsterdam, explained the difference between the way members of his church (a confessionally conservative Reformed body) and the students of Barth responded to the Nazi occupation.  Consistent with the Barmen Declaration, the Barthians told Hitler to take his hands off of God’s church.  “But our church’s leaders,” related Harinck, “told Hitler to take his hands off of God’s world.”

Professor Harinck belongs to the Reformed Churches—Liberated, a continuing body of the denomination led by Abraham Kuyper.  This remark stayed with me and has haunted me as I try to think through the relationship of Christ and culture.  Where it has clear exegetical warrant, the church speaks authoritatively for God, in Christ’s name, to all of the principalities and powers in this present age.  Christ is Lord of all, not just the church, and his universal claims are to be proclaimed to the world as well as to be embraced and obeyed by those who are called by his name.

I was reminded of Harinck’s provocative comment while reading an interesting volley over the “spirituality of the church” in the blogosphere.  The concern was raised by someone I respect that this doctrine—more generally identified as “two kingdoms”—led to the toleration if not outright encouragement of slavery and segregation in the Southern Presbyterian Church (PCUS).

Like the “two kingdoms” distinction advanced by Luther and Calvin, the “spirituality of the church” refers to its distinct calling in the world.  When I affirm “two kingdoms,” I have in mind the Great Commission issued by our Lord, which mandates that the church preach his Word, administer the sacraments, and preserve the discipline and unity of the body through its officers.  As the Westminster Confession puts the matter, “Synods and councils are to handle or conclude nothing but that which is ecclesiastical: and are not to intermeddle with civil affairs which concern the commonwealth, unless by way of humble petition in cases extraordinary; or, by way of advice, for satisfaction of conscience, if they be thereunto required by the civil magistrate” (31.4).

According to the caricature at least, a “two kingdoms” view separates the believer’s life in the church from his or her life in the world.  Anthony Bradley is a conservative Reformed and African-American theologian. In his dialogue with Carl Trueman and others, he raised some pretty important questions about whether such a “dualistic” perspective was precisely what kept the Presbyterian Church in the South from opposing slavery and then segregation.

This is a hugely important issue, especially since the sins of our fathers are still with us and our own Reformed and Presbyterian denominations do not seem yet to reflect the diversity that anticipates the worshipping throng in Revelation 5:9.

So I’ll offer a few brief comments as a pushback to this charge.

First, it is implausible to suggest that the “spirituality of the church” (or “two kingdoms”) was the glue that held together the southern Roman Catholic, Episcopal, Presbyterian, Methodist, and Baptist churches in their common defense of slavery.  Slavery held them together.  Their views on the matter were argued on the basis of racist doctrines and tortured appeals to slavery in biblical times, as if it were anything like modern slavery that depended on kidnapping, murder, theft, and numerous other sins identified in Scripture as capital offenses.

Second, even if we could accept the caricature of the “spirituality” or “two kingdoms” approach as dualistic, this would only mean that the church refused to address the evil because it was a political matter.  In actual fact, though, the church itself was segregated—often more so than society at large.

Third, Southern Presbyterian theologians who labored indefatigably to defend slavery may have cloaked some of their arguments in appeals to the church’s spiritual mission, but they were calling the state to perpetuate the institution from the pulpit and classroom lectern.  I have in mind especially R. L. Dabney and James Henley Thornwell, who based their arguments on a vision of a Christian society that would make the South the envy of the world and enemy of revolutionaries everywhere.   Their arguments for slavery were not based on the spirituality of the church (I’m not even sure how they could be) but on racist dogmas, Scripture twisting, and wicked cultural prejudices that vitiated the gospel.  Charles Hodge was exactly right when he said that Thornwell was using the spirituality of the church as a cover for his errors.  Assimilating Christ to culture is the sort of thing that the spirituality of the church is especially designed to guard against.

Fourth, it is “guilt-by-association” to argue that because such views on slavery and race were held by people who also spoke of the “spirituality of the church,” the latter view is implicated.  One has to show that the doctrine actually supported racism.  Yet it is very easy to argue that the theological architects of apartheid in South Africa thought they were implementing the transformative vision of Abraham Kuyper.  In fact, they had some support for it in Kuyper’s own writings.  When South Africa’s largest Reformed body confessed apartheid to be heresy, the explanation of its development was linked directly to the Kuyperian movement.  In his biography of Kuyper, James Bratt relates that the Dutch leader did not favor the emerging Afrikaner nationalism.  Nevertheless, many of his ideas were applied:

Key leaders in the Reformed churches in South Africa would work their way to Amesterdam to study at the Free University, and they would have considerable impact in shaping Afrikaner thought and identity in the 1920s and 1930s. They magnified the suggestion Kuyper had taken up from S. J. Du Toit that Afrikaners had a holy calling in their land. They savored the biblical warrant that Kuyper gave to the pluriformity of human cultures, giving the Tower of Babel episode normative status for human history and interrelationships. Most crucially, they adapted philosopher H. J. Stoker’s addition of the volk to the sovereign ‘spheres’ ordained of God. With that, Romantic sociology and European racism received a warrant beyond appeal–and quite beyond what Kuyper had accorded them. The results were startling: a system of separate organization based on race instead of religious confession….

This was a radical reversal of the inter-racial Reformed churches and missions that went all the way back to the time of the Synod of Dort (Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat [Eerdmans, 2013], 295-96).

So, from a “two kingdoms” perspective, Southern Presbyterians like Dabney and Thornwell and the Afrikaner architects of apartheid were driven by cultural prejudice over Scripture and by a vision of creating a “Christian” (code for “white”) culture.  Any view of the relation between Christ and culture can be abused—including a “two kingdoms” approach.  It would be easier to blame our tradition’s complicity with social sin on a group or party that held a particular doctrine.  But the issue here is racism, pure and simple.  And it is still with us.

Now let’s imagine ourselves back in the 1850s.  What would a “two kingdoms” or “spirituality of the church” doctrine lead one to do?

First, it would lead the church to exercise its spiritual function—specifically, the ministry of the keys (opening and shutting the kingdom of heaven in Christ’s name).

This would be done by preaching the whole counsel of God, including his wrath against the sin of slavery.  There is no Christian liberty to disobey God’s commands and he has commanded clearly that he hates kidnapping, theft, and murder—sins on which the modern slave trade and slave-holding thrived.  Even Christian families were separated from each other for the economic gain of white Christians.  There is no comparison between this form of slavery and the largely debt-based indentured servitude of ancient societies.

Further exercising the keys, churches committed to the spirituality doctrine would have disciplined members and especially officers who held slaves or shared in the traffic of slaves.  It would have been as natural for a church embracing its spiritual mission to do this as it would have been in the case of members and officers participating in a chain of whorehouses.  After the customary steps, the discipline would take the form of excommunication for the unrepentant.  Dr. Dabney was held in high esteem after the Civil War as a minister and professor, as he continued to defend slavery as an honorable institution.  What would have happened if the church had in fact exercised its spiritual vocation?

Second, there is nothing in the “two kingdoms” or “spirituality” doctrine to keep the church from declaring to the civil powers directly what it proclaims to the world from the pulpit.

Recall the judicious language of the Confession above: “…unless by way of humble petition in cases extraordinary; or, by way of advice, for satisfaction of conscience, if they be thereunto required by the civil magistrate.”  It is hard to conceive of a greater example of a “case extraordinary.”  Today denominations offer solemn declarations on all sorts of matters that are not addressed in Scripture and should, therefore, be left to Christian liberty.  The church has no authority to determine the details of public policy, but it does have the authority—indeed, the obligation—to declare God’s condemnation of public as well as private sin.

Third, the church is not only the people of God gathered, but the people of God scattered into the world as parents, children, neighbors, and citizens.

Imagine what might have happened if the Southern Presbyterian Church (PCUS) had fulfilled its spiritual mandate in the first two ways I’ve mentioned.  Wouldn’t the members be shaped by God’s Word and Spirit to oppose such a horrific evil?   And wouldn’t they do so not only in their extended families but in their towns and cities?  Wouldn’t they carry their convictions to the voting booth as loyal citizens?  Some would even do so as judges, legislators, and generals.  What if the church that nurtured R. L. Dabney had denounced slavery with one voice, with all of the spiritual authority in heaven behind it?  Would he have become a notorious defender of racist religion as he preached, wrote, and served as chief of staff to Stonewall Jackson?

Some Southern Presbyterians who held a “spirituality” view (such as B. B. Warfield’s father and grandfather) did oppose slavery on theological grounds.  In fact, his maternal grandfather did so as chairman of the Republican Convention that re-elected Abraham Lincoln, in opposition to his nephew, former Vice President of the United States and a Confederate general.  B. B. Warfield himself shared his father’s pro-abolition and “two kingdom” views and, at the turn of the twentieth century, wrote one of the most moving pleas for integration.  What if the church had been unified on the Word of God touching this crucial matter?

So to return to Professor Harinck’s arresting point:  Anyone who affirms the “two kingdoms” acknowledges Christ as the Lord of both.  Even through pagan rulers, Christ exercises his worldwide dominion.  We tell the principalities and powers not only that the church belongs to Christ, but that ultimately the world belongs to him as well and will not tolerate indefinitely the injustices of this age.  We address Caesar with confidence where the one greater than Caesar has spoken.  And yet addressing the magistrate in his or her public office can be done only “in cases extraordinary,” and “by humble petition.”  In any case, we encourage Caesar in his defense of justice and punishment of evil-doers.  More than this, we announce a law to which everyone is bound and a gospel by which even Neros may be reconciled to God and those they’ve offended.

To lodge the authority of the church in the mission that Jesus assigned to it seems restrictive and ineffective in transforming the world only if we forget that the gospel is the power of God unto salvation.  Are the preaching of the Word, the administration of the sacraments, and church discipline inconsequential in this great battle between the powers of this present evil age and the reign of Christ?  Or are churches powerless against the evil one precisely to the extent that they fail to fulfill their sacred mission?  The history of slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, and the racisms that still haunt our society teach us just how sorely we need the state and the church to carry out their distinct but often cobelligerent callings—the one as God’s minister of temporal justice and the latter as the ministry of everlasting life.

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(Late) Summer Reading

The Pleasures of Reading In An Age of DistractionLiving in a housing community that boasts a pool and a spa, and in a city where the beach is a twenty-minute drive away, I have almost no excuse for not finishing my summer reading.  It happens every year—the list gets longer and longer, the titles are more ambitious, and the books go unread.  The reasons why are easily guessed—I have Netflix and an iPhone, and (more to the point) at the end of the day, I’d rather catch up on Mad Men than read War and Peace.  

Earlier this year, at the suggestion of our producer (himself a voracious reader), I read Alan Jacobs’ The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction.  It was a great book, but one point he made stood out to me particularly—the American reading public is under the distinct impression that reading is something that is ‘good for you’; that it refines the intellect and stimulates the aesthetic sense, and that it is primarily for this reason that people ought to read.  While Jacobs agrees with this, and acknowledges that reading for self-improvement is and can be beneficial, he’s concerned about the troubling effects this attitude tends to have on the reading public in general.  He acknowledges the helpful pointers and principles in Charles Van Doren and Mortimer J. Adler’s venerable How To Read A Book, but he questions the tone in which they discuss the purpose of reading.  The grave, almost severe manner in which they stress its educational and spiritual value leaves the impression that reading is first and foremost the duty of every intelligent person.  According to Jacobs, this idea permeates the pragmatic American conscious, which has little use for reading per se.  The mindset that reading is something we ought to do for material benefit rather than personal pleasure has, in Jacobs’ estimation, allowed a particular group (the so-called ‘Vigilant school’) to convince readers that they (Harold Bloom and Thomas C. Foster, specifically) ‘are the proper guardians of reading and the proper judges of what kind of reading counts’.  Jacobs believes that their strictures are more of a hindrance than a help:

“There are, it seems to me, only two possible effects that Bloom’s approach can have upon readers: it can make them self-congratulatory—‘Yes, I, and a few others like me, read the proper works’—or it can terrify them—‘How can I be worthy of this high calling?’”

The best reason to read, according to Jacobs, is because you want to.  Read at Whim, he says.

“Don’t turn reading into the intellectual equivalent of eating organic greens, or (shifting the metaphor slightly) some fearfully disciplined appointment with an elliptical trainer of the mind in which you count words or pages the way some fix their attention on the ‘calories burned’ readout.”

There’s a great deal to be said for eating organic greens, and I for one have a deep attachment to my elliptical trainer, but the point is well-made.  While I’m a firm believer in the benefits of intellectual exertion for the sake of personal improvement (as is Jacobs), his exhortation to read books for the pleasure they provide is helpful and timely—there’s a great deal of difference between wanting to read and wanting to have read, and in our competitive, image-driven culture, the lines get blurred very easily and very often.

With that in mind, we asked a few friends of ours to discuss which books they picked up this summer, and tell us a bit about why they chose those books in particular, what they liked and what they didn’t like.  (Whether or not they read them for pleasure, personal edification, or morbid curiosity, we don’t know, but you can judge).  We’ll be posting them successively during this upcoming week, so stop by on Monday for to see what James K. A. Smith, Nancy Guthrie and few other friends have been ruminating on this summer.

Happy Reading!

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‘In Christ Alone’ Didn’t Make the Cut

According to a recent Christianity Today online report, the worship song “In Christ Alone” didn’t make it in to the new Presbyterian Church USA hymnal.

Apparently, mention of God’s wrath being satisfied by Christ’s vicarious death was the sticking point.  The hymnal committee initially wanted to include the song, but asked authors Keith Getty and Stuart Townsend for permission to edit out the offending line.  Instead of “’Til on that cross as Jesus died/ the wrath of God was satisfied,” the committee wanted “’Till on that cross as Jesus died/ the love of God was magnified.”

Despite the fact that the new version still rhymed, the authors refused to grant permission.  Committee chair Mary Louise Bringle told The Christian Century that the “view that the cross is primarily about God’s need to assuage God’s anger” would communicate the wrong message to worshipers about the meaning of Christ’s death.

The CT report referred to its cover story in 2006 on how a growing number of evangelicals “believe Christ’s atoning death is merely a grotesque creation of the medieval imagination.”  According to critics, it relies on the theory of the 11th-century  theologian, Anselm, who argued that Christ’s death satisfied God’s offended dignity.

The good news is that “In Christ Alone” is widely sung—in its original form—and that the authors refused permission to edit out its heart.  Yet the best news of all is that we are “justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (Rom 3:24-25).  To propitiate is to make satisfaction, to appease.

It is true that the 11th-century theologian, Anselm, emphasized Christ’s death as the satisfaction of God’s offended dignity, reflecting a more feudal concept of a king’s majesty needing to be defended.  However, the Protestant Reformers grounded satisfaction in God’s justice, righteousness, and love.  This is precisely how Scripture describes it.

So it is wide of the mark even historically to suggest that the doctrine of Christ’s suffering in the place of sinners, bearing their guilt before the face of the holy God, is a legacy of the medieval imagination.  Not only is it evident in the word “propitiation” (Heb 2:17; 1 Jn 2:2; 4:10); it is evident in the numerous references in the Gospels and epistles to Christ’s death for/in place of sinners.  Furthermore, this meaning is obvious in the sacrificial system at the heart of the old covenant, of which Christ’s work is the fulfillment.

There are many other things that Scripture says about Christ’s death.  For example, he disarmed the powers of Satan, death, and hell and purchased immortality for his co-heirs, as we are told in Colossians 2:15.  In the sentence immediately before it, Paul explains that is true only because in Christ’s saving work he has “forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands.  This he set aside, nailing it to the cross” (vv 13-14).

A lot more can be said, but perhaps the most important point is this: If Christ’s death is not a propitiatory sacrifice—that is, if its purpose is not to turn away God’s wrath toward us by his own bearing of our guilt in his body on the cross—then Golgotha cannot be the place where “the love of God was magnified.”

The majority on the PCUSA hymnal committee apparently favor the subjective or moral theory of the atonement: Christ died on the cross to show us how much God loves us.  Surely this display would persuade us to repentance.  To illustrate this view, Leon Morris used the analogy of a person responding to a drowning friend by jumping into the river and drowning himself. The demonstration might express one’s love, but it doesn’t do anything to actually save the friend.

Strictly speaking, Christ’s death has no significance for God according to this view.  He loves and accepts people regardless of their guilt. God has no enemies.  We may need to be reconciled to God, but God does not need to be reconciled to us.  We simply need to be reminded how much God loves us.  Thus, the death of Christ could only serve as an object lesson.  And what a cruel one indeed!  After all, if Christ’s death was unnecessary for satisfying God’s righteous law, then it is the symbol of senseless slaughter.

The Apostle Paul says that “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.  Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God” (Rom 5:8-9).  Christ’s death manifests God’s love for sinners only because it actually propitiates God’s wrath.  He took our place— fulfilling the law, bearing our sentence for violating his law—and thereby removed every legal basis for our condemnation.  It is this point that the committee voted to omit, and yet it is precisely what makes the cross the manifestation of God’s amazing love.

In other words, God’s love is manifested and magnified in Christ’s death only if it is more than a demonstration or object lesson.  Christ’s cross can be a demonstration of God’s love only because in it God reconciled enemies to himself forever.  “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life” (Rom 5:10). Now that’s good news!

 

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A Happy Birthday for the Heidelberg Catechism

I’ve just returned from Heidelberg, Germany, where I joined brothers and sisters from around the world to celebrate the 450th anniversary of the Heidelberg Catechism.  In addition to illuminating papers and warm fellowship, we enjoyed one of the city’s several museum exhibits celebrating the anniversary.  Of special note was the Heidelberg Palace exhibit, “The Power of Faith: 450 Years of the Heidelberg Catechism.”

Frederick III, ruler of the Palatinate and imperial elector, was nicknamed “the pious” by fellow princes.  Embracing Reformed teaching, he was distressed with the low level of knowledge of even the basics of the Christian faith in his territory.  Drawing together the best theologians and pastors in the region, he oversaw (and even contributed to) the drafting of a catechism that would be taught in schools, churches, and homes.

Soon after publication in 1563, the Heidelberg Catechism was translated into various languages—including early modern Hebrew and Greek.  It soon enjoyed wide use in the English-speaking world as well.  Students learned this catechism at Oxford and Cambridge.  Today, it is more widely known and used in Asia, Africa, and the Americas than in Europe or even North America.  As my children repeat back the clear teaching of the gospel from this great catechism, I am reinvigorated in my own faith.

Yet in Germany itself, the story is rather different.

In Luther’s home state of Saxony-Anhalt, after nearly a century of atheistic indoctrination, only 19% of the population professes belief in God.  Yet even more tragic is the widespread unbelief in the west, under the auspices of a privileged but largely apostate Protestant Evangelical Church (EKD).  A union of Lutheran and Reformed bodies, the EKD and the Roman Catholic Church claimed 30% of the population each by the end of 2008.  Affiliation, however, may mean no more than having been baptized.  These Landeskirchen (established churches) continue to receive tax money to fund their undermining of the Christian faith.  In recent decades, there have been free (i.e., independent of the state) Lutheran bodies maintaining evangelical convictions, but Arminian Baptist and Pentecostal groups are much larger.

Across the nation, 45% say, “I believe there is a God,” while among the youth the percentage drops to 30%, and 34% are “unaffiliated.”    According to a 2010 Eurobarometer Poll, 55% of the total population claim to be atheists, agnostics, or “non-religious.”   Germany has always been the vanguard of intellectual, cultural, and religious trends on the continent.   What happens in Germany, for good or ill, has repercussions for the whole of Europe.

During my brief time in Heidelberg, I was impressed with the small group of committed believers who are longing and praying for a new Reformation.  Spearheading this event last week was the Free Reformed Church (Selbstündige Evangelisch-Reformierte Kirche) in Heidelberg with the Rev. Sebastian Heck.   I joined North American colleagues Joel Beeke, Lyle Bierma, Jason Van Vleet, and Jon Payne in giving some papers on the catechism, but for me it was definitely more blessed to receive than to give.

Among other speakers was Dr. Victor d’Assonville, an astute Reformed theologian.  He leads a new seminary that holds great promise as a center for sound training of the small but growing band of future ministers, evangelists, and teachers.   Students come from Lutheran and Reformed backgrounds and I had the pleasure of getting to know some of them at the conference.  Many were raised in East Germany, where atheism was the state ideology.   I was deeply moved by their stories of coming to understand the evangelical faith against all odds (including their own churches) and the depth of their zeal, knowledge, and clarity.

In other travels, I’ve seen first-hand the remarkable blessing of God on his means of grace.  There is a hunger for Reformation Christianity around the world.  And yet the land of the Reformation is now largely pagan.  There is a great need for prayers and financial support for small but zealously faithful ministry in Germany.

If you would like to help this work in Heidelberg, or if you know anyone in the area who is looking for a good Reformed church, contact Sebastian Heck at sebheck@mac.com.   The nascent seminary there has enormous potential as a catalyst for long-range gospel ministry, but it is struggling to find the necessary resources in the short term.  If you have an interest in supporting this work, please contact Dr. Victor E. d’Assonville at vicdas@rtsonline.de.

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Modern Reformation Conversations–Paul on The Road To MoMA (Part 2)

If art isn’t meant to fit within the clearly-established boundaries of a well-regulated life, then how exactly do we interact with it?  How do we ‘experience’ it?  If art doesn’t have an explicitly pedagogical or pragmatic purpose, why does it exist?

A common approach has been to verify the artist’s worldview—if you understand the way that Donatello viewed the world, you’ll probably be better able to understand his work.  This method has its merits—if you know that Ernest Hemingway was passionate about truth and honesty in writing, it’s fairly certain that you’ll have a deeper understanding of A Farewell To Arms, and if you can appreciate Jane Austen’s critique of social mores in Regency England, you’ll be less likely to dismiss her novels as chick lit.

But there’s a problem with that approach—it focuses the viewer’s (or the reader’s) attention on the artist, and not the art itself.  Certainly, the artist himself is present (in some fashion) in the work, but that doesn’t mean that the work is absolutely and exclusively self-referential.  As Americans, we have a very strong sense of the pragmatic, and we get very uneasy if what we’re looking at isn’t easily classified.  So, if we can’t make sense of the object, we’ll look to its author for answers.  This can be helpful—the author, after all, knows more about it than the observer—but we must remember that when it comes to art (be it painting, sculpture, or film) the author wants us to interact with the object.  It’s the painting that’s speaking; not the artist, and since its language is that of color, form, light and shadow, we must be prepared to listen a little harder and focus a little longer if we want to hear what it’s saying.

In this interview, Dr. Siedell discusses the role of the Christian art critic, the way to love our neighbor, and how to learn about art.

P.S.  For those of our friends who haven’t ready access to a museum, we’ve picked out a pretty great book to get you started, which Dr. Siedell has kindly reviewed for us—we’ll be posting it soon, so stay tuned!

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