White Horse Inn Blog

Know what you believe and why you believe it

Steve Martin’s Atheist Gospel Song

We found this over at the Huffington Post and had to pass it on. From the HP:

One of the stops on that tour was the venerable live music program Austin City Limits, and Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers, a vocal quartet, performed an original composition. Lamenting that religious people have the best music, they decry the fact that nonreligious people are left in the proverbial dust when it comes to music proclaiming their beliefs. Check out the performance of “Atheists Don’t Have No Songs” below.

Enjoy!

John Warwick Montgomery on Reality and Speculation

Modern Reformation contributor and noted Lutheran apologist John Warwick Montgomery recently gave the Fall 2010 Faith and Reason Lecture at Patrick Henry College.  Montgomery began his lecture by appealing to Sherlock Holmes:

“We begin – and we shall end – with Sherlock Holmes,” began Dr. John Warwick Montgomery during last Friday’s Faith and Reason lecture, entitled “Speculation vs. Factuality: An Analysis of Modern Unbelief and Suggested Corrective.” “’Facts, facts, facts,’ insisted the Great Detective. ‘It is a capital mistake to theorize in advance of the facts. I can discover facts but I cannot change them.’”

With this introduction, Dr. Montgomery, PHC’s Distinguished Research Professor of Philosophy and Christian Thought, posited what he views as the central roadblock to genuine Christian faith — a prejudice in which “modern unbelief departs from factual reality in favour of unsupportable speculation, leaving its advocates in a never-never land without hope either in this world or in the next.”

Faith and Reason lecture, Fall 2010 from Sarah Pride on Vimeo.

Prof. Montgomery’s work has appeared in the pages of Modern Reformation since 1993:

“Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification” by Alister E. McGrath (Book Review) – March/April 2000 Vol: 9 Num: 2
God & Other Law-Makers – May/June 1993 Vol: 2 Num: 3
God at University College Dublin – Jan./Feb. 2009 Vol: 18 Num: 1
Legal Evidence for the Truth of the Faith – March/April 2006 Vol: 15 Num: 2
Legislating Morality – July/August 1992 Vol: 1 Num: 4
The Descent of Evangelicalism: Origins of the Specious – Sept./Oct. 1997 Vol: 6 Num: 5
The Incarnate Christ: The Apologetic Thrust of Lutheran Theology – Jan./Feb. 1998 Vol: 7 Num: 1

The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine

The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine
By Michael Lewis
W. W. Norton & Company, 2010
266 pages (hardcover), $27.95

Reviewed by Nathan Barczi for Modern Reformation (November/December 2010) Vol. 19, No. 6. Pages 54-55.

No one saw it coming. In April 2005, former Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan spoke glowingly of the burgeoning subprime mortgage industry. At his Senate confirmation hearings a few months later, current Chairman Ben Bernanke similarly disavowed any danger of a housing bubble. Policymakers, financiers, and captains of industry have spoken in near-unanimous chorus:  no one saw it coming. Michael Lewis’s The Big Short is the story of some of those who not only anticipated the collapse but made a fortune betting on it. Clearer and more comprehensive accounts of the tumult have been written, but none delivers with such force its human particulars.

The central figure in Lewis’s character-dominated account is Steve Eisman. As an analyst at Oppenheimer, Eisman earned a reputation for being brash and excessively honest about the dim prospects of the companies he evaluated. “Even on Wall Street, people think he’s rude and obnoxious and aggressive,” his wife tells Lewis. He left to run a hedge fund in 2001, and by spring 2005 his pessimism focused chiefly on the same subprime mortgage industry lauded by Greenspan. Lenders seemingly couldn’t issue mortgages quickly enough, often with little or no proof of the borrower’s capacity to make good on the payments. Eisman began looking for ways to bet against bonds backed by subprime mortgage debt. What he found was the now-infamous credit default swap (CDS).

The buyer of a CDS effectively owns insurance against the default of a bond. But why would anyone want to be on the other side of the bet, buying the risk associated with these bonds? It is one of the strengths of Lewis’s book that he embeds lucid explanations of arcane concepts in an engrossing narrative. He unpacks one more needed piece of terminology here:  the collateralized debt obligation (CDO). Picture many towers of credit default swaps backed by subprime mortgages. At the top of each tower are the highest-rated bonds and at the bottom are the riskiest bonds. In a collateralized debt obligation, slices from the lower levels of each tower are packaged together into one financial instrument. Ratings agencies accepted the argument of Wall Street firms that because the slices were coming from different mortgages all over the country, they couldn’t possibly all default at the same time. And so, although each slice was risky, the new tower couldn’t be—or so said the ratings agencies (who are the targets of some of Lewis’s sharpest criticism), pronouncing the CDOs worthy of AAA ratings, safe enough for pension funds and insurance companies (AIG, for instance), who couldn’t get enough of them.

Lewis recounts that one night in (where else?) Las Vegas over dinner with a CDO manager, Eisman realized how these pieces fit together. “I love guys like you who short my market,” the manager tells Eisman. “Without you, I don’t have anything to buy.” Wall Street’s demand for subprime-backed CDOs couldn’t be met by the stock of actual mortgages, no matter how many of them were issued. But when Eisman bought credit default swaps on those mortgages, he wasn’t merely making side bets; he was actually providing a stream of income that replicated the bonds, effectively synthesizing new mortgages without the hassle of finding an actual house or borrower. Eisman’s pessimism about the subprime market was literally fueling its growth. (This is a good place to address the widely held notion that short-selling is inherently harmful. It is helpful to allow investors who believe that the price of an asset will fall to place bets to that effect; these help to prevent bubbles from developing. Short positions that generate more of the asset against which they are taken, of course, are another matter.)  Freed from the fetters of being backed by actual homes, the market could grow without bounds, which is why its collapse was capable of such universally devastating effects. “There’s no limit to risk in the market,” Eisman explains. “A bank with a market capitalization of one billion dollars might have one trillion dollars’ worth of credit default swaps outstanding. No one knows how many there are! And no one knows where they are!” As the book ends, reality is setting in—Bear Stearns is no more and Lewis’s protagonists are wondering just what they’ve done.

Twenty years ago, Lewis was shocked when readers of his first book, an autobiographical account of the greed he encountered in his stint as a Wall Street analyst, treated it like a how-to manual for getting ahead in finance. The same dynamic is on display here:  No one who could see how rotten the subprime market had become had any incentive to do anything but seek to profit from it. The book logically leads to an appeal for better regulation to keep greed in check, a conclusion of inescapable merit. Reformed Christians are, of course, familiar with the civil use of the law to restrain evil. But as Augustine put it, “[C]ertain laws are established which are called civil laws, not because they bring men to make a good use of their wealth, but because those who made a bad use of it become thereby less injurious.” Lewis’s elucidation of the human stories underlying the movements of vast and impersonal markets serves as a corrective to the tendency to place inordinate degrees of hope in regulation. Regulation can do no more than restrain the human heart, just as markets can do no more than channel our greed toward generally beneficial ends. But neither offers any ultimate remedy for what is so vividly depicted, though never named, in Lewis’s book—namely, sin.

Lewis’s book puts a human face on the financial crisis that dominates the news of the day. Those readers will be best served who can recognize their own faces in its pages. Neither Wall Street nor Washington, DC is the sole repository of human depravity, but it’s also the case that the institutions that dominate them do not exist independently of the people who fill them or of the need for regeneration in their hearts. To paraphrase G. K. Chesterton: What’s wrong with Wall Street? I am.

Nathan Barczi is an economist, and an elder at Christ the King Presbyterian Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he lives with his wife and son.

The Venetian hotel—Palazzo Ducale on the outside, Divine Comedy on the inside—was overrun by thousands of white men in business casual now earning their living, one way or another, off subprime mortgages. Like all of Las Vegas, the Venetian was a jangle of seemingly random effects designed to heighten and exploit irrationality: the days that felt like nights and the nights that felt like days, the penny slots and the cash machines that spat out $100 bills, the grand hotel rooms that cost so little and made you feel so big. The point of all of it was to alter your perception of your chances and your money, and all of it depressed Steve Eisman, the CEO of FrontPoint Partners, a hedge fund that detected the subprime mess before nearly everyone else. He didn’t even like to gamble. “I wouldn’t know how to calculate odds if my life depended on it,” he said. At the end of each day his colleague Vinny would head off to play low-stakes poker, his other colleague Danny would join Deutsche Bank trader Greg Lippmann and the other bond people at the craps tables, and Eisman would go to bed. That craps was the game of choice of the bond trader was interesting, though. Craps offered the player the illusion of control—after all, he rolled the dice—and a surface complexity that masked its deeper idiocy. “For some reason, when these people are playing it they actually believe they have the power to make the dice work,” said Vinny.

—Excerpt from The Big Short

Justified: a preview of Mike Horton’s chapter

Justified: Modern Reformation Essays on the Doctrine of Justification will be available for purchase in one week. You can pick up the very first copies at a significant discount at the White Horse Inn booth at the Evangelical Theological Society annual meeting in Atlanta, Georgia (November 17-19, 2010).

We got some nice pre-press last week from our friend Tullian Tchividjian. Tullian was in town and we gave him a copy of the book at lunch. His first impressions?

Mike gave me a copy of a new book that he edited and published through Modern Reformation entitled Justified: Modern Reformation Essays on the Doctrine of Justification. I was flipping through it last night and was super impressed by what I read.  At the end of the book Mike outlines six-core beliefs that define the mission of Modern Reformation and the White Horse Inn (his weekly radio broadcast). While all of the six beliefs are foundational, I was struck by the gripping clarity of belief number two on the importance of Gospel-centered preaching. Everything he writes here not only defines my theology of preaching but is, in my opinion, the only type of preaching that will rescue the church from Christless Christianity. He writes:

Scripture is of no use to us if we read it merely as a handbook for daily living without recognizing that its principle purpose is to reveal Jesus Christ and his gospel for the salvation of sinners. All Scripture coalesces in Christ, anticipated in the OT and appearing in the flesh in the NT. In Scripture, God issues commands and threatens judgment for transgressors as well as direction for the lives of his people. Yet the greatest treasure buried in the Scriptures is the good news of the promised Messiah. Everything in the Bible that tells us what to do is “law”, and everything in the Bible that tells us what God has done in Christ to save us is “gospel.” Much like medieval piety, the emphasis in much Christian teaching today is on what we are to do without adequate grounding in the good news of what God has done for us in Christ. “What would Jesus do?” becomes more important than “What has Jesus done?” The gospel, however, is not just something we needed at conversion so we can spend the rest of our Christian life obsessed with performance; it is something we need every day–the only source of our sanctification as well as our justification. The law guides, but only the gospel gives. We are declared righteous–justified–not by anything that happens within us or done by us, but solely by God’s act of crediting us with Christ’s perfect righteousness through faith alone.

Thanks, Tullian! Those six core beliefs are central to our work and they give us a unique perspective on the current dialogue about justification that will take center stage in Atlanta next week. As our last little “teaser” before releasing the book, we wanted to post an excerpt from Mike Horton’s chapter, entitled “Engaging N.T. Wight and John Piper.” This chapter will give you a preview of the paper Mike will give at ETS next week.

Perhaps the most respected evangelical Jesus scholar, Bishop N. T. Wright has been stirring things up in Paul studies for nearly three decades. Although profiting from many of his insights, I have interacted critically with his treatment of justification in Covenant and Salvation (Westminster John Knox, 2007). My focus here, however, is on the importance of covenant theology as the context for justification, joining the conversation between John Piper and N. T. Wright.

In The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright (Crossway, 2007), Piper seems to regard Wright’s treatment of the covenant motif in Paul as a distraction from the apostle’s doctrine of justification. In his rejoinder, Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision, Wright counters that Paul’s doctrine of justification is

“about what we may call the covenant—the covenant God made with Abraham, the covenant whose purpose was from the beginning the saving call of a worldwide family through whom God’s saving purposes for the world were to be realized….For Piper, and many like him, the very idea of a covenant of this kind remains strangely foreign and alien….Despite the strong covenantal theology of John Calvin himself, and his positive reading of the story of Israel as fulfilled in Jesus Christ, many who claim Calvinist or Reformed heritage today resist applying it in the way that, as I argue in this book, Paul himself does, in line with the solid biblical foundations for the ‘continuing exile’ theme.”

While in my view the lion’s share of false choices are on Wright’s side of the ledger, I agree with his point that covenant theology is the proper context for Paul’s doctrine of justification. My concern with Wright’s view is not that he gives too much place for the covenantal motif—particularly, the unfolding of the Abrahamic covenant issuing in a cosmic redemption. In fact, I even find Wright’s end-of-exile motif persuasive and enriching. Rather, my concern is that he reduces the complexity of this covenant theology, conflating law and gospel in a single covenant type—viz., covenantal nomism.

Simply to advocate covenant theology does not necessarily specify its content. In 1991 Wright wrote that “covenant theology is one of the main clues, usually neglected, for understanding Paul.” Yet, at the same time, he is quick to distance his covenant theology from sixteenth- and seventeenth-century versions. In a later work Wright concedes that he has never read these sources: “Like many New Testament scholars, I am largely ignorant of the Pauline exegesis of all but a few of the fathers and reformers. The Middle Ages, and the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, had plenty to say about Paul, but I have not read it.” Classic covenant theology has therefore been, in my view, too lightly dismissed—even caricatured—without serious firsthand evaluation. While I agree with Wright’s claim that covenant theology is more crucial for understanding justification than Piper suggests, I argue that it is Wright’s version of covenant theology (viz., reducing different types to “covenantal nomism”) that generates false choices.

Next week, we’ll post a video interview in which Mike Horton talks about Justified and the role he hopes the book will have in the current conversations about justification, especially among the Young, Restless, and Reformed-types who have been introduced to Calvin by Piper but find Wright’s “whole world” emphasis fresh and engaging.

WHI-1022 | The Parables of Jesus (Part 5)

Jesus taught that a person is not worthy of being his disciple unless that person hates his father and mother. In fact, he goes on to say that a disciple of his must also “hate his own life.” On this program, the hosts will take a look at texts such as this as they discuss parables of costly discipleship in their continuing series through the Parables of Jesus.

RELATED ARTICLES

The Parables of Jesus, Pt 5
Michael Horton
Unity & Diversity
Shane Rosenthal
WHI Discussion Group Questions
PDF Document

RECOMMENDED BOOKS

Kingdom, Grace, Judgment
Robert F. Capon
The Cost of Discipleship
Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Christ the Lord
Michael Horton, et. al.

PROGRAM AUDIO

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MUSIC SELECTION

Soular

They’re Reading MR, Are You?

Nov-Dec 2010 Modern ReformationThe November/December 2010 issue of Modern Reformation is now available! Two of our authors are already hitting the airwaves to talk about their articles. Both Michael Horton and Ken Samples were interviewed by the good folks at Issues, Etc. recently. We’ve posted the interviews here along with a link to their articles.

Mike Horton on The Gospel and the Sufficiency of Scripture: Church of the Word or Word of the Church? [Related MR article]

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Ken Samples on Responding to Objections to Sola Scriptura [MR article available to subscribers]

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Subscribe to Modern Reformation today and get instant access to the rest of the issue online while you wait for your print issue to arrive in the mail.

Still not sure? Request our Inntro Kit before December 31, 2010, and we’ll send you this issue along with our extended length White Horse Inn CDs. (Restrictions apply.)

A Lausanne Call for a Second Reformation

Recently The Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization was in Cape Town, South Africa with 4,000 participants representing almost 200 countries across the globe. One of the speakers at this event was Chris Wright, the international director of Langham Partnership International (John Stott Ministries) and the author of The Mission of God. Dr. Horton spoke with Mr. Wright recently about some of his comments at Lausanne calling the evangelical church to a “second reformation.”

Dr. Horton’s interview with Mr. Wright will be broadcast on a future episode of White Horse Inn, but we hope that you enjoy this audio and transcript of a portion of the interview as it relates to our mission calling upon the church for a “Modern Reformation.”

[Note: The Lausanne Congress held twelve panel discussions around the U.S. in the months leading up to the World Congress in Cape Town. Dr. Horton was able to participate in two of these events that were held in Southern California. The August 22, 2010 broadcast of the WHI contained a portion of the discussion from the event held at Saddleback Church. You can get more resources and listen to the program A Conversation on Global Evangelism.]


Interview with Chris Wright

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Mike: It is a pleasure to have you with us Mr. Wright.

Chris: Thank you very much Mike, yes it’s good to be with you as well.

I’ve drawn on many of the insights from your marvelous book, The Mission of God, so it’s a real privilege to be able to explore some of these themes for our listeners. But before we dig in to that, I wanted to ask you on the heels here of the Lausanne Congress—a momentous event—if you would give us a first-hand report of what happened in Cape Town?

Well, Cape Town was a marvelous event Mike, yes, there were between four and five thousand people there from about 200 countries all around the world and even that in itself is a remark able thing, just the sheer physical presence of people of almost every nation, language, tribe and tongue gathered in one place praising the Lord Jesus Christ. There’s a certain sense of biblical fulfillment about that and that was very wonderful. I think it was also enormously encouraging to a lot of the people who’ve come from countries where Christians are very few and evangelical Christians are in a tiny minority and persecuted, and so for people from them to meet with others; to be encouraged; to worship together; have freedom to talk and share; I think that was good. I also think that the whole balance of the Congress was positive; they were looking at not just issues of evangelism and evangelistic strategy—which, of course, is important—but also other problems in the world of illness, of brokenness, of violence, of war, of other religions; all kinds of issues that the church has to face in its mission, so I think it was a tremendous menu of workshops and dialogue sessions and plenary sessions; a great deal of information for people who want to have an enormous sense of fellowship and of worship and a closing ceremony which was a communion service led by an African bishop with an African liturgy. It went on for about three hours and yet it didn’t feel like that at all; it was a marvelous musical, worshipful, inspiring event. So yeah, we came home exhausted but very encouraged.

Your paper, a widely-reported a plenary address there, called for a second reformation and you, according to the reports, received quite a warm response to that from the delegates. What was the basic point that you were arguing for there?

The basic point was that in the midst of all the things that we had to look at at Lausanne in terms of what the church needs to do in order to bring the gospel to the world is the fact that the church always also needs to look at itself. The point that I was making was that as you read the Bible you see that God has a greater problem with his own people than he does with the nations of the world; at least if you read the prophets. There’s far more that the prophets say against Israel, the people of God, than they ever do against the nations, and what the prophets say is that the people of God need to return to God, to repent of idolatry, and to be shaped again to be able to be a light to the nations and a blessing to the nations. So, the point I was trying to make was that the world evangelical community shouldn’t simply indulge in a kind of triumphalism or a jamboree spirit in which we go out and say, ‘We’ve got the answer to everybody else’s problems!’ but we need to also recognize that there’s a great deal about ourselves which is ugly, which is divided, which is filled with greed and consumerism, and a great deal of pride and where these things are true, then we need to repent and come back to God before we go out to the world.

The language of ‘reformation’ came to me—I don’t know whether you want to hear this story—but it was from Latin American friend who had done his Ph.D. with John Stott Ministries here in the States, and then returned to his home country in Latin America. He said that over a period of about six months, he and his wife attended ten different churches that were claiming to be evangelical; they were named as evangelical churches, but he said in not one of them did he hear the Bible being preached. In all of them there was a very powerful, single male minister who was extraordinarily wealthy and powerful, but ordinary people were not being taught the Bible. They weren’t actually looking really for salvation; they were looking for miracles, and they were being sold a version of the prosperity gospel which offered them all kinds of benefits in this life if they would give their money. And I suddenly thought to myself, ‘That sounds exactly like the pre-Reformation church in Europe where there were very powerful, wealthy, patrons and bishops lording it over the population, where people were not hearing or understanding the Bible because it wasn’t in their language, where people were being offered indulgences for blessings in the next life for payment of money in this life’. And I certainly thought, ‘It’s the evangelicals today who need a Reformation—we actually need to realize that these are deformities in the church, and to be rid of them, to reform ourselves of them.’ So that’s where the language came from; it kind of caught on, and I thought, ‘Well, perhaps we do need to talk that kind of language today, and be serious enough to use it.’

The Numbers Don’t Add Up

I was recently looking at the (very long and detailed) bio page of a pastor of a large church in the Midwest. As I was reading, this struck me as being interesting:

In the eight years that Dr. ____ has been its pastor, the First _____ Church of _____ has seen amazing growth, with the average weekly attendance more than doubling. This growth caused the need for a new auditorium; so in March of 2005, the First _____ Church moved into a new 7500-seat auditorium and, throughout that same year, saw over 25,000 converts baptized.

Their website also states,

“…we have a baptism time at the end of every Sunday service. Those who have trusted Jesus Christ are baptized by immersion, making it as easy as possible to be baptized immediately after you get saved…. Dozens and dozens of people get baptized every Sunday here at First _____ Church. If you would like to be baptized, make your way to the altar…”

Elsewhere we read, “being baptized automatically enrolls you in our membership” (emphasis added).

This blog post could be about the lack of catechesis given before baptism (the early church had a period of 2-3 years before a convert would be baptized and entered into membership of the local church), but I want to look at the numbers:

1,500-15,000 – Average yearly total of baptisms (I interpreted the “dozens and dozens” statement above to be a minimum of 24 a week–a very conservative number. However, a video says there were 333 baptisms on one particular Sunday, so 300 per week might be a better average which means there could be up to 15,000 baptisms of new converts each year.)
32,500-75,000 – Probable number of new converts/baptisms since 2005
7,500 – Capacity of the auditorium
2 – Worship services every week (one morning and one evening)

Now let’s looks at what doesn’t add up:

15,059 – Weekly average attendance (This is the advertised average for 2009 from the church’s website). In fact, only around 15,000 can fit in the auditorium for the two weekly services.
17,500-60,000 – Minimum number of “members” since 2005 who don’t show up at either of the church services.

I hope you can see the disconnect between baptism/membership and the actual attendance of the means of grace on a weekly basis. I really want to know where all these new baptized members are! This is not how Christ has established his church. God has given the church of Christ the means of grace (the preached Word and the Sacraments) not only for creating faith, but also for nourishing, strengthening, and sustaining faith. God has prepared a feast for us in the wilderness of this passing evil age, but yet many “Christians” don’t think they need the manna, quail, or water that is freely given from heaven. Instead they are content with starving themselves or sadly making their own meals at home. Obviously the “membership class” that these new members get from the time they “walk down the aisle” to the time that they get wet doesn’t include Hebrews 10:25 which characterizes Christians as, “… not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some…”

Today in America, especially, churches need to seriously pick up their responsibility to nurture new converts in the faith and to stress the importance of the gathering of God’s people on the Lord’s Day where they are reminded of the gospel they now believe and told again about this Christ whom they now trust. It breaks my heart to even begin to think where a vast majority of these “members” are in their spiritual walk (it can’t be good). The numbers don’t lie–they can’t all be at this church! I really hope I can be proved wrong and that First _____ Church of _____ is, in fact, a springboard or feeder for many other local churches (they plant, but another waters and nurtures). However, if that is their model or role, then I don’t think they would call these new converts “members” of this particular church immediately after baptism.

Dad Rod Thursdays – 2009 Apologetics Symposium

Dr. Rod RosenbladtIn 2009 Dr. Rosenbladt and Craig Parton, Esq. visited a church in Tomball, Texas to deliver a series of presentations focusing on subjects of Christian apologetics. If you’re at all interested in learning more about how one approaches a reasoned defense of the Christian faith, using facts surrounding the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the veracity of their documentation, offering answers to agnostics and unbelievers which demonstrate evidence far more reliable than anything we have from ancient history, you don’t want to miss the 2009 Apologetics Symposium.

You can listen to the first two presentations for free and the rest of the recordings are available for a nominal price, including the Q&A. Additionally, you will find a linked bibliography all the titles, authors and materials mentioned in the presentations available in a list broken down by presentation so that you can pick those up as well for further study on the subject of Christian apologetics.

Between the linked bibliography and all the information Dr. Rosenbladt and Mr. Parton offer in their recordings (seven in all), this is an invaluable resource for anyone interested in learning more about Christian apologetics.

Dr. Rosenbladt’s The Gospel For Those Broken By The Church, is now available for FREE—both MP3 and PDF. Enjoy it and share it! Remember – the video of this presentation will become freely available very soon as well.

Election Post Mortem

How will Christians respond to the Republican resurgence last night? Will the “culture war” rhetoric be amped up? One satirist has already posted on Twitter: “Apparently, contrary to the bumper sticker, God is a Republican.”

In 1994, the last time Republicans won big in Congressional elections, Michael Horton sat down with William Bennett, Os Guinness, Jim Wallis, and Cal Thomas to discuss religion and politics:

Cal Thomas: Isn’t it amazing that about 15 years after the advent of the so-called “Christian Right” that we are still debating the issues of the proper role of religion and politics. My view is that religion is political, or has a political dimension, and all politics has a religious dimension. So the question I want to pose to our panel members is just what exactly is the proper role of religion in a political system, and what is the proper role of politics in a nation that contains a good number of religious people. I want to begin by saying that there are two elements here we need to look at. First of all I think we have to begin with Thomas Jefferson’s wonderful phrase, “All men are created equal and are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, and among these are the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” It was in the next clause that Mr. Jefferson outlined the purpose of Government. He wrote, “And to secure these rights governments are instituted among men.” To secure what rights? Well, the rights that God had endowed. Why is that necessary for government to do? Because the founders understood that men and women were basically flawed on the inside-not basically good as modernists say-and that if they would not be constrained from within by the presence and power of God whom they worshiped, then they needed to be restrained from without by the presence and power of the state in order to conform them to a standard that would, because of self-evident truths, promote the general welfare, provide for the common defense, insure domestic tranquillity, and establish justice. It is, I think, because we have abandoned this important analysis of the human condition, which we used to call sin, that we now have a dysfunctional government. I also would say that I think the church would make a great mistake if it is looking for a political deliverance. People seem to be saying that if we could only find another Reagan then we could make things better. But I don’t believe in trickle-down morality in America. I don’t think that the person in the White House can make things better by him or herself. I think that it is going to require a national revival where our consciences are raised and we all come to our senses.

Michael Horton: I come from the Reformation tradition, which is ostensibly where evangelicals come from-and that is part of the problem, because evangelicalism is becoming more shaped by the forces of secular culture than by that Reformation heritage these days.

I would like to begin by arguing that this whole issue goes back a lot further than Ronald Reagan. In the nineteenth century, the moral crusade was very much a part of the American gospel. It was very important to have an American culture, an American church, an American religion, etc. And as Protestant denominations began to lose their hegemony over these institutions they increasingly downplayed theology and doctrine in order to form alliances with those who were on the right side of the political spectrum. One of the things I argue in Beyond Culture Wars is that the kingdoms of this world and the kingdom of God are two different kingdoms, a distinction that seems to be lost from both the Christian right and Christian left. Coming from the Reformed tradition-a tradition that has taken this world very seriously-I have a lot of respect for my forebears who in this country founded Harvard, Princeton, Dartmouth, Brown, Yale, and other institutions. They were trailblazers in all kinds of disciplines, and yet they knew that there was another world that was not only more important, but another world that helped us interpret this world. Evangelicals have lost that theological ballast by and large-which, by the way, has been pointed out by more secular historians and commentators than evangelical ones-and because of that loss of spiritual and theological ballast, we end up parroting whatever the world says or whatever was on Oprah’s last show, perhaps with Bible verses attached to it.

We used to call the confusion of politics and the gospel-saving the nation vs. saving indidviduals-heresy in mainline denominations in the sixties. But now evangelicals adopt the social gospel mentality because, after all, it’s now the right politics. Part of the problem in this business is entitlement. Everyone is out for his or her piece of the pie. Not only is Christianity in danger of being increasingly confused with American culture in general-those of you who travel abroad know exactly how many people recognize evangelicalism as an American phenomenon-but it is, even further than that, in danger of being confused with white, middle class, suburban American culture. I’m not critical of the Christian Coalition, for example, for its particular policy positions. It’s a free country and they represent a large segment of society. My problem is confusing that with Christianity, which I think it does.

Christianity won its way to dominance by sound arguments. Stephen in the book of Acts is emblematic of this, for when men began to argue with him, “they could not stand up against his wisdom or the Spirit by whom he spoke” (Acts 6:10). Evangelicals today focus on the people in power, and either lionize them, as in the case of Reagan, or demonize them, as in the case of Clinton. They should focus not on the people but on the ideas in power. I think that is crucial to focus on in the discussion of the culture wars.

Jim Wallis: I think what’s really missing in our day is a politics of personal responsibility, social justice, and community spirit. In other words, we need to be involved in shaping a more biblical politics; to move away from predictable ideological politics to a prophetic spiritual politics. The prophets in the biblical mode were never very comfortable in the White House, regardless of who was in power there. That kind of a prophetic biblical politics could cause a kind of convergence, bringing together the evangelicals, Catholics, the black churches, people who are inside and outside churches who are looking for change.

I think the violence we see in our society today may be for us a wake-up call. Violence is not the problem, violence is a consequence of the problem. We need to understand that violence is not just caused by poverty, it is caused by a profound lack of hope; it is despair that leads to chaos. So our politics must be rooted in spiritual values, and it must begin to move beyond the labels of conservative and liberal. Our politics must be characterized by a profound sense of hope. When our children are planning their funerals instead of their futures, we have a problem with hope, and if the religious community is not infusing the public square with that hope, then we are not doing our job.

Os Guinness: Let me just make four comments. Two against those who would tend to discount religion in public life, and two against those who would like to bring religion back to a prominent position in public life, but in unwise ways. The first comment is that understanding America without understanding religion would be like looking at Switzerland without the Alps. You’ll make absolutely no sense of it at all. Most Americans, past and present, have understood themselves and their whole lives (including their public life) from the perspective of faith. And to squeeze that out would be totally anti-democratic. Also you can see that Christian faith, as well as religion in general, is one of the three great streams that shaped this country. And to remove what is the earliest and strongest stream would be an act of national and historical suicide.

The second thing I would say on the positive side against those who discount religion in public life is that clearly, the place of faith and the religious liberty clauses in the founding documents is very close to the heart of the genius in this country. The mix of separation of church and state, faith and freedom, the ordering of religious liberty and pluralism, I think is as close as anyone has ever got in history to doing it right. Those who are trying to squeeze religion out are historically and culturally, and politically short-sighted.

Now of course for the last twenty-five years we have had the controversies. As Peter Berger puts it, one of the odd things about America is that she is a nation with a people as religious as India, and a leadership as secular as Sweden. In other words, the leadership in America is disproportionately secular. Now I personally don’t think that most of that is hostile. I have worked in the media, and in my opinion that lack of appreciation is much more often born of ignorance rather than hostility. In my experience, both in academia and in the media, the amount of hostility is remarkably small while the amount of indifference and ignorance is remarkably large.

Let me now make two comments towards those who are bringing religion back in unwise ways. First, many of them do so by turning everything into the culture wars. There is a culture war; it’s deep, it’s profound, it’s serious. But that is not the deepest problem we face today. I and many others would argue that the deeper problem still is what’s called the crisis of cultural authority. In other words, the beliefs and traditions and ideals which Americans once believed no longer have their compelling power over those who believe them. The situation is not us vs. them; we are fine and they are the problem. So whether it is the liberal elite or the media or whoever, they are the problem so if you clear them out all will be well. The problem with this view is that there is no problem in the wider culture that you cannot see in spades in the Christian church. The rot is in us, and not simply out there. And Christians are making a great mistake by turning everything into culture wars. It’s a much deeper crisis. It’s a crisis of cultural authority that affects religious people as well as secular. It affects all of us in the challenge of the modern world.

And the other comment I had against those who are bringing religion back wrongly is that I think one of the greatest needs today is to work again for a common vision for the common good. A while back a Washington journalist said to me, “Most evangelicals speak as if they’re talking of justice but sound as if they’re talking of just us.” And one of the reasons there is such a negative aura attached to the Christian right, which is partly justified, is that there is no stand for a common vision for the common good. There is no stand for public justice.

So let me pose the issues I think America faces today. At the individual level there is a simple choice. Will we be tribespeople and respond according to our group allegiances, will we be idiots (in the old Greek sense), people who are just after their own individual interests, or thirdly, will we be citizens, people who can fight for their own interests but always with a respect for the common good, recognizing the rights of the worst of their enemies and the smallest minorities that they happen to oppose. Too many Christians today are tribespeople. Would that they were citizens in the best sense of the word.

Cal Thomas: Let’s bring Bill Bennett into this discussion. Bill, on the major issues of our day, abortion, the gay rights movement, etc., it’s fine to talk about pluralism and tolerance, but in politics someone has to make a decision. Now, you are thinking about running for president, so what are you going to do about all those people who disagree with your views?

William Bennett: Well, first of all, the Christian is not objecting to notions of tolerance and pluralism. The Christian’s objection is that he is being left out of the public square entirely. I think that is the problem, Cal. It is not seeking orthodoxy or uniformity across the country. Rather, Christians entering into politics now are saying that they are the last group in America that is not respected. Everyone else seems to have their day and we do not have ours. Our beliefs are tread upon, our children are not allowed to express their faith. This is the main problem we have to deal with.

The Press: Bill, one national columnist recently observed that the conservative religious right is fighting for its life, suggesting that the culture is slipping away and perhaps gasping its last breath. Is there a certain desperation demonstrated in the activity of the religious right involving American politics, and is there a counterpoint to the remarks of President Clinton and Joycelyn Elders about the religious right’s imposing its agenda in politics and education?

William Bennett: I don’t think it’s desperation at all, rather, I think Christians are energized, and I think that the Clinton presidency has helped somewhat to energize them. When Bill Clinton or Joycelyn Elders give voice to views that have angered many people, views that go against the grain of mainstream Americans and not just Christians or Jews, this I think is what has energized people. I don’t think it is a last gasp, I think frankly the movement to get sound values back into politics and to not be embarrassed by their religious origin is stronger now because people understand that we have tried to do it value-free; we have tried to run politics without values and we have seen the result. It is now very respectable to talk in public about the importance of the family, character education, and a whole host of things which only fifteen years ago would have been regarded as on the fringe. So I think this is an expression of strength, not of weakness, and it is that which has enraged some Democrats on the left because they fear the strength of the movement. The last point I have is that as the movement gets stronger its spokesmen must be careful of what they say and how they speak. They must remember to speak in a way and for a cause that would invite people rather than turn them away, so the example of Christian witness must always be in the forefront.

Os Guinness: I would agree with most of what Mr. Bennett said, but just with one slight difference, and that is, I think there is a note of Christian desperation. As someone put it to me, “Christians talk as if they are standing on the rock of ages, and act as if they are clinging to the last piece of driftwood.” And if you read direct mail, there is a panic, an alarmism, a paranoia, that really is born of fear, and I think that really is an explanation for a lot of the hate and some of the ugliness. The clearest example in my view is the attempt by Christians to portray themselves as a persecuted minority. It was quite deliberate; it was engineered at a stage several years ago when the Christian right looked as if it was faltering. I think it is psychologically disastrous and it appeals to resentment. It is politically ineffective and it is thoroughly sub-Christian. But I think examples like this are examples of Christian desperation, and I think the sooner we get rid of this and have a firm faith in the sovereignty of God and of the truth of the Christian Gospel and in the openness of democracy we’ll have a chance to win the debate, particularly if we put in place a public philosophy.

Michael Horton: It seems to me that everyone is setting out to be a moral authority while at the same time there is an enormous amount of hypocrisy, whether you are talking about the Clintons or the Christian right. In terms of beliefs and practices, evangelicals themselves are too much apart of the “worldliness” they themselves criticize. Let me give a couple of examples. Secular humanism is defined by leaders of the Christian right as making man the measure, while at the same time, 77% of America’s evangelicals say that man is basically good, and 4 out of 5 evangelicals agree that “God helps those who help themselves.” If secular humanism is faith in humanity, rather than faith in God, then today’s evangelical are prime suspects. And on practical matters, 1 in 6 women who have abortions claims to be a born again Christian. I have personally known a number of Christian leaders who were writing book on marriage and the family while their families were falling apart. I think we have to realize that the church needs to be the church again, it needs to recover its theological roots. Ideas have consequences, and I think we are seeing Christians themselves failing to live up to their theological convictions because perhaps they are not really in touch with that theology themselves.

I also thought Mr. Bennett’s remark that Bill Clinton has energized evangelicals was very interesting. I think that’s part of the problem. I come at this, not as a player in Washington, I come at this as a pastor who is concerned about an evangelicalism that is becoming increasingly shaped by cultural, rather that spiritual and theological factors. And I think that point that Mr. Bennett made is very important for us to take away. Bill Clinton, by antithesis, is energizing evangelicals. I think that is a very scary thing, because what it means is, first of all, that our witness is reactive, and secondly, that our witness is determined by politics rather than by the Great Commission, and I think that is very tragic.

Jim Wallis: Some of us don’t feel that the White House has been a source of moral guidance for a long time. And I think that Christian preoccupation with who is in the White House and how they can get there to be with them is the source of our problems. I also think we are still plagued by false choices. There is this attitude out there that our choices are to be either completely secular or be perfectly aligned with those of the religious right. This is simply not the case. There are many evangelical Christians who are not politically on the right. There are moderates, there are progressives, and there are many who in fact do not find that their priorities articulated the extremes of either party.

Cal Thomas: I think it is interesting to remember that 2,000 years ago the ancient Israelites were looking for a deliverer to end the secular oppression of Caesar and the Roman government. But because they were looking for a political messiah, they missed the one they were in greater need of. I agree with Jim, that we are not going to have trickle-down morality; it has to be bubble- up. So some of my wonderful friends on the Christians right (which is better than being pagan left) are making the same mistake as the ancient Jews of two thousand years ago, I think.

Let me get back if I can to the issue of character education and virtue, now that these concepts are once again in fashion. What exactly is virtue, and how do you instill it in a people if not through its institutions. Everybody realizes that we have a crisis of virtue in this country, so what is the best formula, what is the best prescription for this virtue vacuum that is now gripping the nation.

Os Guinness: Well, I have three comments. First of all, I think Bill Bennett has done us an enormous service in bringing back the issue of character. To answer your question specifically, the key notion for the Greeks in learning virtue was habit, or as we would put biblically, obedience. And the modeling of character, and the modeling of virtue is much more difficult than simply educating it through the schools or the media. The second comment I have is that I don’t think we should be too impressed with the present fashionability of virtue. You can see the skepticism surrounding the subject on the recent Newsweek cover. Anything that is caught up like that is going to have its fifteen minutes in the sun, but the real test is whether after fifteen years the discussion is still going on. The third comment I have is, if you look back at the tradition of virtues and vices, the Greeks and the Romans stressed the virtues, while the Christians and the Jews stressed the vices. Both groups discussed virtues and vices, but is was the Christians that emphasized the discussion of vices. And for all our talk of virtues today, our view of the vices today is what is being described rightly as “sin-lite”. Sinfulness is low self-esteem, chocolate dessert, and so on. So until there is a radical view of evil and vice, talk of virtue will mean absolutely nothing.

Michael Horton: When the Christian hears talk about virtue-if we have our theological categories, and the Reformers were great with this stuff-we have a category for this discussion of virtue in terms of civil righteousness or civil politics. The problem comes when we don’t have those categories, and we think of civil righteousness as righteousness before God. So when Christians hear talk of pagan virtue, there is a sense in which we should say that even the most agnostic person can have virtue in the civic sense, but we are confusing this right now with Christianity and the Christian message.

The second thing I want to say is that when it does come to virtue in the home, evangelicals once again are lacking. Senate Chaplain Richard Halverson said recently that he was speaking to a group of evangelicals who wanted prayer back in the schools and he asked how many of them prayed with their children that morning. Sadly, no one raised his hand. Everybody wants the Ten Commandments in the public schools, but according to Gallup, most evangelicals can’t name them themselves. There is an enormous doctrinal and biblical illiteracy in the church and I think we have a lot of work in teaching and explaining what we believe and why we believe it before we try to force non-Christians to be less than what they are.

Cal Thomas: It’s really a shortcut to righteousness, isn’t it. The government is my keeper, I shall not want… I think both the left and the right have made serious mistakes in looking to government to deliver us from our collective ills. I would like to thank the members of the panel for being with us today.

Originally published in Modern Reformation (September/October 1994): Vol. 3, No. 5. Pages 24-27.

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