Friday, September 30, 2011

The Scarlet Letter

I wasn't much of a reader when I was a kid. I liked to play. I grew up by a lake so most days I was out and about running around catching tadpoles, playing football with the neighborhood kids, playing cops and robbers, etc. I didn't read much as a kid, and if I've been regretful of anything from my childhood, it would be that I wasn't very much exposed to the classics. Part of the problem was that I was raised by immigrant parents who were not as familiar with the American classics, but most of the problem was that I hardly ever met a book I liked (unless it was written by my good friend "Cliff"). My wife Tanya, on the other hand, consumed the classics. So I picked up Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter recently- I asked Tanya if she remembered having read the book, and of course she had as a little girl.

Many of you are probably familiar with the storyline: Hester Prynne, believing her husband from England has perished on the treacherous seas traveling from England to the New England colonies, in her loneliness has an adulterous affair with the local minister Arthur Dimmesdale. She conceives a child named Pearl and, refusing to disclose the name of her lover, is forced by the Puritan community to wear a Scarlet Letter "A" signifying her adultery and hidden shame. Her child Pearl is her delight, yet thought of in her unruliness as a child of the Devil, product of sin, etc. Pearl grows up in that little New England Puritan town settlement as Prynne supports the two of them as a seamstress. Meanwhile, the minister Dimmesdale suffers terrible physical ailments, not to mention psychological torment as one who lives with a dark, undisclosed secret. Prynne's husband is discovered to have survived the sea voyage and arrives now with a new name Roger Chillingsworth. Chillingsworth is a physician with a vengeful spirit, wanting to see the one who has committed adultery with his former wife, suffer; suspicious of Dimmesdale he moves in with Dimmesdale "to take care of him." Eventually Dimmesdale and Prynne forge a plan to run off together to England, but beforehand Dimmesdale finally confesses his "hidden sin" before the townspeople and falls dead. Before long, Prynne moves with her daughter to England and later returns to the same New England Puritan settlement with the letter "A" on her chest once again; Prynne continues her charitable acts and quiet life and when she passes away, she is buried with Dimmesdale both with the letter "A" inscribed over their graves.

I had mixed feelings upon finishing the book. I know what a rich heritage the Puritans left us as devout followers of Christ, yet the lasting impression of the Puritans in our corporate memory is from accounts like Hawthorne's work. Hawthorne was descended from the Puritans of Salem, MA and always had a great discomfort with that heritage; he had very little good to say about Puritanism as a religious establishment. Of course when The Scarlet Letter came out, it received much criticism as being "fanciful fiction" rather than speaking about weightier matters, also it was generally thought to misrepresent much of the Church's message (probably a fair criticism). Yet, Hawthorne's book endures as a great American classic, while his critics do not so much. The ability to write a narrative, with such compelling figures as the feisty and charitable Hester Prynne (a much-loved woman in American literary history), the vengeful Roger Chillingsworth and the tormented Arthur Dimmesdale, for good or for ill, will continue to draw readers of new generations and shape our corporate memory (again, for good or for ill) regarding the legacy of the Puritans.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Kuyper's Tension and Challenge

As I finish Kuyper's book, I appreciate both Kuyper's love for Calvinism and full belief that it is more than a set of doctrines but rather an entire "world and life view" or way of looking at the world. In fact, Kuyper's entire series of lectures has been given in order to establish that Calvinism isn't merely a series of doctrines or an "ecclesiastical movement," but rather a "life system" or worldview, "able to fit itself to the needs of every stage of human development, in every department of life" (p. 171):

It raised our Christian religion to its highest spiritual splendor: it created a church order, which became the preformation of state confederation; it proved to be the guardian angel of science; it emancipated art; it propogated a political scheme, which gave birth to constitutional government, both in Europe and America; it fostered agriculture and industry, commerce and navigation; it put a thorough Christian stamp upon home-life and family-times; it promoted through its high moral standard purity in our social circles: and to this manifold effect it placed beneath Church and State, beneath society and home-circle a fundamental philosophic conception strictly derived from its dominating principle, and therefore all its own.  Lectures on Calvinism, p. 171

Kuyper is quite strong on his belief of "the Calvinistic principle as the sole trustworthy foundation on which to build" (p. 191). Nonetheless, he is also realistic that to expect all Protestant to subscribe to its system "can never be realized in this our dispensation" (p. 191). Why not?

What, then, are we to understand by this return to Calvinism? Do I mean that all believing Protestants should subscribe, the sooner the better, to Reformed symbols, and thus all ecclesiastical multiformity be swallowed up in the unity of the Reformed church-organization? I am far from cherishing so crude, so ignorant, so unhistorical a desire. As a matter of course, there is inherent in every conviction, in every confession, a motive for absolute and unconditional propagandism, and the word of Paul to Agrippa: “I would to God that with little or with much, not only you, but also all that hear me this day, might become such as I am,” must remain the heartfelt wish not only of every good Calvinist, but of every one who may glory in a firm immovable conviction. But so ideal a desire of the human heart can never be realized in this our dispensation…. not one Reformed standard, not even the purest, is infallible as was the word of Paul. Then, again, the Calvinistic confession is so deeply religious, so highly spiritual that, excepting always periods of profound religious commotion, it will never be realized by the large masses, but will impress with a sense of its inevitability only a relatively small circle.  Lectures on Calvinism, pp. 191-92

I appreciate Kuyper's words here because he is clearly someone who has grappled on a profound level with the beauty, power and even "totality" of his Calvinism, i.e. his "Reformed world and life view" (if you prefer). That being said, Kuyper is equally willing to acknowledge that a Reformed perspective is by no means "infallible," as the Holy Scriptures. Kuyper presents a kind of tension that I can more than appreciate, in fact a tension that started me off on this entire D.Min. quest in the first place (if interested, see here: The Beginning of the D.Min. Quest).

Really, Kuyper's conclusion is that "Calvinism should be strengthened where its influence still exists."  Also, he speaks of its system being taught with the hope the outside world comes to know it and that it should be "developed in accordance with the needs of our time" (p. 192). He has some rather strong words for Calvinistic churches as well:

A Church Calvinistic in origin and still recognizable by its Calvinistic confession, which lacks the courage, nay rather which no longer feels the impulse to defend that confession boldly and bravely against all the world, such a Church dishonors not Calvinism but itself. Albeit the Church reformed in bone and marrow may be small and few in numbers, as Churches they will always prove indispensible for Calvinism; and here also the smallness of the seed need not disturb us, if only that seed be sound and whole, instinct with generative and irrepressible life. Lectures on Calvinism, p. 195  

I think this quote of Kuyper's could certainly be taken to encourage arrogant, doctrinaire and divisive Calvinists who claim themselves to be "the frozen chosen"; however, I think there is another way to read Kuyper's words here. How will we as a Reformed and Calvinistic church be faithful in the small things, seeking to influence and draw others to the beauty and comprehensiveness of the Reformed faith? Even the majority of people at our church Grace Chapel, a PCA Reformed Church, do not confess with rigor and zeal the Reformed faith. Nonetheless, being "small and few in numbers," as we find many people of many stripes drawn to our congregation, if we can find ways faithfully to communicate the "Reformed system" in a way that is winsome and translatable, perhaps, even in small places like Grace Chapel, we stand to be as faithful as ever to Kuyper's challenge.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Calvinism, An Earthy Faith

"It was perceived, on the contrary, that for God's sake, our attention may not be withdrawn form the life of nature and creation; the study of the body regained its place of honor beside the study of the soul; and the social organization of mankind on earth was again looked upon as being as well worthy an object of human science as the congregation of the perfect saints in heaven. This also explains the close relation existing between Calvinism and Humanism. In as far as Humanism endeavored to substitute life in this world for the eternal, every Calvinist opposed the Humanist. But in as much as the Humanist contented himself with a plea for a proper acknowledgement of secular life, the Calvinist was his ally" (Lectures on Calvinism, p. 121).

Cosmical Things Awaiting Restoration

"When John is describing the Savior, he first tells us that Christ is the 'eternal Word, by Whom all things are made, and who is the life of men.' Paul also testifies that 'all things were created by Christ and consist by Him;' and further, that the object of the work of redemption is not limited to the salvation of individual sinners, but extends itself to the redemption of the world, and to the organic reunion of all things in heaven and on earth under Christ as their original head. Christ himself does not speak only of the regeneration of the earth, but also of a regeneration of the cosmos (Matt. 19:28). Paul declares: 'The whole creation groaneth waiting for the bursting forth of the glory of the children of God.' And when John on Patmos listened to the hymns of the Cherubim and the Redeemed, all honor, praise and thanks were given to God, 'Who has created the heaven and the earth.' The Apocalypse returns to the starting-point of Gen. 1:1- 'In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.' In keeping with this, the final outcome of the future, foreshadowed in the H. Scriptures, is not the merely spiritual existence of saved souls, but the restoration of the entire cosmos, when God will be all in all under the renewed heaven on the renewed earth. Now this wide, comprehensible, cosmological meaning of the gospel has been apprehended again by Calvin, ...

Certainly our salvation is of substantial weight, but it cannot be compared with the much greater weight of the glory of our God, Who has revealed His majesty in His wondrous creation. This creation is His handiwork, and being marred by sin, the way was opened, it is true for a still more glorious revelation in its restoration, yet restoration is and ever will be the salvation of that which was first created, the theodicy of the original handiwork of our God. The mediatorship of Christ is and ever will be the burden of the grand hymn of the tongues of men and the voices of angels, but even this mediatorship has for its final end the glory of the Father; and however grand the splendor of Christ's kingdom may be, He will at last surrender it to God and the Father.... Calvinism puts an end once and for all to contempt for the world, neglect of the temporal and under-valuation of cosmical things. Cosmical life has regained its worth not at the expense of things eternal, but by virtue of its capacity as God's handiwork and as a revelation of God's attributes" (Lectures on Calvinism, pp. 118-20)

Before the Face of God, Involved with the World

"But it remained the special trait of Calvinism that it placed the believer before the face of God, not only in His church, but also in his personal, family, social, and political life. The majesty of God, and the authority of God press upon the Calvinist in the whole of his human existence. He is a pilgrim, not in the sense that he is marching through a world with which he has no concern, but in the sense that at every step of the long way he must remember his responsibility to that God so full of majesty, who awaits him at  his journey's end. In front of the Portal which opens for him, on the entrance into Eternity, stands the Last Judgment; and that judgment shall be one broad and comprehensive test, to ascertain whether the long pilgrimage has been accomplished with a heart aimed at God's glory, and in accordance with the ordinances of the Most High" (Lectures on Calvinism, pp. 69-70).

Diversity of Congregations Part 3

"... by regarding their (Calvinistic theologians) church, not as a hierarchy or institution, but as the gathering of individual confessors, they started for the life of the church, as well as for the life of the state, and civil society, from the principle not of compulsion, but of liberty. For, of course, by virtue of this starting-point, there was no other church-power superior to the local churches, save only what the churches themselves constituted, by means of their confederation. Hence it followed of necessity that the natural and historic differences between men should also, wedge-like, force their way into the phenomenal life of the church upon earth. National differences of morals, differences of disposition and of emotions, different degrees in depth of life and insight, necessarily resulted in emphasizing first one, and then another side of the same truth. Hence the numerous sects and denominations into which the external church-life has fallen by virtue of this principle. So on our side there are denominations which may have departed from the rich, deep and full Calvinistic Confession, in no small degree, even such as bitterly oppose more than one capital article of our Confession; yet they all owe their origin to a deep-rooted opposition to sacerdotalism, and to the acknowledgement of the Church as the "congregation of believers," the truth in which Calvinism expressed its fundamental conception. And although this fact unavoidably led to much unholy rivalry, and even to sinful errors of conduct; yet, after an experience of three centuries it must be confessed that this multiformity, which is inseparably connected with the fundamental thought of Calvinism, has much more favorable to the growth and prosperity of religious life than the compulsory uniformity in which others sought the very basis of its strength. And fruit is to be expected more abundantly still in the future, provided only that the principle of ecclesiastical liberty does not degenerate into indifference, ... " (Lectures on Calvinism, pp. 64-5).

Diversity of Congregations Part 2

"Now let me draw your attention to another most important consequence of this same principle, viz., to the multiformity of denominations as the necessary result of the differentiation of the churches, according to the different degrees of their purity. If the Church is considered to be an institute of grace, independent of the believers, or an institute in which a hierarchial priesthood distributes the treasury of grace entrusted to it, the result must be that this hierarchy itself extends through all nations, and imparts the same stamp to all forms of ecclesiastical life. But if the Church consists in the congregation of believers, if the churches are formed by the union of confessors, and are united only in the way of confederation, then the differences of climate and of nation, of historical past, and of disposition of mind come in to exercise a widely variegating influence, and multiformity in ecclesiastical matters must be the result. A result, therefore, of very far-reaching importance, because it annihilates the absolute character of every visible church, and places them all side by side, as differing in degrees of purity, but always remaining in some way or other a manifestation of one holy and catholic Church of Christ in Heaven" (Lectures on Calvinism, pp. 63-4).

Friday, September 23, 2011

Diversity of Congregations Part 1

"After having thus clearly grasped the nature of the Church, in its bearing upon the re-creation both of our human race and of the Cosmos as a whole, let us now turn our attention to its form of manifestation, here on earth. As such it displays, unto us, different local congregations of believers, groups of confessors, living in some ecclesiastical union, in obedience to the ordinances of Christ Himself. The Church on earth is not an institution for the dispensation of grace, as if it were a dispensary of spiritual medicines. There is no mystical, spiritual order gifted with mystical powers to operate with a magical influence upon laymen. There are only regenerated and confessing individuals, who, in accordance with the Scriptural command, and under the influence of the sociological element of all religion, have formed a society, and are endeavoring to live together in subordination to Christ as their King. This, alone, is the Church on earth,- not the building,- not the institution,- not the spiritual order. For Calvin, the Church is found in the confessing individuals themselves,- not in each individual separately, but in all of them taken together, and united, not as they themselves see fit, but according to the ordinances of Christ. In the Church on earth, the universal priesthood of believers must be realized. Do not misunderstand me. I do not say: The Church consists of pious persons united in groups for religious purposes. That, in itself, would have nothing in common with the Church. The real, heavenly, invisible Church must manifest itself in the earthly Church. If not, you will have a society, but no church. Now the real essential Church is and remains the body of Christ, of which regenerate persons are members. Therefore the Church on earth consists only of those who have been incorporated into Christ, who bow before Him, live in His Word, and adhere to His ordinances; and for this reason the Church on earth has to preach the Word, to administer the sacraments, and to exercise discipline, and in everything to stand before the face of God" (Lectures on Calvinism, pp. 62-3).

The True Church Behind the Curtain

Recently I completed a series that sought to explore what I called a "Unitive Vision for Christendom." In that series, I talked about what it means to seek unity in the Church but also to value particular distinctives as a church body as well. Kuyper gets us to think about how the Church Universal is first and foremost connected in this way: as a group of sojourners, who are seeking to be made whole once again with the "True Church Behind the Curtain." The image of those reigning with Christ, also those who serve as "witnesses" (Heb. 12) comprise the heavenly Church as its powers are given to the Church, all who confess Christ, here on earth. We seek to be a part of that "real Church" as we sojourn forward as God's Beloved. Kuyper writes:

The Westminster Confession beautifully sets forth this heavenly all-embracing nature of the Church, when it says: “The Catholic or Universal Church, which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect that have been, are or shall be, gathered into one, under Christ the Head, thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the fullness of Him that filleth all in all.” Only thus was the dogma of the invisible church religiously consecrated and apprehended in its cosmological and enduring significance. For, of course, the reality and fullness of the Church of Christ cannot exist on earth. Here is found, at most, one generation of believers at a time, in the portal of the Temple,- all previous generations, from the beginning and foundation of the world, had left this earth, and had gone up on high. Therefore, those who remained here, were, eo ipso pilgrims, meaning thereby that they were marching from the portal unto the Sanctuary itself, no possibility of salvation after death remaining for those who had not been united to Christ during this present life. No room could be left for masses for the dead, nor for a call to repentance on the other side of the grave as German Theologians are now advocating. For all such processional and gradual transitions were regarded by Calvin as destroying the absolute contrast between the essence of the Church in Heaven, and its imperfect form, here on earth. The Church on earth does not send up its light to heaven, but the Church in heaven must send its light down to the Church on earth. There is now, as it were, a curtain stretched before the eye, which hinders it from penetrating while on earth into the real essence of the Church. Therefore, all that remains possible to us on earth is first a mystical communion with that real Church, by means of the Spirit, and in the second place, the enjoyment of the shadows which are displaying themselves on the transparent curtain before us. Accordingly, no child of God should imagine that the real Church is here on earth, and that behind the curtain there is only an ideal product of our imagination; but, on the contrary, he has to confess that Christ in human form, in our flesh, has entered into the invisible, behind the curtain; and that, with Him, around Him, and in Him, our Head, is the real Church, the real and essential sanctuary of our salvation. Lectures on Calvinism, pp. 61-2

Kuyper's Stone Lectures

I'm working through a book written by Abraham Kuyper called Lectures on Calvinism. Kuyper was the Prime Minister of the Netherlands at the turn of the 19th century and delivered these "lectures" at Princeton Seminary: originally they were entitled the "Stone Lectures." In his materials, he speaks about Calvinism not merely being a theological way of looking at the Bible but rather as a total "world and life system." Because the term Calvinism has come under fire in recent years, as perhaps conjuring images of divisive, arrogant and doctrinaire people, it has become more common to speak of a "Reformed world and life view." Yet at other times, I will simply speak from the pulpit of a "Biblical world and life view: indeed, many Christians speak of such terms as well. However, it is important to know that Kuyper was a big contributor over a hundred years ago to teach us about seeing the "world" through a "worldview lens." Let me begin by quoting from an excerpt:

Calvinism has wrought an entire change in the world of thoughts and conceptions. In this also, placing itself before the face of God, it has not only honored man for the sake of his likeness to the Divine image, but also the world as a Divine creation, and has at once placed to the front the great principle that there is a particular grace which works Salvation, and also a common grace by which God, maintaining the life of the world, relaxes the curse which rests upon it, arrests its process of corruption, and thus allows the untrammeled development of our life in which to glorify Himself as Creator. Thus the Church receded in order to be neither more nor less than the congregation of believers, and in every department the life of the world was not emancipated from God, but from the dominion of the Church. Thus domestic life regained its independence, trade and commerce realized their strength in liberty, art and science were set free from every ecclesiastical bond and restored to their own inspirations, and man began to understand subjection of all nature with its hidden forces and treasures to himself as a holy duty, imposed upon him by the original ordinances of Paradise: “Have dominion over them.” Henceforth the curse should no longer rest upon the world itself, but upon that which is sinful in it, and instead of monastic flight from the world the duty is now emphasized of serving God in the world in every position in life. To praise God in the Church and serve Him in the world became the inspiring impulse, and, in the Church, strength was to be gathered by which to resist temptation and sin in the world.  Lectures on Calvinism, p. 30

In the quotation, Kuyper outlines what he became most famous for articulating, an understanding of "sphere sovereignty," that while the Lord is King over all of creation, the Church itself doesn't have dominion/jurisdiction over every aspect of life/the creational order. Kuyper speaks of the "common grace" at work in the world where God's "curse" has been somewhat relaxed, that good gifts and blessing have come nonetheless [think of Jesus talking about God sending rain to fall and sun to shine on the just and unjust alike (Matt. 5:45), James talking about how every good and perfect gift comes down from above (James 1:17)]. Kuyper speaks of those spheres of life, work and world where the "curse of sin" is not so much over, rather redemption and renewal are taking place, that ultimately it is our job as Christians to work for and pray for the renewal of every sphere of life, work and world and to work for such renewal in whatever sphere we might find ourselves in. This is why engagement rather than retreat is our obligation, calling and duty (or as Jesus said in His High Priestly Prayer that we should not be removed from the world but protected from the Evil One while we are in it).

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Traditional Conservatism as a Way Forward

"Traditionalist conservatism represents a better form of politics, one that takes the faith of evangelicals seriously while also acknowledging the diversity of the United States and the significance of its form of government. It is on the side of much of what evangelicals want- strong families with parents determining what is best for their children, alternative forms of education that are not dominated by the state's monopoly on schools, respect for the ideals and institutions that have defined American society, and churches that enjoy freedom of worship, speech, and forms of governance. The stumbling block for evangelicals is that conservatism is not inherently or obviously biblical.

If conservatism's lack of an explicitly Christian foundation is troubling to born-again Protestants, another alternative might be to start from scratch and look for an order- say, Christendom or a religious establishment- capable of achieving what they want. But short of going back to medieval Europe or Christian England, or forward to the modern denominational state, conservatism offers a present-day alternative with plausible outlets in already existing institutions and schools of thought. Evangelicals should kick the tires of conservatism and give it a test drive. The ride, despite the potholes, stop signs, and traffic jams that inevitably come from the sinfulness and variety of human beings and their societies, may be just what they need to traverse the City of Man."

Pilgrims and Local Institutions

"Evangelicals, often with benevolent intentions, have long been busybodies. Going back to the Second Great Awakening, they have organized any number of social or moral crusades. They did this, of course, thinking that the fortunes of the kingdom of God were at stake in the kind of society the United States would be. But while evangelicals were busy establishing a Benevolent Empire, even to the point of creating formal mechanisms for conforming non-evangelical residents to Protestant American ways, other Christians- Roman Catholics, the Orthodox, and ethnic Protestants- were building churches and parochial schools designed to nurture a differently calibrated Christian faith. These Christians did not identify the kingdom of God with America but located it within the church, which had the responsibility for shepherding the spiritual flock from the cradle to the grave. While American evangelicals looked for public institutions to embody Protestant norms, these churchly Christians sometimes resisted the rule of Protestant America in hopes of establishing their own colonies of faith and practice.

In contrast to the evangelical ideal of the earnest Christian as crusader, churchly Christians lived more like pilgrims. As people whose ultimate home was in another world beyond this one, they believed that the American nation was not their home, but only their proximate residence. These Christians may not have done as much to change the nation, though the pursuit of a national and centralized set of institutions to enforce Christian ideals would come back to haunt evangelicals. Still, if the churchly Protestants' calibration of eternal realities was accurate, they may have been more faithful than evangelicals in preparing for and establishing a heavenly kingdom.

Today's evangelicals want many of the same things that these ethnic Christian groups did- strong families, good churches, and healthy schools. If born-again Protestants hope to gain those cultural and religious goods, they need to consider the model of pilgrimage practiced by those older Christian groups and the place that political activism occupied in their faith. Granted, social life in the United States today is overwhelmingly different from nineteenth-century America. Even so, the practices of ethnic groups in the U.S. are fitting ones for believers who are supposed to know that the American nation is not their final resting place, but only a way station to their eternal home."

Politics Downstream from Culture

Having lived in Washington D.C. for a number of years, my doctoral mentor Steven Garber likes to say that "politics is downstream from culture." I'm not sure that Garber would agree with all of Hart's conclusions regarding what meaningful engagement therefore looks like; however, I think D.G. Hart gets at the point of politics relationship to culture well:

A repeated theme in the writings of post-World War II conservatism is that politics is merely a reflection of culture. Russell Kirk articulated this point in his book The Conservative Mind, and it continues to inform traditionalist conservative assessments of American life.

Again, this would seem to be an attractive perspective to evangelicals, since so much of born-again Protestant identity is bound up with agencies and institutions that shape faith. It is a perspective, however, at odds with thirty years of political activism geared toward putting a godly man or woman in the White House who will restore Christian values in the nation. In effect, if evangelicals can learn from conservatives the priority of cultural matters over politics, they might back away from their identity as a voting bloc and work harder to build and maintain institutions that strengthen families, neighborhoods, and churches (while of course also attending to the variety of local, state, and federal policies that facilitate such institutions). At the same time, if individual evangelicals sense a calling to public office, they may want to consider using their skills at those levels of government- city, township, county, and state- that are closer to the institutions they want to protect and advance. Political conservatives object to the centralization of American polity at the federal level not only because of the tensions between such consolidation of power and the ideas that brought the American republic into existence. They also value local and state governments because such polities work on a human scale and are more capable than national authorities of addressing the diversity of peoples, places, and convictions.

Bottom line: if evangelicals want their children to grow up to be Christians, they will likely have better results if they spend time coaching in Little League or leading a troop of Brownies instead of lobbying a member of Congress or giving to the GOP.  From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin, pp. 219-20.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Are Evangelicals Truly Conservatives? Part 5

Instead of relying on conservative insights about order, liberty, and the health of civil society, evangelicals habitually resorted to their Bibles. Indeed, for evangelicals, Scripture was a better guide to the affairs of the United States than the demands of republicanism, constitutionalism, federalism, or the balance of powers.

This means that interpreters of evangelical Protestant politics need to look beyond voting data and consider the reasons that representative born-again Protestant academics and pastors give for political participation, their understanding of the good society, or the value of the American polity. Those interpreters will see that the historical voting data and philosophy behind it do not necessarily point to the same future. Rank-and-file evangelicals did vote overwhelmingly for Republicans in 2008, and the attraction of “Tea Party” candidates for born-again voters in the 2010 midterm contests is another apparent indication of an affinity between conservatism and evangelicalism. But even while many ordinary evangelicals continue to balk at the Democratic Party and its candidates, the evangelical intellgientsia is tracking toward the political Left and away from conservative politics and the Republican Party. These left-leaning Protestants are the ones writing books, teaching at Christian colleges, and training future evangelical pastors at seminaries. Their understanding of United States politics and biblical teaching on a good society (they will invariably speak of such goodness in terms of “doing justice”) is leading them father and farther away from the arguments, assumptions, and dispositions of conservative writers and thinkers.

Readers may object that evaluating evangelicals by standards of American conservatism is unfair. Such a reaction is understandable if it relies upon a suspicion that the author himself is a conservative and is faulting evangelicals for not measuring up to his own political outlook…. But aside from the outlook that informs this book, judging evangelicals by conservative standards is fitting if born-again Protestants themselves claim to be conservative. If the assumptions and aims of evangelicals are at odds with conservatism, then concluding that born-again Protestantism is not conservative is not only fair, but correct. A narrative revealing this tension may well be valuable if only to help evangelicals and conservatives adjust their expectations of each other. From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin, pp. 16-17

Hart here looks to the future and makes the claim that the future of Evangelical Christianity is not with so-called "conservative" American politics, at least among today's younger evangelicals who are beginning to teach and train future evangelical leaders. Some questions to ponder among the older Evangelical generation who may bemoan this development is, whether in fact their particular brand of so-called conservatism espoused since Reagan, was in fact built on the foundation of American conservatism (rather than on the platform of moral idealism with the veneer of conservatism). Perhaps in our day, the particulars of such idealism are still present among younger evangelical people, only the issues have shifted somewhat. As Jim Belcher writes in his book Deep Church, youth movements in the Emerging Church today tend to focus more on arts and culture whereas the older generation, i.e. traditional church, focused on morality and politics. Belcher seeks to present a via media by getting us to think about the importance of both. However, as Hart says, if the importance of both sets of concerns means seeking to achieve such uniform ideals through federal programs and the national political process, then perhaps the very foundations of our moral and political philosophy as Evangelicals (since the time of Reagan) really hasn't changed so much as the particular applications and issues that are now flowing from those ideals and eventually into voter booths.

Are Evangelicals Truly Conservatives? Part 4

So how does Hart attempt to define conservatism? He does so by saying that while conservatism eludes simple definition, one is able to identify it by considering “the institutions and publications that have sustained political conservatism” (From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin, p. 14):

For some, being conservative is little more than support for small government and free markets. One challenge for this brand of conservatism is that it is usually synonymous with a large and centralized military-industrial complex that sustains the United States not as a diversely federated republic, but as a global superpower. For others, conservatism is a set of intuitions about human relations, the created order, and humanity’s place on earth from which proceed ideas about the scale of government, the rule of law, the inviolability of private property, and the importance of families, neighborhoods, and community organizations. Still others conceive of conservatism as an effort to maintain and defend so-called traditional morality; this morality, accordingly, is not merely old but timeless by virtue of being derived from transcendent truth. The source of these truths can be either the natural order or sacred writings, depending on whether these conservatives are Roman Catholic or Protestant.  From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin, pp. 14-15

Are Evangelicals Truly Conservatives? Part 3

Hart points to the “landmark history of modern American conservatism," George H. Nash’s The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America since 1945; Hart notices that in the index of Nash’s work isn't any mention of “any evangelical in the post-World War II movement that launched Fuller Seminary, Christianity Today, or the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association" (From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin, pp. 9-10). Even in the second edition of the book published in 1996, Nash devotes three pages to evangelical Protestants as part of the Reagan coalition and “conceded that they shared worries with political conservatives about the health of the United States.” But Nash also writes that:

… evangelical support for Reagan was a “revolt by the ‘masses’ against the secular virus and its aggressive carriers in the nation’s elites.” Nash saw that, unlike conservatives, evangelicals were oblivious to the structural problems of mass society that went deeper than abortion, gay marriage, or pornography. Although he did not say so explicitly, Nash intuited that evangelicalism was a form of Christianity essentially uncritical to modernity, since as a mass movement itself born-again Protestantism depended for its very well-being upon social forces such as mass communication, political and economic centralization, and cultural homogeneity that sustained the social and cultural ills evangelicals lamented. These Protestants could readily identify specific sins but lacked the capacity to account for the social patterns that nurtured such evils.  From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin, p. 10

Are Evangelicals Truly Conservatives? Part 2

Hart actually goes after a “shibboleth” (a non-negotiable) of the American Evangelical establishment by challenging its need to have knowledge only of the Bible’s moral imperatives and then challenges Evangelicals on their inability to research and consider a historical understanding of American conservatism. Hart’s point isn’t to tell Evangelicals to quit using the Bible as their ultimate guide and authority, but to say, if the movement has so desired to get into bed with the American political system and identify itself with a political philosophy called conservatism, then it should at least know something about its bedfellow:

... after thirty years of laboring with and supposedly listening to political conservatives, evangelicals have not expanded their intellectual repertoire significantly beyond the moral imperatives of the Bible. In fact, born-again Protestants show no more capacity to think conservatively than they did in the age of Billy Graham's greatest popularity. They do not know how to yell “stop” to the engines of modernity the way that conservatives typically have. They have not learned to be wary of concentrations of power and wealth, frustrated with mass society and popular culture’s distraction from “permanent things,” or skeptical about any humanitarian plan to end human misery. Instead, evangelicals are more likely to support political plans to improve society, grow the economy, and expand the United States’ global presence as long as doctors are not performing abortions and ministers are not presiding over the marriages of gay couples.

The star power of Warren (Rick) and Palin (Sarah), along with the limits of Red State-Bule State analysis, have obscured this disparity between evangelicalism and conservatism. To be sure, many evangelicals in the pews continue to vote consistently for the Republican Party, but their reasons for doing so are morally thick and politically thin. This is not to say that the GOP itself is the arbiter of political conservatism properly understood. In fact, the close identification of conservatives with Republicans has obscured the supposition, articulated over a half century ago by conservative writers like Russell Kirk, the author of The Conservative Mind (1953), that culture is more important and more basic than elections and legislation, that politics is merely a reflection of a culture’s health. Still, whether like Palin, who tried to align her convictions with McCain’s platform, or Warren, who tried to find a via media between Obama and McCain, evangelicals do not think or act like conservatives. This failure stems from the odd combination of certainty about morals and indifference to first-order political considerations about legitimate authority, national sovereignty, freedom, the common good, civic virtue, and the best conditions for human flourishing.  From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin, pp. 8-9

Are Evangelicals Truly Conservatives?

I just finished a book by D.G. Hart called From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin: Evangelicals and the Betrayal of American Conservatism. It is definitely an interesting read as Hart, a Church Historian at Hillsdale College, first explores what American Conservatism is and then goes on to challenge the general confusion American Evangelicals since the Reagan years have had, thinking of themselves as conservatives. Hart's book opens with these words:

For over twenty-five years an axiom of American politics has been that evangelical Protestantism is politically conservative. This notion involves the assumption that conservative religion and conservative politics go hand in hand. Prior to the 1970s, of course, evangelicals were known more for an other-worldly faith that made them more concerned with saving souls for the world to come than with turning out voters to decide on matters of the here and now. That is why evangelicals prior to the Reagan revolution had the reputation for being politically passive.

The word reputation needs to be emphasized because most evangelicals, like my parents, who did not have a television and so carted my brother and me over to our uncle’s to see a Goldwater-Johnson debate during the 1964 presidential campaign, cared about their nation and voted in ways that students of American religion and politics back then rarely noticed. During the 1960s no one really knew about the “God vote” except when Protestants pulled levers and punched chads for candidates who were not Roman Catholic. What is accurate to say of twentieth-century-evangelicalism is that from World War II until the rise of the Moral Majority, the Christian Coalition, and Focus on the Family, born-again Protestants lacked notable religious or political leaders or institutions that could rally them as an electoral bloc. Since Ronald Reagan’s victory in 1980, however, evangelicalism has been a vocal and visible member of the political coalition as conservative.

In point of fact, this axiom of American electoral politics is looking less certain as the years pass. Figures such as Pat Robertson and James Dobson still preside over their parachurch fiefdoms and are capable of marshalling supporters to call congressional delegates or vote for specific candidates. But these evangelical leaders are old (since I began work on this book, Jerry Falwell and D. James Kennedy have died) and the ones who are filling the void are not inclined to identify themselves as conservative. Indeed, a transition is underway in which the born-again Greatest Generation is giving way to a generation of evangelical baby-boomers every bit as unpredictable as their secular, Roman Catholic, or mainline Protestant counterparts. This generational succession suggests that the days of goodwill and harmonious relations between evangelicals and conservatives may be coming to an end. Whether the final break will be on the order of an ugly divorce or simply a mutually-agreed-upon decision just to be friends, the tensions surfacing between evangelicals and the Right are reaching the threshold of irreconciliable differences.  From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin, pp. 1-2  

Hart's basic thesis, an interesting one at that, is that Evangelical/"Born-Again" Protestant peoples and their alignment with political conservatism has been somewhat of a confused marriage partnership beginning with Reagan until recently, but that after 25-30 years, the marriage is now on the verge of a significant break-up (citing "irreconciliable differences"), a break-up because the beginnings/foundation of the partnership was questionable in the first place.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Praying and Working for the Kingdom

"We cannot tell how much of the righteousness of the kingdom will be established within ordinary history, but it is our responsibility to pray and work that that kingdom will be established on earth as it is and will be in heaven. As we look through history toward the great mountain of the Lord, we cannot wholly distinguish the foothills from its ultimate fulfillment where there is no longer day and night, revival and decline, but only perpetual light in the face of the Lamb of God. We can only know that we are required to move toward that mountain with every grace and energy that the outpoured Spirit can provide."

Dynamics, p. 434

A Challenge to the Church

"We have seen in the history of the church, 'the Israel of God,' has failed almost as grievously as Israel under the Old Covenant in living out God's righteousness. Though it has reached many of the Gentiles and led them into a form of godliness, it has only rarely displayed that measure of spiritual power which would offer compelling proof that Jesus is the Messiah. It remains for gentile churches to lay hold of the principles and the reality of his reign within history among his people."

Dynamics, p. 429

Are These the Last Days?

"As a church historian I am automatically rather cautious about the assumption that these are literally the last days. There is no depressed era in Christian history which has not felt itself to be on the verge of Christ's return. And depressed eras have a way of turning into Christian resurgences that regain lost ground and move beyond it to embrace a larger area with purer expressions of the gospel."

Richard Lovelace writing in the late 70s when the U.S. economic situation looked bleak,

Dynamics, p. 423

Friday, September 16, 2011

Holistic Ministry for Structures and Hearts

Many believers conclude from reading the New Testament that the shortest route to social change is changing hearts through preaching the gospel and making disciples through "spiritual" instruction, so that our main duty to the poor is to preach the gospel to them. I believe this conclusion is natural but wrong, for reasons which can be clearly identified both in Scripture and history.

First, the Old Testament shows that whenever professing believers become so dominant in a society that they can influence its structures, they are responsible to help establish justice. John Howard Yoder is correct in stating that the messianic King is never presented in Scripture as the ruler over a realm of shadows, a never-never land outside history. He is the Son of David who is to bring in the Year of Jubilee (the redistribution of wealth so that the poor recover their possessions), who is finally going to establish justice for the poor and who is going to liberate the oppressed by casting down their oppressors and raising up the humble to leadership.

In the New Testament, Jesus comes bringing not only forgiveness to the faithful but healing for the sick, bread for the hungry, sight for the blind and hearing for the deaf. We might be inclined to spiritualize all these matters, but we have seen Christians within history bringing them to literal fulfillment! We would do better to broaden their meaning to include the healing of sick societies.

The Christians in Acts practices "Pentecostal economics," not by abolishing private property but by putting all their goods at the disposal of one another and the kingdom. Paul engineered redistribution of wealth among the churches. If we had only Matthew 25:31-36 and the letter of James, we would have to conclude that the New Testament is as uncompromisingly earthy and literal as the Old in its demands for social justice. It calls for sacrifices which are not payable only in spiritual and emotional currency. They cost money and effort as well as love.

We see then that Christians are responsible to carry out a holistic ministry which cares for people's bodies as well as their souls and which seeks to change structures as well as hearts. . . . it is never the case that we have a first priority to see a man's soul saved, and then, if our funds hold out, to do something for him socially and materially. Our responsibility is to respond to him in love on every level, within the bounds of what is possible and practicable.

Dynamics, pp. 387-89

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Alcohol, Slavery and Loss of Social Concern 3

A third factor in the breakup of evangelical social concern was a monolithic shift in eschatology which occurred in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Up to this point premillennial, postmillennial and amillennial evangelicals had been united in working and praying toward spiritual, cultural and social renewal....

With the onslaught of post-Darwinism secularism, evangelicals reacted against this... and moved toward an eschatology which explained more clearly the spiritual degeneration they saw... D.L. Moody, who was converted to Darbyite Dispensationalism and transmitted it into the warp and woof of Fundamentalism, summed up this reaction rather graphically:

The word of God nowhere tells me to watch and wait for the coming of the millennium, but for the coming of the Lord. I don’t find any place where God says the world is to grow better and better, and that Christ is to have a spiritual reign on earth of a thousand years (as in the prominent postmillennial thought of the day). I find that the earth is to grow worse and worse and that at length there is going to be a separation (of the saved from the unsaved).

Henry Ward Beecher reported, "He [Moody] thinks it is no use to attempt to work for this world. In his opinion it is blasted- a wreck bound to sink- and the only thing that is worth doing is to get as many of the crew off as you can, and let her go."... the whole momentum of Dispensational theology moved toward a form of premillennialism which was evangelistically active but socially passive. This outlook expected the world to become increasingly corrupt and conceived the church's main duty as witnessing to the justifying work of Christ, not making disciples whose growth in sanctification could change the world. The result was an outlook which accurately predicted the apostasy of Western Christendom in the twentieth century but which may also have helped produce it.

A Direct Quote from Dynamics, p. 376-77 

Alcohol, Slavery and Loss of Social Concern 2

Lovelace continues, "a second shift, which was also divisive, was the emergence of diverging positions over the issue of slavery. While the English evangelicals had remained united in their opposition to this institution and had brought about a bloodless revolution in its abolition, American evangelicals began to divide on this issue in the 1820s into at least three groups":

1. those who favored immediate abolition no matter what the cost.
2. those who favored ultimate abolition but only after a vaguely defined period of preparation.
3. those who defended slavery on biblical and theological grounds.

Dynamics, pp. 375-76

In defense of #2 and #3 came the argument that “... the gospel should deal with ‘spiritual matters’ and not meddle with political or social affairs, the familiar Fundamentalist argument for passive support of the status quo, emerged before the Civil War as conservative evangelical defense of resistance toward or postponement of abolition” (Dynamics, p. 376).

Lovelace writes further:

The seriousness of the break in evangelical ranks on the issue can hardly be overestimated. The results have included the necessity of fighting one of the bloodiest wars in history in order to accomplish what English churchmen did with prayer and argument,... and a retreat from all social applications of the gospel except a few relating to personal morality such as "temperance" (Dynamics, p. 376).

Alcohol, Slavery and Loss of Social Concern 1

The Second Great Awakening in America (beginning in the early 19th century) proceeded through five developmental stages in which interdenominational evangelical societies spearheaded different levels of reformation:
  1. missionary societies sought to stimulate the evangelistic progress of the church at home and abroad.
  2. the production of Christian literature both for evangelism and nurture distributed through Bible and tract societies.
  3. societies promoting religion and education through Sunday Schools.
  4. societies for moral reformation.
  5. societies for broadscale social reform on issues like temperance, peace and antislavery.
Lovelace writes:

The American reform movement evolved into an extensive interdenominational network of interlocking leadership... characterized as a “Benevolent Empire." In the reform of mores it could on occasion appear to be moralistic or theocratic as in the case of the sabbath and radical temperance movements. But there were social and humanitarian concerns motivating even these initiatives, ...” (Dynamics, pp. 371-372).

Lovelace comments that while these initial stages of the Second GA were positive in many ways, before too long a united evangelical front begins to disintegrate:

By the 1830s some American evangelicals were moving toward radical solutions which seemed logical but were not necessarily biblical,... such as the redefinition of temperance as total abstinence from all alcoholic beverages rather than moderation... many denominational leaders began to think twice about the extraecclesiastical maneuvers of the reforming societies, and a resurgent confessionalism arose to counter the original evangelical impulse toward ecumenicity" (Dynamics, p. 375).

A Love for the Whole Person

"Some men shew a love to others as to their outward man, they are liberal of their worldly substance, and often give to the poor; but have no love to, or concern for the souls of men. Others pretend a great love to men's souls, that are not compassionate and charitable towards their bodies. The making a great show of love, pity, and distress for souls, costs 'em nothing; but in order to shew mercy to men's bodies, they must part with money out of their pockets. But a true Christian love to our brethren, extends both to their souls and bodies" (Religious Affections, by Jonathan Edwards, p. 369).

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Finale: A Unitive Vision of Christendom

I suppose when we speak of unity in the Church (capital “C”) there is an ideal hope that must be maintained but also a realistic vision of what can reasonably be accomplished. As my doctoral mentor Steve Garber likes to say, “seeking proximate justice.” Lovelace implies that we the Church can reasonably achieve Ephesians 4:13-15 (Dynamics, p. 311):

… until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

Still, if we take Garber’s idea of doing “proximate justice” to the hope of Eph. 4 and combine Lovelace’s contention that given our current situation we can achieve this kind of unity “not in terms of monolithic structures of polity, but rather as a network of Christian hearts retaining fellowship and communication with one another,” then we can have genuine but realistic hope for a unitive vision of Christendom. Catholic theologian Bryan Cross would accuse Lovelace’s call for “united hearts” rather than “united ecclesial structure” to be what he calls an “ecclesial deism” (see Ecclesial Deism).

The problem with Cross’ argumentation is that it involves the a priori supposition that rather than working towards its realization, the thing itself must be present now (in this case, the Visible Church with a unified ecclesial structure), if Protestants are to avoid the charge of ecclesial deism. Cross denies the notion of the “process” that might be involved in achieving the fullness of the realization of the Kingdom and thereby concludes what he already assumes, that the Catholic church with its visible forms of ecclesial institutionalism is in fact the concrete visible realization of Christ’s organized church (and the ONLY one at that). Of course, even Cross’ supposition assumes the global Catholic church itself is in fact a “monolithic structure of polity.”

Our argument and vision here is for something broader, deeper and wider than Cross’ attempts to separate entirely the ecclesiology of Catholicism from that of Protestantism, rather to say that as we approach proximate justice in the world, the broken structures of the Church hold forth the genuine hope of being made new. Perhaps the illustration of marriage works here. In my church, I have couples who are strongly unified in the covenant bond of marriage, yet I have others who are “together” but not really: living under the same roof but not truly “one” as they are meant to be. I have some who are legally married but currently separated, even some living at two different residences. Still I have some who have experienced the greatest breach of the covenant bond of marriage, that of adultery, but are now working towards restoration and reconciliation; by the way, here is a short video of a courageous couple (from another local fellowship in Lincoln) working through this very difficult process: Beauty From Ashes.  For some of the couples working through this terrible infidelity, there has been a process of moving from a temporary physical separation to a time of living under the same roof, but perhaps in different rooms in the house, to moving towards one another, eventually the same bed and prayerfully with the hope of restoration, intimacy, physical and spiritual oneness once again. So using this analogy of marriage, here’s my question: does the fact that not all these couples are in the same place in terms of their “outward unity” therefore mean that they are not in fact a meaningful and substantial part of the institution of marriage?  Does this mean that they somehow have embraced an understanding of marriage that is deistic or "gnostic" in Cross' contention? NO! It only means they are working towards the full restoration of their marriages and in the meantime have only achieved “proximate justice.” Even in my own marriage of sixteen years where there is a lot of support, love and intimacy, there is only proximate justice. My friend and seminary classmate Dr. Chuck DeGroat gets at this beautifully in one of his blogposts when he says:

But let me tell you this: those of us who are married, and married honestly, have hit bottom. Our own crap and posing is eventually exposed. Our marriages hit a place of death. All of our former ideals around intimacy and success and sex and prosperity explode. And we hear that old Scripture ringing in our eat: “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground…” And we know life emerges from death.  Myths and Musings on Being Single

So given the “imperfection” of things, what is a hopeful vision of a "unified Christendom"? Lovelace suggests that we move forward by considering ways that we might "unify our hearts" for the Kingdom, where we might pursue a network of meaningful communication, prayer and support across denominational and ecclesial lines. Through my years in Lincoln, I have been blessed to be in a prayer group (now for almost 10 years) comprised of the following: one pastor who is Southern Baptist, two who are of the Assemblies of God, one out of the Berean Fundamentalist movement (the church in recent years has dropped “fundamentalist” from their name), one from the “Christian Church” (a branch off the Disciples of Christ tree), another from an independent Bible Church, one who is a part of an independent Pentecostal branch, yet another from the Evangelical Free Church. Included in the group are Pastor Stu Kerns and myself both of whom are pastors of the Presbyterian Church in America. One of my trusted friends in Lincoln is a pastor in the American Baptist Church, a good brother I would describe as having a Spirit-filled, evangelical heart serving in primarily a mainline denomination. Also, when my Buddhist grandmother passed away in 2006, I took a month off from my church and sought counsel from various individuals, one of the trusted individuals I sought counsel from was Father Thomas Leitner of the RC Benedictine order, St. Benedict’s, in Schuyler, NE; I’ve been “retreating” regularly to St. Benedict’s since 1998.  

These “alliances” have not always been easy to forge in each case, but they have been good. I think what I’m learning is that there is a new kind of ecumenism as Thomas Oden speaks about in his book The Rebirth of Orthodoxy. It’s a different kind of ecumenism than the watered-down, “doctrine and distinctives do not matter” ecumenism of the older liberalism. Rather it is an actual rebirth of regenerative faith, often in older institutions (mostly mainline) once thought to be “spiritually dead” but now coming alive again as movements within those older institutions awaken to a live orthodoxy (this was Lovelace’s contention, wasn’t it? that once the children of the most “liberal” churches are brought under the preaching of the Gospel, their response is often powerful given the covenant faithfulness of God. See Unity and Purity 4 post)This vision of a “unitive Christendom” is attainable, even if only proximately so,... so we must work for it and pray all the more fervently for it as well.

One final word regarding this “unitive vision” of Christendom. Jim Belcher wrote a book back in 2009 called Deep Church. Inside his grace-filled book Belcher seeks to bring together those on both sides of the "Traditional" versus "Emerging" Church Divide today, and he does an admirable job encouraging such unity and understanding across "party" lines. I think Richard Lovelace was Jim Belcher long before Jim Belcher was Jim Belcher. I say this because on p. 312 of his book, Lovelace talks about churches that tend to be a bit more "sectarian" (today's "traditional church") versus those that tend to be more "inclusive" (today's "emerging church") and exhorts that there might be greater understanding between the two. Listen to Lovelace here:

There are really two different and equally reasonable approaches to forming a denominational structure. One is to define as fully as possible the system of truth in Scripture and gather a group of Christians around this as a voluntary association of witnesses to one strain of Christianity. The other is to seek out the minimal circle of biblical truth which guarantees the honor of God and the spiritual health of believers, and to make this a rallying point for the largest possible number of Christians, seeking to make the visible church approximate the invisible as closely as possible….

…with the indiscriminate conformity of the melting pot,… we can acknowledge the positive function of sectarian Christianity, up to a point. We can also understand that the pluralist and inclusivist denominational structures have an important place in building the kingdom, since perfectionist discipline is one of the main causes of schism and indiscriminate weeding can destroy wheat along with the tares. Both the separatist and the inclusivist should respect one another, keeping in mind that great buildings are sometimes raised on rejected cornerstones. 

Both of these ecclesiological postures requires constant attention and criticism, of course. They are makeshift correctives for the opposing errors of schism and indiscipline, which afflict the church in its imperfect historical existence. Each is slightly off balance and needs repeated tuning to keep its balance, so that it can avoid collapsing into parochial sectarianism or indiscriminate chaos.  Dynamics, p. 312-13

Lovelace seeks to bring together both the bodies that may be more “confessional,” even sectarian in their identities, as well as those that might be more inclusive, “broadly evangelical” or "neo-evangelical" in Lovelace’s terms; of course he does so by encouraging both sides to be aware of their imbalances, need for continual "re-tuning" and ultimate need for "one another." It’s interesting how many of the movements within Christendom, since the formation of Protestantism in the 16th century have been cyclical- “new problems” really are “old problems”; yet, the need to heed the voice of the Holy Spirit saying “There is one body and one Spirit— just as you were called to one hope when you were called— one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:4-6) continues to be as constant as ever.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Unity and Purity 5: Occasions for Separation

So to this point, we have spent some time documenting the attempts and challenges over the last five centuries since the time of the Protestant Reformation, where attempts as well as challenges to the attempts for reunion between Protestant groups and in some instances the reunion of Protestants and Catholics has arisen. The previous post challenges some of the rationale for splinter/separatist groups that have arisen on the American landscape, urging us to consider the very tenor of God's work to redeem throughout history, that perhaps God is still faithful to the "institutional church" even in places where it is faithless. Lovelace even wonders if the older institutional structures of Christian religion in America might not be the "rail system" through which a renewal of interest in Mission and God's Kingdom come.

Still, in pushing for a "unitive vision of evangelicalism" (the name of chapter 10 in his book), nonetheless Lovelace does have a section (in chapter 10) entitled, "When Separation is Necessary." Lovelace writes, "Despite the desirability of remaining within seemingly apostate bodies to work toward their renewal, it must be recognized that separation is sometimes necessary..." (Dynamics, p. 309).

The first occasion for separation as Lovelace writes is in those instances when the parent body perpetually violates the consciences of its members or restricts practices in essential areas. As a caution, in such cases, it is of the utmost importance that the group determine if the issue over which the schism occurs is of "ultimate importance." To what extent is the parent body so terminally ill so as to be jaded to the liberty purchased for us by Christ? in essence to have lost a hold of the Gospel itself (Galatians 5:1)? The analogy of amputation is used when it is necessary to cut off a limb where there is gangrene, for example; but what if the entire parent body is cancerous?

In addition to a parent body being terminally ill, the second occasion Lovelace says is when there is "unequal yoking" that hinders the "maximum working efficiency of the church by crippling some of its members" (Dynamics, p. 310). The example is given within my own Presbyterian history when J. Gresham Machen left Princeton Seminary in 1929; Lovelace says had Machen not done so, "...the Evangelical movement in America in this century (20th) would have been considerably impoverished":

The subsequent withdrawal of Orthodox Presbyterianism from the mother denomination constituted a disastrous loss of white corpuscles from the parent body. But it also saved the denomination from tearing itself apart in an allergic reaction, a spiritual equivalent of the disease called lupus. The isolated leukocytes went their way in less than optimal health, occasionally turning on one another in counterproductive attacks which showed that not all the fault was in the parent church. But their isolation did enable them to maintain a form of biblical orthodoxy with integrity of conscience, although not always with the balance and catholicity which continuing involvement with other leaders would provide. Their witness formed a plumb line for the rest of Evangelicalism, reminding it of the fallibility of modern innovations and holding before it an ideal of absolute fidelity to Scripture, even though this ideal was imperfectly attained. In many respects they lost contact with the real situation in the mainline denominations whose thrust they continued to challenge, and their prophetic witness to these denominations at times became uncharitable and parochial. But they did preserve their distinct approach, … and they too are sprouting new leaves and bearing fruit in the midst of the present renewal.  Dynamics, p. 311

I cannot begin to express how much I appreciate these words of Lovelace's as they tap into some of my most deeply-held existential questions regarding my being Evangelical and Presbyterian. For one, Lovelace acknowledges the central importance of Machen and his split from both Princeton as well as the mainline Presbyterian church later in the 30s. Lovelace describes how Machen served as a "plumbline" for all Evangelical Christians regarding fidelity to Scripture. But Lovelace then goes on to acknowledge that this ideal/plumbline was "imperfectly attained," that Machen's prophetic witness at times was uncharitable and parochial and that he often lacked "balance and catholicity." Wow. I don't know how to express this fully, but I needed to hear this. I needed to hear about both the great contributions of my Presbyterian forefather as well as have someone acknowledge his failures as well; Lovelace did both. Wow. I am part of the fruit of Machen's work for which I am grateful, but also I know the seeds of that fruit were sown imperfectly.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Unity and Purity 4: Apostasy, A Central Theme

In more recent times, it's often been the contention of splinter evangelical groups that the reason for standing apart from the institutional church or seceding as such is due to "apostasy" or the fact that institutional religion is dead or has "left" the true faith. Lovelace explores whether apostasy that is present within a denomination or institutionalized church group in and of itself is sufficient reason to "leave" and form another splinter group. Lovelace's contention is that the answer is "no." Why? Because "the recovery of apostate bodies" is "the central theme of the history of redemption" (Dynamicsp. 302). I think this is a challenging section of Lovelace's writing. While his book was written in 1979, he has a lot to say to us some thirty+ years later, especially in a day and age many have embraced the superiority of house churches and nondenominational churches and when Christians and people in general have viewed "institutional religion" with disdain. Throughout the history of the Bible, has God viewed such "institutional religion" with disdain?

The families that fall away from the Abrahamic covenant line and fan out to form the gentile world are not lost in total or perpetual apostasy. Each of them is recovered at least in part through the Messianic seed, including the apostate covenant line, since God has shut up all in disobedience that he might show mercy on all….

But along with the attribute of mercy, God’s faithfulness is also displayed in the history of the Old Covenant. Neither Judah nor Israel is ever left without religious cultus (institutional religion) by a secession of believing priests and prophets; these are always presented as gifts of God’s continuing love to his covenant nation to restore it from apostasy. The northern and southern kingdoms were scattered in the exile, but in the apostolic age the remnant returned to Palestine is evangelized and the Diaspora (the scattered Jews throughout) became the primary missionary target in the Mediterranean world. The congregations gathered out of Judaism became a system for the dispersion of the gospel throughout the Roman Empire. It is almost as though the Diaspora were a rail system laid down for the delivery of the gospel in the New Testament era….

It could be argued that in every age the message of the gospel should be brought ideally “to the Jew first,” to every institutional body with roots in the Judeo-Christian Lineage, no matter how great its current apostasy. Thus the ecclesiastical structures in any era would represent a rail system for the renewal of the interest and mission of God’s kingdom. On this assumption we would expect to find God reviving the church close to the main trunks of its historical development, rather than in the twigs and branches leading off from these through separations. And we have found this true in history, although happily when God sends renewal he revives the twigs as well as the trunk and the major branches.  Dynamicspp. 302-03

Lovelace's contention that renewal and the continuing expansion of the Kingdom of Christ may come primarily through "lost institutions" being recovered, reminds me of a friend who had grown up in a Presbyterian Church, in fact her father was the minister of that church; however, the church had in many ways strayed from the regenerative evangelical heartbeat of the true Gospel of Christ. Of course, when this woman came to Zion Church in Lincoln (a more "traditional" Presbyterian Church with evangelical life or as Lovelace says, with a "live orthodoxy") a while back when I was interning there, she came to see the beauty of the substance of the Gospel message she had come to embrace through a campus ministry, but now united again to some of the same institutional forms of the Presbyterian church of her youth. In other words, the institutional forms that she had been around her entire life had come alive once they were united to regenerative faith. I do wonder if this is the way God means to bring reformation, renewal and revival back to the American landscape, by reinvigorating churches that have previously strayed from the true faith. As Lovelace says:

Ministers who separate from impure churches alienate themselves, not only from the leadership structure they denounce, but also from the ongoing stream of lay people for which God intended them as gifts. These ministers should not be surprised to see repeated outpourings of the Spirit and fruitful reproduction of new leadership in the bodies they have left, because God is faithful to his covenant people in succeeding generations even if the present generation has gone whoring with false prophets. When the children of the most “liberal” churches are brought under the preaching of the central gospel, their response is often remarkably powerful both in depth and in numbers of converts, and the reason for this is the covenant faithfulness of God.  Dynamics, pp. 306