Category Archives: Calvinism
On his blog The Ecclesial Calvinist (HT: Aquila Report) Bill Evans offers some insightful reflections on the declining influence of conservative Presbyterianism (or of the confessional Reformed tradition) in America. I don’t agree with every word Evans says, but I do agree with his general perspective. What Evans captures especially well is the way in which Presbyterians have increasingly turned inward, becoming more and more obsessed with intramural squabbles over secondary and even tertiary points of doctrine, and even with turf wars between ever shrinking (proportionally) seminaries and denominations.
Presbyterian and Reformed Christians seem to view unity and solidarity as a luxury or utopian dream rather than as a command of Christ. They tragically underestimate the way in which this division and intramural conflict is destroying their credibility – and therefore their survival.
As Evans writes,
There has been a decided turn to intramural theological squabbles in conservative Presbyterian circles since the 1970s—the Shepherd controversy, theonomy, Federal Vision, the Pete Enns controversy, literal six-day young-earth creationism, 2K. The list goes on and on. Some of these issues reflect historic fissures in the tradition, while others are evidence of the breakdown of earlier theological consensus and the loss of a sense of proportionality. Not every issue requires that one go to the mat… when such issues consume us it is both a distraction to those inside and off-putting to those outside.
Evans isn’t arguing that none of these issues are important. He is suggesting, rather, that they have inappropriately become all-consuming. What helps blow the various controversies out of proportion is the way in which they become tied to institutional turf wars.
Not surprisingly, some institutions have looked for something distinctive—a particular view of confessionalism, or grace, or ministry, or being “missional,” or biblical theology, or whatever—to give them a leg up in the market. But this has, in turn, contributed to the theological “Balkanization” of the conservative Reformed community and it has also, on occasion, led to unseemly and snarky internet squabbles.
Evans is talking about seminaries here but he later extends the point to denominations as well. Far too many of us are concerned about our denominational identity and traditions, rather than about the gospel and church of Christ.
Perhaps Evans’ most insightful point, however, is not the pervasiveness of narrowing vision and consequent intramural squabbling. Perhaps his most penetrating suggestion is that Reformed and Presbyterian Christians have had their sense of mission and faithfulness distorted by their impulsive conservatism. Evans doesn’t say it this way (and I don’t think he would want to), but have theological liberalism and the cultural turn away from Christendom confused far too many Reformed Christians into thinking that their calling is to be conservative, rather than to be Scriptural?
To be sure, most Reformed conservatives would insist that those are one and the same thing. But that, it seems to me, is precisely the problem. The legitimate recognition that theological liberalism has seriously undermined the orthodox Christian faith, and the determination to defend that faith, has evolved into the assumption that the conservative position is always the biblical position. No longer do we confidently witness to the liberal (i.e., generous and earth-shattering), powerful and transforming work of the resurrected Christ; now we batten down the hatches, bolster the fortress, and try to hang on to our posts for dear life. As Evans writes,
What we have said above suggests that the prevailing theological impulse in conservative Presbyterian circles is, well, “conservative”; it is oriented toward the conserving of a tradition, and theological discussions sometimes seem like exercises in historic preservation. To be sure, we have a goodly heritage and one that I embrace, but are there areas where further work is needed?
Evans describes the commitment of many Presbyterians to an increasingly rigid, or fundamentalist understanding of the authority of Scripture. He also worries about an exaggerated confidence in the ability of confessions to productively shape (or leverage?) Scriptural interpretation. When our obsession is with preserving our own micro-traditions, pale imitations of a once great theological and ecclesiastical stream, the temptation is overwhelming to manipulate Scripture for our own purposes, ignoring the difference between the Word and human interpretation of that Word. When we have an exaggerated understanding of the exhaustive significance of 16th and 17th century confessions designed with 16th and 17th century problems in mind, our theology, preaching, and church life quickly become more like artifacts in a museum than like the faithful witness of Christ’s church in 21st century America.
No doubt things are not quite as bleak as this blog post might suggest. And neither Evans nor I are suggesting that Reformed believers abandon the authority of Scripture or vigorous allegiance to our confessions. The problem is not with historic Reformed theology at all, per se. But what Evans seems to be suggesting, and if so, I agree with him, is that the church needs to reexamine whether a tragic preoccupation with tradition and with the forms, practices, and controversies of the past is actually undermining the authority of Scripture, the role for which our confessions were historically intended, and our faithful witness in the present. One thing seems clear. In terms of size, influence, and prospects, the Reformed tradition is, and has been for quite some time, in serious decline. We have a lot of soul-searching to do.
The Presbyterian Church in America is by far the largest conservative Reformed denomination in the United States. Totaling approximately 300,000 members, it represents a powerful proportion of the combined population of the United States and Canada: approximately 0.09%. If you are confused by the combination of decimals and percentages, take it simply as a decimal: 0.0009. Or if you find fractions more helpful, members of the PCA represent approximately one out of every 1,111 Americans and Canadians.
Perhaps with such staggering statistics in mind, PCA pastor Sam DeSocio suggests that the PCA might be too large and should consider splitting. The PCA is simply too big, containing within itself too many factions, none of which can win control of the denomination, with the result that it has no clear identity. In addition, the PCA’s size makes it hard for the various confessional Reformed denominations to unite together without being dominated by the PCA.
Part of the problem is that presently the PCA is so large that it has decided that it will invite other denominations to join with us, and be received, but that we will not merge with others to form a new organization. If instead of one larger theologically conservative Presbyterian church we were three such smaller groups, it might make it possible for us to better cooperate with many other denominations. What I’m suggesting is that maybe for the sake of framing a larger church we first need to do some demo.
The sort of split DeSocio proposes is therefore not the kind of split that is required when Christians have to defend the gospel, or expel heresy. Rather, it is the sort of split that is needed for better functioning. It’s all for the cause of greater peace and harmony – even unity. Never mind the fact that once denominations split the likelihood of success in getting them back together is about as high as is that of dismantling a federal program or bureaucracy. It’s happened once or twice, but I wouldn’t bet my spending money on it.
To be clear, I’m not trying to pick on DeSocio here, although it might seem like it. I take him at his word that his long-term objective is indeed greater unity. But I’m less concerned with what one person thinks than I am with the general assumptions an increasing number of Reformed leaders appear to hold when conducting these debates. It seems that there is little left of John Calvin’s conviction that unity in the gospel is one of the most fundamental obligations of the church. More precisely, there is little left of the old Reformed consensus that various churches are called by Christ to come together in assemblies of churches called presbyteries, synods, and ultimately national (if not international) assemblies. Our synods and general assemblies today are much more like voluntary associations, parties of like-minded churches, if you will, than like anything representing a confessional, territorial church. In short, we seem to believe that while there are biblical, Reformed principles of church government at the congregational level, these principles are not binding on any broader level.
Note that I’m not even talking about organizational unity with the vast majority of Christians in the world – that would be unthinkable – folks like Baptists, Methodists, Anglicans, Pentecostals, or, obviously, Roman Catholics. I’m not talking about unity with “Reformed” denominations whose allegiance to the orthodox Christian creeds has significantly faltered. I’m talking about unity with Reformed denominations who hold to the Reformed and Presbyterian confessions.
What DeSocio is suggesting is that because the PCA is divided into various factions unified by their respective approaches to church and ministry, the common confessional allegiance is no longer sufficient to warrant organizational unity. Yet as Scott Clark writes in his excellent response to DeSocio’s argument:
What unites the Reformed and Presbyterian churches is not a philosophy of ministry but the Word of God as confessed by the churches. There’s no denying that real differences do develop in the life of a denomination but as these surface the first response should not be to divide but to re-form around God’s Word as confessed by the churches.
This is hard. Remaining united with people with whom you hold significant practical disagreements requires immense patience and humility. It requires the willingness to abandon unrealistic or inappropriate objectives of uniformity or power. As one Reformed elder, who is by no means happy with much of what he sees in the PCA, wrote to me,
Unity takes a lot of humility. I think it is of utmost important for denominations to know what is the basis of their unity and with Scott Clark it is our Confession. So we have to guard the confessions and swallow our pride when things are not as we like, but are not contrary to our confessions.
If unity takes humility, then its opposite is pride, or ambition. And as John Calvin never tires of observing, the main reason why Christians divide from one another – the vice that lies at the heart of virtually every heresy and schism – is ambition. It is often ambition for power, control, or influence that drives one faction against another at a church assembly. It is ambition for worldly success that frequently drives pastors and churches to abandon their more conservative brothers and sisters in order to forge some new path ahead. It is ambition for an unrealistically pure or perfect church that consistently leads others to insist that fidelity with the few is more important than unity with Christ’s whole body, if such unity requires toleration of its flaws and weaknesses.
One of Rome’s major apologetic arguments during the Reformation was that the Protestant logic of sola Scriptura would – rather than unifying the church under the true gospel – turn every church and every Christian into its own pope. Calvin may have been right to retort that fidelity to the gospel and to Scripture – in short, allegiance to Christ – is a sufficient bond for the maintenance of unity. But, ironically, he seems to have overestimated the interest of his followers in actually maintaining that unity.
Do Reformed Christians still believe that ecclesiastical unity is an obligation, or have we embraced the ethos of American Evangelicalism on this point, more interested in our freedom and independence than in solidarity. When it’s all said and done, the very important question underlying all of this is, Do we care? Does unity matter?
I’ve written a short piece over at Patheos about the relation between President Woodrow Wilson and Reformed theologians like Abraham Kuyper, J. Gresham Machen, and John Calvin. Here are the first couple paragraphs:
In a fascinating essay at Patheos, Dean Curry describes Malcolm Magee’s argument in What the World Should Be that President Woodrow Wilson’s foreign policy was decisively shaped by his Presbyterian Reformed theology.
“It is well known that Woodrow Wilson was a foreign policy idealist and that his approach to it was moralistic. After all, it was Wilson who famously promised that America’s participation in World War I would not be about selfish national interest—or realpolitik – but about the altruism of making the world “safe for democracy.” What is not well known about Wilson, and what Magee explains in fascinating detail, is how Wilson’s personal and political worldview was profoundly shaped by Reformed Protestant theology. Challenging the prevailing historiography of Wilson that has all but ignored Wilson’s theology, it is Magee’s thesis that Wilson was a “Presbyterian in politics, a twentieth century John Knox, a Christian statesman whose overriding motivation was his determination to do God’s work in a fallen world.”"
Curry goes on to describe Wilson’s relationship with his father, a very prominent Southern Presbyterian pastor, and the influence on Wilson’s thinking of Princeton theologians like Charles Hodge, A. A. Hodge, and Benjamin B. Warfield. Curry also outlines Wilson’s friendship with J. Gresham Machen, as well as similarities between Wilson’s understanding of the relation between Reformed faith and politics, and that of Abraham Kuyper.
Read the rest, including my judgment of Wilson’s connection to Calvin’s thought, here.
Reformed pastors are invoking Reformed resistance theory to justify disobedience to the Obama administration: Do they have a case?
Since starting up this blog about six months ago I have repeatedly encountered Reformed writers – many of them pastors – who are invoking 16th Century Reformed resistance theory to justify rejection of the Obama administration, whether in the form of civil disobedience or more open forms of resistance. The argument starts, of course, with the assertion that the federal government has become tyrannical. It then claims, supposedly on the basis of the old theory of resistance, that tyrannical governments have no claim on the obedience of Christians. It finally turns to propose that Christians take up active resistance in various ways, such as by refusing to pay taxes. Here are some examples of rhetoric I have heard or read:
- One Presbyterian pastor whose church I visited proclaimed from his pulpit that Americans face worse oppression than the Hebrew slaves did in the land of Israel because we have higher tax rates. His audience seemed to agree with him.
- A Reformed pastor wrote on his blog that because of its policy on immigration and health care the Obama administration has forfeited its moral authority. Christians no longer owe it any obedience.
- A Presbyterian pastor wrote on his blog that if the government uses federal money to fund abortions, or even if it simply raises income taxes too much, Christians might legitimately refuse to pay taxes.
None of these pastors were advocating particular acts of violence, but all of them invoked Reformed resistance theory when pressed, at least asserting that violent resistance is a legitimate option.
The question is, do any of these statements actually reflect continuity with classic Reformed resistance theory? To answer this question I have to point out that there is really not one authoritative version of that theory. Over time persecution, religious war, and atrocities such as the St. Bartholomew Day Massacre clearly radicalized Reformed polemicists. Eventually some Reformed thinkers argued what would have been unthinkable to a theologian like John Calvin, that if a government fails to promote the true Reformed religion believers may seek to overthrow it.
Here, however, I want to focus on the more moderate version of Reformed resistance theory, the version famously articulated by Calvin in his 1559 Institutes. This version, I think it is fair to say, has a lot in common with the sorts of resistance theories appealed to by America’s Founding Fathers, as well as by the South in the Civil War era. But it has little in common with the sorts of arguments made by contemporary Reformed pastors as I highlighted above.
In the last chapter of the Institutes Calvin explicitly argues that Christian believers must obey the governing authorities, no matter how tyrannical they may be, in everything that does not force them to sin. He makes himself quite clear that tyranny on the part of the government does not justify disobedience, whether in the form of a refusal to obey a law or pay taxes, or in the form of seditious or violent activity.
We are not only subject to the authority of princes who perform their office toward us uprightly and faithfully as they ought, but also to the authority of all who, by whatever means, have got control of affairs, even though they perform not a whit of the princes’ office. (4.20.25)
There are many things, he goes on to explain, that a tyrant does that he has no right to do from the perspective of the law, but they nevertheless retain their rights in relation to the people. For instance, relative to the tyranny of a future king described by the prophet Samuel in 1 Samuel 8 Calvin writes,
Surely, the king would not do this by legal right, since the law trained them to all restraint. But it was called a right in relation to the people, for they had to obey it and were not allowed to resist. (4.20.26)
That is Calvin’s basic rule for ordinary Christians when it comes to tyrannical government. But in the second last section of the Institutes Calvin offers one significant exception, an exception that presupposes his two kingdoms distinction. He clarifies that everything he has been saying refers to Christians in their roles as private persons. It does not refer to persons who hold magisterial office within the civil government.
For if there are now any magistrates of the people, appointed to restrain the willfulness of kings (… perhaps, as things now are, such power as the three estates exercise in every realm when they hold their chief assemblies), I am so far from forbidding them to withstand, in accordance with their duty, the fierce licentiousness of kings, that, if they wink at kings who violently fall upon and assault the lowly common folk, I declare that their dissimulation involves nefarious perfidy, because they dishonestly betray the freedom of the people, of which they know that they have been appointed protectors by God’s ordinance. (4.20.31)
Note that Calvin’s explicit reference is to the estates in their assemblies. Here there is clear precedent for the sorts of arguments made by the Founding Fathers (i.e., that the colonial governments had the authority to resist the tyranny of Parliament) or the Southern secessionists (i.e., that the states had the authority to resist the unjust policies of the federal government), whether or not either of those cases were in fact instances of tyranny or injustice.
How did Calvin apply his theory in practice? In 1560 a French nobleman came to Geneva seeking the support of Calvin and the other pastors for a military coup against the French government. In 1559 the powerful French monarch Henri II had tragically died in a jousting accident. His oldest son, Francis II, though fifteen years of age, was neither physically nor mentally able to be King. As a result the stridently anti-Protestant House of Guise established an unofficial regency that was inevitably threatening to the Reformed churches in France. Yet the House of Guise had little right to take this step. For it was the Bourbon family, which was sympathetic to Protestantism, that was most closely related to the monarchical line. Thus it was the Princes of the Blood, Anthony of Navarre and his younger brother Louis, Prince of Conde, who should have had the primary role in the establishment of a regency.
Calvin rejected what became known as the Conspiracy of Amboise because it was not led by the Princes of the Blood. And the conspiracy ended catastrophically for the Protestant cause. Within a few years, however, Francis II also died, and the ascent to the throne of his younger brother Charles IX, too young legally to exercise the full power of the monarchy, required the establishment of an official regency. The refusal of the House of Guise to allow the Bourbons to exercise their own legal rights in the process turned many of the French nobility against them. Although Anthony of Navarre was always indecisive, his brother Conde came to lead a political party known as the Huguenots, made up largely though not exclusively of Protestants, that challenged the Guise hold on power. War broke out in 1562 as Conde launched a failed effort to secure the King and his mother, Catherine de Midici, under his own Bourbon-led government.
In this case Calvin was entirely supportive of the cause because he, like so many other Protestant pastors and leaders, deemed it to be led by the appropriate lesser magistrates and in defense of the actual law of the land, indeed, of the monarchy itself. But what is striking is that the Huguenots emphasized just how secular and political was the nature of their cause. In his Declaration of Protestation Conde declared,
Firstly, therefore, he protests that no selfish passion leads him, but that his sole consideration is of what he owes God, with the duty he has particularly to the crown of France, under the government of the Queen, and finally the affection he bears to this kingdom, constrain him to look for all methods legitimate according to God and men, and according to the rank and degree which he holds in this kingdom, to return to full liberty the person of the King, the Queen and messieurs her children, and to maintain the observation of the edicts and ordinances of his Majesty, and namely the last edict issued concerning religion.
The document went on to list matters of taxation and debt, the intimidation of the King by his councilors, Conde’s loyalty to the King, and his willingness to lay down his arms if his opponents did so as well. The war ended indecisively in 1563 and Calvin died before the next war of religion broke out.
It should be obvious that the sort of resistance theory presupposed by Conde and articulated by Calvin has nothing in common with the claims of contemporary Reformed clergymen that Christians have a right to disobey or resist the federal government. Calvin understood that if Christians were to pay taxes and honor to a regime as tyrannical as that of Rome, the same had to be said of a regime as Catholic as that of France. It doesn’t matter if tax money is going towards unjust purposes or even towards murder (the French government was killing hundreds of Protestants). The authorities that exist have been appointed by God.
Of course, if lesser magisterial authorities determine that the federal government is practicing tyranny, and that it is their duty to resist such action, then matters change somewhat. But in the contemporary United States we are not in that position. As long as it is just a bunch of disgruntled conservative pastors who are calling us to disobey our government, we should utterly reject their arguments, take up our cross, and follow Christ.
In a fascinating blog post in the Guardian (HT: David Koyzis) Andrew Brown points out that the version of Christianity on the ascendancy in China is Calvinism. In Africa and Latin America the Christian surge is largely charismatic or Pentecostal, and its target demographic is the poor. But in China, which Brown suggests may well represent the future center of global Christianity, charismatic tendencies are despised.
Calvinists despise pentecostalists. They shudder at unbridled emotion. If they are slain in the spirit, it is with a single, decorous thump: there’s to be no rolling afterwards. And in China, the place where Calvinism is spreading fastest is the elite universities, fuelled by prodigies of learning and translation. Wang Xiaochao, a philosopher at one of the Beijing universities, has translated the two major works of St Augustine, the Confessions and the City of God, into Chinese directly from Latin. Gradually all the major works of the first centuries of the Christian tradition are being translated directly from the original languages into Chinese.
All of this is happening outside the control of the official body which is supposed to monitor and supervise the churches in China. Instead, it is the philosophy departments at the universities, or the language departments and the departments of literature and western civilisation that are the channel.
The unofficial churches, it seems, are younger, wealthier, more intellectual. But what is most interesting about Brown’s report is his explanation of why Calvinism is the theology of choice for so many Chinese.
Dr Tan suggests that this is because it is Protestant: that is to say it can be made much more convincingly native than Roman Catholicism, since presbyterian congregations choose their own pastors. This is, I suspect, enormously important at a time when China is recovering from a century and a half of being the victim of western powers; the pope’s insistence on appointing Catholic bishops is unacceptable to the government and perhaps to the people too.
Calvinism isn’t a religion of subservience to any government. The great national myths of Calvinist cultures are all of wars against imperialist oppressors: the Dutch against the Spanish, the Scots against the English; the Americans against the British. So when the Chinese house churches first emerged from the rubble of the Cultural Revolution in the 80s and 90s “They began to search what theology will support and inform [them]. They read Luther and said, ‘not him’. So they read Calvin, and they said ‘him, because he has a theology of resistance.’ Luther can’t teach them or inform them how to deal with a government that is opposition.”
It’s an interesting argument, and one that fits the classic caricatures of Rome, Wittenburg and Geneva. It also relates fairly closely to a focus of my own recent work, which is the rapid spread of Calvinism during the 1550s and 1560s in Catholic France. A number of leading Reformation scholars have recently argued that Calvinism was equipped to thrive in countries with a hostile magistracy in a way that other forms of Protestantism – such as Lutheranism or the Zwinglian Reformed – could not. Why? Not because Calvinism developed a theory of resistance. That largely came later (after the 1572 St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre), and in fact, Lutheranism and medieval Christianity had their own versions of resistance theory.
Rather, the real cause of Calvinist expansion during its heyday, these scholars argue, was the distinctive Calvinist understanding of the church as an autonomous, self-governing institution distinct (though ideally coterminous) from the state. In contrast to Luther, Melanchthon, Zwingli, Bullinger, and almost all of the other magisterial reformers, Calvin insisted that the church was to maintain its own spiritual government of pastors and elders responsible for the administration of church discipline and, if necessary, excommunication. Less controversially, but not less distinctively, Calvin argued that the church had to maintain an ecclesiastical diaconate in order to administer care for the poor.
While other Protestants encouraged the civil magistrate to handle the functions of discipline and poor relief because they viewed church and commonwealth as essentially one society, Calvin and his followers insisted that even in the context of a Christian society the government of church and state were to be kept distinct. One of the main arguments of my dissertation is that it was Calvin’s unique version of the two kingdoms doctrine that made the Calvinist tradition so distinctive on this point.
What does this have to do with success in a hostile environment such as France, let alone China? Calvinism provided its followers with a model of the church that could easily be translated to any context, friendly or hostile. It did not matter if the French government rejected the true gospel, or even if it persecuted evangelicals, because the Reformed churches possessed all of the theological resources necessary to govern themselves and even to thrive without state support.
In fact, even the later development of Calvinist resistance theory presupposed this basic two kingdoms distinction. While Calvin and most of the other Reformed pastors insisted on the basis of Romans 13, the Sermon on the Mount, and other passages that churches and individual Christians must submit even to unjust civil authorities, the distinction between the two kingdoms enabled these same theologians to argue that different ethical principles applied to lesser civil magistrates. These subsidiary authorities, such as the Estates or the French Princes of the Blood, had the right to oppose tyranny on the part of the crown or its ministers precisely because they were authorities within the political kingdom rather than the spiritual.
The French Wars of Religion that occurred before the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre were therefore led by Huguenot nobility rather than by pastors or popular rebels. The pastors supported the Huguenot cause but always ensured that the governing bodies of the church were kept distinct from the Huguenot political or military authorities. The justification for war in these early years was always secular (i.e., the pro-Catholic regency established during the reign of the immature Charles IX was in violation of French legal tradition and therefore should be opposed by appropriate princes and nobility) rather than theological.
Are we seeing a repeat of these developments in China today? Despite Brown’s article, I doubt the Chinese are turning to Calvinism because of its theories of political resistance. If anything, I suspect that the Chinese, like the early French Reformed, want to avoid associations with subversive tendencies that would turn the government against them. Brown may well be on to something, however, when he emphasizes the Calvinist tendency to emphasize the autonomy of the church in a way that is appropriate for hostile contexts and therefore subversive of government tyranny. No doubt the theological and ecclesiological depth of Calvinism is compelling to those young, intellectual Chinese men and women so willing to break with their government and its officially tolerated institutions. In any case, this is a story worth following.
One of the problems with conservatism as a theological perspective is that it tends to assume that the status quo within the church is grounded in Scripture. In an era when the biggest and most visible denominations are all sliding to the left and abandoning Scriptural teaching on numerous points, many Christians fall into the mistake of interpreting every church controversy through the lens of the conservative/liberal dichotomy. In some of these controversies, it is conservatives who find themselves defending theologically dubious practices against those who seek change.
Let me provide three examples, all taken from the early Reformation period.
1. It is well known that the primary point of conflict between John Calvin and the civil government of Geneva centered on Calvin’s insistence that the pastors and elders of the church, not the civil government, had the final say on who could or could not participate in the Lord’s Supper. What is less well known is that Calvin wanted the Lord’s Supper to be observed “at least weekly.” For Calvin Communion was the central expression of the union and fellowship of believers with Christ and with one another. Its observance should constantly characterize the gathering and worship of the church.
The civil government of Geneva, for its own not entirely theological reasons, insisted that the Lord’s Supper should be observed quarterly, and most Reformed churches have followed the guidance of the state ever since, celebrating the sacrament at most monthly. Traditions can be hard to break even when there is good reason to do so.
2. When the Reformation triumphed in the Netherlands the Reformed pastors immediately sought to establish what they regarded as biblical church discipline. Like Calvin, they believed the church should be marked not simply by belief in the gospel but by communal living that is worthy of the gospel. But they immediately ran into trouble with the civil authorities who were loath to give so much authority to the pastors. The result was a compromise. As Andrew Pettegree describes it in Tolerance and Intolerance in the European Reformation,
The ministers were expected to marry or baptize any citizens who presented themselves, and in some towns it was only with difficulty that the Calvinist consistories defended their right to restrict access to the Lord’s Supper to full members of their own church…. [T]he Calvinist consistories themselves adamantly defended their right to restrict full membership of their church to those who had made a full confession of faith; a distinction which inevitably led, even among those sympathetic to the Reformed, to a two-tier membership, with full members, the lidmaeten, who subjected themselves to the full disciplinary supervision of the consistory, being far outnumbered by liefhebbers, citizens who attended services but did not make the Confession of Faith which would have secured admission to communion (188, 189-190).
Does this longstanding two-tiered membership help explain the reluctance of so many elders in the Dutch Reformed tradition today to allow children who have professed their faith and understand the basic gospel to participate in the Lord’s Supper? Does this help explain why many find it completely normal when most of the teenagers in these churches are baptized and attend the services but do not observe Christ’s call to observe the sacrament in remembrance of him?
3. Calvin and most of the Calvinist wing of the Reformed tradition consistently rejected the use of musical instruments in worship because they viewed the New Testament rather than the Old Testament tabernacle/temple ceremonies as the model for Christian worship. They rightly observed that organs had been brought into the churches in the middle ages along with the other forms of Roman Catholic piety and superstition to which they were so opposed. The aversion to musical instruments in worship came to mark the Presbyterian tradition until the 19th Century.
The Dutch Reformed are often cited as an example of a branch of the Reformed tradition that broke with this attitude towards instruments in worship. What is less often appreciated is that the reason why the Dutch churches kept their organs was because of the insistence of the state. To cite Pettegree once again,
[I]f the magistrates were expected to maintain the church space, they were not necessarily prepared to allow the ministers to dictate to them on all aspects of their internal decoration. Thus representations from the more precise ministers that organs should be removed along with other ‘idols’, were generally ignored. Organs belonged to the municipality or parish and could not be removed without their permission, a circumstance which provoked some Calvinist ministers almost beyond endurance. ‘I really marvel’, protested Jean Polyander in 1579, ‘that when other idols were removed, this noisy idol was retained.’ But retained it was, despite frequent protests from the Calvinist national synod (188-189).
Does this help explain why many Dutch Reformed elders can be so critical of the musical instruments brought into church in contemporary worship and yet be so oblivious to their own pious appreciation for the pipe organ?
All three of these examples pertain to areas of continued disagreement in Reformed churches today. In each case the Reformed pastors advocated a particular practice on the basis of Scripture and Reformed theology, and in each case the magistrates prohibited that practice for its own reasons. Yet in each case the most conservative Reformed churches today follow the practice once dictated by the magistrates rather than that defended on the basis of Scripture. To be sure, once certain practices were forced on the church theologians rose up to articulate post facto theological defenses of those practices. But such theological arguments should not blind us to the history that often lies behind the practices defended.
These are not matters over which Christians should ever divide. But conservatives need to be just as open to self-criticism on the basis of Scripture as they are to the criticism of whatever seems new and different. After all, the Reformation calls the church not simply to be Reformed, but to be always reforming according to Scripture.
At Urban Faith (HT: Aquila Report) Anthony Bradley has an excellent article defending Rapper Propaganda’s harsh critique of the Puritans. Bradley puts the article in the context of Christians’ tendency to insist that our own favorite people and movements be treated with the grace that preserves them from criticism, even as we are willing to criticize those outside of our group according to a much stricter standard.
“Precious Puritans” simply raises a caution about loving the Puritans too much because, although they had sound doctrine on issues like personal piety, that tradition was complicit in perpetrating injustice against Africans and African Americans during the slavery. The song opens with these words:
Pastor, you know it’s hard for me when you quote puritans.
Oh the precious Puritans.
Have you not noticed our facial expressions?
One of bewilderment and heartbreak.
Like, not you too pastor.
You know they were the chaplains on slave ships, right?
Would you quote Columbus to Cherokees?
Would you quote Cortez to Aztecs?
Even If they theology was good?
It just sings of your blind privilege wouldn’t you agree?
Your precious Puritans.
They looked my onyx and bronze skinned forefathers in they face,
Their polytheistic, god-hating face.
Shackled, diseased, imprisoned face.
And taught a gospel that says God had multiple images in mind when he created us in it.
Their fore-destined salvation contains a contentment in the stage for which they were given which is to be owned by your forefathers’ superior image-bearing face. Says your precious Puritans.
Bradley points out that many Reformed Christians look to the Puritans as their inspiration for Christian piety. Yet he wonders why some of these people seem to think that criticizing the Puritans for their failings will lead people not to read them anymore. Can we not recognize the sins of our forbears while still appreciating what we can learn from them?
Is this a slippery slope? Does testing and critiquing leads to this? Did Martin Luther’s comments about Jews incline people to hate him and reject him? Or John Calvin’s execution of Michael Servetus? Or Abraham Kuyper’s racism? Or Jonathan Edwards slave owning? I could go on.
The answer, of course, is “yes” and “no.” Those who would reject the Puritans because of their white supremacy will themselves struggle to find much of anyone in Western Christianity to embrace. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God in some way (Rom. 3:23), including all of those we hold in high esteem. There is an obvious “no” because this is not how the Bible teaches Christians to engage in cultural and historical analysis. We are to eat the meat and spit out the bones. This includes those who are both inside and outside the tribe. There is much meat in the Puritans but there are also massive bones.
I am with Bradley all the way on this, and I encourage you to read his whole article, as well as to watch the video of the song.
But on one point I’d like to press even harder than Bradley. It is not just that we need to eat the meat and spit out the bones. We need to ask ourselves whether the meat could have been prepared differently so as to make the bones less dangerous, or easier to spit out. To get away from the analogy, we need to ask what it was about Puritan piety that made them so vulnerable to the vices and injustice of racism and exploitation. Of course, the Puritans were not unique in this. The Southern Presbyterians were deeply implicated in the South’s racial slavery and segregation and the Dutch Reformed were quite complicit in the evils of South African apartheid.
In an excellent interview with Joe Thorn (HT: Scott Clark) Richard Bailey, author of the recently published Race and Redemption in Puritan New England, illustrates some of the things we are talking about:
It reminded me of sitting in a town library in western Massachusetts and reading of how the community’s longtime puritan minister, Stephen Williams, on two separate occasions drove enslaved Africans he owned to take their respective lives within days of his brutally and inhumanely beating them. Williams, a cousin of Jonathan Edwards who actually recorded the famous description of Edwards’s Enfield preaching of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” felt he punished them out of a duty to these men. “He got it, but he didn’t get it.” Or, again, it took me back into a different archives flipping through the diary of the minister Roger Newton only to see him record the death of Patience, a two-year-old child born to Lucy Billing and her family’s slave Caesar. When the baby’s impending birth became public knowledge, both Lucy and Caesar were tried in the civil court, publicly whipped for their crime, and Caesar had to be sold out of the area—a punishment that would not have been routine among puritans had they both been white. Again, “they got it, but they didn’t get it.”
Asked how the Puritans, known for their biblical teaching, so missed the boat on this issue, Bailey comments,
This is a question I’ve asked over and over again, Joe. In my book, I argue that the most pressing issue facing puritans was not, as the historian Edmund Morgan wrote years ago, the problem of doing right in a world that was doing wrong; rather, the real “puritan dilemma” was making a world that does wrong appear to be doing right. And these men were intimately involved in doing wrong (unspeakable and unfathomable wrong) to enslaved men, women, and children. And in trying to make this wrong appear right, I see them creating meaning for the term “race” in their historical moment. Despite their repeated prophetic statements against sin, puritans sinned grievously against enslaved persons.
The question must be asked, what is it about Reformed theology that makes us vulnerable to these evils? Or to put the question less provocatively, why does Reformed theology not provide us with a better defense against these crimes? We expel people who teach against the Five Points of Calvinism and we (usually) excommunicate unrepentant murderers or adulterers. Why have racists and oppressors often had an easier time of it? We should at least ask the question, is our theology missing something?
I’ve written in the past on the dangers and problems that the Internet poses for the church. Internet forums give expression to conflict and division that would otherwise be unknown or at least kept under the surface of church life. The Internet makes it easy to create virtual communities of Christians that have no expression in real, physical life.
For these and related reasons some people think Christian thinkers and scholars should just stay off the Internet. Pastors should focus on their congregations, professors should focus on their students, and scholars should focus on their books and articles.
But in a recent post at his blog Tim Challies highlights the great good that the Internet can achieve if Christians can figure out how to use it productively and constructively. Indeed, this medium is so important that Christians cannot afford not to use it to the best of their collective ability.
The example of Internet success that Challies provides pertains to the movement widely known as “New Calvinism.”
The Internet has allowed people to find community based on common interest—a new kind of community that transcends any geographic boundary. It used to be that people of common interest could only find others who shared their interests within a limited geographic area. The Internet has forever changed this and this is true in any field, whether it pertains to vocation, hobby, sports, religion or anything else…
The New Calvinism is a distinctly twenty-first century, digital-era development. It is the Internet in general, and social media in particular, that first tied the movement together and that have since drawn people in. Where there may have been only five or six Calvinists in a church of several hundred, when they went online they found a whole community of people who believed just what they believed. This dispelled much of the sense of isolation and gave them a corporate identity. People have often remarked that the Christian blogosphere is dominated by Calvinists and I believe this is exactly why—because in those early days of blogging it was the outliers who were looking for community they did not have in their local church fellowships.
Over time there was an inevitable shift so that the Internet was no longer merely tying together those who had long held to Calvinistic doctrine, but it also became the medium through which others were introduced to this stream of theology. What at first simply tied people together now drew new people in.
Of course, there are reasons to criticize the development known as the New Calvinism. It is not perfect, having created its own challenges to the unity and ecclesiology of the church, as well as to important Reformed doctrines like infant baptism. But overall one cannot help but be pleased at the surge of a movement that is so gospel- and Christ-centered.
Old school ecclesiological types sometimes bemoan the fact that 21st Century developments in Christianity are passing by the older confessional denominations and churches. The North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council includes denominations totaling probably less than 500,000 Christians, roughly 0.2% of the population of the United States and Canada. If you want to be discouraged about the recent history of the confessional Reformed tradition, compare that total to the percentage Presbyterians and Congregationalists made up of early colonial America.
What is our problem? I’m not capable of answering that enormously complicated question here, but I do wonder if Challies’ blog post points to at least one part of the solution. Maybe we need to figure out how to use the Internet?
In some of the conversations that arose yesterday regarding Philip Jenkins’s post comparing strands of 17th Century Calvinism to contemporary Islamism the question arose of the degree to which the Reformation contributed to modern secularism. As political science professor Troy Gibson puts it,
It’s hard to deny that secularism was to some degree a by-product of the Protestant Reformation, if only indirectly by providing political and legal context. More debatable is whether Reformation theology itself made space for the rise of isms, like secularism.
Gibson is putting his finger on an old argument that runs something like this. The world of medieval Christianity was an enchanted world, a world of angels and demons, saints and witches, superstition and magic. The theology of the church articulated a hierarchy in which the secular realm of nature was inferior to the sacred realm of grace, rendering the former relatively insignificant for Christians except insofar as it was thoroughly penetrated by the spiritual forces of the enchanted world.
The Reformation overthrew all of this, rejecting the sacramental theology of the church and the power of saints and magic and instead placing all of its emphasis on the certainty of faith in a sovereign God. It also emphasized the legitimacy of secular life in such a way not only to make all vocations honorable in God’s sight, but also to remove those secular vocations from the hierarchical control of the church. The result was the liberation of secular affairs such as politics, economics, and marriage from the thumb of the clergy, and the freedom of such affairs to develop according to their own natural logic and character, as ordained by God. In short, by emphasizing the distinctive goodness of secular nature, the Reformation freed the secular life of human beings from the suffocating limitations of an enchanted and hierarchical world.
Of course, history is much more complex than this basic outline suggests, but for all that there is a degree of truth to it that is widely recognized. The Reformation was certainly in the genealogical ancestry of the Enlightenment and modernity, regardless of what one thinks of the various marriages and dalliances that ultimately brought forth such descendents. As one of my professors likes to say, political liberalism is at the very least a step-child of Christianity.
I believe it is enormously important, however, to distinguish between the secular and secularism. The secular refers to what belongs to the present age but not to the age to come – things like marriage, coercive government, and particular economic or educational institutions. Secularism refers to an ideology in which the age to come is dropped from the equation; the secular is all that there is. The concept of the secular – to which the Reformation directly contributed – is simply intended to recognize that the enduring significance of the things of the present age is relativized by the coming kingdom of God and that the two ought not be confused. Secularism is an ideology that exploits the idea of the secular by eliminating any reference to the kingdom that made the idea of the secular possible in the first place. In Christian logic you cannot have the secular without something that is beyond it. In secularism the beyond is destroyed, and the secular really becomes the sacred (i.e., think Marxism).
To get a little bit more practical, the Reformation contributed to the process already begun by Christianity in the first century that enabled people to discover the various spheres of life, each governed by God according to its own logic – economics, science, political science, etc. It freed human beings not simply to ask the question, What does this god or priest want us to do in order that he might be happy with us?, but to ask the question, How did this God create the world such that we might learn how it works, and develop it to its greatest potential?
For Christians, as for many earlier Enlightenment thinkers, it was understood that although each sphere of life operates according to its own logic it is nevertheless governed and providentially maintained by God. But the separation between the various spheres and the authority of priests, and the distinction between the general revelation of nature and the special revelation of Scripture made it possible to conceive of the former independently of the latter. Science no longer had to flow from special revelation alone, and economics no longer had to be derived simply from the dictates of Scripture. Christians could pursue natural law and general revelation with the confidence that the world is God’s world and that all knowledge is God’s truth. Discovering how an economy can create wealth, not simply distribute it, or how government can be responsive to the citizens under its charge, rather than dominate them, are two great examples of the fruit of an approach to reality that does not require that all important knowledge be found in Scripture.
And yet the unintended consequence of this development was that Scripture and religion could be abandoned altogether. For if they can be conceived separately, why could they not be completely separated? The modern ideologies of Marxism, materialism, and secularism all rest on the borrowed capital of a Christianity that invented the very idea of the secular on which they depend. All of these ideologies are therefore caricatures or Anti-Christian distortions of the world view of Christianity itself.
The question our culture is flirting with is, What happens to the ideals of the West – its rights, and freedoms, and liberties – when they are cut loose from their Christian heritage? It is true that the Reformation helped make this question possible. But it is equally clear what answer the Reformation provided.