How Did Christians Lose the University?

Rosaria Butterfield was a professor of women’s studies who specialized in Queer Theory at Syracuse University. A practicing lesbian, she was an activist in the gay and lesbian community until she converted to Christianity in 1999. She is now a Reformed Presbyterian.

Given such a story, you might expect Butterfield to have an interesting perspective on the relationship between Christians and the academy. And you will not be disappointed. Only seven pages into her book, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, Butterfield declares that she maintains her appreciation for the university and her respect for feminism:

Although I live my life now for Christ and Christ alone, I do not find myself in like-minded company when my fellow Christians bemoan the state of the university today. Feminism has a better reputation than Christianity at all major U.S. universities and this fact really bothers (and confuses) many Christians…

But how has the church responded to this truth? Too often the church sets itself up as a victim of this paradigm shift in America, but I think this is dishonest. Here’s what I think happened: Since all major U.S. universities had Christian roots, too many Christians thought that they could rest in Christian tradition, not Christian relevance.

These words accurately capture many Christians’ bewilderment about what has taken place during the past few decades. The academy, leading the culture, has abandoned Christian teaching about gender and sexual ethics wholesale. Not only are sexual promiscuity and divorce widely accepted, not only have traditional gender roles been widely jettisoned, but the very normativity of sexual complementarity has lots its persuasive power. And it has lost persuasive power not only to a few fringe radicals in the academy, mind you, but to the very people who determine the highest law of the land. Christians are not shocked because they do not expect to witness evil in this life. They are shocked because these developments defy what Christians think are the most basic common sense assumptions possible about the differences between male and female.

Butterfield’s words confirm what many Christians are only beginning to realize. Our worldview – our moral paradigm – is not nearly as intuitive or persuasive as we have imagined it to be. The authority of our churches and our sacred texts is nowhere nearly as widely respected as we thought it was. We are quite out of touch. We have not been engaged. We have been resting on the laurels of more than a thousand years of Christendom. As Butterfield puts it,

Too often the church does not know how to interface with university culture because it comes to the table only ready to moralize and not dialogue. There is a core difference between sharing the gospel with the lost and imposing a specific moral standard on the unconverted. Like it or not, in the court of public opinion, feminists and not Bible-believing Christians have won the war of intellectual integrity.

A few points jump out at me from Butterfield’s reflections.

1) Attempting to impose our moral framework on American law is not the same as being engaged in the nation’s moral conversation. We have too often confused political activism with thoughtful engagement. If we can’t even persuade the country to uphold marriage at a civil level, what does that say for our ability to witness to the need for the gospel at a moral and spiritual level?

2) Preaching at people – proclaiming the truth – is not the same thing as communicating. We need to proclaim the gospel, of course, but we have too often confused the bare declaration of various messages found in Scripture with the thoughtful engagement that comes from wrestling with what the word of God has to say in light of what we learn from observing, listening, loving and conversing with our neighbors and fellow citizens. We prefer to imitate the way the apostles confronted the covenant people of God (i.e., Acts 4) rather than the way they witnessed to the Gentiles (i.e., Acts 17). We mimic the way Jesus confronted the Pharisees (Matthew 23) rather than the way he ministered to “tax collectors and sinners” (Luke 14-15). But America is not the covenant people of God and Americans are not – by and large – Pharisees.

3) Our inability to wrestle with the way the word of God speaks to contemporary culture in a thoughtful, humble way communicates a lack of integrity on our part. Why? Because a tendency simply to preach at people as if they share our basic assumptions about life – while ignoring the fact that they don’t – shows that we do not respect them. We do not take them seriously. We are not willing to learn from them, let alone grant them equality in a conversation. What we think is faithfulness looks to the world an awful lot like arrogance. And Christians, of all people, should know that this is a problem. The Christian tradition has a lot to say about the evil of pride.

We have a lot of work to do, and not primarily at the political level. As James Davison Hunter argued several years ago in his book, To Change the World, we need to be less focused on politics and more focused on culture, less focused on power and more focused on people, less focused on winning and more focused on witnessing.

I think our situation is a little bit like that of a husband and wife whose conversation has gradually escalated to the point where they are talking past one another and each is equally frustrated that the other person is not listening – no doubt willfully. It is time to step back, do some real soul-searching, and think about what and how we are communicating. Communication does not simply consist in declaring what you think and feel is true. Communication is a two-way street. Messages must be received and understood, not simply delivered. And that can only happen in contexts of respect, friendship, and trust.

As in a marriage, if we think the fault is all on the other side we are sadly deluded. In that case, the road ahead will be quite rocky indeed.

Martin Luther King Jr. and Gospel Politics

Reformation 21 has published the third part of my series on Presbyterians and the Political Theology of Race. It is entitled “Gospel Politics” and seeks to contrast King’s tendency to approach politics from the perspective of the gospel to the segregationists’ tendency to approach politics from the perspective of the Old Testament. At the heart of it lies King’s critique of the southern Presbyterian doctrine of the spirituality of the church, a doctrine that had a lot in common with a certain contemporary version of the two kingdoms doctrine. As King put it,

I have heard numerous religious leaders of the South call upon their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers say, ‘Follow this decree because integration is morally right and the Negro is your brother.’ … In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard so many ministers say, ‘Those are social issues with which the gospel has no real concern,’ and I have watched so many churches commit themselves to a completely otherworldly religion which made a strange distinction between body and soul, the sacred and the secular.

What was King’s alternative? Whereas conservative southern Presbyterians tended to interpret the relevance of God’s natural moral law for society and politics through the prism of the Old Testament, King interpreted that same law in light of what he understood to be the meaning of the Gospel for the dignity of the individual human being.

Read the article here. Read parts 1 and 2 in this series here and here.

Can Christianity and Liberalism Coexist?

In a thoughtful and honest article at Reformation500 Stephen Wolfe suggests that in my work Reformed social ethics has taken a “social egalitarian turn.” Wolfe is responding to my series of articles on Presbyterians and Race at Reformation 21. He specifically highlights this claim that I made:

The real problem was the interpretation of the concept of ‘spirituality’ through the lens of an underrealized eschatology. By stressing that the Gospel does not affect social structures of nation, race, gender and class southern Presbyterians were bound to have a bias towards the status quo, and they were bound to turn to the Old Testament as an alternative source for guidance about the nature of a godly society.

Wolfe agrees that southern racism was unjust. That is not his concern. His concern is that my article touches, if only in passing, on other forms of social hierarchy as well, and he fears that my arguments suggest that I disagree with the classic Christian position on social hierarchy. As he puts it,

The ideas that the Gospel does not significantly affect social structures of nation, gender, and class and that social hierarchy is natural are standard positions in the Christian tradition. Major figures in the Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Calvinist traditions are in agreement on this.

Wolfe offers numerous quotes from leading theologians, including Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin, to prove this point. He seems comfortable endorsing what he himself calls a “‘spiritualized’ gospel.” He concludes with this claim:

Conservative Protestants have bought into the promises and premises of modern liberalism, and they proclaim it with confidence without having acknowledged and dealt with the dominant view in the Christian tradition. This must change.

I am grateful to Wolfe for his engagement of my essays, and I want to take this opportunity to clarify a few points about my views.

Read the rest of this article here, at the Calvinist International.

Mississippi Praying: Southern White Evangelicals Defending Segregation

Carolyn Renee Dupont’s Mississippi Praying is a thoroughly stimulating analysis of the ways in which the theology and faith of Mississippi evangelicals shaped their opposition to the civil rights movement. A professor of history at Eastern Kentucky University, Dupont argues that, in contrast to the widespread assumption that southern religious opposition to the civil rights movement was the result of the church’s cultural captivity to a racist society, white evangelical theology was the decisive bulwark of segregation in the years 1945-1975. Because civil rights activists often relied on the social gospel for their critique of segregation, white evangelicals viewed the battle over segregation as a battle for theological orthodoxy. They stressed that social change would only follow the regeneration of individual souls, not the interference of apostate religious liberals from outside the state.

Not that most southern pastors and theologians espoused racial violence or explicitly defended white supremacy. The crass apologists who appealed to the curse of Ham or to Israel’s separation from the nations as evidence of a biblical mandate for racial segregation were always in the minority. But the vast majority of southern religious leaders interpreted the faith individualistically such that the Bible could at least allow for racial segregation. Given widespread assumptions about race as a natural phenomena, a product of God’s divine providence, it was enough to emphasize that the New Testament did not condemn segregation as unChristian.

Read the rest of this article here at Reformation 21.

A Brave New World (2): Selling Human Body Parts

Last week I highlighted the horror of euthanasia in Belgium, where physicians are now responsible for 5% of all deaths. This week we have the horror in America of a federally funded organization selling the body parts of aborted babies on the sly. You can watch the chilling video here.

As I argued last week, this is the product of a form of liberalism that emphasizes the dignity, not of every human being, but of every “person” who has developed to the point of relative self-sufficiency by virtue of the integrity of his or her autonomy. The unborn obviously do not qualify here. This sort of liberalism also increasingly denies that human beings have any obligations toward their creator. As long as you don’t hurt another person you are free to do what you want, even to another human being. This is Secularist Liberalism.

Selling body parts has a particular horror to it, but it is really no more abhorrent than the murder of the unborn is to begin with. An inconsistent society desires to permit the latter, while banning the former, but there will always be a few consistent individuals who are determined to push the limits. Is it an accident that the Huffington Post chooses this week to run an article claiming that 95% of women who have abortions do not regret it?

This presents all the more occasion for Christians to advocate a different kind of liberalism, one rooted in the Christian tradition. As I wrote last week,

Christian Liberalism emphasizes the dignity of every single individual human being by virtue of his or her creation in the image of God. Human life is sacred, according to Christian Liberalism, because each human being has been created in love for a relationship with God. Not only should each person’s life and welfare be protected and promoted, but each person should be taught how to find happiness in relationship to a loving God. Regardless of a person’s worldly circumstances, Christianity teaches, she can find her true destiny in Christ, in whom there is no male nor female, neither slave nor free, neither Jew nor Greek.

According to this ethic euthanasia and abortion are off limits and should be prohibited by the state. Institutions and practices fundamental to human well-being – such as marriage, education, religion, health care, and care for the poor – should be promoted.

This sort of liberalism still has currency. The more Secularist Liberalism leads modern western society into a moral dystopia, the more concerned citizens will be open to the Christian alternative. In short, we increasingly have unprecedented opportunities to draw the estranged back to the gospel by witnessing to the creation of every single human being in the image of God.

The Gospel IS Social

One of my friends and former professors, R. Scott Clark, insists that “The Gospel Is Not Social” (on the Heidelblog, here, and republished on the Aquila Report, here). Not only is the gospel not social, Clark argues, but harnessing the church to any sort of social agenda “has always threatened the mission of the church: ‘the pure preaching of the gospel of free acceptance with God by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone; the pure administration of the sacraments, and the use of church discipline.’

It is only a slightly more moderate version of the concern raised by Darryl Hart (on his blog here):

I’m not sure that the gospel and ethics should be so closely identified. I believe the gospel is about what God does in Christ for sinners and ethics has something to do with the way the redeemed respond to God’s grace in their lives by following God’s law.

I could begin to respond by asking so many questions: To Clark, does the preaching of the gospel not also extend to sanctification, freedom from the domination of sin in our lives? Are the sacraments not explicitly social in character? What is church discipline if not a social enterprise? To Hart, is not the sending of the Spirit, who empowers us to a life of new obedience, part of what God does for sinners? And what must I make of Paul’s exhortation in Romans 6 that we should do good because we are not under law, but under grace?

But let me step back a moment. What does Clark mean when he says the gospel is not social? His primary concern, it is clear, is with a resurgence of a specific historic version of early twentieth century Christianity, the Social Gospel. Here, I want to say right away, I wholeheartedly share his concern. As a movement characterized by theological Liberalism the Social Gospel abandoned or reframed fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith and poured its energies into a secular enterprise of social transformation. This was a bad thing. We don’t want to see a revival of the Social Gospel. We cannot transform this world into the kingdom of God; we can only witness to what God is doing in us through Christ.

But Clark goes further than this. Appealing to J. Gresham Machen’s doctrine of the spirituality of the church, which he identifies with John Calvin’s two kingdoms doctrine, Clark argues that “social concerns” are outside of the scope of the gospel. Thus Machen, in his official capacity as a gospel minister, “refrained from speaking to social concerns because of the teaching of the New Testament. Read on its own terms, the teaching of the New Testament about the Kingdom of God is remarkably silent about the pressing social concerns of the day.”

Does Clark forget how much the New Testament has to say about justice for the widow and the orphan, good news for the poor, the oppression of the weak, marriage, slavery, the breakdown of social barriers (between Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, Barbarian, Scythian), violence, reconciliation, sharing with those in need, the diaconate, obedience to civil authority, families, peacemaking, or any other number of vices and virtues that pertain to relationships between human beings. What version of the New Testament is he reading? In what world are these not pressing social concerns?

Perhaps the problem is in our use of terms. Note that Clark is not merely saying the gospel is not political. He is not simply saying the gospel doesn’t have a lot to say about particular social policies. He is saying that the gospel is not social. He is saying the New Testament doesn’t have much to say about social concerns.

So we need to know how Clark is defining his terms. He writes, “By social I mean broader cultural and civil concerns that are not ecclesiastical.” This is a pretty open-ended, yet imprecise, definition. What is Clark considering to be “ecclesiastical”? Are Paul’s concerns in Colossians 3 ecclesiastical? Is Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 25 ecclesiastical? Is marriage cultural and civil?

We can make more headway in understanding what Clark is doing when we look at how he defines the gospel. He writes, “By gospel I mean the message of Christ’s incarnation, his substitutionary suffering active obedience for his people, his death, burial, resurrection, ascension, and return.”

What do we make of this definition? To a certain extent I like it, and yet it puzzles me with regard to what it chooses to include and what it chooses to exclude. On the one hand, it summarizes the key events that make up the good news of salvation: Christ’s incarnation, suffering, obedience, death, burial, resurrection, ascension, and return. I like this. On the other hand, it adds a reference to the substitutionary purpose of that suffering and obedience (a good thing!) while omitting any reference to the giving of the Holy Spirit and the way that he empowers Christians to a new life of righteousness. In short, it seems to reduce the gospel to justification, forgetting all about sanctification (much as Hart’s quote above seems to do).

Why?

Sit down, open up your New Testaments, and ask yourselves, is this presentation accurate to the New Testament? Does Paul only care about justification, the forgiveness of sins, or does he also care about the way in which the Gospel frees us from the bondage of sin for a new life of Spirit-empowered righteousness? Does he only speak of the forgiveness of individuals, or does he describe the way in which Christ establishes the church as a new humanity, a new community, a new social reality characterized by love, justice, compassion, forgiveness, reconciliation, and peace? Does he leave Christians to act within fundamental social institutions, such as marriage, the family, and the master-slave relationship, as was customary in pagan antiquity, or does he call Christians to be transformed according to the mind and example of Christ in the way they love and serve one another, to the point of self-sacrifice?

The gospel is social. It is social to the core. Individualism is no orthodox corrective to the theological liberalism of the past. Saying that because the Social Gospel was heretical therefore the gospel is not social is like saying that because the Roman Catholic Church is in fundamental error therefore the church is not catholic.

Let me be clear. As any reader of this blog knows, I am a strong advocate of two kingdoms theology. I have summarized it here, here, and here, and I wrote my dissertation on John Calvin’s version of it. But Scott Clark’s version and Darryl Hart’s version is not the Reformed version. And it is not just their conclusions about religion in the public square that are different. These are fundamentally different political theologies.

Yes, Calvin argued, and rightly so, that the church should only proclaim what the Word teaches. The church should stay out of public policy debates. Yes, Calvin argued, and rightly so, that the kingdom of Christ is spiritual. It cannot be conflated with the moral transformation of secular society. But Calvin also affirmed that the Word teaches much about society and that the church must proclaim these teachings. And when he said that the kingdom of Christ is spiritual he meant essentially that the kingdom of Christ is eschatological, not that it has no implications for material social life (as I show here). Remember, we are talking about the theologian who recovered and reestablished the diaconate as a spiritual, materially oriented office (again, as I show here). I have written much about this and will not rehash it all here.

Scott and Darryl are both friends to me, and I am grateful for all they have done for me over the years. But their thinking on these points is not clear and it is not helpful. It is hardly likely to persuade anyone tempted to embrace the Social Gospel, given that it merely presents an individualistic and virtually neo-Platonized gospel as the alternative. An excellent corrective to this tendency is Michael Horton’s Covenant and Eschatology.

We need to get the gospel, the whole gospel, right.

A Brave New World: 1 out of 20 Belgian Deaths is From Euthanasia

I’ve been reading Aldous Huxley’s A Brave New World this week, and was therefore disturbed, if not entirely surprised, to come across this Huffington Post video describing the ‘ethics’ of Euthanasia in Belgian. In Belgium close to 1 out of every 20 deaths are the result of individuals with terminal illnesses or incurable suffering choosing to be killed by a physician. Yes, children too. There are all sorts of bureaucratic safeguards to make sure the process is not abused, of course. You can rest assured about that.

It was not long ago that virtually everyone in Europe and the United States would have found this scenario morally abhorrent, even dystopian. But this is the new reality. Has the Liberal West lost its moral compass?

Many Christians would say yes, but I think this assessment is mistaken. It’s not that the West has lost its moral compass. It’s that its compass is adjusted to point in a slightly different direction than it once did. Over time, that slight difference leads you to a very different moral terrain. But there is still a coherent rationale to it.

What we are seeing is the divergence of two kinds of Liberal individualism. On the one side is the more traditional Liberalism, what I might call a Christian Liberalism. Christian Liberalism emphasizes the dignity of every single individual human being by virtue of his or her creation in the image of God. Human life is sacred, according to Christian Liberalism, because each human being has been created in love for a relationship with God. Not only should each person’s life and welfare be protected and promoted, but each person should be taught how to find happiness in relationship to a loving God. Regardless of a person’s worldly circumstances, Christianity teaches, she can find her true destiny in Christ, in whom there is no male nor female, neither slave nor free, neither Jew nor Greek.

According to this ethic euthanasia and abortion are off limits and should be prohibited by the state. Institutions and practices fundamental to human well-being – such as marriage, education, religion, health care, and care for the poor – should be promoted.

A stimulating account of the origins of this kind of liberalism appears in Larry Seidentop’s Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism. Its preeminent advocate in contemporary political theology is the Reformed philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff.

The second kind of Liberalism is developing into something we might call Secularist Liberalism. Secularist Liberalism emphasizes the dignity of every single human being who has developed to the point of relative self-sufficiency by virtue of the integrity of his or her autonomy. Human life is to be protected, according to Secularist Liberalism, because each developed individual is an end in and of himself and should always be treated as an end in and of himself. Society  needs to be careful to avoid over-determining what is the good life for any particular individual. Each person’s choice of lifestyle and self-expression should be affirmed; all must be included.

According to this ethic abortion is a necessary evil because it is sometimes required to solve the clash of interests between an autonomous woman, who is an end in herself, and a fetus who has potential personhood, but is not yet sufficiently developed to possess autonomy. Euthanasia is acceptable, even to be preferred, because it partially restores death, that sensitive and yet inevitable event looming in every person’s life, to the control of human choice. Institutions and practices integral to human agency – such as sexual expression, education, health care, and care for the poor – should be promoted.

The primary philosophers associated with what has become Secularist Liberalism are Immanuel Kant and John Rawls, but its assumptions are now pervasive in western culture.

These two strands of Liberalism have much in common, of course, because the one gave birth to the other. (Tim Jackson likes to say that political liberalism is Christianity’s stepchild.) They share a commitment to the dignity of the individual, and support many common institutions and practices. What is more, most people are not so philosophically consistent as to fall entirely into one way of thinking or the other. Consider these as two types, types that are increasingly diverging in their response to contemporary issues of justice.

Christians are sometimes tempted to abandon liberalism because of the excesses of its secularist version, and some of our most prominent public intellectuals call us to do just that. But this is a mistake. We need to get back to promoting the beauty, integrity, and truth of Christian Liberalism. Once the unchallenged reign of Secularist Liberalism begins to lose its shine, once human beings begin experiencing the moral and social isolation of a self-referential individualism, I suspect more than just orthodox Christians will begin to thirst for more.

Do Evangelicals Worry Too Much About Persecution?

Evangelicals are understandably worried about the implications of the Supreme Court’s recent gay marriage decision for religious liberty. During the arguments leading up to the decision Justice Samuel Alito asked the Obama administration’s solicitor general if the right of gay marriage would jeopardize evangelical educational institutions’ tax-exempt status:

In the Bob Jones case … the court held that a college was not entitled to tax-exempt status if it opposed interracial marriage or interracial dating. So would the same apply to a university or a college if it opposed same-sex marriage?

The Solicitor general’s response was not reassuring:

I don’t think I can answer that question without knowing more specifics … but it’s certainly going to be an issue. I don’t deny that. I don’t deny that, Justice Alito. It is going to be an issue.

Read the rest of this article at Canon and Culture.

Can Obergefell v. Hodges Make Same-Sex Marriage Real?

At a first read, Obergefell v. Hodges, the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision declaring same-sex marriage to be a fundamental right, follows a logic that is breathtaking in its simplicity.

Whether you find this logic exhilarating, depressing, or irrelevant does not depend on what you think of gay and lesbian people, or how they should be treated. I firmly believe that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is unconscionable; we should treat each person in accord with the human dignity that stems from her or his creation in the image of God. I have zero sympathy with anyone who thinks their Christian faith ordinarily requires them to refrain from serving, living near, befriending, or otherwise loving gay and lesbian people (though this should not, as a matter of freedom of conscience, require Christians to participate in or celebrate gay weddings). The media and political drama notwithstanding, I believe most Christians agree with me.

And yet I, along with most Christians, not to mention Muslims, Hindus, and many other people of good will, find the Supreme Court’s decision deeply troubling.

Read the rest of this article at Canon and Culture.

Presbyterians and the Political Theology of Race (Part 2): Old Testament Politics

In Part 1 of this series I observed that southern Presbyterian defenders of segregation emphasized the Old Testament as the authority for biblical norms regarding race over against the more New Testament oriented arguments of their opponents in the civil rights movement. The most prominent version of the southern Presbyterian argument was not the caricatured appeal to the mark of Cain, let alone to the curse of Ham, as we might like to imagine. It was much more sophisticated than that. It usually ran something like this:

In constructing the Tower of Babel human beings attempted to establish a socio-political unity in defiance of the natural law of God. God defeated this attempt by dividing human beings on linguistic and national lines. He then called Abraham out from the nations, and in his law he demanded that Israel likewise be separate. When the people of Israel intermarried with other nations, God punished them severely. The segregationists maintained that nothing in the New Testament suggests that God’s views have changed. To be sure, the Gospel is now universal; Pentecost is proof of that. But the unity of the church is purely spiritual and does not extend to temporal, social institutions. Thus the Old Testament remains a valid testimony to the natural law of God with respect to social institutions such as segregation.

To read the rest of this article please go to Reformation 21.

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