Category Archives: Social Gospel
Christians sometimes disagree sharply about whether or not witnessing to social justice is part of the church’s mission. Some worry that when the church speaks or acts on matters of justice it inevitably becomes politicized. Even where churches avoid the obvious mistakes of endorsing particular candidates or policy proposals, they inevitably confuse their ideological commitments with the teaching of scripture. Conservative churches begin to sound like the Republican Party at prayer, while liberal churches begin to sound like the Democrats at prayer. Better to avoid matters of justice altogether.
On the other hand, others worry that out of a fear of politicization the church will fall into a passivity that is just as dangerous. By calling Christians to respect and submit to political authority while declining to proclaim a vision of social justice, the church will merely uphold the status quo, thus aligning itself with the powerful elites who benefit from that status quo. The church thus becomes like the servant who buried his talent in the ground so as to avoid using it improperly, and whose fear was judged by his master to be wicked laziness (Matthew 25:14-30).
How is the church to witness to the “kingdom and its righteousness” in a way that avoids these dangers of politicization and passivity? John Calvin argued that if we simply “let the church be the church!,” as some have put it, the church will witness to the justice of the kingdom in ways that are appropriate to its mission: through preaching, the Lord’s Supper and baptism, discipline, the diaconate, and the organic life of the body of Christ.
I explore all of this in my presentation on John Calvin’s theology of social justice, which I recently delivered at the “Jesus and Justice” conference hosted by New City Fellowship in Grand Rapids. I was speaking alongside Mika Edmondson, pastor of New City OPC and author of The Power of Unearned Suffering: The Roots and Implications of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Theodicy, and Kristen Johnson, a professor at Western Theological seminary and author of The Justice Calling.
For more on Calvin’s theology of social justice, see my book, Calvin’s Political Theology and the Public Engagement of the Church.
Gary Dorrien’s The New Abolition is a sobering read. The story of the black church and its struggle against oppression is not well-known by most white evangelical Christians. Even fifty years after the high point of the civil rights movement, few are familiar with the storied church histories of their brothers and sisters on the other side of the color line. Even fewer have the faintest familiarity with the roll call of the heroic African-American men and women who devoted their lives to the hard task of bringing the gospel to bear on a society deeply entrenched in racist ignorance and brutality. Dorrien’s book tells the story of those men and women who labored in the dark decades between the Civil War and World War II, in whose work he finds the origins of the black social gospel.
More often than not, the men and women whose stories Dorrien tells failed to accomplish their social objectives. America’s oppression of black people grew worse rather than better in the fifty years after the Civil War. Many of those who were most optimistic during the 1870s and 1880s found themselves in utter despair by the 1920s. Far too often their white “Christian” oppressors were blind to the utter hypocrisy of confessing Christ while exploiting, humiliating, raping, and murdering black people.
Sketching the lives of women activists like Ida B. Wells, who devoted her life to opposing the horrors of the socially sanctioned lynching of thousands of black people, and pastors like Reverdy C. Ransom and Richard R. Wright, Jr., who sought to demonstrate the power of the gospel in delivering the oppressed from the spiritual and social toll of sin and injustice, Dorrien paints the picture of a body of believers (and some of their non-believing sympathizers) who toiled and persevered amidst incredible suffering to make the gospel that Jesus proclaimed as “good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18) a reality in the lives of black Americans.
Sean Michael Lucas’s fascinating book, For a Continuing Church, highlights in no uncertain terms the vital importance of the doctrine of the spirituality of the church to the origins of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). Next to the authority of Scripture, no other commitment played a more important role in forging the identity of the evangelical Presbyterians who established the PCA. These Presbyterians insisted that the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS) had exchanged its spiritual mission of evangelization, summarized in the Great Commission’s call for the church to make and train disciples (Matthew 28:19-20), for the activism of the social gospel.
And yet, Lucas’s book also makes clear just how misleading these evangelical Presbyterians’ self-understanding was. For in point of fact, they were just as concerned about the social and political impact of Presbyterianism as were their progressive rivals, and just as likely to use their religious authority to argue against communism or racial integration as were their opponents to argue against the Vietnam War or segregation. As often as not, it seems, the spirituality of the church doctrine was invoked simply to shut down efforts that were deemed too progressive, only to leave the church free to proclaim the implications of Scripture for a conservative social worldview. In short, many of those who appealed to the doctrine interpreted it through the lens of their own reactionary politics rather than from the standpoint of the gospel of the “kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33), biblically understood. The whole church, the right wing as well as the left, was all too politicized.
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.
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).
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.
Russell D. Moore has been elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), replacing the outgoing Richard Land. Of course, in so many ways Land, perhaps the leading voice of the Christian Right in recent decades, is irreplaceable. It’s hard to imagine Moore maintaining the same political clout as his forbear, who firmly believed that if American Christians would simply repent and pour themselves out in faith towards God, he would revive and bless the United States.
Moore is no less conservative than Land, but he is a much better theologian. Under Moore, the ERLC is likely to be humbler, more nuanced, and less ideological about the implications of Christianity for American politics. He understands that the fundamental social implications of the gospel are expressed primarily in the church and only secondarily (and indirectly) through the state. He realizes that the church must now take up its social witness as a minority voice in a secular culture rather than seek hegemonic power as some sort of ‘Moral Majority.’
I was first introduced to Russell Moore through his excellent book, The Kingdom of Christ: The New Evangelical Perspective. A must-read for anyone interested in covenant theology, kingdom theology, or Christian ethics, Moore carefully explains the growing convergence between the two great strands of Evangelical theology – Reformed covenant theology and dispensationalism – based on an emerging consensus about the nature of the kingdom of God. The convergence is not the result of ecumenical compromise, he demonstrates, but of hard exegetical work and clear theological progress. Untenable versions of dispensationalism and covenant theology – more shaped by dogmatic rationality than by the New Testament – are being replaced by models with deeper roots in Scripture, a process that is leading Evangelical theologians closer to one another, rather than further apart.
Moore’s own convictions about the nature of the kingdom of Christ are broadly in line with Reformed two kingdoms theology. In particular, Moore believes that the kingdom’s primary expression in this age is the church, not the political order, even as its implications for the Christian life extend to all of life.
The move toward a Kingdom ecclesiology maintains rightly that the definition of the ‘already’ reign of Christ is the church. This means that the righteousness and justice of the messianic order cannot be found, in the present age, in the arenas of the political, social, economic, or academic orders. Instead, the reign of Christ is focused in this age solely on His reign as Messiah over the people called into the Kingdom, namely, those who make up the church (Kingdom of Christ, 152).
To be sure, the kingdom is much greater than the church, and when Jesus returns it will encompass all things. But in the meantime, Christians need to avoid the temptation of the social gospel of identifying the kingdom with a broader movement of social transformation. Yet as Moore points out, even prominent Evangelicals like Carl F. H. Henry, who shaped an era of Evangelical social engagement, failed to resist such temptations. Comparing Henry, Harold J. Ockenga, and other Evangelical theologians with Walter Rauschenbusch, Moore writes,
While evangelicals would never have equated the church with the ‘industrial organization’ and so forth, they committed a very similar error by subsuming the emphasis on the church and its biblical prerogatives and distinctives to an amorphous ‘movement,’ which was clearly of first importance to them. Despite all their best efforts to oppose the Social Gospel liberals, at the point of ecclesiology Henry and the postwar evangelical movement fell into precisely the same error as Rauschenbusch – namely, the tendency to replace the church with ‘Kingdom priorities'” (Kingdom of Christ, 159).
The kingdom of God is manifest in the church rather than in the secular order, Moore insists, and the primary audience for the social imperative of the gospel found in Scripture is the church, not America. To be sure, this does not mean that the gospel is not fundamentally social, or that the church has nothing to say to the state. Rather,
As the church deals internally with matters of justice, it witnesses to the political powers-that-be of the kind of Kingdom righteousness the gospel demands, not only of individuals but also of communities… The development of a Kingdom theology therefore can inform evangelical public theology not only by reminding evangelicals that the call for sociopolitical righteousness is biblical, but also by reminding the church that such righteousness begins in the internal structures and relationships of the people of God (1 Pet. 4:17) (Kingdom of Christ, 169).
What does it mean for politics? Moore doesn’t put it in these terms, but it would seem that it means that Evangelicals should avoid the sort of politicization of the church that took place when the Southern Baptist Convention publicly aligned itself with Jerry Falwell.
When the primary outlet of evangelical engagement with social and political matters is a political action committee rather than the community of the church, the shaping authority on matters of social and political outlook all too often becomes polling data or party platforms, rather than an authoritative text. Political solutions are then grounded in the social contract of a ‘moral majority’ rather than by the righteousness of the coming Kingdom of God in Christ. In such a situation, when the ‘silent majority’ is culturally marginalized, so is the witness of evangelical Christianity” (Kingdom of Christ, 166).
These are welcome words, coming from the successor of Richard Land. Christians should follow Moore’s work on behalf of Southern Baptists at the ERLC with interest. His task is by no means an easy one, and it is doubtful that it will become much easier in coming years. Both Moore and the Southern Baptist Convention will need our prayers.
At the heart of the controversy within Reformed circles over the two kingdoms doctrine is the assertion of two kingdoms advocates that not all of life’s activities or institutions should be identified with the kingdom of God. Although neo-Calvinism is by no means monolithic on this point, many neo-Calvinists, especially those writing the programmatic rhetoric at formative institutions like high schools and colleges, tend to speak of the creation in general as the kingdom of God, and of all Christian activity as kingdom work. The kingdom, in this view, is simply the realm of God’s authority. Barack Obama’s office as president is just as much a part of that kingdom as is the work of your local pastor because both are under the lordship of Christ. Within this universal kingdom the only legitimate distinction is between those whose work is loyal to the king and those who support the rebellion.
While we can debate the teaching of Scripture on this point, there should be little doubt that these claims are indeed neo-Calvinist, that is, that they break with the two kingdoms emphasis of the great theologian John Calvin. Although Calvin affirms, of course, that having ascended into heaven Christ is supreme over all things, both in heaven and on earth, he consistently clarifies that the kingdom of Christ proper only exists where human beings have voluntarily yielded themselves in subjection to Christ. He also emphasizes – over and over – that while the kingdom is spiritual (i.e., eternal, though not immaterial), the affairs and institutions of this age, including marriage, government, and yes, even cultural knowledge (see his commentary on 1 Corinthians 13) is temporal, transient, and will pass away.
That doesn’t mean Calvin thinks the kingdom isn’t present, or even that all that Christians do in this life should not be a testimony to the coming of that kingdom. On the contrary, Calvin insists that every Christian, whatever her vocation, should channel her efforts towards the cause of Christ. Even government should do all that it can to protect and promote the kingdom, while recognizing that the real work of that kingdom is accomplished through the preaching of the gospel and the ministry of the church.
In his 1560 dedication of his commentary on Acts to Lord Nicolas Radziwill, the chief marshal and head chancellor of Lithuania, Calvin carefully explained the two senses in which the kingdom is present in this age. While affirming that Christ decisively established his kingdom when he ascended into heaven, he acknowledges that the ordinary state of affairs this side of Christ’s return will be one of conflict, persecution, and suffering. He then writes,
When we speak of the kingdom of Christ, we must respect two things: the teaching of the gospel, whereby Christ gathers to himself a church and whereby he governs the same, being gathered together; second, the society of the godly, who being coupled together by the sincere faith of the gospel, are truly accounted the people of God…
This kingdom must always be distinguished from Christ’s broader kingship, which includes what two kingdoms advocates remind us is the temporal, or political kingdom.
For although the Son of God has always reigned, even from the first beginning of the world, yet after that, being revealed in the flesh, he published his gospel, and he began to erect a more famous tribunal seat than before, from which he now appears most plainly and is most glorious.
It is that “tribunal seat” that is represented in the ministry of the church, and it is in the society of Christians that its power is expressed.
But Calvin never suggests that the task of Christians is to somehow turn this world into the kingdom. For Calvin the restoration or renewal of the world begins to take place in the church, through the regeneration of believers, who then testify to their loyalty to that kingdom – and to its imminent transformation of all things – in their lives. Yet the restoration of “outward” or “external” matters, the transformation of all that is fallen and transient, awaits Jesus’ return.
In the late 19th and early 20th Centuries Protestant theologians began to claim Calvin’s theology as warrant and precedent for their attempts to bring the kingdom of God to expression in this age through the social gospel. Everything that the reformer said about obeying God’s law in government, family, or economics was taken as evidence that Calvin himself believed the task of Christians was to transform all of life into the kingdom. To this day some neo-Calvinists make the same claims, failing to recognize the significant extent to which their attitude towards culture and politics breaks with that of Calvin. Yet today there is little excuse for maintaining the naive optimism of the early 20th Century social gospel, though some are deceived by the spirit of our times; most transformationalists therefore tend to be pessimistic culture warriors on the verge of despair.
But if Calvin is our guide, such pessimism and despair is as unwarranted as was the naive cultural confidence that made such despair inevitable. Calvin saw the present manifestation of Christ’s transformation of the world in the church, its government and its society, and he constantly warned his readers and hearers that this side of Jesus’ return, the context for that manifestation would be one of suffering witness. In an age when the West is increasingly turning away from the legacy of Christianity, we would do well to reconsider the wisdom of that warning.
Amid all the discussions and debates over the two kingdoms doctrine in conservative Reformed circles – which tends to revolve around questions of how the Bible should be used in political and cultural engagement – people easily forget that one of the main reasons why Calvin articulated the doctrine in the first place was to demonstrate that the future “heavenly” kingdom of God should not be conflated with the earthly or political order of the created world. As we might put it in modern theological terms, Calvin rejected what he perceived as the Anabaptist tendency of having an “over-realized eschatology.”
Contemporary critics of the two kingdoms doctrine object that Calvin repeatedly described the effect of the gospel in terms of restoring creation to its natural order. Yet as Brad Littlejohn helpfully points out in a recent article, they tend to forget the distinction between the transformation that looks forward to the eschatological kingdom of God (glorified creation, or what Calvin called the heavenly kingdom) and the restoration that in a limited way looks back toward the created order.
In a little noticed essay in John Calvin and Evangelical Theology Calvin Seminary’s John Bolt (sometimes oddly claimed as an opponent of the two kingdoms doctrine) makes a similar argument while demonstrating the importance of Calvin’s two kingdoms doctrine for his broader eschatology. He writes,
While not disputing that Calvin’s theology provides rich resources for a strong this-worldly, the-kingdom-is-already emphasis, I shall argue that the formulation of this emphasis in recent scholarship potentially misrepresents Calvin and also that in our context it is important to accent the equally strong two-kingdoms, other-worldly, not-yet dimension of Calvin’s eschatology. (243)
Bolt identifies the former tendency with the liberal cultural protestantism Americans associate with the social gospel, expressed more recently in the liberation theology of the Reformed theologian Jurgen Moltmann. And he is not entirely critical of this trajectory of thought. He agrees that Calvin’s eschatology affirms the close relation between redemption and creation. “Calvin does indeed think of the renewal that is the fruit of Christ’s work as cosmic, involving the whole creation. Salvation is the restoration of lost order, a restoration that had already taken place in Christ, ‘especially in his death and resurrection.'” He agrees with David Holwerda that “The history of salvation which becomes visible in the church contains within it the meaning of the history of the world. And the renewal manifesting itself in the body of Christ is the renewal that embraces the whole creation.” (251)
Even here, it is important to note, Bolt reminds us that for Calvin the kingdom is very closely identified with the church. It is in the church that the renewal of the creation is primarily manifest in this age. For all his emphasis on Calvin’s theology as a theology of hope, for instance, even T. F. Torrance clearly acknowledges Calvin’s view that the church is the institutional expression of the kingdom in the age preceding Christ’s return.
Yet Calvin stresses that the cultural and political work that Christians do does not establish the kingdom of Christ on earth. Rather, it witnesses to the kingdom that exists in Christ and that is manifest primarily in the church’s communion with Christ.
Calvin is an Augustinian on this score while Moltmann’s eschatology of hope is part of a tradition of challenge to Augustine. Instead of seeing the kingdom of God as a spiritual reality manifested primarily in the church, as Augustine did, Moltmann joins a long line of theologians of messianic eschatology or historicizing eschatology that was present in the early church, repudiated by Augustine, but revived by the twelfth-century Calabrian Abbot, Joachim of Fiore (c. 1135-1202).
In that sense the Anabaptists of Calvin’s day, who wanted all of life to conform to the egalitarian and pacifist structure of the coming kingdom of God, were guilty of the same over-realized eschatology as are contemporary liberals who want to transcend nature by eliminating the significance of gender (whether in terms of gender roles or in terms of traditional institutions like marriage, both of which the New Testament indicates will be transcended in the kingdom that is coming; cf. Luke 20 and Galatians 3). And this is what Bolt means to reject when he says that for Calvin “gospel categories are not to be applied to the arena of law, politics, and statecraft” (260).
To be sure, figures like Augustine and Calvin believed that faithful cultural and political engagement need to contribute to the restoration of the natural, created order (i.e., natural law). But they absolutely rejected the suggestion that such affairs should be transformed according to the character of the future kingdom that is inherently heavenly and spiritual. Restoration, in short, is to be distinguished from transformation. The former takes place even now; the latter awaits Christ’s return. For all their criticism of theologians like David VanDrunen for exaggerating the distinction between creation and redemption some neo-Calvinist theologians seem to miss the significance of precisely this point.
Bolt writes of the transformationalist model:
Calvin strongly opposes this tradition, believing it the greatest confusion to think of the kingdom of Christ in non-spiritual, earthly, forms…. It is patience and endurance in our pilgrim life of suffering that Calvin accents, not a history-grabbing, world-transforming revolutionary program for action. (258, 259)
When Calvin talks about the establishment of the kingdom in the earth, even when he has the role of the magistrates in that process in view, he is thinking of the establishment of the true church rather than the conformity of the social or political order to the future heavenly kingdom. That’s why it’s so important not to minimize the close correlation that Calvin made between the spiritual kingdom and the church, and the clear distinction he made between the things of this age (earthly things) and the things of the age to come (heavenly things). For while it is true that believers witness to the power of the kingdom and to the lordship of Christ in everything that they do, even in the political kingdom, the focal point of that kingdom is in the place where Christ rules by his word and Spirit, the communion of the saints that is the church.
Real Clear Religion has kindly put up my piece, originally published with the Institute on Religion and Democracy, on the Methodist Church’s General Board of Church and Society. Although the UMC is the most conservative of the mainline denominations the GBCS still leans quite far to the left and is absolutely committed to the social gospel. This has given rise to considerable tensions within the denomination, as many Methodist pastors and congregants find that the legislative positions advocated by the board in Washington D.C. fail to match their own convictions about the implications of Christianity for politics.
While many denominations lean either solidly to the left or solidly to the right, the Methodist Church is unique in that it represents a cross-section of the American populace. For obvious reasons, the politicization of America has therefore helped to politicize the Methodist Church itself, now torn apart between left and right. One might think the way to preserve unity in the midst of all of this is to focus on the gospel and the orthodox doctrines of the Christian faith, but a representative of the GBCS argued that a different bond holds Methodists together:
“The Social Principles are a way for us not to kill each other. We don’t talk about it that way, but that’s what they are. We see churches divide … we see churches split. In the United Methodist church we don’t sing the same hymns, we don’t read the Scriptures and the canon in the same way. We speak many, many different languages … but we have one set of social principles.”
You can read my whole piece here.
The recent General Convention of the Episcopal Church is getting a fair bit of attention in the media these days, both because of the convention’s decision to recognize transgender persons as eligible for the ministry, and because of the 23% decline in in the denomination’s membership in the past decade. From one perspective the attention seems silly. Fewer than 700,000 people sit in the pews of Episcopal churches on a typical Sunday morning, and the true legacy of Anglicanism in the United States is passed on by those Anglican churches who affiliate with various African or Latin American dioceses, not by the Episcopal Church. What’s more, there are numerous Evangelical denominations and associations with far more practitioners than the Episcopal Church, but who receive far less media attention.
But the Episcopal Church is interesting both because it has been a pillar of American society for centuries (it was the denomination of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, and the state church of many of the original United States, after all), and because its decline is typical of that of mainline Protestantism in general. The disintegration of the Episcopal Church in that sense reflects disintegration of mainstream liberal Christianity.
In his widely read column in the New York Times Ross Douthat argued on Sunday that Protestant liberalism is incomprehensible apart from its most prominent feature in the American context, the social gospel. Douthat writes, “The defining idea of liberal Christianity — that faith should spur social reform as well as personal conversion — has been an immensely positive force in our national life. No one should wish for its extinction, or for a world where Christianity becomes the exclusive property of the political right.”
Suggesting that social reform is the defining idea of liberal Christianity brought some criticism, as Douthat acknowledged in his Monday blog post. The commitment to social transformation was a basic feature of 19th Century American Evangelicalism and it was this Evangelicalism that gave birth both to the social gospel and to fundamentalism. So Douthat now qualifies his point.
Upon reflection “defining” was probably the wrong word to use, and I should have described the link between Christian faith and social reform as liberal Christianity’s most “influential” idea instead — and been clearer that I was talking specifically about the American context. Liberal Christianity begins exactly where Holmes says it does: In the faith’s encounter with the challenges of modernity, and the quest for a ground for contemporary belief that doesn’t just rely on rote appeals to the authority of scripture or tradition. However, this quest has gone in different directions in different times and places, and in the United States from the late-19th onward, it found its most important and enduring expression in the Social Gospel idea that Christianity would be vindicated in an age of science and skepticism to the extent that it confronted social evils as well as private sins, and made the kingdom of heaven more visible on earth. Certainly other theological traditions, Catholic as well as evangelical, have linked personal conversion and social reform; certainly liberal Christianity can’t be reduced to that link and that link alone. But for a long time, from the era of Walter Rauschenbusch down to the era of Martin Luther King, Jr., the liberal churches had good reason to see themselves as the primary custodians of a socially-engaged Christianity.
Douthat dances around the issue, but a basic issue in view is whether we are talking about the transformation of all of life into the kingdom of God – a basic tenant of Protestant liberalism – or whether we are talking about the transformation of all of life according to basic standards of justice in accord with Christ’s kingship over all of life – a basic tenant of classic Christianity. Insofar as Protestant liberalism and the social gospel remind us that all things are reconciled in Christ, and insofar as they remind us how much Jesus cares about justice and about the concrete physical welfare of human beings, they highlight what is basic to orthodox Christianity itself. But insofar as they confuse human efforts in this direction with the realization of the kingdom itself Protestant liberalism introduced the rot to its own foundation.
If the gospel of the kingdom is primarily about secular (i.e., temporary) politics and culture then the inevitable result is the secularization of Christianity. What makes Protestant liberalism foreign to orthodox Christianity – and what doomed it from the start – was its refusal to recognize that the transcendence of Christ over all of life includes his judgment of all human affairs. Jesus will return one day to judge the living and the dead, and it is only on the far side of the resurrection of believers that all things will be transformed into his kingdom. Christians have always maintained this belief while stressing that all of life is nevertheless to be lived in obedience to Christ’s lordship.
Douthat is right to stress that Protestant liberalism is indistinguishable from the social gospel. He is wrong to brush over the way in which it distinguishes Protestant liberalism from traditional Christianity.
The fact is, the social gospel remains prominent not simply in the mainline churches. And as Mark Chaves demonstrated in his recent book American Religion: Contemporary Trends, while the mainline churches may be dying, that does not mean liberal ideas are dying. Many of its most basic ideas and commitments have been embraced throughout the broader Evangelical and Catholic worlds, including Douthat’s own point of emphasis, the social gospel. In that sense many Evangelicals seem prepared to head down the same path as tread by the Episcopal church in the past one hundred years.
I’m not suggesting Evangelicals should stop talking about the importance of social reform. But I do worry when they – along with Ross Douthat – confuse that reform with the gospel itself. For those inclined in this direction, let the Episcopal Church serve as a warning. When the church stops focusing on the eternal kingdom of God that is found only in Christ, it is beginning its own death march.