OverReview: Christianity and Liberalism

Despite the title of this book, it has nothing to do with politics. Well, it interacts with politics insofar as it critiques a Christianity that is only interested in dogooding. But primarily this book is a robust defense of the fundamental tenants of the Christian faith, and how by discarding the divinity of Christ, the authority of the Scriptures, the reality of sin and the need for repentance, a different religion from Christianity has been constructed.

Although he has the reputation as a restless warrior, Machen is surprisingly gregarious. He waxes about what all true Christian sects have in common that allow us to identify each other as brothers. He discusses the doubts and issues a believer might face while still identifying them as a true Christian. What he has no time for are preachers who reduce Jesus to being a ‘good teacher’ (For if Jesus is not who he claimed to be, he was a madman, not someone worthy of emulation), discard the Bible and essentially want to turn the church into a social club with a vaguely spiritual gloss. What he especially takes issue with are the ministers who lie, who take oaths confessing they subscribe to doctrines, belief in the Bible, and specific creeds/confessions, then turn around and openly dispute them. He has respect for the Unitarian church as they’re honest about what they believe. He disagrees with them appreciates their candor. He has no patience for those who wanted to turn (and are succeeding) in turning the Presbyterian church into a Unitarian church.

Machen was right. The denomination he was defending is now rife with those preaching exactly what he feared, that Jesus was not God, God is not Triune, there is no resurrection, and that there is no hell (and possibly no heaven). This is not a form of Christianity, but something different altogether. And we should be wary of those who use vague spiritual notions to try and make the world a better place. Reading this helped snap into place why Machen stood opposed to the Christian push for Prohibition and why he refused the invitation to speak at the Scopes Trial. This book is just as applicable today as it was when it was first printed.

I have the feeling that if someone in Machen’s orthodox camp spoke like he did… well he wouldn’t be invited to any conferences. It’s no wonder that Machen is a forgotten titan most in the Young, Restless and Reformed crowd are unfortunately ignorant of.

The Overarching Story

Episode Two is centered around the reading and interpretation of Scripture, and doing so in the right way. Our different conclusions from the Scripture come from reading it with different assumptions on the nature of things, the authority of the Bible, and how we read the text.

We believe that when we read Scripture, both Old and New Testaments, that they tell one, overarching, universal story. This is very different from the modern evangelical method of reading book by book, chapter by chapter, or even verse by verse as if it stands and is to be interpreted as it stands by itself rather than interpret it from within the whole of Scripture. This is a nail in the coffin for the convenient practice of proof-texting, but that is a small price to pay for a more accurate, consistent reading of the Holy Word.

People are often distrustful of those with those interpretive method because of how we try to relate things to eachother (like say, circumcision and baptism). They may think those trying to link/relate things are being dishonest or reading too much into the text rather than let it stand on its own (see above). The problem is that if everything is unrelated to everything else, then there is no real meaning to the text at all anyway. But, if the concepts do relate to eachother then there is a realator, one who organizes things. If there is order then there is meaning and we must see and receive that meaning rather than construct it ourselves. As readers of Scripture, we are not sovereign over the text. We are not to read it with the lens of how it relates to us. Rather we are subject to the text. By saying the Bible has an overarching story, we are not trying to impose our will or interpretation on others, rather we are merely asserting that the book has meaning. This is possible due to the influence of the guiding inspiration of one Holy Spirit, who allows for one meaning amidst many particulars.

Dispensationalists believe the Bible has a unifying story, but it’s a story centered around national Israel. Everything in the Bible prior to the establishment of national Israel leads up to it and everything afterwards is about the restoration of national Israel. It is a national/ethnic-centric, or Israelocentric view of the Scriptures.

The modern method of reading the Bible is how it directly relates to the reader. It does not matter what the author intended to communicate or any historic/literary context, what matters is what it means to the reader. This is commonly known in literary criticism circles as ‘Death of the Author’ (that the author’s intent is meaningless, what matters is what the reader can read into it for himself), Even in Bible studies conducted by faithful, well meaning churches we read the text and are then asked what that text means to us. You cannot read Scripture subjectively like this. You wouldn’t put your own meaning/interpretation on a stop sign, how much less should you attempt to force it upon Scripture? This sort of literary method is contra-Christian Charity (Love thy neighbor as thyself). When we write letters (or blog posts!) we want others to read us charitably, that is, to be read as we intended to be read, with no additional or entirely different meaning foisted upon us. We must do the same for others, including biblical authors.

Neither the modern or dispensational methods are historical methods for reading Scripture. Neither are how Scripture reads itself! It assumes the authors did not understand what they were writing, or know what they were doing.  In Luke 24, before the first words of the New Testament were inked, Christ claimed that the Law, the Prophets and the Psalms were about him. When he opened their mind to understand the Scriptures, he opened their mind to understand the Old Testament and how its overarching story is about him, Christ. The pharisees also did not interpret the Bible correctly. Many think they had the proper system, but reached the wrong conclusion. Jesus tells us otherwise in John 5 when he tells them that they have set their hope on the Mosaic law, but if they truly read and understood Moses, they would believe Jesus. But since they don’t truly understand, or even believe Moses, why should we expect them to believe Jesus?

The next section of the episode is very interesting and is something I’d love to delve into in more detail at a later date. It’s about theophany, the appearance of Christ in the Old Testament. A common misconception of the Bible is that before the New Testament, believers had direct access to God the Father. However, it’s Jesus, God the Son, who is our mediator to God the Father. “Whoever sees me, sees the Father”. The Son is the revelation of God. “No one has seen God, the only begotten God has seen him” Thus all incarnations of God in the Old Testament, He who walked in the Garden, that Jacob wrestled with, Moses saw the back of on Sinai, and Gideon interacted with, were all incarnations of the Son.

In John 8, the pharisees claim to be children of Abraham. Jesus repudiates this based on their conduct and treatment of him, and claims that Abraham rejoiced when he saw the coming of Christ. “Before Abraham was, I Am” A clear echo of “I Am That I Am”. Jesus interprets Psalms to be about him (John 18:11 for one example)  and as we saw previously in Luke 24-25, the entirety of the Old Testament was centered around him. Thus we are not reading Christ INTO Scripture, he simply refuse to read him OUT of it.

Reading the Bible with one overarching story helps us see that there was also one overarching plan for salvation, the Covenant of Grace. This Covenant is not merely unifying in the typological sense (Types and Shadows pointing to the actual fulfillment in Christ), but it is unifying in its substance. We are all saved in the same way by the same Gospel by the same Savior. We are saved in the same way that God saved his people even before his Incarnation as Jesus Christ. Abraham was the first Christian, thousands of years before the Incarnation. While there were believers before Abraham, it is the same Covenant of Grace that you and I share with Abraham. God did not start over and re-work the plan and method of salvation after the Resurrection.

As we established above, all mediation with God done in the Old Testament was done via the mediator, the Son. Thus the incarnation of Christ did not cut off our access to God, rather it became something greater as he became like us (Hebrews 4:15). As the mediator, it is the Son, or Jesus, who was with Adam and Eve in the Garden. Thus it was the Son who committed himself to conquer the enemy in an act of self-sacrifice. He also passed through the pieces for Abraham, swearing an oath against his own life. (My note: This raises quite the conundrum for those who view a vast gulf between a vengeful, angry OT God and a loving God and Jesus in the NT)

So we see that the Bible is not a random collection of stories, it is one story told throughout every genre and at every point of history. It is not about you or me or a particular nation or race, it is about the Son of God Incarnate.

Moses was not Abraham. Abraham was not Moses.

The first episode and introduction to the series ‘I Will be a God to You and to Your Children’ lays out the basic premises and foundation that Dr. Clark will focus on to build the case for infant baptism. He also establishes why this is such an important issue that we cannot just ignore for the sake of peace.

This will read a lot more like student notes than an actual blog post. These are the Big Points I took away from listening to the program.

As a former evangelical Baptist himself, I appreciate that Dr. Clark always refers to those who disagree with us the most, the baptists, as “Our Baptist Friends” while also noting that this isn’t just something we live and let live on. We must still be friendly and charitable with our Baptist brothers and sisters, but this distinction on who may (or must!) be baptized is an important issue that rightly divides us. It is not mean-spirited to acknowledge that.

The practice of infant baptism is not just traditional, but also historical and (most importantly) biblical. While there is no proof verse that explicitly states that infants must be baptized, that should not dissuade us. There is no proof text for the Trinity either (an even more important and vital doctrine). Rather, both infant baptism and the Trinity is a good and necessary consequence of applying proper and consistent hermeneutics to the whole of Scripture.

Infant Baptism has been a doctrine of the Reformed Faith from the beginning. This is established in the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), Lord’s Day 27:

74. Are infants also to be baptized?

Yes, for since they belong to the covenant and people of God as well as their parents,1 and since redemption from sin through the blood of Christ,2 and the Holy Spirit  who works faith, are promised to them no less than to their parents,3 they are also by Baptism, as the sign of the Covenant, to be ingrafted into the Christian Church, and distinguished from the children of unbelievers,4 as was done in the Old Testament by Circumcision,5 in place of which in the New Testament Baptism is instituted.6

1 Gen 17:7. 2 Matt  19:14. 3 Luke 1:14,15. Ps 22:10. Acts 2:39. 4 Acts 10:47 5Gen 17:14. 6 Col 2:11-13.

as well as the Belgic Confession (1561), Article 34 :

…we detest the error of the Anabaptists who are not content with a single baptism once received and also condemn the baptism of the children of believers. We believe our children ought to be baptized and sealed with the sign of the covenant, as little children were circumcised in Israel on the basis of the same promises made to our children.
And truly, Christ has shed his blood no less for washing the little children of believers than he did for adults. Therefore they ought to receive the sign and sacrament of what Christ has done for them, just as the Lord commanded in the law that by offering a lamb for them the sacrament of the suffering and death of Christ would be granted them shortly after their birth. This was the sacrament of Jesus Christ.

Furthermore, baptism does for our children what circumcision did for the Jewish people. That is why Paul calls baptism the “circumcision of Christ.”

This is not simply a repetition of the doctrine of Rome, but a distinctly Reformed understanding of the sacrament, with Scripture as the source of the doctrine.

The majority of evangelicals, even those who don’t identify themselves as “Baptists” believe in “believer-only” or credobaptism (Baptism due to belief). However most of these are unfamiliar with the Reformed perspective on baptism and our arguments. Some of these evangelicals claim their belief is based simply on what the Bible clearly says without trying to read more into it or relying on tradition. This is not true. No one, not even “just me and my Bible” types truly reads the bible in “splendid isolation”. We all read the Bible with others and are informed by others.

The question we should have for our Baptist friends is how are we in the New Covenant related to Abraham? Romans 4 and Galations 3 touch upon how the Abrahamic Covenant relates to us as children of Abraham. Baptist teaching doesn’t reflect the truth of believers in Christ being Abraham’s heirs very well. They tend to treat Abraham as a proto-Moses, but he is the father of many nations (us believing Gentiles) and the Covenant established with him and his children is an everlasting Covenant. According to Paul and Jesus, Christians are Abraham’s successors and in Acts when Peter is preaching he echos God’s words to Abraham “This promise is to you and to your children, and to those who are far off.”

Dr. Clark summarizes the various views on the sacrament of baptism in the following way:

Roman Catholic– Baptism is the means of spiritual renewal and initial justification and sanctification through the infusion of grace received in baptism. Without it one cannot be saved ordinarily without it. Baptism gives us saving grace.

SBC  – Baptism is a public testimony of faith in Christ. You must have reached the age of discretion. Article 29 of the London Baptist Confession of Faith (1689) echos this. Anabaptists, evangelical baptists and 1689 particular baptists agree on this issue.

Lutheran – According to article 9 of the Augsburg Confession (1530), Baptism is so closely related to the gospel that through it Christians receive eternal life and without it Christians cannot receive assurance of salvation

Reformed – Baptism is a means of sanctifying grace and a gospel ministry to the people of God. It is a sign and seal of the covenant of grace, illustrating what Christ has done for his people and sealing salvation for those who believe.

Each of these views is built on assumptions about how God works in the lives of his followers.

The Roman Catholic view confuses the Thing (salvation) with the Sign of it (Baptism). They don’t confess that baptism is the Sign of the Thing but it is in fact the Thing itself. This is summarized by the Latin phrase “Ex opere operato” (from the work worked). Unfortunately for this view, Scripture does not teach or imply that baptism necessarily confers what it signifies to all who receive it.

The Baptist view treats the entire Old Testament as if it were part of the Old Covenant. Paul and Hebrews however clarify that the Old Covenant lasted from the time of Moses to the Cross. Thus, Abraham is not an Old Covenant figure. Adam is not an Old Covenant figure. Noah is not an Old Covenant figure. Moses, Joshua, David, etc… they were all Old Covenant figures. The Old Testament is full of imperfect types and shadows that are illustrations of and anticipation for Christ.

The National Covenant that began with the Mosaic Covenant is now over, that’s what the Mosaic Covenant was. The moral law given to Moses, the 10 Commandments is still in effect, just as it was in effect before the time of Moses. However, the Civil and Ceremonial law (types and shadows) are no longer applicable as their entire purpose has been fulfilled in Christ.

The establishment of the New Covenant does not mean that infant initation into the covenant community (Baptism) must be explicitly reinstated. Abraham is still the paradigm. If anything, infant initiation must be explicitly revoked. The Baptist view tends to assume that Abraham is like Moses, and since Moses has expired so has Abraham. While it’s true that circumcision is no longer required, that is because it was a bloody shadow of Christ’s death on the cross. However, infant initiation is still an important aspect of the New Covenant.

New Covenant does not mean that infant initiaiton be explicitly re-established. Abraham is still the paradigm. It must be explicitly revoked. Baptists assume Moses = Abraham and since Moses has expired so has Abraham. Circumcision is no longer required. It is a bloody shadow of Christ’s death on the cross. But infant initiation is still an important aspect.

The Baptist view tends to treat the apostles as having said, “I know for 2000 years we’ve been initiating our children, but it’s the new covenant and we don’t do that anymore.” If you were Jewish and heard that you would be alarmed, that would have to be explicitly addressed.

We in the Reformed camp treat Moses and Abraham differently. Everything distinctly Mosaic has been fulfilled and abrogated. -But not everything God told Moses has been abrogated because not everything God told Moses is distinctly Mosaic. Some a repeating of what he said to Moses is a repeating of what he told Adam, what he told Noah, and what he told Abraham. This never expires.

We must remember that the New Covenant is new relative to Moses, not but not the everlasting Covenant of Abraham. The New Covenant is a new adminstration of the Abramaic Covenant.

This episode made me realize how ignorant I am of the general message and theology in Galations. I need to correct that pronto. But it also reinforced how a proper reading and understanding of the administration and nature of the various covenants between God and his people is critical to understanding our relationship to God and how he treats us.


Remedial Covenant Theology

On May 21st, 2017 my son will be received into the life of the Christian church through baptism. Ordinary water representing something truly remarkable, the sign and seal of entry into the Covenant and God’s promise to us as well as our children.

While I have a working grasp of the theology of paedobaptism, I have to admit it’s shaky, or at least not as strong as I’d like it to be. After all, just up until recently the two sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper were almost interchangeable in intent and purpose in my mind. I’ve since learned better, but being so wrong for so long shows me that it’s definitely time to brush up on the fundamentals. After all, paedobaptism isn’t an end in and of itself, it’s simply an important part in the working of Covenant Theology, a Reformed distinctive. It’s not just about practicing paedobaptism, it’s about doing it within context of the correct framework, in a way that separates us from the Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, or even our good friends the Lutherans.

So what better time to deep dive into this than the weeks leading up to my own child’s baptism? I apologize if this topic is off-putting at all to some, but thankfully I know for a fact that no one reads this blog and the entire exercise is purely for my own benefit.

To guide my study through this, as the video above suggests, I’ll be using R Scott Clark’s primer on Infant Baptism and Covenant theology. Specifically I’ll be focusing on his podcast series ‘I Will Be a God to You and to Your Children‘. Why R Scott Clark when there are so many other books and resources I could use? Well, the Heidelblog is free and readily accessible, and in my opinion a rich resource for researching traditional Reformed theology (and piety and practice as I’m sure RSC would be quick to point out). Dr. Clark has the ability, especially on his podcast, to explain what can be complicated and confusing concepts in a clear and concise way. RSC is also an ordained minister within my own church’s federation, as well as a professor of Church History at Westminster Seminary California (where my church seems to source the majority of our summer interns). So not only does he know his stuff, but it’s the stuff my own church confesses and would approve of.

Weirdly and lastly though, it’s because I disagree with him on some important matters. Dr. Clark holds to Exclusive Psalmody and acapella worship (I’m still wrestling with the issues of images of the Trinity, specifically the Son, and the 2nd Commandment). I don’t, and I used to think those were crazy positions that only backwards loonies would hold to. But Dr. Clark is able to argue his case in a compelling and intelligent way that impresses me a great deal.

I always respect someone who can take what I thought was an easily settled, black and white issue and make me step back and think ‘Dang, those are some good arguments’.

Kill Your Weekends

For Easter Sunday the New York Times released an editorial where Ross Douthat implored secular liberal readers to start going to church again in order to save the aging and dying mainline denominations (Think PCUSA). I have to admit, I did appreciate a few of the things he had to say. Such as the benefits of church communities that societies like the Freedom From Religion Foundation will never match.

Do it for your political philosophy: More religion would make liberalism more intellectually coherent (the “created” in “created equal” is there for a reason), more politically effective, more rooted in its own history, less of a congerie of suspicious “allies” and more of an actual fraternity.

Do it for your friends and neighbors, town and cities: Thriving congregations have spillover effects that even anti-Trump marches can’t match.

Do it for your family: Church is good for health and happiness, it’s a better place to meet a mate than Tinder, and even its most modernized form is still an ark of memory, a link between the living and the dead.

… Finally, a brief word to the really hardened atheists: Oh, come on. Sure, all that beauty and ecstasy and astonishing mathematical order is because we’re part of a multiverse or a simulation or something; that’s the ticket. Sure, consciousness and free will are illusions, but human rights and gender identities are totally real. Sure, your flying spaghetti monster joke makes you a lot smarter than Aquinas, Karl Barth, Martin Luther King. Sure.

But the real problem and explanation for why these churches are dying in the first place quickly comes to light when Douthat informs his readers that the mainline have done their absolute best to make us comfortable already, so won’t you please throw them a bone and attend already:

I understand that there’s the minor problem of actual belief. But honestly, dear liberals, many of you do believe in the kind of open Gospel that a lot of mainline churches preach.

You say you’re spiritual but not religious because you associate “religion” with hierarchies and dogmas and strict rules about sex. But the Protestant mainline has gone well out of its way to accommodate you on all these points.

And therein lies the rub. By all accounts, the mainline churches should be booming with growth. Yes yes, they are still the largest denominations in America by a large margin (apologies to my LCMS friends, you are much larger than NAPARC but the ELCA is twice your size) and will continue to be even after they lose half a million more congregants over the next couple years. But by all accounts, they’re doing everything right by becoming as accommodating as possible. Why aren’t the membership rolls growing by flinging the doors open wide and establishing no barrier for entry?

This reminds me of an episode of a podcast I regularly listen to, the Judge John Hodgman Podcast. On this show, author and former minor television personality John Hodgman settles real-world disputes his guests have. It’s a great show because it shows a wide swatch of human experience that is utterly foreign to me. From a dispute about having dinner with the extended family five nights a week to whether or not the master bedroom should be turned into a dedicated VR room (and decorated like the Holodeck from TNG), the problems may vary in consequence, scope or importance, but each is real and Hodgman, while funny, also treats each case seriously and in probing often finds, as he puts it, “the crux of the matter”.

The episode this reminded me of ‘Separation of Church and Date‘ bowled me over because it revealed to me what’s common knowledge (I tend to have my head in the sand on many issues). In this episode the dispute is that a woman would like her boyfriend to attend church with her a couple times a year. The boyfriend has set a limit to the number of times he’ll attend church each year, and would also like for attending weddings with religious elements to count towards this limit. My immediate reaction was “Suck it up. We all do things we don’t want to do for the sake of a healthy relationship and besides, going to your friend’s wedding should be something you look forward to no matter what the circumstances are. Stop being a self-absorbed oaf and go be an actual partner.”

Then I learned more about the exact situation. She didn’t just want him to attend church with her on Easter, Christmas and a handful of other weekends. She was in seminary, training to become a pastor herself. One of the events he didn’t want to attend was her own ordination. The Judge then delved into her beliefs as a future “Minister of Word and Sacrament”. She claimed to agree in “something greater than human kind” and when the Judge clarified by stating, “Right, you believe in God” she retorted with “As a label” and when asked about the afterlife she said she was indifferent (Indifferent about the resurrection of the dead, closing tenets of both the Apostle and Nicene creeds?) and said she preferred, as if it were somehow mutually exclusive, to focus on the here and now and making the world a better place.

Someone award her the Kuyper prize.

And so now she found herself in a situation where her live-in boyfriend of 10 years was ambivalent about attending her ordination ceremony. And really, who could blame him? Of course he’s ambivalent, it’s an ambivalent religion with no stakes that makes no claims that demands nothing of you. What’s the point of a Christian religion where its own ministers and elders won’t even clearly state that they believe in God? That’s why fewer and fewer people are willing to give up their Sunday mornings for a glorified social club with a dress-up aspect. Why miss Easter brunch specials and NFL Sundays for some quasi-belief in next to nothing? The denomination even has ministers who deny the deity of Jesus Christ and the Trinity, in violation of the creeds and confessions they allegedly subscribe to, and no one even blinks at this.

This sort of fuzzy belief at best, and belief in nothing at all at worst has a name and it’s not Presbyterianism, Reformed or even Christianity. It’s agnosticism and atheism. And if the focus is rallying people around political and social causes, that’s what Parties and Committees are for. That’s why Douthat’s pleading to save the mainline will fall on deaf ears. His marks aren’t stupid, they know full well there’s no point in attending these churches and they won’t be conned into it. The only reason that they’re still around is simple inertia.

The great newspaperman H.L. Mencken summed this up in his obituary of  J. Gresham Machen in 1937 (1937, remember that whenever anyone tells you this has only happened within the last few years or decades):

What caused him to quit the Princeton Theological Seminary and found a seminary of his own was his complete inability, as a theologian, to square the disingenuous evasions of Modernism with the fundamentals of Christian doctrine. He saw clearly that the only effects that could follow diluting and polluting Christianity in the Modernist manner would be its complete abandonment and ruin. Either it was true or it was not true. If, as he believed, it was true, then there could be no compromise with persons who sought to whittle away its essential postulates, however respectable their motives.

Thus he fell out with the reformers who have been trying, in late years, to convert the Presbyterian Church into a kind of literary and social club, devoted vaguely to good works. Most of the other Protestant churches have gone the same way, but Dr. Machen’s attention, as a Presbyterian, was naturally concentrated upon his own connection. His one and only purpose was to hold it [the Church] resolutely to what he conceived to be the true faith. When that enterprise met with opposition he fought vigorously, and though he lost in the end and was forced out of Princeton it must be manifest that he marched off to Philadelphia with all the honors of war.

Moreover, the doctrine that he preached seemed to me, and still seems to me, to be excessively dubious. I stand much more chance of being converted to spiritualism, to Christian Science or even to the New Deal than to Calvinism, which occupies a place, in my cabinet of private horrors, but little removed from that of cannibalism. But Dr. Machen had the same clear right to believe in it that I have to disbelieve in it, and though I could not yield to his reasoning I could at least admire, and did greatly admire, his remarkable clarity and cogency as an apologist, allowing him his primary assumptions.

These assumptions were also made, at least in theory, by his opponents, and thereby he had them by the ear. Claiming to be Christians as he was, and of the Calvinish persuasion, they endeavored fatuously to get rid of all the inescapable implications of their position. On the one hand they sought to retain membership in the fellowship of the faithful, but on the other hand they presumed to repeal and reenact with amendments the body of doctrine on which that fellowship rested. In particular, they essayed to overhaul the scriptural authority which lay at the bottom of the whole matter, retaining what coincided with their private notions and rejecting whatever upset them.

It is my belief, as a friendly neutral in all such high and ghostly matters, that the body of doctrine known as Modernism is completely incompatible, not only with anything rationally describable as Christianity, but also with anything deserving to pass as religion in general. Religion, if it is to retain any genuine significance, can never be reduced to a series of sweet attitudes, possible to anyone not actually in jail for felony. It is, on the contrary, a corpus of powerful and profound convictions, many of them not open to logical analysis. Its inherent improbabilities are not sources of weakness to it, but of strength. It is potent in a man in proportion as he is willing to reject all overt evidences, and accept its fundamental postulates, however unprovable they may be by secular means, as massive and incontrovertible facts.

These postulates, at least in the Western world, have been challenged in recent years on many grounds, and in consequence there has been a considerable decline in religious belief. There was a time, two or three centuries ago, when the overwhelming majority of educated men were believers, but that is apparently true no longer. Indeed, it is my impression that at least two-thirds of them are now frank skeptics. But it is one thing to reject religion altogether, and quite another thing to try to save it by pumping out of it all its essential substance, leaving it in the equivocal position of a sort of pseudo-science, comparable to graphology, “education,” or osteopathy.

That, it seems to me, is what the Modernists have done, no doubt with the best intentions in the world. They have tried to get rid of all the logical difficulties of religion, and yet preserve a generally pious cast of mind. It is a vain enterprise. What they have left, once they have achieved their imprudent scavenging, is hardly more than a row of hollow platitudes, as empty as [of] psychological force and effect as so many nursery rhymes. They may be good people and they may even be contented and happy, but they are no more religious than Dr. Einstein. Religion is something else again–in Henrik Ibsen’s phrase, something far more deep-down-diving and mudupbringing, Dr. Machen tried to impress that obvious fact upon his fellow adherents of the Geneva Mohammed. He failed–but he was undoubtedly right.

I apologize for the length of that quotation, but it really hammers home the point and it’s a criticism we Christians should take to heart when we’re worried about being respectable in the eyes of society and our critics. We cannot win respect by throwing essential doctrine off the ship. Altering our religion to make it appealing will only confirm what they already knew, that it truly means nothing at all. If you want respect then you should emulate Machen and strive for a consistent and intelligent defense of the faith. Attending a compromised church out of guilt, as a matter of merely connecting with community, or because a columnist begged you to because the mainline has tried so hard to be palatable to you, is not just pointless, it’s soulless. You’re better off watching football Sunday mornings instead.

Monolithic Inerrancy

While researching an entirely unrelated topic, I stumbled across a quote from J Gresham Machen’s most famous work, Christianity and Liberalism, that caught me by surprise:

It must be admitted that there are many Christians who do not accept the doctrine of plenary inspiration. That doctrine is denied not only by liberal opponents of Christianity, but also by many true Christian men. There are many Christian men in the modern Church who find in the origin of Christianity no mere product of evolution but a real entrance of the creative power of God, who depend for their salvation, not at all upon their own efforts to lead the Christ life, but upon the atoning blood of Christ—there are many men in the modern Church who thus accept the central message of the Bible and yet believe that the message has come to us merely on the authority of trustworthy witnesses unaided in their literary work by any supernatural guidance of the Spirit of God. There are many who believe that the Bible is right at the central point, in its account of the redeeming work of Christ, and yet believe that it contains many errors. Such men are not really liberals, but Christians; because they have accepted as true the message upon which Christianity depends. A great gulf separates them from those who reject the supernatural act of God with which Christianity stands or falls.

This has instantly shot Christianity and Liberalism to the top of my reading list so I can read this in its full context because I almost can’t believe this is an accurate quote. Machen was no liberal, on the contrary, he was forced out of Princeton and the PCUSA for his commitment to orthodoxy and went on to found Westminster Theological Seminary and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in response. Yet this statement of his that can be found in nearly any Reformed Church’s library, is broad and charitable enough that if it was posted in the average Reformed Facebook group we’d have a holy horde doubting his salvation.

But at least Machen was simply being charitable towards others here. He himself fully held to the belief that the Bible was wholly divinely inspired and without error. He just didn’t think we should brandish those with a less strict subscription as being heretics. The same can’t be said for this inconvenient quote from one of our favorite thinkers:

The Book of Job appears to me unhistorical because it begins about a man quite unconnected with all history or even legend, with no genealogy, living in a country of which the Bible elsewhere has hardly anything to say.”

You see, the question about Jonah and the great fish does not turn simply on intrinsic probability. The point is that the whole Book of Jonah has to me the air of being a moral romance, a quite different kind of thing from, say, the account of King David or the New Testament narratives, not pegged, like them, into any historical situation.

In what sense does the Bible ‘present’ this story ‘as historical’? Of course it doesn’t say ‘This is fiction’: but then neither does Our Lord say that His Unjust Judge, Good Samaritan, or Prodigal Son are fiction. (I would put Esther in the same category as Jonah for the same reason.)

Are we prepared to condemn or at the very least, treat Lewis as dangerous because of these views? His books are doubtless in our church libraries, we trust him with our children (Including his book The Last Battle which contains that troubling story of Emeth). If we give Lewis a pass for these views and welcome him into our homes, are we prepared to do the same for someone who might be sitting in the pew across from us?

Inerrancy is a particularly tricky subject. I’d bet that no matter how strict you consider yourself on the matter there is someone out there who would take your view as insufficient. If you hold to anything other than 6 day, 24 hour creationism you can find yourself on the outs very quickly (despite this not being a controversial subject until relatively recently). If you rightly think that the Earth is spherical and revolves around the sun there is a whole cabal out there who will gladly inform you that you don’t take passages like Joshua 10 seriously enough. Think the Theory of Relativity is a legit scientific theory? Reconstructionists will tell you that you don’t take God at his word.

Obviously I believe the Bible is the inerrant and divinely inspired Word of God, but for each individual that says this, the term ‘inerrant’ is up in the air. I think we should be careful to not try to make the Bible authoritative over subjects that it doesn’t claim to have authority over. That we don’t twist it to say things it has no intention of saying. At the same time, we must be careful that we don’t work overtime to diminish it so that it ends up saying nothing at all

Social Gospel?

I came across a post written by the wonderfully named Lex Lutheran yesterday which tackles an accusation I’m seeing a lot of lately. It seems that lately one can’t talk about addressing racial problems, especially within regards to the church, without being accused of promoting a false Gospel, a social Gospel. The only way racism or racial reconciliation seems to be able to get addressed is only when it arises in its most virulent forms such as kinism. Even then, links to sites of horrific hate (such as ‘Faith and Heritage’) get spread about in the comments sections on prominent pastor’s blogs. Discredited pieces of alternative history that attempt to vindicate sinful institutions such as  antebellum slavery get picked up and polished for a new generation of readers, and then we feign surprise, indignation and offense when it’s suggested we may have a sin problem.

In the Reformed camp I believe we should be the first to acknowledge that we may not be as sanctified as we present ourselves to be. That we have hidden sins of hatred for neighbor that nurse away in the black corners of our heart.  John Calvin wrote:

We are all so blinded and upset by self-love that everyone imagines he has a just right to exalt himself and to under-value all others in comparison to self.

If God has bestowed on us any excellent gift, we imagine it to be our own achievement; and we swell and even burst with pride.

The vices of which we are full we carefully hide from others, and we flatter ourselves with the notion that they are small and trivial; we sometimes even embrace them as virtues..

If the same talents which we admire in ourselves appear in others, or even our betters, we depreciate and diminish them with the utmost malignity, in order that we may not have to acknowledge the superiority of others.

If others have any vices, we are not content to criticize them sharply and severely, but we exaggerate them hatefully.

Hatred grows into insolence when we desire to excel the rest of mankind and imagine we do not belong to the common lot; we even severely and haughtily despite others as our inferiors.

If you take what Calvin wrote above seriously, as a problem common to all men, then it should not be surprising to us when we evaluate ourselves that we are not as forward-thinking as we pretend, and when others present this to us we try to turn this appeal into a sinful attack that our conscience can remain clear.

I myself won’t make any radical call to action that the church must take, I’d simply ask that we remain sober minded when injustice is before us, especially when it is waged against our fellow believers (Lex, I believe, is an African American who belongs to a conservative Lutheran denomination. He is certainly a brother in Christ). We shouldn’t hide behind our own perceived righteousness or downplay their suffering. We can even hide behind our own righteousness by puffing ourselves up and telling ourselves, “Well at least I don’t…” Take Calvin’s words above to heart when you examine your own motives, none of us is as innocent as we’d like to think we are.

Lex Lutheran hosts a new podcast called The Wittenberg ProjectIf you like what he had to say earlier, I’d recommend listening to it.

Edit: My friend Emily recently shared an article written by a woman that I believe touches on this subject. These subjects must be able to be broached and addressed without someone screaming “Social Gospel!”