America’s Zero-Sum Culture, and How It’s Tearing the Nation Apart

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In a host of public controversies we see the outworking of what can meaningfully described as a zero-sum culture. A zero-sum game, of course, is a situation where there is a finite amount of capital or benefits to be gotten—there are only so many pieces of the pie, so to speak—and thus if one person or group gains, another loses. And that is precisely the logic that seems to be playing out. And with this has come an ever increasingly level of public unpleasantness—a perfect storm of incivility, if you will.

Take two of the most prominent public squabbles—race relations and homosexual marriage—for example. Recent debates over the behavior of an increasingly militarized police presence in this country and especially of its treatment of minorities in violence-prone urban contexts has not, by and large, meaningfully addressed the bureaucratic systems and structures that may have contributed to the problem. Instead, attention has tended to shift over to the much more amorphous but über-fashionable notion of “white privilege.” In a recent article, columnist Cathy Young writes:

At the core of social justice dogma is fixation on identity and “privilege.” Some of this discourse touches on real and clear inequities: for instance, the widespread tendency of police and others to treat African-Americans, especially young and male, as potential lawbreakers. Yet even here, the rhetoric of privilege generates far more heat than light. University of California-Merced sociologist Tanya Bolash-Goza, who accepts the “social justice” left’s view of pervasive structural racism in America, points out that the term “white privilege” turns what should be the norm for all—not being harassed by cops or eyed suspiciously by shop owners—into a special advantage unfairly enjoyed by whites. (Indeed, in its dictionary meaning, “privilege” refers to rights or benefits possessed by the select, not by the majority.) This language speaks not to black betterment but to white guilt. It also erases the fact that the “privilege” extends to many nonwhite groups, such as Asians.

In other words, while racism continues to be a problem that must not be minimized or ignored, the idea of “white privilege” as it is often deployed in these discussions is pretty incoherent and contrived. Nevertheless, the conviction seems to be that there must be winners and losers. If African-Americans are to win, whites must lose.

The same zero-sum cultural patterns are evident in debates over same-sex marriage. Now that a majority of Americans are apparently okay with SSM, some proponents loudly proclaim that those who disagree with the new regime are bad people—no better than racists and slaveholders—who must be punished for their benighted views. Last year tech industry genius Brendan Eich was hounded from his job at Mozilla because he gave a donation back in 2008 to an organization that lobbied for traditional marriage, and the Obama administration’s Solicitor General Richard Verilli conceded during oral arguments for the Obergefell case that the tax exempt status of religiously affiliated schools and organizations who oppose homosexual behavior and same-sex marriage is “certainly going to be an issue.”

Never mind that there is no evidence that many of these new personae non grata are motivated by anti-homosexual animus, never mind that they stand with the overwhelming consensus of human civilization until today’s progressives decided to think otherwise, and never mind that their views were until quite recently embraced by the leading politicians on the left, such people must be marginalized. After all, if there are winners there must also be losers.

But questions also emerge. Why has this zero-sum culture—with its historical amnesia, hubris, vindictiveness, and incivility—become so pervasive today? Here are six reasons.

First, there is the tradition of American individualism, and especially our penchant for framing everything in terms of individual rights. Of course, such rights language goes back to the Declaration of Independence and even before: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The difference between then and now is that such rights were formerly understood to be functions of something higher and greater than the individual—the natural law established by a benevolent creator which defined the character and goals of human flourishing. When that transcendent framework of meaning and the societal consensus regarding what is just and good and right that resulted from it was lost—as it now has been almost entirely—there is little room for reasonable discourse about such issues (for reasons that will be evident in the next paragraph).

Second, there is the emotivism that characterizes much moral discourse today. Although there have been some valiant (and in my judgment unsuccessful) efforts to establish public moral discourse in the absence of a theistic worldview (here we think especially of John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice), the prevailing approach now is what Alasdair MacIntyre in his After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory terms “emotivism”—the belief that “all moral judgments are nothing but expressions of preference, expressions of attitude or feeling, insofar as they are moral or evaluative in character” (After Virtue, 12). But when moral judgments are no more than expressions of individual sentiment at least two things take place. Because the locus of moral authority is the self rather than larger principle, disagreements are often personalized, and there is less room for agreements to disagree regarding matters over which good people may differ. In addition, because on emotivist grounds there is little room for rational discourse, moral issues ultimately reduce to power—either the informal power of public opinion or the iron fist of the state.

Third, in part because of this reduction of moral issues to questions of power, there is the politicization of everything, or what sociologist James Davison Hunter calls “the conflation of the public with the political,” in which “all of public life tends to be reduced to the political” (Hunter, To Change the World, 105). Hunter argues that in the absence of a societal consensus over basic issues of right and wrong, the state becomes the arbiter of these issues, and so we have seen the expansion of state power into many areas that were formerly the domain of the family, local associations, and local governments.   Thus, it is no great surprise that the federal government has now even taken it upon itself to define the nature of marriage.

Fourth, this politicization has been abetted by academic approaches, often traveling under the label “critical theory,” that focus on the analysis of power relationships. This sort of thing is pervasive in academia these days (especially in the humanities), and two key intellectual influences may be mentioned here, though there are many more. Karl Marx’s theory of dialectical materialism reduced social reality to issues of economic power, and his notion of the “critique of ideology” encouraged the dismissal of arguments by people deemed to be economically advantaged as mere justifications of that power. Marx’s insistent focus on economics is now generally regarded as inadequate, but he put the topic of power on the table for discussion. More recently, the late French critical social theorist Michel Foucault sought to explore the relationship of power and discourse and to analyze the structure of power relationships more broadly. All this has had the effects of reducing the complexity of world and social relationship to issues of power, of imposing a binary logic that divides human society into the oppressors and the oppressed, and of providing a ready rationale for the ignoring or silencing of people thought to be tainted in some way by oppressive ideology.

I’m certainly not suggesting here that power relationships don’t exist or that they do not often function invidiously. They do, but when the rich complexity of human society and motivation is viewed exclusively through the lens of power analysis a lot is missed.

These trendy intellectual currents, in turn, have provided both an academic idiom and the appearance of academic respectability for what Hunter calls a political psychology of “ressentiment.” According to Hunter, “this French word included what we in the English-speaking world mean by resentment, but it also involves a combination of anger, envy, hate, rage, and revenge as the motive of political action.” Hunter adds:

Ressentiment is grounded in a narrative of injury or, at least, perceived injury; a strong belief that one has been or is being wronged. . . . In this logic, it is only natural that wrongs need to be righted. And so it is, then, that the injury—real or perceived—leads the aggrieved to accuse, blame, vilify, and then seek revenge on those whom they see as responsible. The adversary has to be shown for who they are, exposed for their corruption, and put in their place. Ressentiment, then is expressed as a discourse of negation; the condemnation and denigration of enemies in the effort to subjugate and dominate those who are culpable (Hunter, To Change the World, 107-8).

Fifth, there is the impact of the secular, materialistic, naturalistic, immanentistic worldview, which, in fact, underlies much of what we have already described. On this way of thinking, which is now deeply imbedded in western culture, there is nothing but this world. There is no realm of supernature, no God who serves as the creator and guarantor of human rights and dignity, and there can be no public appeals to transcendent sources of truth. This material world is all there is. Not surprisingly, as theologians John Milbank, Hans Boersma, and others have insistently pointed out, this leads to a “flattening” of reality. Marcelo Souza (in dependence upon Milbank) rightly notes that on this way of thinking “all reality is flattened; all social, political and cultural aspects become reducible to the mere human and humanistic level, all ethics are reducible to preference and power games, all language reducible to mere signs, and all men reducible to chemical/biological machines.”

It should be easy to discern at this point how this materialistic worldview facilitates the zero-sum culture we have described. Appeals to enduring principles become more difficult, and public discussions more often than not reduce to power struggles with the attending winners and losers. At the same time, the distinctly modern conceit that the world is at least implicitly comprehensible by human reason and that we as human beings are the ultimate arbiters of what we take to be truth can lead to insufferable hubris. Complexity and nuance are lost, and public discourse degenerates into Manichaen politics.

Sixth, there is the myth of progress as it informs contemporary sensibilities. In light of what we’ve said thus far, one might think that contemporary American culture would be nihilistic—that it denies any reality to the moral. But that is not the case. Most people do not have the stomach for such consistency, and so they need some larger teleological framework of meaning to buttress their concerns for individual rights and personal autonomy. As sociologists such as Robert Wuthnow of Princeton have argued, the notion of progress (reinforced as it is by ongoing technological achievement) provides this framework for legitimizing the institutions, beliefs, and policies of late modernity. It also provides a ready tool for distinguishing the winners and losers—those who object are simply, as Barack Obama incessantly says, “on the wrong side of history.”

But this contemporary zero-sum culture of winners and losers stands in sharp contrast to earlier political discourse as it was informed by religiously derived notions of divine providence, sin, tragic brokenness, grace, and humility in the face of a world that we do not fully understand. Witness Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, which, while not shying away from moral judgment also recognized that the simplistic and harsh binary logic of winners and losers was inadequate to the tragic situation then facing the nation: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

Even more compelling is the recent example of forgiveness demonstrated by the families of those murdered in Charleston at the Emanuel AME Church. While not excusing the inexcusable, those Christians also realized that the binary logic of winners and losers is inadequate. If history is any indication, the way forward will not come from the secular elites of our country. Rather, it will come from people of faith.

The Latest Issue of Foundations Journal Has Appeared

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The Spring 2015 (No. 68) issue of Foundations journal, a peer-reviewed theological journal from the UK, is now out, and the first article in it is by yours truly.  The article is entitled “John Calvin’s Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper and Its Relevance for Today” and can be viewed in HTML format here.  The entire issue can be downloaded in pdf format here.  This issue of Foundations focuses on the doctrine and practice of the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper, and provides plenty of food for thought (no pun intended).

The precis of my article reads as follows:

Calvin’s approach to the Lord’s Supper, which sought to mediate between the local-presence theologies of Rome and Luther on the one hand and Zwinglian memorialism on the other, is closely connected with his soteriology, eschatology, and ecclesiology. In the Supper, the incarnate humanity of Christ is objectively offered and subjectively received by faith and by the power of the Holy Spirit, and through this union with Christ’s “flesh” both the power of his deity and the forensic benefits of salvation are received. However, subsequent developments in Reformed theology rendered Calvin’s formulations implausible to some, such that by the nineteenth century outright opposition to Calvin’s doctrine of the Supper was being expressed by Reformed luminaries such as Charles Hodge, William Cunningham, and R. L. Dabney. Others, such as J. W. Nevin and J. B. Adger, vigorously supported Calvin’s intentions. Nevertheless, Calvin’s doctrine of the Supper is rooted in Scripture and in the great tradition of the church, and it offers important resources for the renewal of Reformed and Evangelical theology and practice.

Enjoy!

Charleston and Newtown–A Familiar Pattern?

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While the racial animus displayed by Dylann Roof in the Charleston killings distinguishes this episode from the school killings at Newtown, Connecticut in 2012, nevertheless the pattern seems oddly familiar–a disaffected young white man engaging in callous and brutal mass murder involving the use of firearms.  Discussion of the killing of nine people attending a prayer meeting at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. by the 21 year old white male with white supremacist tendencies has followed a predictable course–focusing especially on the need for more gun control and the problem of mental illness.  The problem of racism as a persistent evil in this instance is also obvious (and we certainly don’t want to minimize that!), but what seems to be lacking once again is a moral vocabulary that gets at some of the other issues involved.

The following article was posted on TheAquilaReport on December 22, 2012 in the wake of the Newtown tragedy, and it is reposted here by permission.

A Particular Sort of Depravity

The tragic shootings and murders of 26 people at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut continue to generate profound grief at the horrifying loss of life as well as calls for legislative action seeking to prevent such events in the future.  Unfortunately, the responses to the tragedy have for the most part been rather predictable.

Those on the statist left have, not unexpectedly, seized this event as an opportunity to push for more legal restrictions on gun ownership.  As a non-gun owner, I’m not existentially involved in this particular debate, although I find the arguments for more restrictions rather less than convincing.

In a recent Wall Street Journal article, David Kopel rightly pointed out the “assault weapons” canard.  In point of fact, so-called “assault weapons” like the AR-15 are functionally just semi-automatic guns like most other firearms today (although they may look like military assault rifles like the M-16).  He also notes that the gun homicide rate has actually gone down markedly since the 1960s.  Kopel goes on with some plausibility to attribute the rise of random mass murders to the media-induced copycat syndrome, the decline in availability of appropriate mental-health care for the profoundly disturbed, and to the fact that such killings often take place in “gun-free zones” which keep law-abiding citizens from protecting themselves.  So far so good, though there seems to be something going on today culturally that Kopel’s arguments miss.

Others have reiterated the classic “guns don’t kill people; people kill people” argument.  The problem, they say, is human depravity, and no amount of gun restrictions will stop sinful people from behaving like, well, sinful people.  Thus the answer to the problem of mass random killings, according to many conservative evangelical Christians, is the gospel of Jesus Christ.  All that is true, although once again, there are aspects of the current situation that are missed, and, moreover, evangelism is not public policy.

Still others have properly pointed to the lack of the normative dimension in our culture.  Wanting to move beyond what they view as the onerous restrictive morality of the past, the influential movers and shakers in America today have decided that there is no transcendent truth with a capital “T.”  The great “sin” is intolerance, imposing one’s morality on someone else.  It was gratifying to hear the word “evil” deployed by some public figures in the wake of the recent tragedy, but it was done without much fluency and they quickly returned to the more familiar conceptual terrain of gun control and mental health.   This is not at all surprising—one cannot spend one’s time time denying the existence of absolute moral truth in general and then trot out the concept of evil in exceptional instances without a measure of embarrassment.  Nevertheless, this argument regarding the absence of moral normativity does not explain why some people are much more likely to commit such violence than others.

Kopel helpfully notes that the number of random mass murders has increased steadily: from 18 in the 1980s, to 54 in the 1990s, and to 87 in the 2000s.  The real question, however, is why.  While “profiling” is an unpopular thing these days, in fact the profile of such killers is depressingly familiar.  Overwhelmingly they are young white males who have demonstrated a lack of socialization and an inability to function well in modern society.  The picture that is emerging of the Newtown killer fits this pattern perfectly—a young, white, disturbed, male individual from a broken home who, according to some reports, spent much of his time playing violent video games.

It seems increasingly clear that we face a crisis of masculinity in American culture today.  Males are wired to use power, to exercise control over their environment, to accomplish things of significance, to provide for those who depend upon them, but in a host of ways our society sends the message that this traditional masculinity is not a good thing.  Furthermore, many young men are deprived of appropriate contexts for the development of their God-given masculinity, such as positive role models who exemplify the righteous exercise of masculinity and a transcendent moral framework of right and wrong within which the power of masculinity is to be exercised.  It is little wonder that many lonely young men find solace in virtual reality as they exercise a measure of “power” in the context of the brutally violent military and paramilitary video games.  And it is little wonder that some of these young males descend further into the darkness and decide to act out their fantasies of power by killing defenseless children and adults before often turning their weapons on themselves in a last act of defiance against the society they believe has emasculated them.

In short, the depravity evident at Columbine, and Aurora, and Newtown is of a particular sort involving distorted masculinity and the misuse of power.  There is tremendous truth in St. Augustine’s contention that evil is not a thing in itself but rather the distortion and misdirection of God’s good creation.  Even as we talk about various public policy initiatives in the wake of Newtown, this particularity needs to be addressed.  Yes, young males need the gospel of Jesus Christ, but they also need role models, structures of accountability, and a moral framework that will enable them to channel their masculinity in productive and appropriate ways.

Why I Am (sort of) a Sabbatarian

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[Editor’s Note: This article was originally posted on TheAquilaReport on August 14, 2012, and is reprinted here by permission. It has not been updated, but it is timely in light of the recent overture to the PCA General Assembly asking that a committee be appointed to study the recreation clause in WCF 21.8.]

The issue of Sabbath observance has again been raised in helpful fashion by John Stevenson his UK blog and by Iain Campbell on Ref21.  A variety of important questions are discussed in these posts, including the continuing relevance of the fourth commandment, the transfer of the Mosaic Sabbath to the Christian Lord’s Day, and the normative role of Reformed confessions.

Stevens argues that the fourth commandment of Sabbath observance was a function of the Mosaic Law revealed at Sinai, that it has been fulfilled in Christ, that it is therefore no longer binding on Christians today, and that there is no reason to think that the Mosaic Sabbath was somehow transferred to the first day of the week.  Not surprisingly, he rejects the Westminster Confession’s teaching on the Sabbath.

Campbell responds by (correctly, I think) noting that there is good reason to conclude that the Sabbath ordinance is not merely a function of the Mosaic Law revealed at Sinai, and that the Sabbath principle is more prominent in both the Old and New Testaments than Stevens allows.  He goes on to contend that the fourth commandment has continuing relevance for Christians today, and to argue “that the position that best suits the biblical evidence is precisely that of the Westminster Confession of Faith, that the Sabbath of Sinai becomes the Lord’s day of the resurrection.”  On balance, my sympathies lie more with Campbell, but with certain important qualifications that seek to do justice to Stevens’ legitimate concerns.

The position Stevens presents has been most extensively developed in D. A. Carson, ed., From Sabbath Day to Lord’s Day: A Biblical, Historical and Theological Investigation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982), and it has become, as Campbell admits, the dominant position among British Evangelicals.  As we would expect, Stevens places considerable weight on Romans 14:5-6 and Colossians 2:17, passages that may appear to teach that Sabbath observance is no longer an obligation.

In the first, the Apostle Paul speaks of the religious observance of special days as a point of contention between the weak and the strong, contending that both those who observe and those who do not do so “in honor of the Lord,” and that each “should be fully convinced in his own mind” (ESV).  In Colossians 2:16-17 Paul declares, “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath.  These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.”  As Stevens notes, this shadow/substance language seems to imply that the Sabbath is, in some sense at least, fulfilled in Christ.

Not surprisingly, some have argued that Paul is not referring to weekly Sabbath observance in these passages on the grounds that the Sabbath is included in the Ten Commandments, and that the Ten Commandments are to be viewed as a timeless statement of God’s moral law for his people (see, e.g., John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965), pp. 257-259). Thus Murray argues that the special days of Romans 14:5 are other Levitical festivals and not the weekly Sabbath.  It must be admitted, however, that these arguments have something of an air of special pleading: Paul can’t really mean what he appears to say because that would conflict with the traditional Presbyterian view of the Ten Words.

Of course, this has been a point of contention within the Reformed tradition, with English-speaking Presbyterians historically viewing the Mosaic Sabbath as transferred to the Christian Lord’s Day, while Continental Reformed people have often been more flexible in their observance of the Lord’s Day.

As noted above, another issue in dispute is the role of the Reformed confessional tradition on this matter, and in particular the position of the Westminster Standards, which present a rigorous view of the Sabbath.  According to the Larger Catechism, those observing the Sabbath are to “spend the whole time (except so much of it as is to be taken up with works of necessity and mercy) in the publick and private exercise of God’s worship” (WLC Q. 117).  Conversely, they are to avoid “all omissions of the duties required, all careless, negligent, and unprofitable performing of them, and being weary of them; all profaning of the day by idleness, and doing that which is in itself sinful; and by all needless works, words, and thoughts, about our worldly employments and recreations” (WLC Q. 119). So much for a day of rest!

Even more to the point, if I am reading the scholarly literature correctly there seems to be a consensus among historians that the Puritan approach to the Sabbath reflected in the Westminster Standards is distinctive in the seventeenth-century context for its rigor and that this distinctiveness is to be at least partly explained in terms of the social and economic context of seventeenth-century Britain.

Another problem here has to do with the fact that attempts to apply and enforce the sabbatarianism of the Westminster Standards have led to frequent conflict and disagreement among Presbyterians.  Two well-known historical examples will serve to make the point.  In 1722 a Presbyterian minister was defrocked by New Castle Presbytery in Pennsylvania for bathing in a creek on the Sabbath, and in 1927 the redoubtable sabbatarian John Murray was excluded from the ministry of the Free Presbyterian Church in Scotland because he refused to exclude from the Lord’s Supper parishioners who used “public transport” to get to church on Sunday morning.  Today, it is my distinct impression that even the most ardent of Presbyterian sabbatarians do not observe the Sabbath with anything like the rigor demanded by WLC QQ. 115-121, but no theological explanation or justification for this has been forthcoming.  To his credit, Mr. Campbell decries those who are “overly prescriptive and legalistic in their approach” to the Sabbath, but he gives us little help as to how we may arrive at a more sensible approach.  All this suggests that it is not enough simply to trot out the Confessional materials as some sort of trump card.  They must be interpreted.

The question then is this: What sort of theological framework will enable us to affirm the continuing validity of the Sabbath while, at the same time, allowing us to do justice to the Pauline teaching that the Sabbath is in some sense fulfilled in Christ, and to the general New Testament implication that the coming of the Messiah makes a difference in how God’s people observe the Sabbath?  Moreover, it would also be good to avoid tedious conflicts about Sabbath observance that, frankly, smack more of Rabbinic Judaism than the glorious freedom of the gospel.

A way beyond this impasse is evident as we examine the Sabbath commands in the two Ten Commandments passages (Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5).  We quickly notice that the Sabbath is commanded in both versions, but for different reasons.  In Exodus 20:11, the Sabbath command is rooted in the order of creation.  In that sense it is a creation ordinance.  Jesus alluded to this fact when he declared in Mark 2:27, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.”  Thus the Sabbath is part of the structure of the created order.  As human beings we need to rest from our daily pattern of labor one day a week.  When we fail to do this, we pay a heavy price!

In Deuteronomy 5:13-15, however, we find that the Sabbath command is grounded in God’s redemption of Israel from slavery in Egypt.  Because the exodus from Egypt is a type of the greater redemption to be accomplished by the Messiah, the Sabbath is also a redemptive ordinance that points forward to the coming of the Messiah.

By recognizing this twofold creational/redemptive significance of the Sabbath, we can affirm the truth in both Reformational positions.  As a creation ordinance the Sabbath has continuing relevance.  It is indeed a wonderful blessing to human beings.  As a redemptive ordinance, it is to a great extent fulfilled in the work of Christ (Colossians 2:16-17), though we continue to look forward to our eternal Sabbath rest (see Hebrews 4).  Thus, as Christians we should observe the Sabbath, but we need not do so with the rigorous exactitude of the Mosaic Law’s provisions, for these are fulfilled in Christ.

In the current discussions two important questions are often conflated: whether the Sabbath is relevant for Christians today and how the Sabbath is to be observed.  Both are important, and proper attention to the funding of the fourth commandment in the two versions of the Ten Commandments helps us to do justice to both of these questions.

A Belated Christmas Offering to You All: New Volume in Mercersburg Theology Study Series Appears

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Earlier this week I received a copy of Vol. 4 of the Mercersburg Theology Study Series entitled The Incarnate Word: Selected Writings on Christology (Wipf and Stock, 2014).   I’ve been editing this volume for the last two years or so, and it’s gratifying to have it finally see the light of day.  We were, of course, hoping to have this book available for Christmas 2014, and the 2014 imprint date suggests that we almost made it!

The Incarnate Word

Special thanks are due to indefatigable series editor Brad Littlejohn, and to my friend Oliver Crisp of Fuller Theological Seminary who wrote a splendid Foreword to the volume. The publisher’s description of the volume reads as follows:

The Incarnate Word contains a selection of the key writings on the doctrines of Christology produced by the theologians of Mercersburg Seminary during the middle of the nineteenth century. Despite the seminary’s small stature and marginal position within American religious life, these texts represent some of the most profound wrestlings with the doctrine of the person of Christ that appeared in antebellum America, engaging the latest in German theological scholarship as well as the riches of the Christian tradition. As such, they command more than mere historical interest, providing rich conversation partners for contemporary debates in Reformed Christology, and anticipating the insights of such key twentieth-century theologians as T. F. Torrance. The present critical edition carefully preserves the original texts, while providing extensive introductions, annotations, and bibliography to orient the modern reader and facilitate further scholarship.

Some excerpts from the book are available here.

Happily, some people seem like it. My friend Douglas A. Sweeney, Professor of Church History and the History of Christian Thought at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, writes:

John Williamson Nevin is one of the most important theologians in all of American history but sadly he is neglected by nearly all but fervent acolytes. The writings in this volume stand at the center of his oeuvre, and deserve a wide hearing from historians of religion, and especially theologians, who still have much to learn from this Christocentric, evangelical-Catholic intellectual (and his colleagues Schaff and Gans, also represented here). The essays in your hand have been judiciously selected, well introduced, and helpfully annotated. They offer to a new generation of scholars and church folks a treasure trove of thinking on the incarnation of God.

Eugene TeSelle, Professor emeritus of Theology and Church History at Vanderbilt Divinity School, says:

The Mercersburg theologians, seeking a church that would be at once Catholic, evangelical, and reformed, remain relevant today for their recovery of biblical, patristic, and Reformation themes, unified by then new currents in German thought. These essays on Christology, ably edited by William Evans, give us insight into the heart of their theology. Evans has already made a mark in the scholarly world by tracing an unfortunate bifurcation in the Calvinist tradition between forensic and participatory language about the Christian’s union with Christ. His introductions and notes show clearly and articulately how the Mercersburg theologians linked the doctrines of incarnation, cross, resurrection, spirit and church, without overemphasis on one or another of them that so often skews theological reflection.

Finally, Paul T. Nimmo, Professor of Divinity at King’s College, University of Aberdeen, writes:

Rejecting the traditions of Princeton and New England, the Mercersburg theologians set forth a vibrant and mystical understanding of the living Savior which resourced and permeated their high ecclesiological and sacramental convictions, challenging the Reformed sensibilities of their days and continuing to inspire theologians today. The resultant collection will be of interest to church historians and doctrinal theologians, both those with particular interests in the Reformed tradition and those with wider concerns for the ecumenical conversation. Lucidly introduced, scrupulously edited, and beautifully presented, this text is a delightful addition to the library.

Note also that a special edition of the journal Theology Today devoted to the Mercersburg Theology and including papers from a 2013 American Academy of Religion national meeting session on the topic has just appeared. I have an essay in it, and I’ll have more to say about this in an upcoming post.

So What? Dr. Clair Davis on the Importance of Culture (Ancient and Contemporary)

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[Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by my good friend and former seminary teacher Dr. D. Clair Davis.  Dr. Davis studied under John Murray at Westminster Theological Seminary before completing his Dr.theol. under Otto Weber at the University of Göttingen in Germany.  He then taught at Wheaton College, Westminster Theological Seminary, and Redeemer Seminary in Dallas.]

As we work with God’s word, the ‘so what’ part is hard but necessary.  After we hear a thorough sermon on what God did and said back then, then we experience one of two things: #1 nothing much, maybe the preacher’s asking you to apply this to your life without telling you how, or #2 the preacher’s giving you some real help doing that. This seems hard to do and many of us are used to not getting much help, so that too often our usual response to God’s deep love in the gospel is just, ‘that was interesting, never heard that before.’

I don’t understand how Westminster Seminary is working with this. If a professor believes that he should do his best to first understand what the Old Testament must have meant to those writing it and hearing it, from what he can learn from their culture, then the Seminary asks him to leave. (Culture flows into the ’so what’). That seems to be why Doug Green was ‘retired.’  A number of us have asked the Board to rethink that but now two weeks have gone by since they met and they’ve told us nothing. I don’t understand either their action with Doug Green or their unwillingness to tell us why they did it. With sad regret I am sure now there’s no point in attempting any further communication.

That was then, ancient history now. But there is a related but bigger picture that we all need to work on as we go ahead. This is a time of crisis for the evangelical church. We share much common culture with Europe and there the gospel is almost extinguished. About a quarter of the young people in our churches have left already. God’s message is for many no longer relevant, no longer speaking into our culture.  That missing ‘so what’ means more than that we easily tolerate irrelevant sermons, it means we are uncertain about our gospel message. The bigger picture for all of us now, whether concerned with Westminster or not, is just knowing how we should understand the Bible and how we should help others do that. What is your and my ‘so what’ today?

Westminster is shutting down its Urban Mission program, accepting no new applicants (p. 9 of the catalog still lists as a distinctive ‘Contextual Missiology & Urban Mission’; no doubt that will be tidied up).  Manny Ortiz and Sue Baker continue the work now at Biblical Theological Seminary).  To me that seems very similar to the rejection of Doug Green’s use of ancient culture for understanding the Old Testament. Do we need to understand the human culture behind the Bible, and also the culture into which we are now called to bring it? Harvie gave us the convincing answer. There were so many fulfilling parts of what Westminster was in my time there, but for me Harvie Conn and his contextualization were at the top of my list. Harvie’s masterpiece, Eternal Word and Changing Worlds, is always worth your close attention.

I met then with Tim Keller and Ron Lutz for a couple years, praying for Tim’s work in evaluating New York and finding a church planter to go there. Tim finally concluded he had to go himself! Who would dare to go into the hostile ungodly atmosphere of NYC? Tim told us it was Harvie who showed him the way!

Putting together what God says in his word and how we must apply it in our time is a crucial issue. It is hard to do and it can be foolish and dangerous. You know what so many churches are up to right now, making room for pastors in same-sex marriages since that is where the ‘culture’ is today.  At least those churches are usually clear about it, admitting that the Bible is against that and then saying the Bible is wrong and they aren’t going to follow it. What is your plan? The best I know comes from Harvest USA, and director John Freeman’s book Hide or Seek is phenomenal. For me that’s so hard that there are so many deep cultural issues today that we have to address. Do we really have to? Can’t we just go on in the way our churches were a generation ago? Read this from Harvie; it helps me.

How can we bring the theologians who dominate our schools and our doctrinal developments into the discussion? As long as the unreached peoples remain a concern only of professional missiologists in our schools and the secretaries of our boards, our understanding of ecclesiology will continue to reduce itself to introverted churchliness. There was disappointment and anger and frustration. Reformed church people have had a long tradition of listening carefully to theologians. And no one at the consultation was proposing a change in that healthy respect. But we yearned for the hour when theologians would listen to the concerns of this gathering. One sensed our theologians were seen as placing the church as the goal of missions. The stress was on her isolated piety and liturgy, her inner riches. Where was the vision of the church “inside out,” in exodus to the world and as a sign of the kingdom of God? (Reaching the Unreached, p. ix)

Did you get that, ‘our church inside out, in exodus to the world’? That Harvie could write. ‘Introverted churchliness’ gets my attention even more. Isn’t that just the right label for not caring whether anyone knows what we’re talking about? Now see this in more high-tech language in Richard Muller’s Study of Theology (lifted appropriately from the ‘Conn-versation’ blog)

.…dogmatics cannot just be the recitation of the doctrinal statements of the church in a topical rather than a historical order nor can it be just the contemporary exposition of someone’s theological ideas, no matter how brilliant they might be. The doctrines must be churchly, and the exposition, also churchly in its basic attitude and approach, must be contemporary in its expression. If the contemporary aspect of the definition is lost, the exposition lapses into a reconstructive, historically defined approach that can at best produce for present-day examination a doctrinal overview from a bygone era. This kind of theology is no better than the attempt to take a particular document from a past era—even a document as valuable as Calvin’s Institutes or Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae—and use it as a textbook in theology. The past must be consulted, but not copied without regard to the new historical and cultural situation in which we find ourselves. If, on the other hand, the great doctrines of the church are not addressed, the exposition lapses into a subjectivity and personal or even idiosyncratic statement….There is, therefore, in dogmatic or doctrinal theology a clear relationship between contemporary faith-statement and the normative doctrinal constructs known as dogmas. The question for dogmatic theology is precisely how these dogmas relate to the biblical witness on which they have been founded, to the larger body of doctrines that belongs to theology but that has not been as closely defined as the so-called dogmas, and to the ability of the contemporary theologian or minister to proclaim the significance of the biblical witness for the present. (p. 611) 

The mistaken self-exaltation of which doctrinal or dogmatic theology is all too easily capable can, moreover, be described and avoided in terms of this hermeneutical model. If a theologian exalts any particular doctrinal construction and insists that it become the key to interpreting the entirety of Scripture and to organizing the entirety of theological system, the scriptural Word becomes stifled by human a priori, by what is perhaps a brilliant but nonetheless false contrivance of a particular theological ego. It is an error for a systematic theologian to assume that any particular schematization of a biblical idea or group of biblical ideas can become the basis for the interpretation of texts in which those ideas of doctrines do not appear. (p. 612) 

The biblical norm provides doctrinal theology with its primary topics, while the historical norm provides theology with an ongoing meditation on and interpretive elaboration of the contents of Scripture in the light of the historical experience of the believing community…In other words, biblical theology has the potential of reopening the text of Scripture for systematic use on issues and topics where traditional interpretations have either been mistaken or have led to omissions of insights of themes from our theological systems. (p. 613) 

The question confronting contemporary systematic theology, of course, is whether or not the traditional form still serves adequately the presentation of the body of Christian doctrine—whether, in fact, the preliminary examination of the character, sources, and methods of theology that ought to precede any system of theology now demands the alteration not only of detail but also of basic patterns of organization. (p. 616) 

“The past must be consulted, but not copied without regard to the new historical and cultural situation in which we find ourselves.”  That’s not as ‘Harvie-ish’ but it’s clear and cogent, I believe. That’s what Tim Keller is learning with those 30-some plants in New York. That’s what we all need to know and do as we talk to our children, the departed and the not-yet-departed.

In my PCA I know that is a big part of the reason that we see our hearty commitment to the Westminster Standards as ‘system subscription.’  We agree with what they say, but we need to say it better right now. Are we really up to that? We’re not up to anything by ourselves, but as we call upon the Lord he will hear us. It’s his honor that’s at stake, after all, that his gospel be more than mumbled but clearly proclaimed.

That Keller New York contextualization is hard but it’s our God-given calling, no doubt about it. What Old Testament profs do with that weird language that goes right to left, is that at all the same? The culture of the 17th century was providential but not inspired by God, but the OT is. Does this help us with Westminster and Doug Green? The thing is, the culture around the OT is like the 17th century, God was providentially totally in charge of it, but it was full of major human blunders, now wasn’t it? Why should Doug or Tremper or Chris or Meredith Kline or Doug Gropp or David Lamb spend so much time with it then? I don’t get why this is such a big deal, but there’s clearly only one way to know what old words mean, and that’s to figure out how they were being used, and that’s more than enough Why. To do that you have to know their cultural background, and that’s why archaeology and comparative religion and who knows what besides is well worth doing. All that work opens our eyes wider to what God said and did back then, so it’s worthwhile. I tried to say that to the Board a month ago, asking why should the seminary have only a half-full toolbox?

Yes, it’s dangerous, looking at old cultures that are so close to the OT one. Some people get carried away, and think everything’s ‘relative.’  Sure, that’s discouraging. But no more discouraging than the fall of Europe or of our young people, is it? By the Lord’s grace we keep doing what we need to do and trust him for the outcomes, don’t we? Do we say, stay out of New York or stay away from the Hittites? Now that’s ridiculous.  ‘Labor on,’ do you know that old one? It covers the ground, especially what we need to do in seminary:

Go, labor on: spend, and be spent,
Thy joy to do the Father’s will:
It is the way the Master went;
Should not the servant tread it still?

Go, labor on! ’tis not for naught
Thine earthly loss is heavenly gain;
Men heed thee, love thee, praise thee not;
The Master praises: what are men?

Go, labor on! enough, while here,
If He shall praise thee, if He deign
The willing heart to mark and cheer:
No toil for Him shall be in vain.

 

Hyper-Inerrancy and the Sectarian Impulse

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[Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by my good friend and former seminary teacher Dr. D. Clair Davis.  Dr. Davis studied under John Murray at Westminster Theological Seminary before completing his Dr.theol. under Otto Weber at the University of Göttingen in Germany.  He then taught at Wheaton College, Westminster Theological Seminary, and Redeemer Seminary in Dallas.]

“One Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all.” “I believe in the holy catholic church.”  What can that possibly mean? I am a Presbyterian; I believe that when Paul wrote to the church at Ephesus he was really writing to all the churches there. But when I go to my presbytery meeting, who’s there? The churches just like us, that’s who. No Baptists, no Lutherans, no Pentecostals—yes, no Catholics either. 

I’ve personally come close to that one church thing, when I taught at Wheaton College. Presbyterian Westminster Standards are about 31K words long, but Wheaton’s doctrinal statement is about half a page, and that was enough. Most of my students didn’t believe in infant baptism, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t show them ‘covenant’ in the Bible. God makes promises and he keeps them and you can count on that, stake your life on that—that’s “covenant,” and we all welcomed and loved that kind reality. Now what does God promise us about the salvation of our children? How do you call out to God when they give it all up and leave Jesus out of their lives? With those hard questions, hard for us all, Baptists come pretty close to being on the same page we are, especially when there’s a baby’s funeral. But when you’re in a Baptist church and it’s Lord’s Supper, who can come to the Table? Those who have “biblical baptism,” that’s who—you know who you are, or aren’t.

How can we put together two parts of the salvation we have in Jesus Christ? Like justification and sanctification, forgiveness and change? Can we agree? We all want to say that Jesus brings us both, and we surely don’t want to say that sanctification is all up to us.  “Too much law” vs. “too much grace” is where the tension is, a battle that has been very vigorously carried on by both sides. What if we asked the folks who think there’s “too much law,” just to be more specific about the sins we need to fight, and how we should do it? Couldn’t we ask the folks who think there’s “too much grace” to just tell us what Jesus means to them daily? That seemed to work for me at Wheaton.

There was that sad seven-year struggle at Westminster Seminary as we tried to understand Norman Shepherd when he told us that justification was by our “obedient faith.” We just couldn’t make progress then. I’m sorry that I didn’t try to say something like this: can we agree that “to be joined to Christ” requires our obedient faith? Or “to receive Jesus as Savior and Lord” is that way too? I know we could agree on where “salvation” comes from, but why were we so weak on the aspects of it? Could that have pulled us together again, to agree that when we know Jesus, that happens “as the Holy Spirit works obedient faith in us”?

That amazing revival with Whitefield and Wesley had its center in “you must be born again.” They didn’t do much with Paul’s way of thinking but instead worked mostly with John. Would that help us too, if we looked around for a Bible book that we all agree on and begin by working with it first?

The hardest is still Calvinism and Arminianism. Whitefield and Wesley praised the Lord for opening the eyes and hearts of so many and bringing them to Jesus. But suddenly they discovered how far apart they were—or were they? Someone asked Whitefield, “do you think you’ll see Wesley in heaven?” and he answered, “I don’t think so . . . he’ll be so close to the Throne and I’ll be so far away.”  But still, who’s right? Who saves people, God himself (Calvinists), or the people as they themselves respond (Arminians)? How could we possibly understand each other on that one? I think I have a beginning. Marq, a student of mine in Dallas, told me his story: while his group was doing student evangelism in Mexico City, and no one was responding, Marq said, “we’ve just got to pray, that the Lord will open their hearts.” But the leader replied: “no way, we believe in free will.” Hearing that story really opened my eyes. I’ve been around many people who wanted to emphasize that sinners still have to make their own decisions—but I never before heard anyone say, so don’t pray for them! The precious gift God gives me from that is, all those other “free will” people I know are wise enough to have limits, never ever imagining that what they believed was, don’t infringe on people’s liberty by asking the Lord to touch their hearts.

Could we get some clarity on the Calvinist side too? If Arminians are really “implicit Calvinists,” knowing we need the Lord to do his work, could it be that Calvinists are really “implicit Arminians” too, realizing that we’re really asking people to believe? Their ongoing puzzle seems to be, how shall we say that God is sincere in calling people to himself, when he hasn’t chosen them beforehand anyway? We try hard to understand the Lord’s grand plan. In it, he chooses a people for himself and then sends his Beloved Son to call them to trust him; doesn’t that mean that election precedes faith? So that God has already made up his mind anyway before he asks people to come to him? What does “before” mean?

Some super Calvinists, those who want to get everything exactly right, say it this way: don’t even think about coming to Jesus unless you can first spot something happening in your heart that feels like you could be “elect.” That has some logic to it—but God doesn’t teach us about election that way. Look at Romans chapters 7-11. “Wretched man that I am, I do everything wrong,” that’s the life-summary of a believer under suffering and temptation. But soon after that comes: “what shall separate me from the love of Christ!” That’s the clearest place in the whole Bible where God teaches us about election, in the midst of seeing clearly how weak and sinful we are. In God’s big plan, his decision comes at the beginning; but in our lives we’re called to learn about it when we really need it. “Election” isn’t really about evangelism and what we should say then; it’s about how we can survive Satan’s attacks after we mess up again, and again. It’s not about logic; it’s about when and how we need to rejoice in God’s plan.

I think this is the answer that pulls us together, the one that helped Whitefield and Wesley keep on working together, actively evangelizing together. Don’t overdo, either of you. Don’t you dare forbid prayer for those not-yet-believers. Don’t you dare say that you need to find something amazing in you before you dare trust Jesus. I say this because of my heart’s desire for God-given revival, when we all will work together. If we’re not ready for that, when it happens again, we’re going to be so into being together that we’ll want to pay the price of dropping all the theology that keeps us apart—to our shame and regret. But if we’ve both corrected our courses before, until we’re very close to being on the same path—well Hallelujah Amen! 

I’ve just read again Jim Packer’s Keep in Step with the Spirit. He’s good at pointing out where almost everyone else is wrong, but he also tells us what others are bringing to the banquet table, especially Pentecostals. While the rest of us are working hard just to stay alive, they’re the ones that are growing, down in South America and Africa. It won’t be long before they’ll send missionaries to us and to Europe. The biggest thing I got from Packer is that they’re learning to describe what Jesus has done—while keeping the focus on Jesus himself. That’s where they can be ahead of the rest of us. “The presence of Jesus right now beside us, by the Holy Spirit as we call out to him”—that’s what they can give us, and they are already. The biggest new piece in our Calvinist theology is discovering that “union with Christ” isn’t some vague future thing but rather the foundation of all else. So we can rejoice together, can’t we?

I know a missionary who tells me that in South America he’s a Baptist but in Africa a Pentecostal. I know another who works in Latin America. He’s immersed in the OT and thought he went there to help the Presbyterians, but when they weren’t that interested and the Pentecostals kept coming to him, he showed them Jesus in the OT. They are turning from legalism (sound familiar?) to the big gospel. 

About everything else I thought about is back in history, still keeping us apart. The Pentecostal thing is right now; this is Christ’s one church.

It’s easy to stand in front of a classroom and pontificate: “this is how we’re right and they’re wrong. What makes us special is how we’re different.” It’s a lot harder to do a seminar where everyone talks and I have to listen. What if what really makes us special is that we’re good listeners? What if we can hear God’s Word better in what others are saying, than in listening to ourselves talk? What if we want our presbytery, at least one of our presbyteries, to be all the churches within a couple miles of us?

I think the clue is what we’ve learned about Calvinists and Arminians. Just don’t exaggerate the differences or you’ll be wrong. Look at Martin Luther and his horse again: if you’re so worried that you’ll fall off the horse on the right side that you lean to the left, well you’re going to fall off on that side. Consistency is a good thing, but be careful that you don’t want to be more consistent than God’s word. Be careful that you don’t lose ability to listen, either to God or to each other.

I know finally that there will be no conversation with the Westminster Board. I know their stance is so outlandish that it’s bound to disintegrate by itself within a few years, without needing any help from me. But I believe that we outsiders have been learning, especially about listening. (When no one listens to you, that helps the learning process.) I think I know what’s in the minds of the WTS Board, something like this:

The authority of the Bible and its inerrancy is under vigorous attack. The way we have always understood it is no longer acceptable by many within our ranks, and we must do something against that terrible trend. We note that many erroneous views come from reading the OT without NT clarification. Therefore we intend to remove from the Faculty all those who speak of reading the OT by itself, regardless of whether they go on to study how the NT uses the OT text. 

I think that is the Board’s direction. I deeply honor their commitment to God’s Word and ensuring that WTS is a place where it is supported vigorously and clearly. I agree with them that this is an important need in Christ’s church today. Their procedure appears at first glance to be consistent with the Seminary’s passion for teaching and learning the Word. But is there a downside?

I believe so. Just as Calvinism is not well served by hyper-Calvinism as the wisdom of man replaces God’s revelation, so support for the inerrancy of Scripture is not well-served by a hyper-inerrancy. How can we understand the OT unless there is room for serious study of how it was originally expressed? That is especially crucial at a school with a PhD program, but it is invaluable at all levels of biblical study. 

It may be that there should be a place for a seminary to contribute its own special understanding. For many years WTS fostered the Van Til apologetic that way. But God’s people need the deeper understandings that add to our knowledge, not those that take away. Is the time for independent para-church seminaries past? When they brought us together across denominational lines that was very promising, but today they can be narrower than our own church’s understanding, evidenced by the Glenside Session’s affirmative evaluation of Doug Green’s position.

“Truth is in order to goodness” is very basic to our faith and our allegiance to Jesus Christ. When gifted godly scholars are arbitrarily removed from teaching God’s people, more is lost than their contributions. A view of defending the truth indifferent to “due diligence” in maintaining love toward each other is not the Bible’s way. When a Board believes it knows where someone is going without careful listening to him, how can that embody the gospel, can it?

This is all much bigger than the WTS Board’s actions, which I offer only as another illustration—though my heart is deeply saddened by their direction. We need to think and pray beyond all this.  When this memory of WTS is long gone, the gospel challenge of listening to each other will remain. We do and will believe in the holy catholic church, much bigger and better than partisan commitment to avoid listening to each other. We believe there is the beloved church of our Lord Jesus.