Thinking Really Big: Prosperity and Success in Light of the Gospel

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[Editor’s Note: This past summer I spoke at the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church’s Family Bible Conference on a topic derived from Joshua 1:7-9, part of which reads, “For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success.” What follows below is a slightly edited version of that presentation.]

Prosperity and Success are always timely topics. After all, nearly everybody wants to be prosperous and successful. The list of seminars on how to be successful and prosperous is nearly endless, even in Christian circles. There is even a brand of theology that has arisen in American Christianity catering to these desires—we call this theology the “prosperity theology,” or the “health and wealth gospel.”

The context of this passage in Joshua is one of leadership transition. The book of Joshua begins with “After the death of Moses the servant of the LORD.” God’s first words in the book to Joshua are “Moses my servant is dead.” We then learn that the promises God has given to Moses still apply, and these promises focus especially on a promised land (v. 4). Joshua’s conquest will be successful, because God will be with him, just as God was with Moses (v. 5). But in response to God’s grace and blessing Joshua has a task. He must be “strong and courageous,” and he must be obedient to God’s law as it was given to Moses on Mt. Sinai. And if Joshua is strong and courageous, and obedient, his way will be prosperous and he will have “good success.”

We also have to pay attention to the broader cultural context of the Israelites in the ancient Near East. The concerns of most Israelites at this time were primarily this worldly. That is, they were focused on this life. Success and prosperity were defined largely in terms of long life, material blessings, possession of land, and many children who would carry on one’s legacy after one died. At death a person went to sheol (the place of the dead), and rested with one’s ancestors. That’s not to say that they had no conception of life after death—quite a number of texts suggest that death was thought to involve a cold, shadowy, semi-conscious existence in sheol. At this point they did not yet think of two destinations after death (the hot place and the air-conditioned place). They didn’t think in terms of pearly gates and streets of gold. God’s revelation is progressive, and those were later developments that we rightly associate with the inter-testamental and New Testament periods. In light of this, we should not be too surprised at what we see here in this passage.

In a nutshell, then, this text seems to be teaching that faithful observance of the law and obedience to God’s commands will lead to prosperity and success. And we can’t help but be struck by the way these blessings are presented primarily as temporal blessings in this life. First, the prosperity in view here is the occupation of the promised land, elsewhere called a “land flowing with milk and honey.” The Israelites would dwell in a land prepared for them by others, in cities they did not build, using cisterns they did not dig, feasting on vineyards they did not plant (see Deuteronomy 6:10-12). They would live in a land sufficient to provide for their needs, and all of this was God’s gift to them. This was their inheritance from God. Second, the success spoken of here refers primarily to the conquest and to the way that they would displace the Canaanites. This was cultural success, success against their enemies. The Israelites would be in charge; their religion and their culture would prevail within the land.

We read these words to Joshua and we may find them comforting, but that comfort is not without ambiguity and uncertainty. We wonder: Can we expect to experience God’s blessing in the same way that Joshua and the Israelites did?   Do the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ make a difference? Does our rather different location in redemptive history mean that our expectations on these matters should be different from Joshua and his generation?  If the answer to these last questions is yes, then what does this text in Joshua mean for us here today? Two key issues emerge here—material prosperity and success in our cultural endeavors. We will examine both in this article.

Before we do that, however, we need to keep in mind three theological principles which have to do with the past, the present, and the future: First, the land of Israel was a provisional anticipation in the past of much greater blessings to come. Second, Jesus presently calls his disciples to follow him in the path of the cross, and through our union with Christ this cruciform mode of existence is replicated in our lives. Third, regarding the future, we as Christians have not yet arrived at our final destination. We are sojourners and pilgrims. In a very real sense we are awaiting our final salvation. Christ has decisively defeated the powers of sin and death, but that final victory is not yet fully manifested.

I.   Material Prosperity

Some things come immediately to mind when we think about Christians and material prosperity. How about Joel Osteen’s Your Best Life Now! Many Christians seem convinced that God wants us to be healthy, wealthy, and wise, with a BMW in the garage. Back in the 1960s Janis Joplin sang: “O Lord, Won’t You Buy Me a Mercedes Benz; My Friends All Drive Porsches, I Must Make Amends.” We all viewed the song as sort of a joke, but the joke has become reality for many. In other words, when we filter such texts regarding God’s blessing through the lenses of American expressive individualism and materialism we tend to get the prosperity Gospel. Sometimes this impulse takes cartoonish forms—Tammy Fay Bakker’s makeup and Creflo Dollar’s private jet. Sometimes it comes in slightly more subdued and respectable forms—take Bruce Wilkinson’s The Prayer of Jabez. But in each case what emerges is a religion of consumption, a quasi-Christian justification of materialism and consumerism.

Back in 2012 my friend Ross Douthat of the New York Times published a book entitled Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (Free Press, 2012). According to Douthat, prosperity theology has helped “millions of believers reconcile their religious faith with their nation’s seemingly unbiblical wealth and un-Christian consumer culture” (p. 183). He notes that traditional Christianity contains a critique of mammon and acquisition that creates tensions for many Americans who are avidly pursuing wealth at all costs, and that prosperity theology seeks to resolve this tension by doing away with it. But Douthat also rightly notes that this theology puts many of its adherents in a bind: God wants you to be rich, but what if you are poor? The too easy answer is that you lack faith!

Such people tend to love the “sowing and reaping” language of the Bible. If you do things for God, and especially for some television evangelist’s ministry, you will reap a harvest. They especially like what Paul has to say in 2 Corinthians 9: “whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. . . . And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work.” But they misread this key text—Paul’s point is not that if you give money to God he will make you rich. Rather, his point is that the pattern of God’s activity is that generosity is rewarded so that God’s people will have enough to care for themselves and for others.

But even more serious than bad exegesis, the advocates of the prosperity theology fundamentally misinterpret the nature of the Christian life itself. Jesus told his disciples to take up their cross and follow him. Not surprisingly, Jesus also suggests that the Christian life is one of difficulty and hardship: “In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Paul tells us that God’s grace and power is made perfect in our times of weakness: “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10). The pattern of the Christian life is the same as Christ’s—we too have to go through the cross to get to the resurrection. We have to die to our sins and selfish desires in order to come alive to new life in the Spirit.

But I would also suggest that the problem of the prosperity theology is not that it thinks too big. Rather, it thinks too small! How can we reduce the gospel to questions of color TVs and new cars and larger houses, to creature comforts in this life when Scripture offers us so much more? We serve a Lord and Savior who has defeated the powers of sin and death at the cross, who is seated in the heavenly places “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come” (Ephesians 1:21). We serve a Savior who rules over all things for the church (Ephesians 1:23), and whose triumph will finally be evident to all when he comes in power to wipe away every tear, remove every pain, rectify every injustice, and renew heaven and earth in accordance with God’s perfect will. In light of this cosmic dimension of the gospel, who cares about color TVs! Once again, the problem is not that the prosperity gospel thinks too big; it thinks way too small.

II.   Cultural Success

How shall we characterize this problem in a nutshell? How about Roe v. Wade and Obergefell v. Hodges? These two Supreme Court decisions seem to exemplify the failure of Christians in this country to influence culture. They are the markers and measures of our lack of cultural success.   We are understandably anguished over this, not only because of the human tragedy involved but also because we hope and pray that God has better things for us. In other words, some of this unhappiness stems from our unique history as Americans, and of our perception of America as a promised land inhabited by chosen people.

America was founded by Puritans. They viewed themselves as in covenant with God, as a new Israel. They thought that the covenant promises made to Israel applied quite literally to them. They thought that if Americans were obedient God would bless our land, just as he blessed ancient Israel. That’s why many American Christians love to quote 2 Chronicles 7:14: “if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” This is where American exceptionalism, our notion of America as a special, chosen nation originates from.

In the early nineteenth century American Christians worked diligently to usher in the kingdom of God in the context of the Second Great Awakening. The so-called Evangelical United Front used a phalanx of voluntary societies—missionary societies, literacy societies, temperance societies, anti-slavery societies, and so forth—to seek to transform American culture and society. And they were remarkably successful. Sometimes God blesses the efforts of his people in dramatic and exciting ways. There is plenty of sociological evidence, in Europe, in America, and in Latin America (see, e.g., Amy Sherman, The Soul of Development: Biblical Christianity and Economic Transformation in Guatemala, Oxford UP, 1997), that good things happen socially and culturally when evangelical Christianity becomes pervasive. Men work harder. They care for their families. They stop drinking to excess. They move up the socio-economic ladder. Poverty is lessened. As a result of this pervasive Christian influence on American culture, it became plausible to think of America as a “Christian nation.”

But then in the latter part of the nineteenth century Evangelical Christian influence began to wane. Church-affiliated colleges and universities began to depart from their religious roots.   American society was slowly but surely becoming more secular, and by the 1950s many people were becoming uneasy about this. It was during this period that we added the phrase “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance (1954) and “in God we trust” became the official motto of the nation (1956). But by the 1960s the larger trends were clear. The Supreme Court outlawed mandated prayer and Bible reading in the public schools.   Religious influences were increasingly excluded from the public square; appeals to transcendent authority outside the self were rejected, and the path to where we are now was pretty clear.

Of course, these secular trends sparked reactions by some Christians. By 1980 the Religious Right of Jerry Falwell and his ilk was in full swing, and helped to elect Ronald Reagan as President. The idea was that if we change the laws of the nation in top-down fashion we can move the culture in a more Christian direction.   A subset of the Religious Right, the Christian Reconstructionist or Theonomy movement, argued that the Old Testament civil laws should be implemented on American society. Unfortunately, this latter move was an unmitigated disaster. Exegetically, the Theonomists failed to reckon with the way that the Old Testament civil laws only made sense in the context of the promised land of Canaan. Confessionally, the Theonomists (many of whom were conservative Presbyterians) failed to recognize that the Westminster Confession expressly declares that the “sundry judicial laws” of ancient Israel “expired together with the State of that people,” and that such laws only oblige us today to the extent that they express timeless principles of “general equity.” Finally, the Theonomist program was a political disaster in that it seemed to confirm the worst theocratic nightmares of many about conservative Christians.

Needless to say, none of this worked very well, and we are now in the midst of a full-scale reaction by both the broader culture and many Christians against the Religious Right. For example, advocates of a Radical or Reformed Two-Kingdoms movement (sometimes abbreviated as R2K) argue that the role of the church is exclusively spiritual rather than social, and that Christians as Christians have nothing to say on civil or social issues such as same-sex marriage (I’ve written a brief critique of R2K here). More moderately, Christian sociologist J. D. Hunter in his widely read To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (Oxford UP, 2010) has argued for what he calls a stance of “faithful presence,” in which Christians eschew the use of political power and simply seek to be salt and light by their very presence in society. That pretty much brings us up to the present, which is not a particularly happy place for conservative Christians to be.

But it is precisely here that a biblical theology of the Land may be helpful to us.   As we survey the biblical materials dealing with the Promised Land, some key principles come to light. First, the land is owned by God himself and it is graciously bestowed upon his people as an inheritance. In Leviticus 25:23 we read, “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine. For you are strangers and sojourners with me.” Second, the land is given specifically to the offspring of Abraham, the Israelites. That is, it was ethnically defined. Here we recall that remarkable vision in Genesis 15 as God promises Abraham’s offspring the land upon pain of death. Third, obedience to the Mosaic was required for continued occupancy of the land. Here we recall the blessings for obedience and the curses for disobedience as they are listed in Deuteronomy 28, and the climactic covenant curse is exile from the Promised Land. And, of course, this final covenant curse was invoked by the prophet Jeremiah and accomplished by the Babylonians. Fourth, the key issue here was the saving presence of God with his people. The goal of the Mosaic covenant was that the LORD might be their God, and they might be his people—God and his chosen people living together in fellowship and peace. Moreover, this saving presence of God found its focus in the tabernacle and later in Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the Promised Land was a foretaste of much greater blessings. In that sense, it was provisional; it was not the last word in God’s plan for his people. Rather, it was a way for them to begin thinking about what God might have in store for them in the future.

This last point is especially crucial. Even within the Old Testament we see indications that the land of Canaan was not a final or ultimate arrangement, that it pointed forward to a greater eschatological reality. In Psalm 2 we read that the Messiah will have the nations for his inheritance and the ends of the earth for his possession. The depiction of the messianic kingdom in Isaiah often seems to be universal in scope, as the peoples stream to the “holy mountain of the LORD” and as the nations of the world live in peace under his righteous rule (Isaiah 2). In other words, the OT prophets intuited that God’s plans included Gentiles as well as Jews and they used the motif of the land to express this reality that ultimately encompasses not just Canaan but the entire world.

Turning to the New Testament, we see that the notion of the Land as the inheritance of God’s people is picked up in a powerful way. Scholars such as Christopher Wright, N. T. Wright, and J. G. Millar have explored this issue at great length and my own understanding of this issue is indebted to them. Jesus says that the “meek will inherit the earth” (or the land, Matt. 5:5). Paul connects the dots for us in Romans 4:13: “For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be the heir of the world did not come through the law but though the righteousness of faith.” Significantly, the author of Hebrews understands the promise of entering the Promised Land as pointing forward to an eternal Sabbath rest for God’s people as they are joined with Christ. The point should be clear to us now—with the coming of the Messiah, the notion of the “promised land” is christologically defined. The promise of “land” is fulfilled concretely in Christ, who rules over the world as God’s kingdom, and his people. A principle of redemptive history is that when God takes something away, he replaces it with something much, much better.

All this should be a warning to us not to identify the Promised Land with any particular nation, or particular piece of real estate. The covenant promises of God regarding land do not apply to America as a nation in covenant with God, or as some sort of new Israel. God’s plans are not going down the tube because of America’s present unfaithfulness. We know that ultimate individual and collective transformation are God’s work that will not be completed until Christ comes again, and that, while real (albeit provisional) successes are at times realized today, this eschatological horizon implies that the ministry of the church is not going to usher in the millennium.

Nevertheless, we also know that despite the setbacks and frustrations of our present existence (and in ways that are quite mysterious to us from our present earthly perspective) God is building his kingdom and using us his people to that end. It is not without reason that the metaphor of sowing and reaping is so prominent in the New Testament. Our deeds make a difference, and our task as Christians is to be faithful.

Once again, we see that the danger is not that we think too big, but that we think too small. We want to have some success in changing American culture.   And God in his providence may allow that as he has in the past, or he may not. But God is at work transforming the cosmos and using us his people to that end. That’s real success!

Why Can’t People Just Be Rational? The Visceral Turn in American Culture and Politics

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The persistence of the Trump phenomenon clearly has the intelligentsia on the Right flummoxed. Tom Sowell—a thoughtful guy if there ever was one—bemoans the “fervent support” for Trump as a “blind faith” motivated by the perception that these are “desperate times,” and he glumly hopes that the “common sense” of voters will eventually prevail before it is too late. Rod Dreher of the American Conservative demonstrates his conservative intelligentsia bona fides by assuring us that he e-mails New York Times columnist Ross Douthat regularly, before complaining about “a tribal conservatism, one that had very little to do with ideas, and everything to do with nationalism and a sense of us-versus-them.” That being said, Dreher also seeks to understand how “ideas and reason matter far less to most people than they do to people like us (this is true of the left as well), not because most people are stupid, but because their mode of experiencing life is not nearly as abstract as ours.” In other words, the distance between Trump supporters and the pundits is painfully apparent, especially to the pundits!

As a career academic, I suppose I should note that I have a dog in this fight. My goal in the classroom is to encourage students to look at issues from new angles, to develop the analytic skills necessary to understand the complex reality they experience, and to engage in civil discussion of these matters. Of course, irrationalism is nothing new in American culture and politics—that’s one reason why schools and universities to foster learning and right reason were founded. Here we think of the visceral anti-Catholicism of the so-called “Know Nothings” in the 1840s, or the Dionysian cultural turn in the 1960s, to name just two obvious examples.   Nevertheless, there does seem to be something new afoot.

Let’s take Evangelicals as a case in point. Pundits are puzzling (e.g., Russell Moore here and Jonathan Merritt here) over the high level of support for Trump among Evangelical voters. Particularly striking was the recent endorsement of Trump by Liberty University President Jerry Falwell, Jr. Now most of us know that Evangelicalism is not a movement of thoughtful reflection; rather, it is an activist impulse driven by a certain understanding of religious experience. Not surprisingly, it has produced far more Billy Grahams than Carl Henrys. But twenty years ago it would be difficult to conceive of Evangelical voters flocking to Donald Trump, a candidate whose manner, personal behavior, and previously advocated policies don’t match up well with Evangelical sensibilities at all. This is visceral politics, the politics of the vented spleen, in action!

So what’s new?

First, circumstances have conspired to make this an era of what the French call ressentiment. Sociologist of religion James Davison Hunter writes,

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).

Visceral politics needs an opponent, a perceived threat, in order to thrive. Within the Republican context, there is the general sense that things are not going well for the nation—militarily, economically, or culturally. Barack Obama’s “hope and change” presidency has brought a whole lot of cultural change but rather little hope. Furthermore, the Republican party and its leadership are widely seen by rank-and-file Republicans as powerless to reverse the tide of national decline.

Second, the party establishment appears to be discredited, or at very least way out of touch. Rightly or wrongly, the perception of many is that party leaders are tools of financial interests who are looking out for themselves rather than the interests of the country and the average American. Furthermore, a significant wing of the Republican establishment is discredited in the eyes of many on foreign policy issues because of an Iraq war that dragged on and on, and which has by all appearances made the Middle East much more unstable. After all, as Dreher notes it was the smart guys in the Republican Party, rather than the populists, who championed the Iraq incursion. And let’s not forget that it was the foreign-policy brain trust of the Democratic Party that got us into Vietnam, and that distressingly similar debacle fueled a likewise similar revolt against Democratic elites in the late 1960s.

Third, rational argumentation itself seems to be increasingly out of style. This is a complicated issue but it has to do at very least with both the post-modern pessimism regarding reason itself and with related developments within the humanities. While the harder sciences retain their cultural respect and allure because of their connection to technology, the humanities (which at one time were a bastion of thoughtful reflection and civil discourse supportive of democratic institutions) have descended into the power analysis of “critical theory” and the resulting nasty and self-serving identity politics. Truth with a capital T is in eclipse, and everything is seen as relative to social location and power relationships.  Even if Republicans are rightly critical of such developments, these ways of thinking are still part of the cultural air we breathe.

Finally, in the absence of concepts of Truth and lasting touchstones, moral argumentation about what the common good may be has degenerated into emotivism. In an earlier essay I wrote that

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.

And so the stage is well set for the sort of visceral politics we see today. Not so clear, however, is the solution. It may be that Sowell’s common sense will prevail for Republicans this year, though it’s getting late in the day.

Larycia in Wonderland: What Was She Thinking?

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By now nearly everyone in the Evangelical world has probably heard about the case of Wheaton College Political Science professor Larycia Hawkins, who announced in a December 10 Facebook post that she was wearing the hijab (the headcovering worn by some Muslim women) during Advent (of all things!) as a sign of her solidarity with Muslims in America, whom she regards as subject to suspicion and oppression in this country because of their faith.

Her rationale was twofold. First, there is the fact that Christians and Muslims share a common humanity. So far, so good, although I not quite sure how her reference to how “we are formed of the same primordial clay, descendants of the same cradle of humankind—a cave in Sterkfontein, South Africa that I had the privilege to descend into to plumb the depths of our common humanity in 2014” leaves much room for the historical and specially created Adam and Eve that Wheaton faculty members are supposed to affirm.

Second, she argued that she stands “in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book. And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.” Here her argument appears to go well beyond the obvious historical observation that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are monotheistic Abrahamic faiths (i.e., that all three worship a singular deity, are Middle Eastern in origin, and look back to Abraham as a significant figure) to theological assertion; she contends that they “worship the same God.”

By December 15 Hawkins was in hot water with the Wheaton administration.  Realizing they had a PR firestorm on their hands, the College put her on paid leave pending further clarification of her statements. Her letter of December 17, however, apparently raised more questions. In it she recognized both theological continuity and discontinuity between Islam and Christianity, but argued that her Facebook “statement is not a statement on soteriology or trinitarian theology, but one of embodied piety.” In other words, she contends that while Christians and Muslims construe the deity very differently, they still experience the same divine being.

Hawkins has certainly had her defenders.   Yale theologian Miroslav Volf declared in a Washington Post opinion piece that her suspension was simply about “enmity toward Muslims.” Some Wheaton faculty members, especially in the Bible and Theology Department, have vigorously defended her (for a somewhat different perspective, see this thoughtful piece by Wheaton religious historian Timothy Larsen). According to an article in the Chicago Tribune, a group of female Wheaton students has taken to wearing the hijab themselves, and students staged a sit-in at President Philip Ryken’s office on December 16. I’m told that Ryken went on a previously scheduled skiing trip, so apparently he was not particularly inconvenienced by this gesture of student irritation.

That this issue would be particularly knotty for Wheaton College should not surprise. Not only does it involve an African-American female professor (with all the potential for identity politics inherent in that) but it also resonates with the concerns of millennial-generation students for tolerance and openness. And anyone who has spent much time on the Wheaton campus knows that faculty members there really, really, really care about their academic standing and reputation, and episodes like this, which remind us of the conservative Evangelical roots and identity of the school and its ideological distance from secular academia, are doubtless embarrassing to some of them. One friend deeply familiar with the Wheaton milieu remarked to me not long ago that the recent history of the school can be told in terms of the ongoing and unresolved tension between evangelical piety and academic ambition.

While I’ve never met Larycia Hawkins and everything I’ve read suggests that she is a nice and generous human being, I’m nevertheless troubled on four counts.

First, the theological justification for her expression of solidarity is rather thin. More specifically, her notion of a shared “embodied piety” as a basis saying that Muslims and Christians “worship the same God” strikes me as bordering on meaningless. To borrow an argument from Yale theologian George Lindbeck’s brief but seminal volume The Nature of Doctrine, if religious experience is as linguistically shaped as recent research suggests it is, what basis do we have for saying that there is a shared experience of piety? Her assertions here appear to involve the assumption of what Lindbeck has aptly called an “experiential-expressive” model of religion—that people have a shared experience of the transcendent/divine but they express this common experience in different ways. Stephen Prothero of Boston University hit the nail on the head when he wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal: “No doubt Christians should strive to understand the Islamic faith fully, and vice versa. But pretend pluralism, feigning that all or most religious traditions hinge on the same truth, is no solution for the squabble at Wheaton or anywhere else.”

Second, the expression of solidarity itself—wearing a Muslim headcovering—is just about as meaningless as the theological rationale that underlies it. I’m all for showing the love of Christ to Muslims through hospitality, meeting physical needs, and working against discrimination, but, frankly, what is the point of wearing the hijab? Is it simply to make other Americans uneasy or uncomfortable? Is it to make the hijab wearer feel superior to all those other unenlightened Americans?

Third, the expression of solidarity is profoundly insensitive to Dr. Hawkins’ Christian brothers and sisters in the Middle East, who today are being enslaved, raped, and murdered in the name of jihadist Islam. The fact of the matter is that Islam has a long-standing problem with religiously inspired violence (I’ve dealt with this issue at some length here), and that in a cultural context dominated by Islam there can sometimes be tolerance but no genuine religious pluralism.  In other words, Christians will always be second-class citizens.  James K. Hoffmeier recently wrote in an important article on this topic:

Hawkins’s aim may have been noble, but did she and her supporters consider how Middle Eastern Christians might feel about this particular gesture of solidarity with Muslims? Might it be offensive?

In recent years Christian minorities in Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Pakistan have been driven from their homes and seen their businesses burned, young persons raped, and girls turned into sex slaves. Many have been shot and beheaded; some have even been crucified. In Nigeria the Christian majority is under attack from Boko Haram terrorists who recently swore allegiance to ISIS. These jihadists are responsible for the death of more than 15,000 Christians; often their murders occur in churches and schools. With such blatant persecution of Christians in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa by various Islamic jihadists, it’s perplexing that Hawkins would seek to draw attention to and identify with Muslims instead of the Christians whose suffering far surpasses any alienation Muslims might feel in America.

Would that Hawkins’ concern for Muslims were matched by a concern for her co-religionists, her real “brothers and sisters,” in the Middle East!

Finally, Hawkins’ donning of the hijab is insensitive to many Muslim women who view it as a symbol of oppression. The simple fact is that Islam has “woman problem” as well. Hawkins tells us that she checked with the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), a political lobbying organization that is doubtless more than happy for her to carry their water. But why didn’t she consult with Muslim women? Again, James Hoffmeier writes:

A female professor at a private Egyptian university explained that many of her Muslim friends feel pressured to wear the hijab to look like good Muslims, adding that hijab-wearing is a “sign of societal and cultural oppression” dating back to the Ottoman empire. Saudi Arabia and Iran are now pressuring the Muslim world to normalize the practice everywhere. It’s a type of religio-culture imperialism. My friend continued: “Nearly all, including the veiled women I know, acknowledge that hijab isn’t mandated in the Qur’an.” Regarding Hawkins’s hijab-wearing, the professor concluded, “I think her effort is misguided since in this particular case she’s siding with the oppressor, not the oppressed.”

In short, Larycia Hawkins has managed to combine theological incoherence and empty symbolism with profound insensitivity to Middle Eastern Christians and to many Muslim women—and to do so at Wheaton College of all places! I’m driven to a simple question: What was this bright and capable woman thinking?

Is the Spirit of Old Princeton Finally Dead?

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Old Princeton Seminary cast a long shadow. By “Old Princeton,” of course, we mean Princeton Theological Seminary from its founding in 1812 until the reorganization of the Board in 1929 by the General Assembly so as to reflect the theological diversity increasingly present in the Presbyterian Church, USA. This was the school of Archibald Alexander, Charles Hodge, A. A. Hodge, and B. B. Warfield in Systematic Theology, and William Henry Green, Robert Dick Wilson, and J. Gresham Machen in biblical studies. And students flocked to the place. Charles Hodge taught almost three thousand during his decades there. And it wasn’t just Presbyterian students who came—here we think, for example, of the Lutheran Samuel Schmucker, the southern Baptist James Petigru Boyce, and the Dutch Reformed Louis Berkhof, all of whom attended Princeton Seminary before having a decided impact on their own communions.

I will admit to something of a personal interest in all of this. My paternal grandfather was a classmate of J. Gresham Machen, Clarence Macartney, and O. T. Allis, all of whom graduated in 1905. My father graduated from Princeton Seminary in the 1940s, and in the 1980s I attended the seminary that has been most associated with the Old Princeton legacy—Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.

What was distinctive about Old Princeton?   Some time ago I proposed a typology for understanding how seminaries differ. Seminaries, I suggested, can be categorized in terms of three polarities—graduate school of theology (GST) vs. school for pastors, catechetical vs. critical, and confessional vs. ecumenical.   In terms of this typology, Old Princeton was rather clearly GST/critical/confessional. The required curriculum was extensive and largely academic. In fact, the lack of training offered in practical ministry skills was one of the criticisms of the school in the period leading up to the reorganization. Emblematic of this academic focus was Charles Hodge’s caustic response to the Presbyterian General Assembly’s condemnation of the practice of reading sermons. Hodge wrote, “We hail the increase of this method as proof of the intellectual progress of our church, and as one of the best omens of its true prosperity” (quoted in Lefferts A. Loetscher, Facing the Enlightenment and Pietism [1983], 240).

Another way to look at this question is to focus on key emphases that helped to define the school. Let me suggest three. First, there was a clear sense at Old Princeton of the ultimate unity of knowledge. Faith and reason were distinguished but not radically separated. In short, the Old Princetonians were not fundamentalists in the more recent sense of the term. Science was valued; Charles Hodge famously spoke of theology as a “scientific” discipline, and emphasized what he took to be the methodological continuities between theology and the natural sciences. The Old Princeton theologians were convinced that scientific and historical insights can and should play a role in the interpretation of Scripture. Warfield’s family was involved in cattle breeding, and he thought deeply about the theory of evolution. The Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review published many reviews and articles dealing with topics far afield from theology and biblical studies. In all of this they were confident that a sovereign God is Lord over all inquiry, and that theology and Christian ministry must not be sequestered from the broader context of scholarship and thought.

Second, Old Princeton was a confessional school.  Its professors subscribed ex animo (“from the heart”) to the Westminster Standards, but this confessionalism in practice was rather different than the wooden confessionalism we sometimes encounter today (where the view seems to be that “if it’s in the confession, it is essential”).  Or, to phrase it a bit differently, the Old Princeton theologians knew how to distinguish the essential from the important, and the important from the indifferent. They discerned the primary from the secondary from the tertiary. One tool they used for accomplishing this was the notion of what we might call “consensus Calvinism,” which simultaneously related Calvinism to the broader Christian tradition as the best and most consistent form of Christianity, and viewed the Reformed tradition itself as centered in where the Reformed confessions agree. Warfield’s well-known Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia article on “Calvinism” is a good example of this approach. In it he described Calvinism simply as the highest form of theism, religion, evangelicalism:

Calvinism is not a specific variety of theism, religion, evangelicalism, set over against other specific varieties, which along with it constitute these several genera, and which possess equal rights of existence with it and make similar claims to perfection, each after its own kind. It differs from them not as one species differs from other species; but as a perfectly developed representative differs from an imperfectly developed representative of the same species. (Warfield, “Calvinism,” in Works, V: 355)

In the same article Warfield appeals beyond the individual peculiarities of particular confessions to the consensus of the confessional tradition as a whole:

Nevertheless, it is precisely the same system of truth which is embodied in all the great historic Reformed confessions; it matters not whether the document emanates from Zurich or Bern or Basel or Geneva, whether it sums up the Swiss development as in the second Helvetic Confession, or publishes the faith of the National Reformed Churches of France, or Scotland, or Holland, or the Palatinate, or Hungary, Poland, Bohemia, or England; or republishes the established Reformed doctrine in opposition to new contradictions, as in the Canons of Dort (in which the entire Reformed world concurred), or the Westminster Confession (to which the whole of Puritan Britain gave its assent), or the Swiss Form of Consent (which represents the mature judgment of Switzerland upon the recently proposed novelties of doctrine). And despite the inevitable variety of individual points of view, as well as the unavoidable differences in ability, learning, grasp, in the multitude of writers who have sought to expound the Reformed faith through these four centuries – and the grave departures from that faith made here and there among them – the great stream of Reformed dogmatics has flowed essentially unsullied, straight from its origin in Zwingli and Calvin to its debouchure, say, in Chalmers and Cunningham and Crawford, in Hodge and Thornwell and Shedd. (Warfield, “Calvinism,” in Works, V: 361-62)

While this historiographical approach to the Reformed tradition sometimes flattened significant differences within that tradition unduly, it also enabled the Princeton theologians to avoid getting caught up in confessional trivia and to speak with confidence and relevance from their confessional standpoint to the broader Christian community.

Third, the Old Princeton theologians coupled a high view of the divine authority of Scripture with a keen desire to do justice to the human dimension of the Bible. While Old Princeton is rightly associated with the notion of inerrancy in the original autographs (though, as Randall Balmer demonstrated decades ago, they did not invent it and were in fact reflecting an evangelical consensus), their view was nuanced.  Holy Scripture is without error in all its “affirmations”; that is to say, in all that it teaches. As Warfield and A. A. Hodge carefully put it in their famous article “Inspiration,”

It must be remembered that it is not claimed that the Scripture, any more than their authors, are omniscient. The information they convey is in the form of human thought, and limited on all sides. They were not designed to teach philosophy, science, or human history as such. They were not designed to furnish an infallible system of speculative theology. They are written in human languages, whose words, inflection, constructions, and idioms bear everywhere indelible traces of human error. The record itself furnishes evidence that the writers were in large measure dependent for their knowledge upon sources and methods in themselves fallible, and that their personal knowledge and judgments were in many matters hesitating and defective, or even wrong.   Nevertheless, the historical faith of the church has always been that all the affirmations of Scripture of all kinds, whether of spiritual doctrine or duty, or of physical or historical fact, or of psychological or philosophical principle, are without any error when the ipsissima verba of the original autographs are ascertained in their natural and intended sense. There is a vast difference between exactness of statement, which includes an exhaustive rendering of details, an absolute literalness, which the Scriptures never profess, and accuracy, on the other hand, which secures a correct statement of facts or principles intended to be affirmed. (A. A. Hodge and B. B. Warfield, “Inspiration,” in Mark A. Noll, ed., , 229-30)

Thus the Old Princetonians coupled an emphasis on the divine authority and reliability of Scripture with a keen desire to interpret  Scripture carefully and in its cultural and historical context. Unlike many conservative Reformed people today (for whom literal six-day creationism, for example, has become a touchstone of orthodoxy), Charles Hodge saw no problem with the ancient Israelite author depicting the firmament in Genesis 1 as a solid dome (see his Systematic Theology, I: 569-570).  He and his colleagues were not literal six-day young-earth creationists, and they realized that the scientific evidence for an old earth was substantial. Princeton Old Testament scholar William Henry Green’s article on the genealogies of the Old Testament demonstrated that a literalistic reading of the genealogies (upon which the young-earth position depends) involves insuperable difficulties. He rightly concluded that the genealogies were simply not intended to provide the basis for a scientific chronology, and that interpretations based on such an erroneous expectation were unsound (see his “Primeval Chronology,” Bibliotheca Sacra [April 1890]: 285-303). A bit later, Warfield would write, “The question of the antiquity of man is accordingly a purely scientific one, in which the theologian as such has no concern” (“The Antiquity and Unity of the Human Race,” in Studies in Theology [1932], 245).

The Old Princeton theologians also took the dual authorship of Scripture seriously. They viewed the unity of the Testaments as a function of their divine authorship rather than of what the human authors may have known, and they insisted that God used the human authors “according to their nature,” that is, in accordance with their human limitations (Hodge, Systematic Theology, I: 157).  Warfield wrote: “The Old Testament may be likened to a chamber richly furnished but dimly lighted; the introduction of light brings into it nothing which was not in it before; but it brings out into clearer view much of what is in it but was only dimly or even not at all perceived before” (“The Biblical Doctrine of the Trinity,” in Works, II: 141).

But how the times have changed! The “graduate school of theology” model of seminary education has fallen on hard times in the conservative Reformed world, and many seminaries in that orbit now identify as professional schools for pastors (a move consistent with the thoroughly insidious notion that ministers are “professionals” like lawyers and accountants).  There is no longer a conservative Evangelical seminary with anything approaching the intellectual reputation and clout of Old Princeton, and the life of the church has suffered accordingly.

With this decline in intellectual attainment the concern for the ultimate unity of all knowledge as God’s truth has largely evaporated in conservative Reformed circles.   This is a day of small things intellectually, as a selection of ideas thought to be crucial for resistance against a hostile secular culture are defended with tenacity, but with little effort to integrate the whole spectrum of truth.

Moreover, a healthy confessionalism that safeguards and champions the great truths of the Reformed tradition has been replaced in too many conservative circles by confessional hairsplitting that elevates relatively minor matters to ultimate importance.

Finally, while many conservative Reformed people are zealous to defend the authority of the Bible, often they do not do so with the care and nuance we see at Old Princeton. In particular, the challenges of interpretation and doing justice to the human dimension Scripture often get short shrift. This latter phenomenon is now especially evident at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, long thought to be the guardian of Old Princeton’s legacy.  Now those who seek to understand the Old Testament in light of its ancient Near Eastern cultural background and who think that the Old Testament writers were not always aware of the christological meanings that New Testament authors discerned in their texts are apparently no longer welcome (see here and here and here), and another prominent biblical scholar there now teaches that we should just give up on trying to understand what an individual human author of Scripture may have intended. All this, we must recognize, stands in stark contrast to the Old Princeton tradition.

And so we return to the question in the title of this post: Is the spirit of Old Princeton finally dead? To this we must answer with a qualified “yes.” To be sure, elements of the Old Princeton legacy persist at a number of evangelical seminaries, but the total package—that breathtaking combination of wide-ranging scholarly attainment, healthy confessionalism, and a balanced view of the nature and authority of Scripture—is hard to find. Two prominent evangelical seminaries—Westminster and Fuller—were founded with the express intention of continuing the Old Princeton tradition, but both have moved away from it (albeit in very different ways).   Perhaps the death of the Old Princeton approach was inevitable, but I can say with confidence that the life of the church has not been enriched by its demise.

Why Is Norman Lear Sounding More Like Archie Bunker?

Bill Evans head shot

I’ve been involved in the education of millennials for a good deal of my academic career, and for what it’s worth, I’ve long thought that a great lacuna in the education of most millennials is training in what used to be called “civics”—the once ubiquitous high-school introduction to founding documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, to the American constitutional and federal tradition of limited government with its separation of powers, and the resulting protections for freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom of the press, etc.

Veteran television producer Norman Lear, the creative force of nature behind the delightfully dysfunctional Bunker family (with its memorable characters Archie and Edith, Meathead and Gloria) on the 1971-79 CBS sitcom “All in the Family,” and who has long been identified with left-of-center causes, seems to agree in this lively interview with Entertainment Weekly:

Everybody knows me to be a progressive or a liberal or lefty or whatever. I think of myself as a bleeding-heart conservative. You will not f— with my Bill of Rights, my Constitution, my guarantees of political justice for all. But does my heart bleed for those who need help and aren’t getting the justice that the country promises them and the equal opportunity the country promises? Yes. I’m a bleeding heart, but I think myself to be a total social conservative. The people who are running just don’t seem to have America on their minds, not the America I think about. When I was a kid we were in love with America. As early as I can remember, there was a civics class in my public school. And I was in love with those things that guaranteed freedom before I learned that there were people who hated me because I was Jewish. I had a Bill of Rights and a Constitution, those words out of the Declaration that protected me. And I knew about that because we had civics in class. We don’t have that much in the country anymore. So before World War II or shortly after, we were in love with America because we understood what it was about and that’s what we were in love with. I believe everybody’s patriotic today. Everybody loves America. But I don’t need their flag plans to prove it. I’d like to go back to civics lessons.

Norman Lear a self-professed “total social conservative”! Who woulda thunk it?

Civics courses were an early casualty of an educational establishment that increasingly regarded America as the great problem in the world and the fountainhead of all things evil—racism, sexism, and homophobia, not to mention the misuse of the environment, and the killing of Cecil the lion. Formerly, it was thought that there is something distinctive and worth perpetuating about America to which immigrants should conform, but now the traditional metaphor of the “melting pot” is widely seen as repressive of minorities.  And the baneful influence of Christianity is identified as close to the center of all these problems and therefore as something to be escaped at all costs. Ever wonder why it is that many progressives cannot seem to summon up even a modicum of concern about the large-scale, brutal persecution of Christians elsewhere in the world? The answer seems to be that since Christians are proponents of repressive traditional morality they deserve it.

Now, deprived by their “educations” of any transcendent moral framework (e.g., that inconvenient business about being “endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights” in the Declaration of Independence) and of any appreciation for the historical and practical significance of the American experiment (which, of course, presupposed that transcendent moral context), many millennials seem quite willing to jettison all these great liberties in a quixotic and ever-changing emotivist/therapeutic quest for newly minted “rights” to do whatever they please, unconstrained by the wisdom of the ages, previous human history, divine revelation, the givens of biology, and simple common sense.

Lear’s comments on politics implicitly raise another interesting, and potentially highly significant, angle on this larger issue. It is precisely rather conservative, letter-of-the-law interpretations of the Constitution that historically have protected ethnic and religious minorities, such as Lear’s own Jewish community, against the tyranny of the majority. Culturally conservative Christians are a convenient (and relatively low-cost and risk-free) target for today’s secular progressive bullies. After all, that line in the Sermon on the Mount about “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” means that conservative Christians are, on balance, unlikely to mount a jihad against overreaching militant secularism.

But the elastic, Humpty-Dumpty jurisprudence of Anthony Kennedy and his ilk on the Supreme Court ultimately places in danger any minority whose religious, cultural, or political views don’t match up with evolving secular, egalitarian, sexuality-obsessed elite perspectives. And anyone who doesn’t think that Jewish support for the “racist” and “oppressive” state of Israel is high on the progressive list of targets needs to wake up and smell the coffee.

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

Bill Evans head shot

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

Bill Evans head shot

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.