2016: A Class-Warfare Election

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One of the more entertaining aspects of election night 2016 was watching the flummoxed pundits and pollsters on the TV networks as the results became clear. Many of them had clearly come armed with talking points to serenade the election of Hillary Rodham Clinton as America’s first female president, and the unexpected Trump surge quickly and decisively made all that preparation irrelevant. By 10:00 PM glum was the order of the day.

A variety of explanations for Donald Trump’s election have been offered. The theme of visceral revolt against elites was popular on election night. Trump’s challenging of political correctness has been a common explanation of his success since the primaries. Some view Trump’s triumph as a nationalistic response to the economic and social dislocations caused by globalism, and those who make this argument often connect these election results with BREXIT.

A few were even willing to suggest that Hillary Clinton had been an ineffective if not abysmal candidate. To be sure, the fact that she and her husband the former president are up to their eyeballs in crony capitalism and questionable financial dealings certainly made her path to the White House more steep, and e-mailgate only reinforced the widespread sentiment that Hillary is simply not to be trusted. Even more to the point, Clinton’s campaign ran largely on the acrid fumes of “It’s Our Time Now” entitlement and identity politics. A positive case for her presidency was assumed rather than made.

Another common theme from pundits on election night was that Trump’s supporters lack . . . can you believe this! . . . a college education. The implication of this, of course, is that Trump’s supporters are invincibly ignorant members of the Lumpenproletariat who are easily led and simply don’t know what’s good for them. And what’s good for them, of course, is infallibly defined by the progressive elite.

These suggestions have at least a smidgen of truth to them, but the last one contains hints of a broader interpretive approach. At the risk of sounding Marxist, it is my contention that this election was more fundamentally an expression of class warfare. On the one hand, there is a large segment of the American population that is associated with the manufacturing and skilled-trades sector. This group has been left behind by recent economic developments, tends to be more religious, and is alienated by the progressive cultural agenda—in short, they are the supporters of Donald Trump. On the other hand, there is the progressive coalition made of up the media, academia, the arts, government bureaucrats, the denizens of Silicon Valley, and so on. These, of course, are the supporters of Hillary Clinton.

In order to understand how this second group in fact constitutes a distinct social class, it’s worth revisiting the “new-class thesis” floated by Peter Berger and others in the late 1970s (see especially the essays by Berger et al in B. Bruce-Briggs ed., The New Class? [Transaction Books, 1979]) and further developed by Berger since then (see his application to this year’s election cycle here). According to Berger and other proponents of this approach, this class engages in the manipulation of “symbolic knowledge.” It seeks to expand the power of the state, and is militantly secular and even hostile to religion.

In a 1981 article, Berger wrote of the conflict between the older business class and this new class in terms that sound oddly prophetic of this year’s election:

On the one side is the old elite of business enterprise, on the other side a new elite composed of those whose livelihood derives from the manipulation of symbols — intellectuals, educators, media people, members of the “helping professions,” and a miscellany of planners and bureaucrats. This latter grouping has of late been called the “new class” in America — a not wholly felicitous term that is likely to stick for a while.

Needless to say, this “new class” has acted in ways that further its own class interests. Closely aligned with the Democratic Party, it has championed unrestricted immigration to the US as a means of ensuring a permanent Democratic majority (and a steady supply of cheap nannies and maids). It has sought to expand the power and scope of government precisely because it stands to benefit the most from such expansion, even when this expansion costs jobs in other sectors of the economy.

And if you are wondering how political correctness functions in this class-warfare context, note how social classes generate symbolism that helps to distinguish them from other social classes. Again Berger writes in the 1981 article:

The symbols of class culture are important. They allow people to “sniff out” who belongs and who does not; they provide easily applied criteria of “soundness.” Thus a young instructor applying for a job in an elite university is well advised to hide “unsound” views such as political allegiance to the right wing of the Republican party (perhaps even to the left wing), opposition to abortion or to other causes of the feminist movement, or a strong commitment to the virtues of the corporation.

The persistent contempt heaped upon Trump supporters by this “new class” becomes much more understandable when we think in terms of class warfare and the symbolism it deploys. Whether it be Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables,” or Barack Obama’s reference to those who “cling to guns or religion,” or Nancy Pelosi’s excoriation of Trump supporters’ alleged preoccupation with “God, guns, and gays,” the message is the same—such people are outsiders; they don’t share our enlightened and secular point of view.

There is also a consummate irony here. The progressive, new-class establishment claims to be so helpful and solicitous of the downtrodden and oppressed, but in reality it has pursued crass politics of self-interest that subvert the common weal and victimize a significant portion of the electorate. And, to add to that irony and insult, the progressive establishment then displaces the real victims of economic dislocation with pseudo-victims from the endless cycle of identity politics like Caitlyn Jenner and “mattress girl.”

I’m not particularly a fan of Donald Trump, but it is at least gratifying to know that that significant portion of the electorate has exacted its revenge.

Redeemer Seminary, the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy, and the Parachurching of Reformed Theological Education

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By William B. Evans

[Full Disclosure: For well over twenty years I’ve taught at a denominationally affiliated College and Seminary.]

Readers of this blog are probably aware of my interest in theological education (e.g., here and here and here). Although I’ve spent much of my professional academic career teaching undergraduates, I’ve also taught on the seminary level at a number of institutions. I have friends and acquaintances teaching at many seminaries, and I keep my ear to the ground.

The impending closure of the Redeemer Seminary in Dallas, Texas is now known to many. Responding to overtures from the Redeemer Board, Reformed Theological Seminary will, according to RTS Chancellor Ligon Duncan, implement “a two-step plan whereby Redeemer would ‘close with dignity’ and RTS would petition ATS and SACS to begin offering theological education in Dallas, while helping Redeemer and its students in all possible, prudent ways.”

Having taught systematic theology at Redeemer as an adjunct professor I’m sad for the students, whom I found to be both engaged and engaging, the faculty, and staff. According to reliable reports, all Redeemer faculty and staff will be terminated as of December 31, 2016.

Redeemer Seminary began in 2001 as the Dallas Campus of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, and was spun off as in independent institution in 2009. The timing of that development was significant. As WTS in Philadelphia moved steadily to the right in the wake of the Peter Enns controversy (a trajectory I’ve chronicled here and here and here and here), the Redeemer faculty self-consciously sought to perpetuate what has come to be known as “Middle Westminster”—the Westminster ethos that prevailed from the second generation of faculty until the recent lurch to the right and is exemplified by the careful biblical scholarship of people like Moises Silva, Ray Dillard, and Richard Gaffin, and the generous Reformed orthodoxy of systematicians such as Sinclair B. Ferguson (who subsequently was part of the founding faculty at Redeemer). I took two degrees at WTS in the 1980s before going off to Vanderbilt for my Ph.D., so I think I have some background to speak to this.

Doubtless there are multiple backstories here—having to do with leadership, fundraising, and student-recruitment challenges at Redeemer. What I find more interesting is how this particular episode has played out within the larger scope of conservative Reformed theological education, and the way that context has been profoundly conditioned by successive iterations of what has been called the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy.

As those with an interest in church history are aware, the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy proper raged in earnest from about 1920 until 1930, with conflict especially prominent in the Northern Presbyterian and Northern Baptist churches, with the former especially important for our purposes (the best study of which is Bradley J. Longfield, The Presbyterian Controversy: Fundamentalists, Modernists, and Moderates [Oxford UP, 1991]). By 1926, conservative efforts to enforce creedal orthodoxy and biblical authority had failed and the PCUSA moved steadily in the direction of a more inclusive and diverse vision (a history ably chronicled in Lefferts Loetscher’s The Broadening Church: A Study of Theological Issues in the Presbyterian Church since 1869 [UPenn, 1954]). In 1929 Princeton Theological Seminary (until then a conservative bastion) was reorganized so as to reflect the theological diversity present in the church, and J. Gresham Machen and other conservatives promptly left Princeton to form Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. With the formation of Westminster a template was established—when conservatives lost control of denominational educational institutions they moved on to form independent, parachurch agencies to replace them. This template would be used repeatedly in subsequent decades.

By the 1950s, similar conflicts over doctrine and Scripture were raging in the Southern Presbyterian Church (then known as the PCUS), and these debates eventually led to the formation of Reformed Theological Seminary (RTS) in Jackson, Mississippi in 1966 and the Presbyterian Church in America in 1973. RTS was even more explicitly parachurch in its organization—to this day its governing board is made up of laymen (primarily attorneys and businessmen) rather than ministers. Unencumbered by denominational constraints and enjoying both able leadership and considerable financial support, RTS has since expanded beyond its origins in Jackson to campuses in Orlando, Charlotte, Washington, DC, Atlanta, Houston, Memphis, New York City, RTS Virtual, and now Dallas. As an RTS executive said to me recently, RTS has figured out a financially viable model of professional theological education. He’s right, and RTS has been very aggressive in pursuing that model.

Fast forward to the 1970s through the 1990s as somewhat analogous conflicts emerged within the Dutch Reformed community in this country (though the ethnic character of the Christian Reformed Church meant that these debates would have a somewhat different character and result). Concerns about the denominational seminary (Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids), led to two more parachurch seminaries being formed—Mid-America Reformed Seminary (initially located in Iowa before moving to Dyer, Indiana) and Westminster Seminary in California.

Of course, there are still denominational seminaries in the conservative Reformed orbit—Covenant Theological Seminary (PCA) and Erskine Theological Seminary (ARPC) come to mind—but one fact is abundantly clear: the conservative Reformed community has in large measure outsourced theological education to parachurch agencies. For all the blather in such circles about “connectionalism,” when it comes to theological education at least, conservative Presbyterians don’t seem to have much of an ecclesiology!

It’s worth noting that conservative Lutherans and Southern Baptists don’t do things this way. There the emphasis is on church-affiliated seminaries, and those denominational schools are doing quite well.   In fact, efforts to form more moderate-liberal schools in the wake of conservative victories in the SBC (e.g., the Cooperative Baptist schools) and the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (SEMINEX) have not been particularly successful.

The difference here is both obvious and crucial—theological conservatives in both the LCMS and the SBC were able to gain and maintain control of their seminaries, while the Presbyterians lost Princeton, and Union in Virginia, and so on, and thus felt compelled to adopt the parachurch model.

In retrospect, the Presbyterian trajectory was probably inevitable, though should be viewed as a concession to weakness and failure rather than a mark of strength. But has there been a price to be paid for this outsourcing to parachurch groups? Indeed, some (perhaps many) would say that the current system is working rather well. But I see a number of potential downsides to this Reformed parachurching of theological education.

First, decision making, especially in a context dominated by lay leadership, is going to be driven by financial, market, and other practical considerations rather than by churchly concerns. No matter the pious rhetoric of “service to the church” that one may encounter, this is the reality. Or, to phrase it somewhat differently, institutional agendas will often transcend churchly agendas.

Second, this practical bent has been accompanied by the increasing dominance of the “school-for-pastors” model and the “pastor-scholar” as a primary faculty profile (for my take on different models of seminary education, go here). After all, that’s where the market is. As I wrote in a post a number of years back:

Concurrent with this we see the rise of the “scholar-pastor” model in Presbyterian circles (i.e., a well-known and popular pastor who happens to have a Ph.D. from somewhere). A problem here is that first-rate scholarship is a full-time job, and some of these (there are, to be sure, some blessed exceptions) are not really equipped to drive the theological discussion forward. And where are such people publishing? I see lots of popular-level books but fewer and fewer volumes coming from university presses, or from traditional Evangelical academic publishers like Eerdmans, Baker, IVP, Paternoster, etc.

And this emphasis has, not surprisingly, been accompanied by a decline in Reformed intellectual leadership within the broader evangelical world. In fact, when we think of schools now setting the intellectual and theological agenda for evangelicalism we tend to think of schools like Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Gordon-Conwell, Fuller, and Southern Baptist—some of them denominationally affiliated, some not, but none of them explicitly Reformed.

And this scholarly eclipse is not perplexing. When faculty are viewed as commodities and there is often a price to be paid for even thoroughly orthodox theological creativity, we shouldn’t expect much in the way of scholarly contributions.

Third, there is the matter of theological influence on the churches. Seminaries have a tremendous role in molding the sensibilities of the clergy, and do we really want the theology of ministers to be shaped by the well-heeled supporters of parachurch seminaries rather than by the church? The increasing dominance of literal six-day young-earth creationism (LSDYEC) within the conservative Reformed community, as I see it, has rather little to do with careful theology and exegesis and a lot to do with reaction against a secular culture and the way that reactionary impulse has been embraced by certain seminaries.

Fourth, there is the related question of market domination. We are not too far from a situation in which one particular school is dominant within the American conservative Reformed context. Is this healthy for the church? The Presbyterians of old were right, it seems to me, in establishing multiple denominational seminaries, and the cross-talk between various schools in the nineteenth-century was incredibly productive theologically (Princeton vs. Union, Princeton vs. Yale, Princeton vs. Mercersburg, Princeton vs. Danville, and so on).

The repeated references to Old Princeton in this post lead to this last point. Awhile back I noted that the comprehensive theological vision of Old Princeton is now pretty much dead. I wrote:

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.

That eulogy notwithstanding, I continue to think that Old Princeton continues to provide a compelling model for theological education, and, moreover, that a denominational setting is probably the best way to achieve something analogous to Old Princeton for our own twenty-first century context. The question is whether conservative Reformed churches are willing to commit to such an endeavor.

Some Brief Reflections on Dallas

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Today I am grieving for Dallas, Texas—a great city that I have often visited and enjoy. The brutal killing of five police officers and the wounding of six more when a Black Lives Matter demonstration turned violent have left many wondering where the nation is headed and how the fabric of national unity can be restored.

Here are some brief thoughts:

First, the genie of lawlessness has been let out of the bottle long before last night. Unfortunately, this is evident even at the top with the Obama Administration. Years of selective enforcement by a succession of Attorneys General have made it rather clear that the political friends of the current administration likely will not be prosecuted. Most obviously, the current President’s efforts to “change” America have involved a pervasive breakdown in the enforcement of immigration laws. He knows that the best and quickest way to “change” America is to decisively change the makeup of the population in ways more favorable to his political agenda.

Not surprisingly, according to the Pew Research Center only 19% of Americans trust the government “to do what is right,” and many now regard their own government as the greatest threat to liberty. Given this pervasive distrust and suspicion, we are likely to see more violence coming from both the right and the left. The parallels to the cultural and ideological weirdness of the 1960s are patent, and things are likely to get much worse before they get better.

Second, racism as an interpretive category is wearing thin. Of course racism still exist—in both the white and black communities. The problem is that it often doesn’t explain very much about specific instances of possible abuse of power by police. Nevertheless, it is trotted out by politicians because they find it politically advantageous to do so. The so-called “Black Lives Matter” movement has majored on this theme (and its corollary of “white privilege”), but we need to recognize that divisive and inflammatory rhetoric can be taken to ghastly conclusions by some (as it apparently was last night in Dallas).

If we really want to have a national conversation about the tragic cycle of inner-city violence, we need to be talking about the collapse of the family, subcultures that glorify violence, lack of economic opportunity, and, yes, the pervasive militarization of police forces throughout the nation.

Third, the national conversation is now dominated by identity politics—focusing on distinctions of race, gender, sexual orientation, class, etc.—but identity politics will never bring the nation together. It can’t! By its very nature, the grievance industry thrives and depends on division and conflict. It only gets political traction by tearing communities apart.

Fourth, it seems to me that there are only two ways out of this mess—either pervasive statist control (which, of course, is exactly what the progressive left wants) or the recovery of a sense of the transcendent truths that, yes, transcend divisions of race, ethnicity, gender, and class, and provide a sense of individual and community obligation apart from governmental coercion.

I would also argue that religious communities of faith are positioned to speak to these issues, for it is there, in contrast to the depressingly pervasive “immanent frame” (to use Charles Taylor’s term) of the broader secular culture, that a vital sense of the transcendent often persists.

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

Bill Evans head shot

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?

Bill Evans head shot

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?

Bill Evans head shot

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.