Transformationalism Again: Mr. McWilliams Glosses the Text

Bill Evans head shot

The discussion continues from Carl Trueman’s “Cigar Smoke and Mirrors and Transformation” over on Ref21, in which the WTS church historian suggested that transformationalism is a pipe dream and that it is “time to become realistic” about the adverse cultural situation we face.  More recently, a Mr. Evan McWilliams, who is, according to his blog, an “art historian,” has waded into the fray with a post (HT: TheAquilaReport here) which takes a couple of responses to Trueman (including my own) to task for being, he says, “a little more on the sloppy side than one would expect from well-educated leaders of the Church.”  Cheeky?  Perhaps, but let’s look at this a bit more closely.

The meat of Mr. McWilliams argument, it seems, is this sentence: “Dr. Trueman’s great point, if I read him correctly, is that while it is absolutely right and good for individual Christians to pursue their secular vocation with holy boldness, it is not right to overlay onto the institutional Church the rhetoric of culture transformation when there is no clear Biblical call for the Church as institution to transform culture.”  The most obvious problem here is, well, that’s not what Carl said.  In fact, I read his article several times and can’t find this elusive “great point.”  Although Carl does speak of “the church as a sojourning people where here we have no lasting home,” I find no programmatic distinction between what the “institutional Church” may do as opposed to “individual Christians.” Rather, Carl’s post is an eloquent expression of cultural pessimism.  He writes,

But the culture is not being transformed at any point where it really counts, where it makes a real difference for pastors and people on the increasingly mean streets of the secular world as they seek to be quietly and peacefully faithful to the Lord.  If anything, it is accelerating in the wrong direction.

He adds that “it is only when we have realistic horizons of expectation will we be able to stand firm against what is coming.”  This conclusion as to the thrust of Trueman’s piece is reinforced by the content of his subsequent post, where he says basically the same thing, along with some trenchant comments on the issue of worldview.  So, it seems that Mr. McWilliams decided what Carl Trueman should have said, glossed the text so as to assert that that is what Trueman did say, and then took some of us to task for failing to grasp the wisdom of it all.

An irony here is that if Trueman had actually said what Mr. McWilliams attributes to him, I’d be inclined to agree with them.  The twentieth-century American experience has too many examples of ministers who hitched their wagons to political causes—from the anti-communism of Carl McIntire and Billy James Hargis to the Religious Right excesses of any number of folks—with unfortunate results.  When I go to church, I want to sit under the ordinary means of grace that God has ordained for the salvation of his people, not some contrived dog-and-pony show about “changing the world.”

More entertaining is the response of Darryl Hart to my post.  I generally enjoy DGH’s steady stream of contrarian sarcasm, and I especially want to thank him for resuscitating interest in a blog post that I thought had pretty much run its course.  Darryl is in high dudgeon, it seems, over my suggestion that our alma mater WTS was a bastion of transformationalist Neo-Calvinism.  He declares me “remarkably ill informed about the history of Westminster,” suggesting that I must have forgotten that WTS was founded by J. Gresham Machen, whom DGH styles a great champion of “the spirituality of the church over against the transformationalism that dominated the PCUSA.”  Hart goes on to argue that even the Dutch Neo-Calvinists at WTS (Van Til, Kuiper, and Stonehouse) “opposed the transformationalists who formed with Carl McIntire the Bible Presbyterian Synod.”

The comments section of Hart’s post was, as we have come to expect from his acolytes, abuzz with accolades.  One of the more fervent deemed my post a hanging curve which Mighty Casey DGH had hit out of the park.  But amidst all the 2K groupthink, there are some inconvenient facts.

For one, there is J. Gresham Machen the historical figure, whose record is more . . . well . . . complicated than Hart allows in his post.  As an aside, I should note that Darryl undoubtedly knows more about the minutia of Machen than I do—after all, he’s written a couple of pretty decent books on the topic.  That being said, I’m not a complete innocent on the matter.  I grew up hearing anecdotes about “Das” Machen (my grandfather was a seminary classmate of Machen’s, and his session was later involved in the controversy over Harry Emerson Fosdick in New York Presbytery of the old PCUSA during the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy) and I regularly assign readings from Machen to some of my classes.  The upshot of all this is that while Machen was deeply concerned, as Hart maintains, to safeguard the spiritual mission of the church from attempts by social-gospelers and other immanentistic sorts to hijack it, he also could sound pretty “transformational” at times.

As evidence of this point, the following  Machen excerpt  was helpfully provided by a fellow named Philip Larson in the comments to DGH’s post:

Furthermore, the field of Christianity is the world. The Christian cannot be satisfied so long as any human activity is either opposed to Christianity or out of all connection with Christianity. Christianity must pervade not merely all nations, but also all of human thought. The Christian, therefore, cannot be indifferent to any branch of earnest human endeavor. It must all be brought into some relation to the gospel. It must be studied either in order to be demonstrated as false, or else in order to be made useful in advancing the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom must be advanced not merely extensively, but also intensively. The Church must seek to conquer not merely every man for Christ, but also the whole of man” (J. Gresham Machen, Education, Christianity and the State [Trinity Foundation, 1994], p. 50).

And Machen’s own personal activism on education issues suggests a deep concern for the good of society, albeit one filtered through his deep social conservatism and libertarianism.  After lamenting that “the condition of mankind is such that one may well ask what it is that made the men of past generations so great and the men of the present generation so small” and asking if there is “some lost secret which if rediscovered will restore to mankind something of the glories of the past,” Machen wrote:

Such a secret the writer of this little book would discover in the Christian religion.  But the Christian religion which is meant is certainly not the religion of the modern liberal Church, but a message of divine grace, almost forgotten now, as it was in the middle ages, but destined to burst forth once more in God’s good time, in a new Reformation, and bring light and freedom to mankind. (Christianity and Liberalism, pp. 15-16).

In other words, Machen’s emphasis on the spirituality of the church was tempered by other considerations, and he does not fit easily or without remainder into the anti-transformational pattern Hart proposes.

Similar things can be said for the Dutch Neo-Calvinists at WTS.  Particularly significant here are Cornelius Van Til’s ruminations on the relationship of Christ and culture in his Essays on Christian Education (Presbyterian and Reformed, 1971).  Commenting on 2 Cor. 2:14, Van Til articulated a careful transformationalism:

The Christian is he who is born again by the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit, who takes the things of Christ and give them unto us. . . . These words of Paul, and others like them, reverberate constantly in the depth of his being.  He knows that his cultural activity will not be in vain in the Lord. He knows that Satan seeks to destroy his Christian culture by absorbing it into the culture of those who are still apostate from Christ.  He knows that the whole course of history is a life and death struggle between the culture of the prince of the powers of darkness and his Christ, who has brought life and light into the world.  He knows that he must fight the battle for a Christian culture first of all within himself and then with those who seek to destroy his faith and with it all true culture.  He knows that the weapons of this warfare between a Christian and the non-Christian culture are spiritual.  He would deny the norm of his own culture and be untrue to his own ideal if he descended to the coarse and the uncouth, let alone to the use of physical force, as he engages his foes whom he wants to make his friends and brothers in Christ (p. 7).

In other words, the difference between the WTS Neo-Calvinists on the one hand, and the Bible Presbyterians on the other, was not transformationalism vs. anti-transformationalism, as Hart suggests, but between two different transformational models.  There was simply no way that those doughty Dutch Kuyperians would accept McIntire’s meddlesome and simplistic Fundamentalism, and in the broader Neo-Calvinist context the Kuyperian notion of “sphere sovereignty” helped to preserve the institutional church from being co-opted by transformationalist excesses.

All this heated and sometimes tendentious discussion prompts us to ask, What’s going on here?  Why has the careful and nuanced Reformed transformationalism that was common currency of the previous generation become so controversial?  I can think of at least two reasons.  Here we need to be both careful and scrupulously fair, because while these factors are real, the motives of individual opponents of transformationalism can differ.

First, as people on both sides of the transformationalist question are increasingly aware, there is a connection between personal transformation, or individual soteriology, and corporate transformation, and battle lines on the question of individual soteriology have been sharply drawn more recently.  I’ve noticed that some who are deeply concerned to safeguard the extrinsic and forensic alien righteousness of justification are reticent to speak of any real, intrinsic change in us.  Positive changes in our behavior are explained in terms of direct divine activity on us, a divine occasionalism that nevertheless leaves us unchanged as to our being.  That is, to use the language of the older Reformed tradition, they will speak of immediate divine grace, but not of “created graces” in us.  Historically, this denial of created graces was a hallmark of antinomianism (as W. K. B. Stoever has shown in his splendid A Faire and Easie Way to Heaven: Covenant Theology and Antinomianism in Early New England [Wesleyan UP, 1978]), and if you want to see where this sort of thinking can lead, read this . . . and grieve!  To cut to the chase, it makes little sense to speak of corporate or societal transformation when we are embarrassed to say much about individual transformation.

Interestingly, this sort of thing would not have passed muster with that great nineteenth-century champion of forensic justification, Charles Hodge.  Hodge knew full well where the denial of created graces could lead, and he insisted that regeneration is “physical,” by which he meant that it was a real and lasting bestowal of “immanent dispositions, principles, tastes or habits which underlie all conscious exercises, and determine the character of a man and of all his acts” (Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, III:35).

Second, we do well not to underestimate the impact that our increasingly negative cultural situation has on our theology.  To paraphrase Peter Berger on the sociology of knowledge, this cultural context provides a key “plausibility structure” for our thinking.  It informs our sense of what is plausible and possible.  And so, in the face of an increasingly hostile and seemingly intractable cultural situation many are concluding that real transformation is impossible.  It is to be lamented that, in order to provide an ecclesiological framework for such pessimism, some have turned to positions that have been implicated in the toleration of real and palpable evil by Christians.  Here I’m thinking of the Two-Kingdoms doctrine employed by some so-called “German Christians” to justify silence in the face of the Nazi regime, and the exaggerated conception of the spirituality of the church as it was used to defend the institution of chattel slavery in the antebellum South.

In short, what seems to be emerging is a “Reformed” theology of culture tailored for deeply pessimistic times.  Like most theological and historical revisionisms, it is worth discussing.  But let’s just not confuse it with the mainstream of the Reformed tradition.

In his second post on the topic, Carl Trueman conceded that positive changes have happened in the past but he challenged Christians to “prove me wrong” by going out and really transforming society in a comprehensive way.  But as I indicated in my own earlier post, “the social transformation envisioned [by Neo-Calvinists) was at best provisional, temporary, and incomplete.”  Despite the unfortunate rhetoric of some transformationalists, it is not our job as Christians to transform the world.  But God in his grace does bless the work of our hands, and he sometimes uses his people to accomplish considerable good in society.  Even if the current cultural situation is one of those “Romans 1” moments in which God is handing people over to the consequences of their idolatrous behavior, our job is to be faithful.