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Rendering to Caesar: Civil Religion in Transition

 

Bill Evans head shot

I presented an earlier version of this material at Erskine College and Seminary three weeks after 9/11.  In the wake of that horrifying event we Americans struggled to make sense of it all, to recover our national sense of equilibrium.  One of the more visible ways that Americans sought to make sense of it was through religion. Across the nation, countless candlelight prayer vigils and church services were held. Church attendance went up, at least for awhile.  One particularly interesting religious exercise took place at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC on September 14, 2001. This ecumenical service was quite unlike the church services most of us are accustomed to attending. There was a brief but moving speech by President George W. Bush. There were prayers and readings from various religions’ scriptures by a variety of religious leaders—Christian, Jewish, and Muslim. The name of Jesus did not figure prominently in the service, except in the sermon by Billy Graham. Shortly after that a prayer service was held at Yankee Stadium in NYC. Here the participants included a Christian minister, a Rabbi, a Muslim Sheik, an Imam, and a Buddhist monk. At these events something “religious” was going on, but it was not, strictly speaking, the religion of the church, nor of the synagogue, nor of the mosque, nor of the Buddhist temple. It was something else. Now I want to pose a question here at the outset: was this “something else” a good thing or a bad thing? In order to answer that question we need to explore a phenomenon that has come to be known as “civil religion.”

We may define “civil religion” as the attempt by a nation or people to understand its history, character, and leadership in terms of transcendent reality and a larger meta-narrative or story, the results of which are not fully identifiable with any particular churchly tradition. This effort finds expression in sacred texts and symbolic events. For Americans, such sacred texts include the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, and so forth. Symbolic ritual events would include the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, the remembrance of wartime dead on Memorial Day, Fourth of July Celebrations, and the like. In all of these texts and ritual events, the name of God is almost invariably invoked. As we explore this topic, I’d like first of all to outline a brief history of “civil religion.”

A Brief History of Civil Religion

The Roman Empire is a convenient place to start. Soon after the fall of the Republic and the establishment of a dictatorship under Julius Caesar, it became common to deify emperors after their deaths. That is to say, shortly after their deaths men such as Octavian and Tiberius were honored as having taken their place among the gods. By the end of the first century AD, living emperors began to be acclaimed as gods, and the public veneration of these “living gods”—the offering of sacrifices and the pouring out of libations—came to be regarded as a mark of good citizenship. Such citizenship requirements posed obvious problems for Christians, who regarded sacrifices to the emperor as idolatry (which, in fact, they were). The struggle between Christianity and Roman civil religion continued until the triumph of Christianity under the Emperor Constantine, and for the remainder of late antiquity and the medieval period it was largely the Christian church that provided the framework of self-understanding for European society.

That situation continued until the Reformation. Suddenly, western Europe was no longer united by a single religious tradition and set of authorities. Wars of religion tore the European continent during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. European nations were split between Roman Catholics and Protestants, and since neither could defeat the other, the result was chaos. And so people began to think, “What sort of belief system might provide a basis for a stable society?” Thus the French Enlightenment philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau called for a “civil religion” of reason in his famous work The Social Contract. Not too many decades later, leaders of the French Revolution tried to impose a religion of reason on the nation of France, with rather disastrous results. Turning to the twentieth century, some historians have suggested that the Nazi ideology was a form of civil religion in extreme form, as a religion of the state effectively sought to subvert and then to replace traditional churchly religion.

But what about the American experience? In America we encounter a complex and interesting form of civil religion, and one that has been extensively studied since the 1960’s by scholars such as Robert Bellah, Peter Berger, Sidney Mead, Michael Novak, Jerald Brauer, and others. Incidentally, my historical summary here is dependent in part upon Robert Bellah’s seminal 1967 essay, “Civil Religion in America,” which is still a good place to start if you want to pursue these issues further.

The roots of American civil religion lie in the Puritan period as thousands of people left England in search of the freedom to worship God as they believed the Bible requires. Moreover, they believed that theirs was a noble and righteous endeavor–they were a chosen people, a “New Israel” establishing a New Jerusalem that would be a light to the world. Witness these words by John Winthrop, first governor of Puritan Massachusetts:

we shall finde that the God of Israell is among us, when tenn of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies, when he shall make us a prayse and glory, that men shall say of succeeding plantacions: the lord make it like that of New England: for wee must Consider that wee shall be a Citty upon a Hill, the eies of all people are upon us.

Notice here how biblical imagery is being used to bring a sense of meaning and significance to the early American experience. Out of this Puritan period comes the persistent notion of America as a chosen people, a special nation unlike any other, a special recipient of divine blessing. Moreover, this special nation is viewed as having a divinely appointed role to play—America will enlighten the nations. Some even went so far as to suggest that America’s efforts would usher in the millennium, a thousand-year reign of Christ on earth.

By the Revolutionary period, America’s population has become much more diverse, but once again we find biblical imagery being used. The trip from Europe to the New World was viewed as an exodus from Egypt, with George Washington cast as a second Moses. By this time, the conception of America’s role has been somewhat secularized. The national task is now is not the establishment of the kingdom of God on earth, but to be a herald of political freedom and democracy. America’s job, as a later generation put it, was to “make the world safe for democracy.”

The documents of this early national period often refer to God. In the Declaration of Independence, for example, we read, “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.” Note that here God is viewed primarily as creator and as one who safeguards the moral order of right and wrong. The documents of the period do not quite approach the Christian God—there is nothing of a Trinity, nor of redemption for sinners through the blood of Christ. This is, after all, “civil religion” rather than churchly religion.

The next crucible of American civil religion was the Civil War period. Here earlier images of America as a chosen privileged nation were augmented by other images of suffering, atonement, sacrifice, death, and rebirth. The most intriguing figure of the period is Abraham Lincoln—a president who never joined a church, but who sought to understand the national situation in powerfully religious terms.  Witness these remarkable words from Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, as he muses on the irony of North and South both praying to the same God for victory:

Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses! For it must needs be that offenses come; but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh!” If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe clue to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him. Fondly do we hope–fervently do we pray–that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.”

After Lincoln’s death by an assassin’s bullet, his own person and role came to be viewed in biblical and religious terms as a Christ figure, dying to redeem the nation and to establish what Lincoln himself in the Gettysburg Address called “a new birth of freedom.” These themes of national sacrifice, death and rebirth were then ritually depicted year after year in Memorial Day observances throughout the nation after the war, observances which continue to this day.

By the twentieth century, America had become a much more diverse nation religiously and ethnically than it had been during the Civil War. From its founding though to the mid-nineteenth century, America’s population was predominantly Christian and Protestant. After that, waves of Roman Catholic and Jewish immigration changed the religious face of America. During the nineteen forties and fifties America’s civil religion was further adapted to the new situation of a more pluralistic nation. What emerges is a civil religion of bare formal theism, the lowest common denominator of what most people could identify with. To be sure, during the 1950’s the phrase “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance and legislation was passed requiring the inclusion of “In God We trust” on all coinage. At the same time, however, it became increasingly gauche to speak of this “God” too specifically. It was during this period that the phrase “Judeo-Christian Tradition” came into common usage. President Dwight Eisenhower was quoted as saying, “Our government makes no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith–and I don’t care what it is” (quoted in Bellah, “Civil Religion,” p. 3).

American civil religion and its symbols fell on hard times during the Vietnam conflict of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Even as some such as Richard Nixon sought to support the war effort in Southeast Asia through the symbolism of civil religion, others rejected both the war and the civil religion that seemed to support it. The results of all this seemed to be a sense of national anxiety and malaise that extended through the 1970’s. But with the election of Ronald Reagan, civil religion once again became respectable. Presidents Reagan and Clinton were both adept at wielding the symbolism of civil religion.  President George W. Bush extensively used the rhetoric of an American mission to the world—in this case bringing democracy to the Middle East—but that rhetoric fell rather flat.

If public ritual events are any indication, we are in a new stage of American civil religion. Today, America is more diverse than at any previous stage in its history. Furthermore, there is an ideology of multiculturalism at work, which celebrates diversity for its own sake. It affirms not just the presence of multiple perspectives, but their validity. Today even the notion of a Judeo-Christian ethos seems too narrow and confining for many. And so, at public prayer services we often see not only Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Jewish clergy taking part, but also Muslim and Buddhist clerics. While the older civil religion celebrated what Americans had in common (however little that may have been) the new civil religion celebrates diversity itself. Moreover, there is reason to think that this new civil religion of ideological pluralism is aimed at subverting the exclusiveness of traditional Christian teaching that salvation is only through Jesus Christ. The implications of this new civil religion for our nation remain to be seen.

Observations and Prospect

What can we learn from this survey? Several conclusions stand out from all of this. First, civil religion emerges in situations where no single church or religious faith can claim an overwhelming majority. Where all subscribe to a single faith there is simply no need for civil religion. We should also note that the idea of civil religion is foreign to Islam, which holds that the mosque must control all aspects of life.

Second, we have seen that American civil religion has changed dramatically. It has moved from the robust monotheism of the Puritans, to the somewhat attenuated theism of the Republican period, to the minimalistic, bare-bones theism of the 1950’s, to the contemporary celebration of theistic, polytheistic, and non-theistic religious and secular diversity. In other words, when we talk about civil religion we are dealing with a moving target.

Third, I would also suggest that civil religion is inevitable in a pluralistic society. As sociologist Peter Berger noted in his book The Sacred Canopy, there seems to be something about us as human beings that requires us to legitimize and understand ourselves and our societies in terms of ultimate reality, to seek the resources of religion as we try fathom our place in the world. We seek to justify ourselves and our way of life as that which God desires, or as the goal of history, and so forth. But if civil religion is inevitable in a pluralistic society (and our society is nothing if not pluralistic) then civil religion is something that we must come to terms with.

We began by asking whether civil religion is a good thing or a bad thing. Given the complexity of the issue, the only answer we can give is: It depends. On the one hand, civil religion can be profoundly invidious and even demonic. Here the emperor worship of the Roman empire, the civil religion of reason of the French Revolution, and the Nazi civil religion of the German Volk come to mind. In each of these instances, the state was identified with ultimate reality, and in each of these instances the result was tyranny and idolatry. Christians cannot rightly participate in such civil religion. Even American civil religion has sometimes had negative consequences. In the nineteenth century, the idea of America as a chosen nation was transformed into the secular notion of Manifest Destiny–it was God’s will that America spread over the continent from “sea to shining sea,” and woe to any heathen native Americans who got in the way. That is to say, the deplorable treatment of Native Americans was due in part to the dynamics of American civil religion. Civil religion can also quickly deteriorate into a civic boosterism that simply baptizes governmental program and policy.

On the other hand, civil religion has, historically at least, had a remarkable unifying function. It has made it possible for Americans to come together around what they have held in common, without forcing them to compromise their beliefs about specific religious doctrines. Moreover, American civil religion, with its affirmation of a transcendent Creator and lawgiver, has provided a bulwark against statist tyranny. Even the state is subject to the law and judgment of God. The state is not absolute. It cannot do whatever it wants. Thus, civil religion, with its focus upon God as moral governor, has stood in service to the noble American political experiment of democratic, limited government.

But what about the new situation, the new emerging American civil religion that we have witnessed in recent decades? Here I think some pointed questions need to be asked. Some have to do, first of all, with what we may call the problem of content. This is a problem that all Americans need to think about. We have seen that American civil religion has been gradually emptied of theistic content, to the point that we are now reduced to celebrating our differences. But here we must ask, can a nation be united on the basis of its differences, on the basis of its lack of religious unity? Furthermore, can the emerging non-theistic civil religion provide a sufficient basis for the legitimization of society? That is to say, is it capable of providing a foundation for America’s leadership and institutions so that these are generally acknowledged as worthy of respect? Now this is of great importance, for American democracy arose in the context of a broadly Christian monotheism. The Declaration of Independence and the American Constitution did not arise out of a culture dominated by Hinduism, or Buddhism, or Islam. Will our political institutions begin to collapse from lack of moral support as the older civil religion erodes and is displaced by something else?  On this issue the German social theorist Jürgen Habermas created quite a stir when he said:

Egalitarian universalism, from which sprang the ideas of freedom and social solidarity, of an autonomous conduct of life and emancipation, of the individual morality of conscience, human rights and democracy, is the direct heir of the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love. This legacy, substantially unchanged, has been the object of continual critical appropriation and reinterpretation. To this day, there is no alternative to it. And in light of the current challenges of a postnational constellation, we continue to draw on the substance of this heritage. Everything else is just idle postmodern talk. (Habermas, Time of Transitions [Polity, 2006], 150-51)

In other words, for the purposes of our discussion the implication seems to be that a civil religion that diverges too far from the truths enshrined in the Jewish and Christian Scriptures may be of rather little use in preserving what needs to be conserved.

There is also what we may call the problem of observance. This is a problem that Christians in particular must confront. To what extent may evangelical Christians participate in the new emerging civil religion? This is a difficult question. Historically, Americans found it plausible to believe (rightly or wrongly) that most of us were praying to the same God. But now as our civil religion rituals present us with the public prayers of Hindus, Muslims, and Buddhists, not to mention the “meditations” of utter secularists, some of us are not so sure. This calls for wisdom. As the new civil religion unfolds, there will doubtless be situations where Christians must withdraw in order to maintain their integrity. Other situations will present us with opportunities to bear witness to the truth. As American Christians, we are entering uncharted territory. In Matthew 22:15-22 Jesus is asked whether one should pay taxes to Caesar. Jesus answered, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” This suggests that we have responsibilities both to God and to Caesar. But the time may come when civil religion (rendering to Caesar) and Christian faith (rendering to God) stand in opposition to one another. The time may come when Christian faith compels us to oppose an idolatrous civil religion.  We need discernment to read the signs of the times.

Above all, let us never make the mistake of confusing civil religion, valuable though it may be in some forms and circumstances, with the fullness of God’s revelation in Scripture and in Jesus Christ. To put it bluntly, civil religion never saved anybody. A merely civil righteousness is not the saving righteousness of Christ.

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Evangelicals, the Virtue/Voting Connection, and the Return of Instrumental Politics

Bill Evans head shot

PCA minister Tim Keller’s recent article in The New Yorker magazine excoriates a lot of his fellow evangelicals for their support of the current President, and it has provoked considerable discussion.

Keller’s point about mid-20th century lowest-common-denominator evangelicalism leaving many evangelicals historically rootless has some merit. He writes: “The desire by mid-twentieth-century leaders to foster more widespread coöperation between evangelicals and downplay denominational differences cut believers off from the past, some religion scholars have found. The result was an emphasis on personal experience rather than life in a church with historical memory.” There’s something to that, but the way Keller uses the insight—as an explanation for why many who self-identify as evangelicals vote as they do and support the candidates they support—is rather too cerebral and misses a lot.

Keller argues, in essence, that the problem with so-called “evangelical Trump voters” is that they don’t know enough theology.  This, it seems to me, is yet another example of the sort of disembodied-brains-on-sticks argument for which Reformed types, with their cerebral bent, have an embarrassing weakness. It’s kind of like the old Neo-Calvinist argument that if we just get people’s “worldview” in order all will be well—a canard that has been rightly challenged by philosopher Jamie Smith, sociologist James Davison Hunter, and others.

During the election I talked with a pretty broad range of evangelical voters—ranging from a college professor who voted for Bernie, to a well-taught PCA office holder who was a total Trump supporter during the primaries, to an ordained minister and graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary who enthusiastically voted for Trump in the primary—and I find Keller’s argument less than convincing. Something else is going on, and I’m pretty sure that the answers are cultural/sociological rather than intellectual/theological. And this is coming from someone who was trained as an intellectual historian!  I remember being rather put out with those two evangelical Trump supporters I mentioned, but they were sensing something in the air or water to which I was oblivious.  Apparently a lot of people were!

Two additional aspects of Keller’s article strike me as open to question.

First, his distinction between big-E “white Evangelicalism” (in bondage to conservative politics) and small-e evangelicalism (politically and racially diffuse and characterized by a dogged commitment to the quadrilateral of evangelical identity outlined by historian David Bebbington: biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism, and activism) really doesn’t work all that well when you examine it closely. In fact, much of the Evangelical institutional establishment (e.g., The Gospel Coalition, Christianity Today Magazine, Christian colleges and seminaries, etc.) agrees with Keller on these issues. It’s the more populist Evangelicals who voted for Trump and Moore, not so much because they think those men are paragons of virtue, but because they are looking to the political process for protection from an increasingly oppressive secular establishment.

Keller’s argument sounds suspiciously like a would-be member of the cultural elite bemoaning how the hoi polloi are complicating his efforts to minister to the politically progressive up and outers in Manhattan.  At the end of the day, he seems to be trying to carve out some space for a politically progressive, albeit theologically conservative evangelicalism that reflects his own sensibilities. I understand all that, but he could show a bit more sympathy and respect for the evangelical brothers and sisters who differ with him politically. And there is a certain irony here that should not be missed—Keller wants to affirm traditional sexual morality, but he recoils from those politically active conservative Christians who are trying to protect Keller and other conservative Christians from the secular progressive onslaught.

If Keller read Bebbington a bit more carefully, he would also realize that “activism” is kind of hardwired into the evangelical DNA, and that political and social activism (e.g., abolitionism, temperance, pro-life, etc.) has been more the rule than the exception among evangelicals over the last two centuries.  The exception, of course, was the large-scale withdrawal of evangelicals from politics and cultural engagement from the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy until the rise of the Religious Right, a disengagement that was driven by the cultural pessimism of a dominant Dispensationalism and a strong aversion to the Social Gospel.

Second (and building on the above), Keller’s accusation of hypocrisy rings a bit hollow. To be sure, Keller’s rhetoric is strident. He says that the “doggedly conservative” stance of some evangelicals and their willingness “to vote for anyone, however immoral, who supports their political positions” has elicited “disgust” along with the “fury and incredulity of many in the larger population.” Those are strong words, and the assumption here seems to be that people should always vote for virtuous candidates or risk being labeled hypocrites.  Frankly, I was surprised by the vitriol of Keller’s piece. Even given the venue and virtue signaling, it was over the top, and was not at all what I expected from a fellow who has written some pretty solid things over the years.

But Keller’s assumption about the nexus of virtue and voting is not necessarily shared by those whom Keller excoriates, and another more charitable explanation readily presents itself. Once again, the people who voted for Trump and Moore are not stupid; nor, I suspect, are they by and large hypocritical. Rather, they are returning to an instrumental view of political process—they vote for the candidate who they think can do the things they want done.

Now I’ll admit that, in light of their rhetoric in recent decades, evangelicals are to some degree open to the charge of hypocrisy, and this situation has not been helped by the more buffoonish Trump proponents like Jerry Falwell, Jr.  We are, after all, the products of our history.  Evangelicals responded to the sexual revolution and the resulting collapse of the family (actually, the collapse of the family is a lot more complicated than just an entailment of the sexual revolution) by emphasizing “family values” and drawing a close connection between personal morality/family values and voting. “Values voting” was a linchpin of the Religious Right/Moral Majority. That, of course, teed up the ball for the Monica Lewinsky/Ken Starr brouhaha involving Bill Clinton, and now many are quick to point out that some of the same people who called for Clinton’s impeachment for soliciting sexual favors from an intern are now making excuses for Trump’s boorish and sexually profligate behavior.

The Religious Right’s “values voting” strategy was inseparably connected with the notion that the culture of the nation could be changed by politics and that America could be restored as a “Christian nation.” But the cultural landscape has changed drastically since the 1980s. As Rod Dreher has rightly noted in his book The Benedict Option, the culture war is over, and conservative Christians lost. Now, in some ways at least, conservative Christians are returning to an older model of voting that is more instrumental.

Some sort of connection between values and voting has always been there, and most people like to think that the person they are voting for is, generally speaking, a decent person rather than a moral leper.  But this connection is increasingly difficult to maintain, and for at least two reasons.  First, this connection works much better when there is a basic societal consensus about matter of right and wrong. That situation no longer obtains.  We live in an age of moral confusion, and I would argue that the general moral incoherence of our culture on these matters is nowhere more evident that in the fact that we have a sitting President who is condemned for his sexual escapades and a sitting Vice President who is roundly mocked for trying to live a monogamous and sexually pure life that is above reproach.  Second, this connection has become problematic in that the virtuous are harder to find, especially in Washington, where it appears that Lord Acton was right about that business of power corrupting.  In an internet age of tabloid journalism, public figures have fewer and fewer secrets.

Interestingly, liberals delinked personal values/morality and voting/policy much earlier, in part because of the Vietnam War (that’s an interesting topic in itself that has been explored by sociologists like Robert Wuthnow) and in part because of their embracing of the sexual revolution. Now, interestingly, that delinking has come back to bite them as a host of progressive icons have been behaving badly! But I digress.

Returning to the present, many evangelicals realize that politics is a messy business, and that they are not electing a national pastor. They know, for example, that a good many recent American presidents have been serial philanderers and worse, and that if one must vote for virtue, the slate will be a short one. They know that Martin Luther King, Jr., whose leadership of the Civil Rights Movement and ability to bring biblical imagery to bear on the contradictions of the American racial situation were both remarkable and heroic, was morally compromised.

This new instrumental politics on the part of some evangelicals may be Realpolitik, but it is a realism that is not only inevitable in the current cultural climate but also may represent a pretty deep intuitive awareness of the ambiguities of the human condition. Perhaps Tim Keller can learn something from them.

Machen’s Militancy Revisited

Bill Evans head shot

It has now been over 81 years since J. Gresham Machen was laid to rest in Baltimore, Maryland on January 5, 1937 after succumbing to pneumonia while on a speaking tour in the Dakotas.

Machen’s legacy is complicated.  He was a distinguished scholar whose writings, such as The Origin of Paul’s Religion, The Virgin Birth of Christ, and Christianity and Liberalism, are still in print and profitably read, and a long-time professor at Princeton Theological Seminary who left that institution in 1929 to found Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.  He was a key player in the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy as it played out in the Presbyterian Church, USA, but he was clearly cut from different cloth than many who embraced the term “fundamentalist.”  The skeptic H. L. Mencken, in his January 18, 1937 obituary of Machen entitled “Dr. Fundamentalis,” took considerable pains to distinguish Machen from the less learned: “The generality of readers, I suppose, gathered thereby the notion that he was simply another Fundamentalist on the order of William Jennings Bryan and the simian faithful of Appalachia. But he was actually a man of great learning, and, what is more, of sharp intelligence.”

Machen

Perhaps most significant for our time is the connection often drawn between Machen and conservative Christian militancy, a come-outer, sectarian mentality that draws lines both sharply and narrowly and takes no prisoners in ecclesiastical conflict.  For example, we think immediately of John Frame’s widely circulated article “Machen’s Warrior Children,” which examines the history of theological conflict in conservative American Presbyterianism.  As Frame puts it, “Machen’s children were theological battlers, and, when the battle against liberalism in the PCUSA appeared to be over, they found other theological battles to fight. Up to the present time, these and other battles have continued within the movement, and, in my judgment, that is the story of conservative evangelical Reformed theology in twentieth-century America.”

Frame goes on to examine 21 areas of conflict that have helped to divide conservative Reformed people in the decades since Machen’s death.  If I’m reading it correctly, the essence of Frame’s argument is one of theological inertia.  Once the snowball of conflict started rolling down the hill, it was difficult to stop.  Or, to use a slightly different analogy, once the genie of theological conflict was unleashed, it was difficult to put it back in the bottle: “The Machen movement was born in the controversy over liberal theology. I have no doubt that Machen and his colleagues were right to reject this theology and to fight it. But it is arguable that once the Machenites found themselves in a ‘true Presbyterian church’ they were unable to moderate their martial impulses. Being in a church without liberals to fight, they turned on one another.”  Perhaps even more damningly, Frame adds that a balance of truth and love “was not characteristic of the Machen movement.”

There can be little doubt that conflict—often needless and ultimately pretty pointless conflict—has been a legacy of 20th century conservative Presbyterianism, but I’m wondering whether Machen is getting a bum rap here.

For one thing, most of the 21 areas of conflict cited by Frame have nothing to do with Machen.  And more to the point, as Frame himself admits, Machen sometimes evinced a breadth of vision and tolerance, and one that I would suggest doesn’t fit without remainder into the “warrior children” thesis.  For example, the seminary he founded included faculty members representing the range of conservative Reformed thinking at that time—American Presbyterians such as Machen, R. D. Wilson, Paul Wooley and O. T. Allis, the mild dispensationalist Allen MacRae, Dutch Reformed such as Cornelius Van Til and R. B. Kuiper, and the Scot John Murray.  The fact that that that broad faculty coalition could not be sustained for a variety of reasons after Machen’s death does not detract from the breadth of Machen’s inclusive vision for the school.

Furthermore, the church Machen helped to found—the Presbyterian Church of America (not to be confused with the current Presbyterian Church in America)—was, even by our standards today, a sort of big-tent conservatism embracing American, Dutch, and Scottish strains, and including people ranging from Murray and Van Til to the premillennial fundamentalist stalwart Carl McIntire.  Once again, the fact that this rather broad coalition did not long survive Machen’s death does not detract from the broader impulse he evinced.

As it happens, I have a personal connection to Machen.  My paternal grandfather was a classmate of Machen at Princeton Theological Seminary.  They were members of the class of 1905, a class that also included Clarence Macartney and O. T. Allis.  While my grandfather remained a “Westminster Confession man” to his dying day and as pastor of the Harlem-New York Presbyterian Church was involved in the 1922-23 controversy over Harry Emerson Fosdick, he stayed in the Presbyterian Church, USA (and moderated the General Assembly of 1946). My grandfather’s stories about Machen were passed down to my father (also a PTS graduate) and so I grew up hearing tales of “Das” Machen from time to time.  Some of those stories focused on Machen’s personal eccentricities (he was a life-long bachelor and somewhat odd personally), but some were more substantial.

Perhaps the most interesting is an anecdote recorded in my grandfather’s privately published memoirs.  In a chapter on the 1920s, he wrote:

Still, the conflict set off by Dr. Fosdick’s sermon continued.  On the liberal side, Dr. Henry Sloane Coffin preached his widely-quoted sermon on a text that really had nothing to do with doctrine but, in contrast, with a storm and shipwreck—Acts 27:31: “Paul said to the centurion and the soldiers, Except these abide in the ship, ye cannot be saved.”  Using this text out of context, Dr. Coffin urged that all liberals and conservatives abide in the ‘Good Ship Presbyterian Church,’ that there be no split, no division.  His thesis was that the Presbyterian Church should be inclusive, making room for both conservatives and liberals.  On the conservative side, there were others who were for separation on doctrinal grounds, citing such a text as 2 Corinthians 6:17: “Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing.”  Among these was Dr. J. Gresham Machen, my Seminary classmate, who said to me one day in the Princeton Inn, “Evans, we conservatives from all denominations ought to withdraw and unite in a Biblically true or Gospel Church.”  I do not know whether this distinguished theologian changed his mind before his early death.  My other classmate and strong defender and contender for the faith, Dr. Clarence Macartney, never declared himself on Separation but remained a Presbyterian Christian until “journey’s end.”  Gradually the theological conflict or fire of the 1920’s died down, only to break out again in the 1960’s.  (Frederick Walter Evans, Reminiscences of a Long Life [privately published, 1981], 22)

Here we see stark evidence that principled conservatives could come to different conclusions in the context of the struggles of the 1920s.  We also see that Machen’s separationist impulse was in service to a broader vision of Christian unity in the truth of the gospel.

In fact, the historical record seems to indicate that Machen was the, dare I say it, ecumenical glue that held the disparate conservative Presbyterian coalition of the 1920s and 1930s together, and it is more than a bit ironic that he sometimes gets blamed for the sectarianism that seems to afflict conservative Presbyterians today.

Young Fogies

Bill Evans head shot

Not long ago I removed myself from an internet discussion group that focused on the theology and praxis of my religious tradition.  The level of hostility directed toward other Christian traditions and the dismissiveness of what I know to be responsible scholarship on the part of some were toxic.

A number of years ago evangelical mathematician and philosopher Bill Dembski wrote: “There’s a mentality I see emerging in conservative Christian circles that one can never be quite conservative enough. This has really got me thinking about fundamentalism and the bane it is.”

I think Dembski is right, and I also think it’s worth asking why a more-conservative-than-thou defensiveness has become the default position of too many today. I suspect it has to do, at least in part, with a batten-down-the-hatches response to an increasingly hostile cultural environment (more about that below).

Another interesting aspect of this conservatizing phenomenon is that it is especially evident among younger white males, and I’ve frequently used the term “young fogies” to reference it.  Psychologically and sociologically, I suppose it makes sense.  Couple a sense of marginalization and the anxieties that go with being a younger white male in the current cultural environment with the desire to differentiate themselves from an older generation of evangelicals they regard as squishy and compromising and stridency is what you are likely to get.

One frequent explanation proffered for fundamentalism, and one dating back at least to H. L. Mencken in the early 20th century, is intellectual softness.  A Facebook friend recently suggested to me that we “really don’t have a very well-educated ministry” and that “most conservative ministers lack the competence and the confidence to engage challenging issues theologically.”  Of course, there’s at least something to that.  For one thing, we’re sometimes starting from a deficit.  As historian Mark Noll famously put it, “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind” (Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, 3).

Also, due to a variety of factors—the “professionalization” of the clergy, declines in student aptitude and preparation, and so forth—seminary education has been dumbed down in recent decades.  In terms of a typology I developed a number of years ago (catechetical vs. critical, confessional vs. ecumenical, and school for pastors vs. graduate school of theology), the most common seminary model in conservative Reformed circles seems to be catechetical/confessional/school for pastors, and that’s not necessarily the best training for navigating troubled cultural waters or thinking through difficult theological issues.

That being said, I’m somewhat skeptical of the explanatory value of this intellectual-mediocrity argument, and for reasons that will be evident below.  More interesting is the deeper question of why such intellectual softness is not only tolerated but celebrated.

So how should this fundamentalism be characterized? The common account—the conflict of rationality vs. irrationality or reason vs. faith—is clichéd, frequently self-serving, and doesn’t, in my opinion, get one very far. For one thing, all positions have a “faith element” to them. You can’t prove everything; you have to start with certain foundational, pre-theoretical convictions about the nature of reality. As the late Presbyterian theologian John Leith aptly put it,

All people . . . live by faith.  To be a human being is to live by faith.  There is no other alternative. . . . The events of life compel us to faith commitments, whether explicit or implicit, conscious or unconscious.  Each day before we have been up three hours we have made decisions in the light of some faith commitment about the nature of the universe, about the nature of the human being, about the significance of a human being, about the meaning of human life (John H. Leith, Basic Christian Doctrine, 6).

For another, some of the fundamentalists I know are cerebral; they pride themselves on their reason and scholarship. The problem is that their reason and scholarship are sometimes skewed or misdirected and this tendentiousness can lead to odd results.

Rather, I suspect the problem lies in a lack of balance, an inability to hold together perspectives that are needful for good theology and church life. Cultural pressure is leading some to choose the binary logic of either/or when both/and may be more appropriate. Here are two examples.

Reformed theology at its best has sought to do justice to the both/and of what the neo-Calvinist tradition has called “common grace” (e.g., the epistemological potential that belongs to all by virtue of God’s creation grace) and the “antithesis” (the difference between what God intended for humanity and the post-fall human condition as it actually obtains). This is an apt way of getting at both the grandeur of human potential and achievement and the tragedy of the human condition.  Fundamentalism, it seems to me, tends to camp out in the antithesis, and effectively to deny the doctrine of common grace. Thus the findings of various disciplines (geology, biology, astrophysics, textual criticism, etc.) are sometimes discounted without a person really wrestling with them.

With regard to Scripture, Christian theology at its best has sought to do justice to Scripture as divine and human—as fully authoritative Word of God and as human text that can be studied in terms of the cultural context of the ANE and the Graeco-Roman world. Fundamentalism is strong on the divine character of Scripture, but the human dimension is often ignored or effectively denied. What can emerge is a pretty docetic view of the Bible, as if it simply dropped out of the sky with no connection to the historical context in which it actually emerged.

The last sentence of the preceding paragraph perhaps hints at a deeper problem. Notice that both examples cited evince problems with human endeavor as enculturated and embodied in time and space. Is there an analogy to be drawn between the Gnostics of the second century and modern fundamentalism? I’m still pondering that one, but I suspect more parallels could be drawn.

A Brief Response to “A Teacher’s Theological Guide to Inerrancy.”

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[Editor’s Note: This essay dates back to 2010–a time of some controversy over the doctrine of Scripture at the institution where I teach.  It responds to a satirical piece written by a former colleague, and while it is obviously a bit dated and the initial context of controversy has thankfully faded, it says some things that, in my opinion, still need to be said.  Both the other individual’s article and this response were, until recently, hosted on another site that has now gone off-line (enterprising folks can likely still find the full exchange via Google cache).  For better or worse, I have resisted the urge to update it.]

I have read my colleague Dr. Richard Burnett’s 22-page single spaced essay with both interest and some annoyance. He has written a satirical piece depicting how he thinks that Biblical inerrantists such as myself should go about defending what Burnett regards as our indefensible doctrine of Biblical authority. Of course, the dangers of such an exercise are evident—in pretending to put words in other people’s mouths one runs the distinct risk of erecting a straw man and then beating it about the head.

I gather that Burnett has created a composite picture of inerrantists, but since he mentions me so often I will respond on a few points. The question is: where does one begin? Much that Burnett asserts is open to debate, and some of the things he says are simply wrong or at best misleading. I will confine my brief comments to three areas. Once one sifts through the sarcasm, Burnett seems concerned to do three things. First, he seeks to show that the doctrine of inerrancy in the original autographs is an intellectually untenable and rationalistic exercise. Second, he tries to depict this doctrine of inerrancy as an historical novelty. And finally, he wants to vindicate the orthodoxy of his theological hero, Karl Barth. In the interests of what John Calvin called “lucid brevity,” references to the enumerated sections of Burnett’s paper will be in parentheses.

(1) Burnett apparently will not be dissuaded from the conviction that the doctrine of inerrancy is really about trying to prove the reliability of the Bible. For Burnett, the term “inerrancy” immediately raises the specter of modernism with its commitment to human rational autonomy and its imposition of alien standards upon the text (see #33-34). I think I have made it sufficiently clear in a number of contexts that I too am concerned about such matters. I have argued elsewhere that the doctrine of inerrancy is sometimes presented in unhelpful and problematic ways. For example, there are inerrantists who have framed the doctrine in rationalistic terms and who have wrongly demanded what John Murray termed “pedantic precision” from the biblical text. Here Burnett would do well to heed the writings of his own Seminary professor, George Hunsinger of Princeton Seminary, who correctly sees the more “impressionistic” doctrine of inerrancy found in the Dutch Reformed (Kuyper and Bavinck) and Westminster Seminary (Richard Gaffin) traditions as a viable alternative to rationalism (see George Hunsinger, Disruptive Grace, 354-358). Of course, we also understand that Burnett’s case depends on presenting the doctrine of inerrancy in the most unfavorable light. For example, given the context of Burnett’s quote from J. I. Packer (see #28), one would never suspect that Dr. Packer has long affirmed the inerrancy of Scripture in the original autographs.

(2) Burnett also argues that the idea of the inerrancy of Scripture in the original autographs is of recent vintage. He appears to be unaware that there is a venerable tradition of “inerrancy” language in the Roman Catholic tradition stretching from St. Augustine’s implicit affirmation of inerrancy in the original autographs (“If we are perplexed by an apparent contradiction in Scripture, it is not allowable to say, The author of this book is mistaken; but either the manuscript is faulty, or the translation is wrong, or you have not understood.”) to the First and Second Vatican Councils. Such is the prominence of inerrancy in the Catholic tradition that, not surprisingly, there have been extensive discussions of “absolute inerrancy” (often affirmed by Catholic traditionalists) and “limited inerrancy” (often affirmed by Catholic progressives) which parallel, to some degree, recent Protestant inerrantist/infallibilist debates.

But Burnett’s handling of evidence on this point is also shaky. His treatment of Old Princeton Seminary is a good example. In a curious historiographical move, Burnett distinguishes between Old-Old Princeton (Witherspoon to Charles Hodge) and New-Old Princeton (B. B. Warfield and J. G. Machen), and the “true champion of the modern autographic theory of inerrancy,” for Burnett, is B. B. Warfield (#11-12). Even Machen is subjected to similar treatment as Burnett distinguishes the early Machen (who rarely mentioned inerrancy) from the later Machen who staunchly affirmed inerrancy in the original autographs (#16-17). Of course, there are historical explanations for these patterns. Extensive discussions of the authority of the original autographs tend to emerge with vigor after the rise of textual criticism as a discipline (though they were present before), and Machen’s personal history (treated with subtlety by Darryl G. Hart) may have played a role. But Burnett seems uninterested in such matters—much of his historical argument is directed toward the question of whether somebody mentions the original autographs or not, as if this settles the issue.

To his credit, Burnett does briefly mention the important article by Randy Balmer (#11), now of Columbia University and an acknowledged expert on American Evangelicalism (Randall H. Balmer, “The Princetonians and Scripture: A Reconsideration, WTJ 44 (1982): 352-365). Unfortunately, it appears that Burnett did not read with sufficient care the article he cites. For example, Burnett claims that “Balmer shows that a variety of American clergy in the nineteenth century (even a couple Presbyterians) held to the exclusive inspiration and authority of the original autographs,” adding that “Old Princeton never did” (#11). But Balmer’s point here is quite different—indeed the opposite of what Burnett maintains. Balmer demonstrates that “all the elements, including the belief that only the original manuscripts were errorless, are found in the earlier writings of [Old Princeton figures] Archibald Alexander, Joseph Addison Alexander, Charles Hodge, and Francis Patton. No new doctrine of inspiration was introduced at Princeton after 1850, as Sandeen and others have alleged.” Balmer goes on to note that “far from being unique or novel in their view of Scripture, the Princetonians stood squarely within the mainstream of conservative thought on the subject” (Balmer, “Princetonians,” 354-355). Particularly striking here is Balmer’s quote from Francis Landey Patton, who wrote in 1869 (shortly after his graduation from Old Princeton Seminary): “When it is claimed that the Scriptures are inspired, it must be understood that we refer to the original manuscripts” (quoted in Balmer, “Princetonians,” 354 n. 8). In other words, it is not just that a few believed this; rather, belief in the inerrancy of the original autographs, and thus in a certain authority of the original autographs over against later copies, was the consensus among conservative American Protestants—Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, and yes, even Associate Reformed. So how, we may ask, was B. B. Warfield the “true champion of the modern autographic theory of inerrancy” when it was common currency of the day? Burnett’s tendentious handling of the historical data of this issue should be recognized for what it is.

So, it appears that the doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture has a much better pedigree than Burnett allows. It is, as I argued in my Greenville News op-ed piece, “simply what Christians have historically believed.”

(3) The subtitle of Burnett’s sarcastic essay (‘A Non-Barthian Approach”) suggests that he views the twentieth-century Swiss theologian Karl Barth as the great alternative to the inerrancy doctrine that has been officially endorsed by the General Synod of the ARP Church. In fact, Burnett has made it clear that he regards Barth as the compelling answer to both Evangelical inerrantist and liberal views of Scripture. The interpretation and theological significance of Barth are large and difficult topics (which I have touched on elsewhere; see this article), but a few comments are in order here.

First, Burnett accuses me of bad faith and selectivity in my quotation from Barth, where my article “cleverly omits to quote” what Burnett regards as a crucial portion allegedly indicating Barth’s position that the Bible does not teach error (#53). But that is not quite what the omitted text says. There Barth says that we should not take sides when Scriptural teachings disagree and conflict even over matters of religion and theology. Rather, as Barth makes clear elsewhere, we must listen for the Holy Spirit to speak though this fallible and messy human text as it “becomes” God’s Word to us. Such subjectivism is a clear threat to the witness of the church.

Burnett also seems to accuse me, by implication at least, of directing students to the most hostile American interpreters of Barth (#51). But that is not the case. When students ask me for reliable treatments of Barth on Scripture, I send them to the writings of Geoffrey Bromiley—a translator of Barth’s Church Dogmatics and one who knew Barth well. According to Bromiley, Barth’s “handling of Scripture is in many ways the weakest and most disappointing part of the whole Dogmatics, and his safeguards against subjectivism here are very flimsy” (Bromiley, “Karl Barth,” in Creative Minds in Contemporary Theology, 52). Later Bromiley would write, “Barth’s dismissal of biblical inerrancy and his assigning of a special historical character to events like the resurrection pose the question whether the biblical books can really enjoy the status of direct, absolute, material authority, except by a sacrifice of the intellect, if they do in fact contain demonstrably incorrect statements or tell of events that do not meet the test of normal historical verifiability. . . . For many people, however, doubt seems unavoidably to arise about the great reality to which the Bible bears witness if it might be in error, or even under suspicion of being in error, about plain facts” (Bromiley, “The Authority of Scripture in Karl Barth,” in Hermeneutics, Authority, and Canon, 291).

It is indeed ironic that Burnett would seek to champion Karl Barth in a context where the clear expectation has been that professors will uphold a high view of Scripture. Near the end of his life Barth admitted, “I myself am also a liberal—and perhaps even more liberal than those who call themselves liberals” (quoted in Eberhard Busch, Karl Barth, 496). At the end of the day at least, Barth was honest about his theological stance. I commend Barth for that candor, but not for his sadly defective view of Scripture.

Top Ten Reasons You Just Might Be a Hyper-Protestant

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Number Ten: You define the “gospel” primarily in terms of freedom from the condemnation of sin (justification) rather than freedom from both the condemnation and the power of sin (justification and sanctification).

Number Nine:  You are much more concerned about legalism than antinomianism.

Number Eight:  You view sanctification as a more or less optional add-on to justification (or maybe as an evidence of justification, though you are concerned that even that concession to necessity might be potentially legalistic) rather than as grace parallel to justification that comes with our union with Christ and that is essential to the walk of faith and the path of salvation.

Number Seven:  You sense a tension between the Christ pro nobis (Christ for us) and the Christ in nobis (Christ in us).  Thus, you are very suspicious of those you deride as “unionists” who want to see justification as communicated to the Christian through spiritual union with Christ.

Number Six:  It is not enough to affirm that justification is forensic and synthetic (a justification of the ungodly that involves the forgiveness of sins and the imputation of the merits of Christ) and received by faith as the instrument that unites us to Christ who is our wisdom and righteousness and sanctification and redemption.  Rather, if the gratuity of justification is to be properly safeguarded justification must be completely abstracted from transformation of life.  Thus, if justification from eternity is too daring for you, you place heavy emphasis on an ordo salutis (order of salvation) scheme that seeks logically and temporally to separate justification and transformation.

Number Five:  In order further to keep justification and sanctification separate you are suspicious of any real transformation intrinsic to the Christian.  Thus, your view of sanctification tends to be that of a divine actualism.

Number Four:  In order further to separate the forensic and the transformatory and to portray the forensic as independent of other considerations, you place enormous emphasis on the theme of covenant—especially on constructs such as a “covenant of redemption” between the first and second Persons of the Trinity (never mind that such a notion implies two divine wills and is thus implicitly tri-theistic) and a “covenant of works” in the Garden (never mind that, as John Murray pointed out, the term “covenant” is not used until Genesis 6:18).  Your attachment to the covenant theme is due in large measure to the fact that it gives you a vocabulary and conceptual apparatus for expressing the purely extrinsic, nominal relationships that will, you think, safeguard the doctrine of justification.  Of course, it is difficult to completely expunge the notion of conditionality from the concept of covenant and you may be dimly aware of the way that foregrounding the covenant theme has placed the Reformed tradition on the horns of the conditionality/unconditionality dilemma, and so you may eventually feel the tug of Lutheranism.

Number Three:  You are firmly committed to the notion of “immediate imputation” as an adequate description of the mode of imputation whereby both the sin of Adam the righteousness of Christ (i.e., the active and passive obedience of Christ) are credited.  This “immediate imputation” involves a purely extrinsic legal or forensic divine act that is independent of any realistic relationship between the persons involved (e.g., Christ and the Christian).  Along these lines, you are convinced that the choice between the scholastic categories of “mediate imputation” (i.e., imputation through participation in a moral quality) and immediate imputation pretty much exhausts the possibilities for thinking about the mode of imputation (despite the fact that, e.g., Calvin’s view of the mode of imputation seems to correspond to neither).

Number Two:  In keeping with the above, philosophically speaking you are basically a pretty radical nominalist rather than a realist.

And, finally, Number One:  Deep down you harbor the suspicion that John Calvin just might be a little shaky on the doctrine of justification.  In particular, passages like this trouble you greatly:

How do we receive those benefits which the Father bestowed on his only begotten Son—not for Christ’s own private use, but that he might enrich poor and needy men?  First, we must understand that as long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value for us (Institutes of the Christian Religion [McNeill/Battles ed.], III.1.1).

We do not, therefore, contemplate him outside ourselves from afar in order that his righteousness may be imputed to us but because we put on Christ and are engrafted into his body—in short, because he deigns to make us one with him (Institutes of the Christian Religion [McNeill/Battles ed.], III.11.10).

Why I Still Don’t Much Care for Karl Barth

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A recent and significant article about Karl Barth’s personal life is making some waves.  Christiane Tietz, Professor of Systematic Theology at the University of Zürich, examines the relationship between Karl Barth and his secretary, Charlotte von Kirschbaum, on the basis of recently published correspondence between Barth, his wife Nelly, and Charlotte.  Tietz’s findings were presented at the 2016 meeting of the Karl Barth Society of North America, and that paper has now been published (Christiane Tietz, “Karl Barth and Charlotte von Kirschbaum,” Theology Today 74/2 [2017], 86-111).

The nature of Barth’s relationship with Charlotte had long been hinted at.  Barth’s biographer and student, Eberhard Busch, came as close as any to acknowledging that Barth and Charlotte were lovers:

There is no question that the intimacy of her relationship with him made particularly heavy demands on the patience of his wife Nelly. . . Barth himself did not hesitate to take the responsibility and blame for the situation which had come about.  But he thought that it could not be changed. It had to be accepted and tolerated by all three.  The result was that they bore a burden that caused them unspeakably deep suffering.  Tensions arose which shook them to the core.  To avoid these, at least to some extent, was one of the reasons why in further Barth and Charlotte von Kirschbaum regularly moved to the Bergli during the summer vacation (Eberhard Busch, Karl Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts [Fortress, 1976], 185-186).

Now, however, with Tietz’s article we have clear evidence of the nature of the relationship between Barth and von Kirschbaum, and the extraordinary pain it brought to Barth’s wife Nelly and to their children.  Worth noting is the fact that the surviving Barth children had decided to make the correspondence available in 1985, though the materials were not actually published until 2000 and 2008.

The article itself, with copious quotations from the letters of the principals, is excruciating to read.  Barth first met von Kirschbaum, who was fifteen years younger than he, in 1925 at the home of a friend and by early in 1926 they knew they were in love.  In September of 1929 Barth moved von Kirschbaum into his home, and from that point on the theologian lived with two women.  The picture of Barth that emerges from these letters is that of a man who recognized the awkwardness of his situation but who was steadfastly unwilling to give up his relationship with a mistress who, unlike Barth’s wife, was both a physical and intellectual partner.

The article also details the cognitive bargaining in which both Barth and von Kirschbaum engaged in order to justify this Notgemeinsschaft zu dritt (“union of necessity and trouble as a threesome”).  Barth himself rejected the admonitions of friends and family, and his own mother asked him, “What is the most brilliant theology good for, if it is to be shipwrecked in one’s own house?” (Tietz, 107; cf. pp. 103-104).  As Tietz (p. 102) summarizes Barth in one of his letters, “The necessity lay in this: He wants to keep the outer order of marriage but also to be true to his love to Charlotte.  He confesses his guilt: that in a situation where he was still immature, he had asked Nelly to become his wife, that he was not what a man should be for his wife, and that he finally was unable to remain faithful to her.”  Yet, while recognizing a personal failure toward his wife Barth seems to have denied any moral failure, declaring that he had “never preached morally,” and, writing to von Kirschbaum, “it cannot just be the devil’s work, it must have some meaning and a right to live, that we, no, I will only talk about me: that I love you and do not see any chance to stop this” (pp. 107, 109).  Even von Kirschbaum was convinced that her relationship to Barth was a “marriage” and that it was a “responsible relationship” before God (p. 110).

All this is, frankly, disturbing in ways that challenge the capacity of language to describe.  Terms such as “adultery” and “affair” don’t seem to do full justice to what Barth was up to.  Perhaps “functional bigamy” is a better descriptor, but the level of chutzpa and hubris evident in Barth’s behavior and his disregard for the feelings of his wife Nelly are truly astonishing.

Then there’s the question of Barth’s theology.  This is the man regarded by many as the greatest theologian of the twentieth century (and there’s a case to be made for that assertion).   Some will argue that Barth’s behavior thoroughly discredits his theology, particularly in that his theology was used to justify the behavior, and I’m sensitive to the emotional power of that argument.  But Barth’s appalling behavior notwithstanding, I’m uncomfortable using this issue as a decisive theological criterion. The question of the rightness or wrongness of Barth’s theology should be decided on the merits.  But in order to examine these merits, we need to see how we got to this point.

Though this doubtless would have been surprising to many only a few decades back, we are today in the midst of a significant revival of interest in the theology of Karl Barth.  This renewed interest is especially evident among people who are somewhat to the right-of-center theologically.   This has been facilitated by the strategic release of Barth archival material (which has stimulated much scholarly work on Barth) and by the work of Barth scholars at Princeton Theological Seminary (especially Bruce McCormack, George Hunsinger, and Stacy Johnson), in the United Kingdom (especially the late John Webster and the late Colin Gunton), and in Germany (Eberhard Jüngel).  It is safe to say that, for better or worse, Barth is now “front burner.”

When I started seminary Barth had been dead for thirteen years, and was generally regarded as “historical theology” because the problems inherent in his work had become evident to people on both the right and left.    For the record, I’ll readily agree that Barth is almost always stimulating, which is why I have a fair number of books by and about Barth on the bookshelves in my office, and that the recent “Barth revival’ has produced some helpful and even remarkable insights into his thought.

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I’ll also admit that I went through a phase in seminary when I thought Barth was “cool.” He is fun to read, especially as he interacts with so much of the Christian tradition.  But I found it necessary to move on, in large measure because I was finding his soteriology and ecclesiology to be less than helpful (more on this below).  Many of my graduate school professors had gone through (sometimes passionate) Barthian phases before moving leftward to other forms of theology.  One thing I had in common with my mostly liberal professors was a distaste for Barth, though for somewhat different reasons.

The current preoccupation with Barth seems to be to some extent a “younger evangelical” phenomenon. Reasons are not terribly difficult to discern—fatigue with the older generation’s framing of issues, a desire for more interpretive “wiggle room” on certain matters, a concern to do greater justice to the humanity of Scripture, and so forth. In various ways Barth seems to some to provide a “third way” that avoids the pitfalls of both fundamentalism and liberalism.

Are there good things to be found in Barth?  Sure there are.  Here’s a brief and incomplete list:

He has stimulated a lot of people to take the classical Christian tradition more seriously.

He retrieved the classical apparatus of Christological discussion (e.g., the  anhypostasia/enhypostasia distinction of Leontius of Byzantium) to good effect.

He took the doctrine of the Trinity seriously.  Though his language of “modes of being” has been confusing to many, Barth was certainly not a “modalist” or Sabellian.

He reminded us of the importance of the Augustinian and Anselmian principle of fides quaerens intellectum (“faith seeking understanding”).

And finally, Barth reminded us that theology must be shaped by its object.  In the face of the anthropocentric turn of Schleiermacher and his liberal successors, Barth rightly declared, “One cannot speak of God simply by speaking of man in a loud voice.”

In other words, Barth’s enduring value, as I see it, lies primarily in his retrieval of the classical Christian tradition.  The good stuff in Barth can generally be found elsewhere in the tradition.  But when Barth ventures out on his own, whether it be his view of the imago dei, his view of Scripture, his covenantal “supralapsarianism” and view of election, his dialectical view of history, etc., the results are often unhappy.

In fact, the problems in Barth’s work have long been recognized. First, his view of Scripture as potentially mistaken in matters of religion and theology and the shift in emphasis from inspiration to illumination leave the Christian with little place to stand (see, e.g., Barth, Church Dogmatics I/2:509-510). As Church Dogmatics editor and translator Geoffrey Bromiley well put it, Barth’s “handling of Scripture is in many ways the weakest and most disappointing part of the whole Dogmatics, and his safeguards against subjectivism here are very flimsy” (Bromiley, “Karl Barth,” in Creative Minds in Contemporary Theology, p. 52).  It seems to me that John Webster’s stimulating recent work on the doctrine of Scripture can be read as an attempt to fix some of these problems in Barth.

Second, his implicit universalism (e.g., his contention that the difference between Christians and non-Christians is not that non-Christians are outside of Christ but rather that Christians know they are redeemed by Christ) cuts the legs out from under gospel proclamation (see Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/1: 92-93, 103). It is safe to say that Barthianism has not exactly been an engine for missionary activity!

Third, there is the failure to take history with the seriousness it deserves.  Here we recall that Barth sought to affirm both God’s redemptive activity and the critical study of history, and so he relegated divine acts to the realm of “suprahistory” (by which he meant that it really happened but it’s not “historical” in the sense of being verifiable).  The problems inherent in this dialectical approach to history seem to lie at the crux of the complaints that theologians such as Wolfhart Pannenberg and N. T. Wright have with Barth.

Fourth, there is Barth’s “objectivism,” which results in a pretty abstract soteriology.  For Barth, Christ not only fulfilled the divine initiative toward fallen human beings but also the human response of faith and obedience.  In other words, all of salvation (the gracious divine initiative and the human response to it) is objectively comprehended in Christ.  But this in turn raises the question of whether we have to do anything and whether transformation of life is at all important.  It is precisely here that we may want to ponder whether there was a connection between Barth’s thought and the messiness of Barth’s life.

Finally, consistent with this objectivism Barth’s ecclesiology and sacramentology, with its view of the church as witness to salvation rather than the sphere of salvation, is disappointingly low in ways that this ecclesial Calvinist cannot embrace.

In sum, then, I still don’t much care for Karl Barth, and for a variety of reasons having to do with both theology and life.  Those wise words of Barth’s mother quoted above to her wayward son should be a salutary word of caution to those of us who seek to do theology: “What is the most brilliant theology good for, if it is to be shipwrecked in one’s own house?”