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., The Princeton Theology 1812-1921, 229-30)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Is Norman Lear Sounding More Like Archie Bunker?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Latest Issue of Foundations Journal Has Appeared

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

The precis of my article reads as follows:

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


Charleston and Newtown–A Familiar Pattern?

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

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

A Particular Sort of Depravity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why I Am (sort of) a Sabbatarian

Bill Evans head shot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bill Evans head shot

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

The Incarnate Word

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

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

Some excerpts from the book are available here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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