The Slippery Slope: An Iron Law of Theological Declension?

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PCA minister Rick Phillips has a post over on entitled “The Slippery Slope and the Jesus Box.”  In his brief article, which seems to be directed largely against his “progressive” opponents in the PCA, Phillips references a former PCA minister who has gone from being on the hip and relevant end of the PCA, to affirming the ordination of women and leaving the PCA, to affirming the propriety of homosexual behavior, to questioning the orthodox doctrine of the Atonement.

All this is evidence, Phillips contends, of an inevitable “slippery slope,” and he makes the following three arguments:  First, he contends that there is an “unstoppable descent into liberalism and unbelief that begins when the authority of Scripture is compromised out of cultural accommodation. The slope is slippery because without the friction of an inerrant, divinely authoritative Bible, faithfully interpreted, there is nothing left to restrain the downward gravitational pull of the world’s demands.”  Second, he argues that “the slippery slope has tended to begin over the issue of women’s ordination” and that “the cost of abandoning the clear biblical teaching of male-only ordination is the abandonment of the authority of Scripture against all further demands of secular culture.”  And finally, he maintains that once one goes down the path of denying the authority of Scripture one will eventually deny Christ and the gospel.

What are we to make of this Phillipsian iron law of theological declension?  As an historian who studies the impact of theological ideas, I’m tempted to think that there is something to it.  After all, ideas do have consequences.  But the deterministic note and air of apodictic certainty give me pause and cause me to wonder if life may be more complicated than Phillips allows.

What are some of the complexities missed?  First, the doctrine of inerrancy is not by itself a solution to everything that ails us.  Now for the record I affirm the doctrine in its classic form as defined from Augustine to Old Princeton, and I think it’s important—for theology, worship, pastoral care, and, indeed, all of life—that we affirm the truthfulness of Scripture in all that it teaches.   But by itself the doctrine of inerrancy is a rather formal affair, and my sense is that we currently have a number of competing versions of the doctrine of inerrancy present in the conservative Reformed context (some more adequate than others).  Where the rubber tends to meet the road is on the question of interpretation—what is this inerrant and infallible Bible actually teaching?  More often than not hermeneutics is where the real battles are being fought out.

Generally speaking, evangelical leaders don’t set out to deny the authority of the Bible.  Rather, over time they adopt a series of interpretations on what they deem to be plausible grounds, and the cumulative weight of these can lead eventually to the denial of the full authority of the Bible.  In other words, contra Phillips, the denial of the authority of Scripture, more often than not, may lie closer to the end point of the process of declension rather than to the beginning.

Sociologists of knowledge such as the late Peter Berger called our attention to “plausibility structures,” the social realities that help to shape our sense of what is believable and acceptable.  A 2015 article in World Magazine on the former PCA pastor in question helps to make this point.  He was planting a church in San Francisco, a city long known for its open and affirming stance on homosexuality.  His oldest son came out of the closet, and a well-known gay billionaire became interested in the ministry of the church.  It’s not hard to figure out how this man’s change of views happened, and Phillips’ iron law of theological declension doesn’t do justice to the existential realities of this particular case.  Sure, doctrine is important, but people aren’t brains on sticks.

In other words, the current crisis may be not so much one of biblical authority (though that is certainly an issue) as it is a failure to navigate the problem of what H. Richard Niebuhr in his Christ and Culture called the competing authorities of Christ and culture.  Yes, Scripture is our final authority, but our grasp of Scripture is inevitably partial because we read the Bible through the lenses of our encultured experience.  Moreover, the problems resulting from this are evident on both the right and the left.  For example, the temptation for the contemporary progressive left is to baptize whatever is going on in the prevailing culture.  Conversely, the temptation for the right is to react mechanically against that prevailing culture and to read Scripture in reactionary mode.  In both cases, the full authority of Scripture is compromised, and simply bloviating about inerrancy doesn’t advance the discussion.  What we need is sanctified wisdom and discernment.

Second, there is Phillips’ fixation on the ordination of women as a bellwether for this declension.  Here there are enough counterexamples to give us pause.  For example, the very conservative RPCNA has been ordaining women to the diaconate since the late nineteenth century, and my own denomination (the ARPC) has been doing so since the 1970s.  Neither group has fallen headlong into theological liberalism.  Then there are the many people and congregations, a good many of whom affirm the ordination of women to all church offices, who at great personal and monetary cost have left mainline denominations such as the PCUSA and TEC (primarily because those denominations have endorsed homosexuality) in order to affiliate with more conservative groups such as the EPC and ACNA.

This may come as a surprise to some in conservative Reformed circles, but continued faithfulness in these challenging times involves much more than having a correct doctrine of Scripture, important as that is.  It also involves understanding the often subtle (and inevitable) nexus of culture and interpretation.  It involves guarding our hearts in reliance upon the Holy Spirit and seeking to be obedient in every area of our lives.  And it involves having a robust understanding of God’s created order and the creational norms embedded in it.


Longevity Counts: Why Jordan Spieth May Still Be Winning Majors at Age 46!


Jordan Spieth’s victory at the 2017 Open Championship at the Royal Birkdale was great fun to watch.  After losing the lead (which he had held since the first day) during the last round he stormed back to play the last five holes at five strokes under par to win by three against a determined Matt Kucher (who was also playing some of the best golf of his career).

With this victory Spieth joins the great Jack Nicklaus as the second man to win three major championships before the age of 24.  While I’m not a good golfer by any stretch of the imagination (I’m lucky to break 90), I think I know greatness on the links when I see it.

Spieth also seems to be a person of faith with a healthy perspective on life.  In the post-final-round interview after his Open triumph he spoke of his priorities as “My faith and then my family, and then after that, you know, this is what I love to do.” That’s pretty impressive for a 23 year old, and I’m guessing that sense of perspective has helped him come back from his disappointment at the 2016 Master’s.

But this post is about longevity—an odd topic, perhaps, when discussing a 23-year-old golfer on the cusp of what seems destined to be a wonderful professional career, but something worth discussing nevertheless.

The game of golf has changed dramatically in the last few decades.  Some well-known pro golfers of the past were better known for 12 oz. curls than for lifting dumbbells, for hoisting tankards than for squat reps.  Now, physical conditioning has become paramount, with weight lifting taking up as much time as practicing wedges.  When you see a Dustin Johnson or Jason Day or Rory McIlroy walking a course on Sunday afternoon, the time spent in the weight room is obvious.

The physics of golf is all about the turn, the uncoiling of the body that helps to create the club head speed needed to drive a golf ball the length of three football fields or more—and if you want to see the cartoonish effects of extreme weightlifting on golf, just watch a long-drive competition!

But with this increased emphasis on physical conditioning has come an increase in golf-related injuries.  The problem is that the additional leg, core, and upper body strength generated by extreme physical conditioning regimens has stressed the bodies of many golfers to the breaking point. Backs and knees are giving out.  Just think of Tiger Woods—without doubt the most dominant and gifted golfer of the last few decades—and his many back and knee surgeries.  Sad to say, Woods’ golf career was effectively over before he turned 40 due to injuries.

Back to Jordan Spieth.  Sure, the guy is in shape, but he doesn’t come across as a musclebound doofus.   He’s currently tied for only 95th on the tour in driving distance.  He doesn’t try to overpower a course the way, say, a Dustin Johnson does.  Rather, he wins with finesse and smarts.  When he’s on, Spieth has the best iron and putting game on the tour—skills that were on display at The Open Championship this year to wonderful effect.  That’s the sort of game that can win tournaments not only now but for decades to come.

In other words, longevity counts.  Here’s hoping that Jordan Spieth is still winning majors at age 46, the same age that Jack Nicklaus won the 1986 Master’s Tournament for his 18th and final major win.

A Kuyper Prize?

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In an e-mail earlier today Dr. Craig Barnes, President of Princeton Theological Seminary, announced that PTS will not award its Kuyper Prize for Excellence in Reformed Theology and Public Witness to the Rev. Tim Keller after all.

Keller, as most readers are aware, is the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City and a well-regarded expert on church planting and cultural apologetics. He is also a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America, a conservative Presbyterian body that opposes the ordination of women and practicing homosexuals to church office.

After some boilerplate affirmation of academic freedom at his school, Barnes added that

many regard awarding the Kuyper Prize as an affirmation of Reverend Keller’s belief that women and LGBTQ+ persons should not be ordained. This conflicts with the stance of the Presbyterian Church (USA). And it is an important issue among the divided Reformed communions.

I have also had helpful conversations about this with the Chair of the Kuyper Committee, the Chair of the Board of Trustees, and Reverend Keller. In order to communicate that the invitation to speak at the upcoming conference does not imply an endorsement of the Presbyterian Church in America’s views about ordination, we have agreed not to award the Kuyper Prize this year.

Barnes announcement is not surprising to those of us familiar with the ethos of the PCUSA, and there certainly was some pushback. PTS alumna and PCUSA minister Traci Smith opined that her feelings had been hurt by the announcement of this year’s Kuyper Prize award:

I’ll let others argue finer points of Rev. Keller’s theology (hello, this is Princeton Theological Seminary here, arguing finer points is what we do.). My personal soapbox is much less refined. It boils down to this: an institution designed to train men and women for ministry shouldn’t be awarding fancy prizes to someone who believes half the student body (or is it more than half?) has no business leading churches. It’s offensive and, as I have taught my four and five year olds to express, it hurts my feelings.

Another feminist critic of this year’s award wrote that she was “literally shaking with grief,” before declaring (in boldface type, no less) that Keller’s “Complementarianism means married women have no choice over their lives at all.” (I’m guessing that Keller’s wife Kathy would have a different take on that matter, but I digress.) Rhetorical excesses notwithstanding, it’s pretty clear that Barnes and the Kuyper Prize committee stepped into a hornet’s nest on this one.

In the past, it seems that the criteria for the award have been fairly broad. For example, in 2010 it was awarded to the UK’s leading rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth. At first blush, one would think that someone like Tim Keller, whose stance on the role of Christianity in relation to the broader culture meshes rather well with Kuyper’s neo-Calvinism, would be an appropriate choice.

That being said, announcing the award and then rescinding it is bad form and doesn’t reflect well on the school and its leadership.

But my question is different. If, as President Barnes’ e-mail suggests, support for the ordination of “women and LGBTQ+ persons” is now a criteria for receiving the Kuyper Award, why in the world does PTS have a Kuyper Award in the first place? Don’t they know that Kuyper was, to use the more recent term, a convinced complementarian with definite views on gender and sexuality as normatively defined by the order of creation? In his Lectures on Calvinism, Kuyper wrote:

In creation itself the difference has been established between woman and man. . . . Modernism, which denies and abolishes every difference, cannot rest until it has made woman man and man woman, and, putting every distinction on a common level, kills life by placing it under the ban of uniformity (Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism [Eerdmans, 1931], 26-27).

In fact, such was Kuyper’s programmatic distinction between men and women that he opposed women’s suffrage in the Netherlands. James D. Bratt, in his magisterial recent biography of Kuyper writes:

He so fundamentally assumed the patriarchy of separate gender spheres that he came to its overt defense only in late career, when the Netherlands began moving toward women’s suffrage. More broadly, he took the pattern of dichotomous thinking for granted; thus the long train of common grace and special grace, institute and organism, kernel and husk, everlasting principle and temporal application. . . . Kuyper’s solution was a justice of order more than of liberty or access. (James D. Bratt, Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat [Eerdmans, 2013], 247).

Later in the book, Bratt adds:

Feminism proper brought out his harsher tones. . . . God ordained males for strength, females for beauty, he said; man sinned as oppressor, woman as seductress. That contest was no contest, however; women won. There was a “magnetic power,” an “irresistible magnetic power,” in female charms that bent men to her will. So also there was a depth in her depravity quite below his: “The woman who sins sinks much deeper than does the man. She stands for nothing. Unrighteousness seizes her as a life-rule.” Not alone but also not least among the male commentators of his time, Kuyper was profoundly anxious about the power of female sexuality (Bratt, Abraham Kuyper, 362-363).

Having read some of Keller’s work and being somewhat familiar with his ministry, I’m guessing that his view of the role of women is rather more “advanced,” by modern standards, than that of Kuyper.

So, the question is posed: What business does a school like Princeton Theological Seminary—an institution that is apparently committed to the feminist and LGBTQ+ social agenda—have awarding a Kuyper Prize for Excellence in Reformed Theology and Public Witness?

2016: A Class-Warfare Election

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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By William B. Evans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some Brief Reflections on Dallas

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

Here are some brief thoughts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I.   Material Prosperity

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

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

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

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

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

II.   Cultural Success

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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