Between Donatism and Liberalism: Trueman on Losing the Plot

One way of accounting for the decline of churches into liberalism is to find the villains and tell the story of how the bad guys snuck into the church and corrupted an otherwise pure institution thereby stealing it from under the noses of the faithful, unaware laity and officers. Examples of this narrative abound. Some conservative Presbyterians tell a similar story (with more or less nuance) about the decline of the mainline (PCUSA). I have heard conservatives in the German Reformed Church tell a similar story about the about the fall of the old RCUS into liberalism. Parts of this narrative are true, of course, but there are too many aspects of the story for which this story does not account. One major aspect of the the decline of churches into liberalism is that, as Carl Trueman notes, “sometimes (oftentimes?) churches go liberal without any initial intention of so doing.” He explains at Ref21.

One thing I wish to add to this account, something I learned from Darryl Hart (see The Lost Soul of American Protestantism), and something that folk in the Dutch Reformed world (i.e., in the CRC and my federation, the United Reformed Churches in North America) need to see, is that American evangelicalism is a transitional stage between “conservatism” and “liberalism.” Further, the “two party” story of the American Reformed and Presbyterian churches fails to account for the actual, historical dynamics in the change. The CRC didn’t just start becoming “liberal.” The CRC started becoming American and evangelical. Some of old Dutch-speaking Reformed pastors and theologians (See Bratt’s Dutch Calvinism) warned of the danger of becoming “Methodists” (i.e., evangelical revivalists). That’s what happened. The CRC has become gradually more like American evangelicalism than it is like the Dutch Reformed tradition. Gradually, through course of the 20th century, the CRC traded in the theology, piety, and practice of the Dutch Reformation for modern Dutch-American evangelicalism. If you don’t believe me, ask Kevin DeYoung.

It’s important for those in separating churches, such as my own, to understand what they left. If folk in the URCs continue to tell the story that “the CRC went liberal so we left to form the URCs” they will not only misunderstand what they left but they will also misunderstand what they are (or should be) and so lay the foundation for starting the whole process all over again so that, in a generation or two, their grandchildren will repeat the same thing as the URCs follow the pattern of the CRC (as the CRC follows the pattern of the RCA).

The only way to get off this misery-go-round is to re-describe the problem and the process. The problem is not “liberalism,” per se. That’s like saying, “the problem is cancer.” Yes, of course cancer is a problem but it’s the outcome of a process. If people are inhaling asbestos (or whatever) they are going to continue to get cancer. The solution is not to treat the cancer but to address the root cause, to change the process, to stop breathing asbestos. To stretch the metaphor, the Reformed churches have to stop breathing the spiritual asbestos of American evangelicalism. History says that we cannot synthesize Reformed theology, piety, and practice with American evangelicalism. We have to hold the evangelical faith but we cannot do so as non-confessional “American evangelicals” if only because the dynamic of the non-confessional wings of American religion is to ping-pong from revivalism to liberalism. To survive as Reformed folk we must opt out of the dialectic.

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