The Social Crisis is Too Great to Be Arguing About… (Updated)


In the wake of the renewed discussion at the Evangelical Theological Society over the New Perspectives on Paul and the ongoing controversy with the self-described Federal Visionists, Jason Stellman calls attention to the renewed argument that “the social crisis is so great, we can’t afford to be arguing about the technicalities of the doctrine of justification.” Oh yes we can.


Fill in the blank here. I can’t say how many times I’ve had emails or read comments to this effect. Often these earnest comments come from ostensible theological “conservatives” urging me and others to be more moderate on things such as justification. The ironic thing is that they learned this rhetoric not from confessionalists such as J. Gresham Machen (the original warrior child) but from that great theological liberal Harry Emerson Fosdick. Darryl Hart explains on CTC (Editor’s Note: this link is no longer available).

That the rhetoric comes from Fosdick doesn’t make it wrong but it should raise flags, especially when he (and others like him) used it to silence confessionalists such as Machen. Should confessionalists be speaking this way? Does it suggest that those religious “conservatives” who do speak thus really have more in common with liberal social transformationalists such as Fosdick than they do with confessionalist, two-kingdom types like Machen?

Brothers and sisters, we do not say, nor do we confess, that our social views are the “article of the standing or falling of the church.” The state of the culture is not the article of the “standing or falling of the church” but the gospel is. The doctrine of justification is THAT ARTICLE. That social conservatives, who identify with aspects of the Reformation, feel free to reject, modify, or dismiss the very heart of the Reformation (and of the Reformed faith) says a great deal about their relation to the faith confessed by the Reformed churches.

That prominent socio-religious conservatives, who happen this week to identify with aspects of the Reformation, want to marginalize the heart of the Reformed faith, one of the very basic elements of the Reformation says a great deal about the nature of their program. It also illustrates how, when they try to speak like Reformed folk, they’re speaking a foreign language.

The various social crises facing the West are great but the Roman empire was already in crisis when God the Holy Spirit empowered Christ’s apostles to take the gospel to the ends of the earth. Rome fell. The gospel and Christ’s church continued. Another empire, Christendom, replaced the old Roman Empire but it fell too. The kingdom of God, as manifested chiefly in this world in the visible, institutional church, continued. Social crises are important but they aren’t more important than the gospel. Seeing that is a key difference between actually being Reformed and being just another social conservative with a passing interest in the Reformation (as it suits whatever social agenda is in view).

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. Interesting topic. this got me thinking about a couple of relevant scriptures.

    “. . . when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.

    The saying is trustworthy,

    and *I want you to insist on these things*,

    so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works.

    These things are excellent and profitable for people.”
    Titus 3:4-8

    If only such people would take Paul seriously; according to the apostle, insisting on the true doctrine of justification by faith alone is THE way to enable one to live and interact in the world. The way we live our lives on earth are to be bracketed by eternal matters: God’s redemptive acts in history resulting in our justification, and our forward looking faith in our status as heirs according to the hope of eternal life.

    These are not abstract peripheral matters, but described as if they are the beginning, end, and substance of our lives as Christians.

    Or how about Colossians 3:1-17? While transformationalists seem to want to begin with earth and earthly matters and *then* work out ethical and transformational considerations from there, the apostle claims we must begin with the death and resurrection of Christ, all the saving benefits of our union with Christ, especially our heavenly status, in order to properly understand how we live and interact in the world at every point. In other words we begin with heaven itself as our fundamental citizenship (and the right doctrine that describes how we attain such status) which by nature is not to be mingled with our earthly citizenships.

    And right smack in the middle of the Colossians text (Col. 3:11) Paul gives that ideal of communal unity so desired by many transformationalists; a common cause that transcends race, tradition, custom, and calling but does NOT transcend creed. Rather it is grounded in and grows out of common orthodox creed.

    From those considerations I would conclude that faithful orthodox churches are the only places rightly transformed societies can be found, at least the kind of transformed societies the NT is most concerned about.


  2. I was part of the panel for this program. What we discussed prior to taping was very interesting. It pertained to the recent dismissal of Peter Enns from WTS and the storm this created with those supportive of him both from outside the seminary and former students of Enns at WTS. What struck a nerve with all of us was the amount of seething hostility this bunch had for Machen, Van Til and all that the Old Princeton/ Westminster tradition stood for.

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