American Evangelicalism: From David Joris to David Koresh

David_KoreshNPR has a story today reminding us that the Branch Davidian episode was twenty years ago (HT: Ann Althouse). The story is worth hearing. Ann Althouse raises the question whether NPR is turning our attention to the Branch Davidians in order to direct our attention away from the inconvenient facts surrounding the Boston bombing (Muslim Chechens, who attacked and murdered Americans despite the claims made by the Obama administration to have squelched Muslim terror). Perhaps. Those who confess the Reformed faith in the USA can learn something else.

The Branch Davidians (now simply “The Branch”—sounds like a hip emerging congregation in a warehouse, doesn’t it?) are not the first Davidists.1 There was a 16th-century group known as “Davidists” or Davidians. They were followers of David Joris or Joriszoon (mod. David Georgeson; c. 1501–1556). Born in Basel, he emigrated to the Netherlands where he became attracted to the Reformation. The Protestants, however, were not radical enough so, like many others, he moved on to the radical Anabaptist movement. It is often assumed that the Anabaptists were just another wing of the Reformation. Scholars refer to them as the “Radical Reformation” which implies an organic connection. In fact, the Anabaptists were not Protestants. They were proto-Pentecostalists. They tended to reject the Protestant doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture (sola scriptura). Thomas Muntzer’s doctrine of Scripture was closer to Karl Barth’s than it was to Luther’s or Calvin’s. They practiced continuing special revelation that tended to marginalize the Scriptures. Muntzer ridiculed the Protestant pastors as &#ministers of the dead letter.” I’ve had the exact same conversation with neo-Pentecostalists. Many of them rejected the catholic Christology, that Jesus is true man and true God. They taught that he was conceived with a “celestial flesh.” They also rejected the major doctrines of the Reformation, the Augustinian view of sin and grace, e.g., justification sola fide, the Protestant doctrine of vocation, the Protestant doctrines of the church and sacraments. Of course, they rejected the Protestant doctrine of infant baptism and the reading of redemptive history and biblical hermeneutic that supported it.

In time, like David Koresh, David Joris came to see himself as a prophet and the bringer of judgment. He claimed visions. He gathered followers (Davidists). They were chiliasts, i.e., they were looking forward to the coming millennium on the earth. Frightened, the authorities cracked down on the Davidists but Joris escaped their net. The Branch Davidians are waiting for David Koresh to rise from the dead. In the 16th century, David Joris’ followers came to imagine that he had power to make himself invisible, perhaps an inference from their Christology. If Jesus’ humanity isn’t consubstantial with ours (or he de-materializes to pass through doors) then why can’t Joris, his prophet? He was sufficiently crazy that Menno (who held the celestial-flesh Christology) and Melchior Hoffmann (d. 1543) —himself a prototypical Anabaptist wandering in the woods, receiving revelations, making chiliastic proclamations—rejected him.

We get a clue as to Joris’ character when, in the mid-40s, when the heat became too much, he fled to Basel with wealth accumulated from his followers, re-named and re-branded himself as an aristocrat persecuted for the gospel. There he lived in a castle and wrote mystical treatises and in defense of radicals of all sorts, including Miguel Servetus. His true identity was not discovered until after his death and he continued to have followers through the end of the 16th century.

Always Reformed-FeaturedThere is nothing particularly novel about the Branch Davidian episode in Waco except that it was mediated to us on television. It happened at Münster in the 1530s and it happened in the USA in the 1830s. The David Joris story might have come right from the headlines of Christianity Today or any 19th-century newspaper. In the early 19th century, American evangelical Christianity was radicalized and, as a result, created many of the same sorts of characters as the 16th-century Anabaptist movement(s). Since the radicalization of American evangelical Christianity, some of the most “successful” figures have been charismatic (in both senses), revelation-receiving (e.g., Joseph Smith) dynamic characters who marketed themselves as prophets and saviors. Chiliasm so flourished in the period and into the first half of the 20th century that many American evangelicals simply assume that true Christianity has always been an amalgam of chiliastic visions of the future, continuing revelation, and heretical Christology. Many American evangelicals have never known a day in a historic, orthodox Protestant communion. Many have never heard of the Reformation or the Reformation gospel of free acceptance with God through faith alone in Christ. They live every day in a Babylonian Captivity of legalism, chiliasm, and neo-Pentecostalism. The Reformed theology, piety, and practice are utterly foreign to their experience.

In other words, in the history of American evangelical Christianity, David Koresh may actually be closer to the center of its animus than is John Calvin or the Belgic Confession. Since the early 19th century Reformed Christianity has not been on home soil in America. We did not move but we were re-located. Our situation changed dramatically. Unfortunately, many of who think about the Reformed mission, missions, and church planting in North America, particularly in the States, do not take account of the shift that took place. Some have argued for an “Evangelical Reunion” on the ground that the differences between American evangelicalism and Reformed Christianity are not really that great. As I see it, that is like saying that the Grand Canyon is just a pothole. They plan to incorporate as much of American evangelicalism into their theology, piety, and practice as possible, in order to reach as many as possible, in order to look as familiar as possible, without realizing that, in so doing, they are, as it were, taking the asp to the breast of the church.

The future of Reformed Christianity in the USA is not to try to approximate David Koresh or his more pacific and polite cousins but to recognize that there is a fundamental and radical disjunction between biblical, confessional, Reformed theology, piety, and practice and that of the dominant evangelical religion.

To read more of this analysis see the article, “‘Magic and Noise’: Reformed Christianity in Sister’s America” in Always Reformed. It is available both in hardcover and as an e-book. The distance between American evangelicalism and Reformed theology, piety, and practice is also traced in Recovering the Reformed Confession.

1. Thanks to David Jolley, who pointed me in the right direction regarding the Davidists.

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  1. Apparently the previous poster is not aware of recent headlines like those concerning First Baptist of Hammond, IN and the various antics of their senior pastor, Jack Schaap, and his preaching about “divine intimacy” and his associated sexual abuse of members of the congregation (he is now serving time in prison). One could go on and on citing examples where “pillars” of American evangelical churches have undergone similar scandals over the years.

    Perhaps these things happen in P&R congregations, too, but for some reason I can’t recall any, at least not in the sideline communions. Now, there are certainly theological problems, like FV, but we’re all aware of those because Dr. Clark has gone out of his way to make sure of it.

  2. Mark B, certainly the Reformed are not above having serious sin in our circles. But there are two important questions to consider. The first is whether there is something about the religious distinctive that is inherently connected with the sin. For example I would say there is a connection between the RC insistence that its priests be unmarried and the occurence of homosexual / pedophilic sin. I take Dr. Clark to be saying that in David Koresh and evangelicalism you have the latter taking place.

    Second, how is the sin handled? The offender in the URC church was promptly disciplined. There was no cover up (RCC again) and he did not continue to ride the wave of followers due to charisma or whatever.

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