We Are Not Polishing Brass On A Sinking Ship

More than 30 years ago, when I first came into contact with Reformed theology, piety, and practice (the Reformed confession broadly defined), I also came into contact with a movement within the Reformed world known as “Christian Reconstructionism” and its child “theonomy.” In those days, as we discussed and argued eschatological views (mainly a version of postmillennialism that looks forward to the gradual Christianizing of the world prior to the return of Christ and amillennialism, that anticipates both periods of spiritual prosperity and famine prior to Christ’s return but which doesn’t typically anticipate global Christianization) one of the objections that my Reconstructionist/theonomic friends, who tended to hold the postmillennial view, made against amillennial (and anti-Reconstructionist/theonomic) position is that it reduced the role of the Christian in the world to  polishing brass on a sinking ship.” The image, of course, is meant to symbolize futility. The phrase is widely attributed (following Gary North’s attribution) to the late Dispensational radio preacher, J. Vernon McGee (1904–88). Though deceased for 25 years, his voice lives online and on the air. A search of the Through the Bible site doesn’t show the expression but it captures the way many evangelicals came to see their role in the world.

Dominionism

The dominant eschatology (view of last things) among American evangelicals and fundamentalists, in the 19th and 20th centuries, was a form of premillennialism that anticipated the imminent return of Christ over a series of events including a secret rapture, in which believers would be taken bodily from the earth—made famous in the Left Behind songs (“Larry Norman’s, “I Wish We’d All Been Ready”) books, and movies, a tribulation, and Christ’s earthly millennial reign in Jerusalem. Since Christ was soon to return and Christians were to be delivered from the earth, cultural engagement came to be regarded as futile. This view of Christian cultural engagement was further reinforced by a view of God that suggested that God is selectively sovereign or that his in his ability to control events is limited by the exercise of the human will. Associated with these views was a sort of quasi-Manichean dualism that thought of the world as subject to two competing powers, God and Satan. Much of the world, including daily life, was regarded as subject to Satan and even inherently evil. The material world was with suspicion and sense experience was likewise suspect. Finally, these views were associated with a view of the OT that regarded it not only as expired but as practically irrelevant to Christian theology and living. There developed among groups holding these ideas a strong dichotomy between the Old and New Testaments.

The reader who has some familiarity with the history of ideas will recognize the influences of a few ancient Christian heresies and even pagan ideas in this complex of ideas. It was the Gnostics (c. mid-2nd century AD) who taught that the created, material world was inherently evil, that the god of the OT was a demiurge, a demi-god who is utterly distinct from the God of love of the NT. The Gnostics were a Christian heresy, who appropriated Christian ideas but re-defined them and re-contextualized them under the strong influence of pagan Greek notions. Behind them lie the influence of Plato’s skepticism about the reliability of our senses and a general suspicion of the created world. Where the Christians taught that God is not only the Creator and sustainer of all that is, the Manichaeans (3rd century AD), divided the world into competing principles, good and evil (dualism). Where Christianity taught that creation was inherently good, because God is good and he made it so, the Platonic traditions (middle and neo-Platonism) taught a sort of continuum of being, a hierarchy wherein the material world is less good because it has less being) and the immaterial world is better because it has more being. These ideas were incorporated into medieval theology to various degrees, finding expression in the Albigensian movement, to which the Western church responded strongly in the 13th century.

Nevertheless, for reasons that cannot be described in a brief essay, this complex of ideas came to be regarded even as standard Christian orthodoxy among evangelicals and fundamentalists by the turn of the 20th century. Even though the church has always been divided on the question of the millennium, until very recently, the doctrine of the pre-tribulational, premillennial return of Christ were a touchstone of Christian orthodoxy in evangelical institutions and churches. Until the 1970s, with a few notable exceptions (e.g., Carl Henry and the early Christianity Today) fundamentalist and evangelical cultural engagement consisted of warning parishioners about the dangers of “the world” which was code for booze, cigarettes, movies, and dancing. Evangelicals and fundamentalists, with the liberals, supported the 18th Amendment (establishing prohibition of the sale of alcohol; 1920) but otherwise they tended to regard engagement with broader social concerns (e.g., racism, poverty) as someone else’s business.

In the 1970s evangelicals and fundamentalists, the line between which began to blur, emerged from their social and political isolation. In reaction to the “sinking ship” mentality, some fundamentalists and evangelicals rejected many of the distinctive views with which they had been raised and they embraced aspects of the Reformed theology and piety but they brought with them their old ethos. They transferred the old Quest for Illegitimate Religious Certainty (QIRC) from cards and films to the correct application of the Mosaic civil law and the coming transformation of the culture through Christian political action (via Christian reconstruction). The rise of this group, emerging from the mainline PCUSA in the 1950s, gave former dualists a way to think about culture. Pessimism became optimism. World flight became dominion.

Transformationalism

There are alternatives to both world flight and Reconstruction/theonomy. One alternative is the somewhat milder version of social transformation offered by the (usually amillennial) neo-Kuyperians (followers of Abraham Kuyper), the relations to Kuyper himself (Kuyper v the neo-Kuyperians) and to the older Reformed tradition are disputed. The attraction of some versions of neo-Kuyperianism is that they affirm God’s sovereignty over all thing and they seek to integrate faith and life, to work out a coherent Christian view of the world (worldview). Whether the neo-Kuyperians have achieved their vision of a distinctly Christian view of every human activity is open to question but the desire to recognize Christ’s lordship over all things and to seek to interpret reality through the lenses of Scripture is commendable.

Another approach to accounting for Christ’s lordship over all of life has come to be self-described as the “Two-Kingdoms” theory. Its leading proponents argue that it is faithful to Abraham Kuyper’s vision (as distinct from that of the neo-Kuyperians) by recognizing both that which, under God’s sovereign providence, is common to Christians and non-Christians (common grace; Dutch, Gemeene Gratie), while recognizing the fundamental distinction between belief and unbelief, which Kuyper called the “antithesis.” There is a believing, biblical, obedient, Christian interpretation of reality, a way of looking at things (Weltanschauung) which is at odds with the non-Christian view of things. At the level antithesis, believers and pagans, are irreconcilably opposed. This approach, however, in its best expressions, seeks to account for both that which is common to all humans, under God’s sovereignty, as bearers of the divine image, and that which is not, and to account for the distinct ways or the distinct spheres in which God administers his good providence in the world.

Just as it was possible, however, for ex-evangelicals fleeing the world-flight of fundamentalism, to run straight into the arms of Christian dominionism, so too, it’s possible for ex-evangelicals, fleeing the Christian triumphalism of post-1976 evangelicalism to flee to the arms of a kind of over-realized eschatology and world-flight.

Re-Engagement

Above I sketched briefly, in broad strokes, why and how many American evangelicals came to see cultural engagement as fruitless. According to scholars of American evangelicalism, the world-flight that marked fundamentalism and evangelicalism began to shift after World War II. Carl Henry’s call to re-engage the culture is symbolic of the shift. Thirty years later, after Jimmy Carter’s inauguration, it seemed as if everyone was “born again..” Through the 1980s the Moral Majority and other like organizations announced plans to “take back America,” wherein the neo-evangelicals would take their place once again in a place of influence in the culture. Jimmy Carter had proved a disappointment, but with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 it seemed as if the campaign was succeeding. During the next 12 years of the Reagan and G. H. W. Bush administrations it seemed as if the Republican Party might indeed be the evangelical church at prayer. In their success, however, were planted seeds of future discontent and reaction.

In the same post-World War II culture that saw the re-engagement of fundamentalism (Henry’s term) with the culture also saw a growing influence of neo-Kuyperianism in the broader evangelical world. Those evangelicals who lacked a grammar and categories to account for cultural engagement found it in the way Kuyper had been appropriated. By the 1980s “worldview” was a buzzword. During the 1980s evangelicals had also turned to the theonomy and Christian reconstruction movements for inspiration and intellectual leadership. Those two sources of engagement, neo-Kuyperianism and theonomy/reconstructionism, both tended to speak in triumphalist terms relative to the future and relative to the broader, largely non-Christian culture. Supported by their postmillennialism, theonomy/reconstructionism looked forward to a future Christian “dominion“ through the gradual leavening of the culture by Christian cultural and political influence. In their own way, in contrast to the culturally pessimistic Dispensational versions of pre-millennialism, the neo-Kuyperians also looked optimistically at the future. They spoke of “transforming” the culture and “redeeming” the culture.

Nevertheless, Washington and American culture more broadly proved to be harder to reform than some, perhaps many, evangelicals had anticipated. Just as evangelicals (including, for the sake of this discussion, theonomists/reconstructionists, and neo-Kuyperians of various sorts) were positioned close to the levers of political and cultural influence, the culture squirted, as it were, through their collective fingers. During the Reagan administration broadcasting was deregulated, cable television exploded in popularity, and suddenly the sources of cultural influence were not three broadcast networks but a growing number of cable outlets that were not subject to the same sorts of regulations that had governed the broadcast stations. Radio stations, which once aired a considerable amount of religious programming as part of their “public affairs” commitment dumped it in favor of revenue-producing commercial programming. The market for media became increasingly fragmented. Then, came public access to the Internet in the early 90s. The speed at which media sources proliferated, at which niche marketing became the norm, increased exponentially so that today, just as the Big 3 (or 4) broadcast networks no longer set the agenda for television, not longer do two newspapers (The New York Times and the Washington Post) set the agenda for print (as it were) journalism.

Thus, the “Christian Right” did not achieve much of what it had hoped. 20 years after the inauguration of Jimmy Carter, another Southern Democrat was in the White House and he was seeking to reverse the Reagan Revolution. A series of scandals, his impeachment (does anyone remember that a president was impeached in our lifetime?) and opposition by a Republican House of Representatives slowed his momentum in his second term. The 9/11 attacks plunged the West into a long war with a hard-t0-find, religiously motivated enemy that, for some—perhaps unfairly—cast doubt on very idea of social engagement fueled by a deeply held religious rejection of Modernity.

Those born after the first Reagan inaugural have grown up assuming the post-Reagan prosperity as a given but they’ve also grown up with a president who did not have sex with “that woman” (even when it turned out he had) and who wanted to deconstruct the verb “is.” They’ve grown up under the specter of 9/11. The city shining on a hill had lost some of its luster. The decades of religious scandals and embarrassments (Jimmy Swaggart, Jim and Tammy, Robert Tilton, Pat Robertson, Benny Hinn ad nauseam) had diminished the credibility of the evangelical project of Christian cultural renewal. The parents and grandparents of the Millennials (18–34) have been ambivalent about late modernity. Mom works because they like the new standard of living but she feels guilty about it. Many of their friends are divorced, so heterosexual marriage hasn’t fared well during the very period when evangelical political-cultural influence was at its height. The children and grandchildren of the Baby Boomers seem largely to accept a high divorce rate among heterosexuals and homosexual marriage as inevitable and even as a good thing. As a group, the Millennials tend toward subjectivism. Even the true believers, the theonomists/reconstructionists seem to have given up their original program of cultural transformation through direct political action (Rushdoony’s followers). Instead, they’ve turned to a program of cultural transformation through sacerdotalism, via their theology of baptismal election-union-justification etc ostentatiously self-glossed as  “The Federal Vision.” Jerry Falwell spins in his grave. Despite the evangelical rhetoric of triumph, renewal, and transformation, the culture today seems largely dominated by low-information voters who are more like Snooki than Groen van Prinsterer (1801–76).

There were cracks in the intellectual foundation of the post-WWII evangelical social re-engagement. The evangelical appropriation of Kuyper was thin. It borrowed bits of his vocabulary without his theology and especially without his ecclesiology (doctrine of the church and sacraments). Fuller Seminary isn’t the Free University of Amsterdam. The American evangelicals weren’t much interested in the antithesis and common grace as much as they were in practical, political, cultural, and social outcomes. Where, for Kuyper, “worldview” had referred to a comprehensive interpretation of the meaning of God’s world in light of God’s Word as understood and confessed by the Reformed churches, it became, among American evangelicals, a fairly shallow cliché, a symbol that stood of evangelical-Republican politics and a return to the Eisenhower years. It’s not an accident that Happy Days was one of the more popular TV shows of the 1970s.

It is one thing, however, to write of “redeeming” culture but it is another thing to justify that way of speaking from Scripture and the Christian tradition. Biblically, “to redeem” is to purchase from slavery or to deliver from bondage. Where does Scripture speak of the redemption of the arts or commerce? It does not. According to Scripture we have been redeemed from the curse of the law. Believers have been redeemed from lawlessness and we have been redeemed from transgressions.

It is difficult to see how speaking of redeeming or “taking back” culture doesn’t imply the very sort of dualism against which the neo-Kuyperians and theonomists/reconstructionists were reacting. If someone removes food from my plate, I might reach across the table to take it back. It was mine, then it was lost, then it was recovered. That’s simply not true if we’re speaking of God’s sovereign providence. Nothing has been removed from his control and dominion. Christ was Lord when the West (at least nominally) recognized him under Christendom. He was Lord when the Enlightenment rebelled against him and he is Lord now that most of the culture, most of the time, seems completely ignorant of him.

Of course, what is usually intended by the verbs “to redeem” and “to take back“ is actually something like “to acknowledge Christ’s Lordship over all things.” Where or among whom should Christians expect to see the Lordship of Christ openly acknowledged? Did the apostles expect Herod, Pilate, Claudius, Nero, or Domitian to acknowledge Christ the Lord as a matter of their office? Nothing about Romans 13 even hints that only those are truly God’s civil ministers who acknowledge Christ as Lord.

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.

The great difficulty, however, is that most of the time evangelicals haven’t been thinking principally in biblical or confessional Reformed categories but in Constantinian categories. Consider the prevalence of the imagery and ethos of the crusades among evangelicals. It is so deeply engrained in our way of looking at the broader culture, the non-Christian culture, that, particularly in reaction to the cultural rebellion of the 1960s and the sexual hedonism of the 1970s, we adopted a crusade stance without even realizing it. How many Christian organizations continue to use the image of crusading? Campus Crusade for Christ may now be Cru but it’s just an abbreviation. How often has post-WWII Christian cultural engagement been cast as a crusade? Do a Google search using the terms “Christian,” “school,” and “crusaders.”1 In turn, the renewed adoption of the “crusade” provoked a renewed, if more sophisticated, sort of world flight.

So, the question persists: Is there a way for Christians to engage the culture that gets us off the whipsaw of world-flight (monasticism, Anabaptism, pietism) and dominion/transformation (Christendom, theonomy/reconstruction, neo-Kuyperianism)?

Three Theological And Practical Errors

In this installment I want to address three theological errors and their practical consequences.

First, however, let’s establish a biblical-theological foundation for the discussion. In Genesis 1 and in John 1 God’s Word teaches unequivocally that God sovereignly spoke creation into existence by the power of his Word and that everything that has come into being did so through the personal agency of God the Son, the Word of God. Creation was an act of the Triune God. The Holy Spirit hovered over the face of the deep. God spoke into nothing and made all that is. That same Triune God exercises the same sovereign power in sustaining and governing creation. Creation has always been and shall always be utterly dependent and contingent upon the sovereign providence of the Triune God. There is no basis in Scripture for thinking that, after the act of creating that God retreated from his sovereign control over all things. This means that he is sovereign when bridges collapse and when bombs explode. We also understand that God exercises his sovereignty through human agents and other second causes. He operates with and through the free choices that human beings make. God is always in control and humans are always morally responsible for their free acts. He flooded the world that then was (Gen 6–9). He hardened Pharaoh’s heart and, in turn, he hardened his own heart. He led the Israelites through the Red Sea on dry ground (Ex 14). The Holy Spirit came in sovereign power, not in contingency. According to Psalm 2, God rules the nations the nations with a rod of iron (Ps 2). Civil rulers are his servants (Rom 13), in their sphere, just as ecclesiastical ministers are God’s servants in their sphere (Eph 3:7; Col 1:25). God’s Word is sufficient for all that it intends to do.

For these reasons, the church universal (catholic) confesses “I believe in God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth” (Apostles’ Creed). In our Heidelberg Catechism Q. 27 we confess,

27. What do you understand by the providence of God?

The almighty, everywhere present power of God, whereby, as it were by His hand, He upholds heaven and earth with all creatures, and so governs them that herbs and grass, rain and drought, fruitful and barren years, meat and drink, health and sickness, riches and poverty, indeed, all things come not by chance, but by His Fatherly hand.

We also understand that God administers his sovereign control over all things in different spheres. The church does not administer civil law or justice and the state does not administer the means of grace. We understood that during the Reformation, even under the influence of Constantinianism. From the Reformed tradition we have always understood that, in God’s providence, there are aspects of life that believers and unbelievers have in common. All humans, believers and unbelievers alike, eat, drink, sleep, travel, and conduct business together. Nevertheless, there is an antithesis between the way believers and unbelievers interpret God’s world. Believers understand that the blessings we receive from God’s hand are not the result of chaos and chance. Believers acknowledge that the heavens declare the glory of God (Ps 19:1).

Because creation and everything in it was created by God, is upheld by God (Acts 17) it all belongs to God by right, even when rebellious creatures refuse to acknowledge him (Rom 1:21). Further, God the Son incarnate, through whom all things came into being, who upholds and governs all things (Ps 2; Acts 2:36; 10:36; 1Cor 8:6; Eph 4:8. NB: Jesus is called Lord about 95 times in the NT). He came announcing the Kingdom God (Mark 1:15), not a radically democratic cooperative. A kingdom is a hierarchy. The king rules and the people obey. That’s the nature of a kingdom.

In light of these basic Christian truths then we can address three errors that distort the Christian engagement with the broader culture.

  1. The notion that Christ is not actually sovereign over all things but he will be at some later point.
  2. To affirm Christ’s present dominion over all things but to ignore the movement of redemptive history so that post-canonical civil rulers are regarded as if they were canonical, Israelite kings fulfilling a role in redemptive history.
  3. To conclude that, because Christ administers his dominion in multiple spheres that somehow we cannot speak from God’s Word to every area of life.

Postponing Christ’s Lordship

First, theologically considered, it does not matter how long one postpones Christ’s Lordship or to what point, whether a future millennial reign or during a future golden era ushered in by the global spread of the Christian faith. The Scriptures teach and the Reformed faith confesses that Christ is Lord presently and nothing happens apart from his sovereign decree. The great error in virtually every modernist account of the doctrine of God is that they make him part of the process of history. In one way or another God is said by modernists to “become.” The God of the Bible, of creation, providence, and redemption, who sovereignly raised Jesus from the dead, who sovereignly elects and reprobates (Rom 9; Eph 1–2), is not “becoming” or in process. The God of the Bible is. He says, “I am who I am (Ex 3:14). God is the only entity who can say “I AM.” The rest of us are creatures and we must all confess, there was when I was not. I am contingent. God is. He has always been. He shall always be. He isn’t becoming Lord. He is Lord. There is not a future time when, under the right conditions, he will become Lord. He is Lord right now. His kingdom is now. That the kingdom does not meet some expectations is not God’s problem. Jesus came proclaiming the Kingdom and neither the Jews nor Pilate were impressed. Jesus didn’t much care.

Theocratic Israel Was Unique

Second, God established Israel to perform a unique, temporary role in the history of redemption. The function of the Israelite kings was not to establish a pattern for post-canonical, secular rulers. Their primary function was to point to Christ. Thus, we cannot read the history of the kings of Israel and Judah and then draw a straight line between them and post-canonical kings, whether Caesar or Charlemagne or the President of the United States. That is an abuse of Scripture, i.e., putting Scripture to a use for which it was never intended. Yes, it is certainly true that Christians, including Reformed Christians, have a long history of reading Scripture this way. It was a mistake. People read Scripture in a given context and that context, with all the assumption it entails, is a powerful influence on the way God’s people read Scripture at a given time. For about 1500 years the church read Scripture in the context of or under the influence of the Constantinian assumption, that the civil ruler, as God’s minister, is ordained by God to establish a church or to punish heretics. Exegetically and theologically those assumptions were in error. There is not a shred of evidence in the NT or in the way the NT teaches us to read the Old Covenant that intends to cause us to think that God intends for civil rulers, after the expiration and abrogation of the Israelite economy, to establish the church, enforce orthodoxy, or punish heretics. When the Psalms speak of the king (e.g., Ps 2), according to the NT (Acts 2) we’re to understand that king is Jesus and he is ruling now. Peter preached that “This Jesus whom you crucified, God has made him both Lord and Christ.” He isn’t becoming Lord. He doesn’t become Lord when we recognize him as such. He is Lord, now. He is ruling now. He was ruling when Herod, Pilate, and Nero plotted against believers. Peter interprets David’s life as a pointer to Christ’s life and present reign. He doesn’t move from David to Jesus to Caesar. He stops with Jesus. Paul doesn’t move from the Israelite kings to Caesar in Romans 13. He grounds Caesar’s role in nature, not in redemption. It is the failure to distinguish these two spheres of God’s sovereign operation that contributes to this confusion.

Not Whether But How

Finally, there is a temptation among those who distinguish between the spheres in which God administers his sovereign rule, perhaps in reaction to the second error, to restrict unduly the ways in which God’s Word is applied to every sphere of life. To be sure, there are proper and improper applications of God’s Word. Sometimes one gets the impression that some think that because God is sovereign, and because I think God’s Word applies to a certain situation this way, anyone who disagrees with my application of Scripture is denying God’s sovereignty. Obviously that is a non sequitur. God is sovereign but your application of Scripture is not. There is a difference. There are limits on the sort so of things to which ministers should speak. Ministers are not ordinarily physicians or physicists. We are not called, in our office as ministers, to give medical advice or to speak authoritatively on the latest developments in physics. The law and the gospel were true under the pre-modern physics, under Newtonian physics, and under post-Newtonian physics. However many scientific revolutions have happened since the Councils of Nicea and Constantinople (I), the Nicene-Constantinoplitan Creed has not changed. Medicine has changed dramatically but the law and the gospel have not.

Rather, we should think and say that everything to which his Word intends to speak is a proper object of the ministry (proclamation and application) of the Word. We are called to preach the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:21). We are called to speak to cultural developments as God’s people are called to live out their faith in their daily lives. Faithful living will bring engagement with the broader, unbelieving culture. That intersection should raise questions. “The prevailing non-Christian culture says x, but the Scriptures and the faith say y. How should we respond? ” The application of God’s Word requires wisdom, patience, and care but we cannot shrink back from our vocation.

This is not a call for a Jihad (nor to turn the pulpit into a partisan political organ) against unbelievers or for an undue focus on their behavior—that’s like shooting ducks on the water—but where a passage speaks or necessarily implies (by good and necessary inference) a contrast between the biblical view and a pagan view of a matter, we shouldn’t hesitate to follow God’s Word where ever it leads. Consider, for example, the practice of abortion. I doubt the wisdom of a pro-life Sunday just as I doubt the observance of Mothers Day on the Sabbath. It is the Lord’s Day and it shouldn’t be co-opted by this or that interest. Nevertheless, a consistently Christian interpretation of reality (worldview) will yield a view of the inherent value of humans as image bearers. The prevailing pagan ideology and practice of abortion denies the humanity and image-bearing status of infant humans and thus sees no reason to protect them. There is a Christian view of humanity and there are pagan views of humanity. Those different views lead to different ethical systems and thence to different practices. When we come to a biblical text that speaks to the Christian view of humanity or to the inherent value of human life, we should speak to this issue. Now, we should do so carefully, recognizing that there may be those in the congregation who may have made serious mistakes (even sins) in their past. We trust that such are penitent but we should be as gracious with the grieving as we are firm with the impenitent. Nevertheless, ministers are called to serve the Word. We must go where the Word leads. We should not refrain from carefully applying the Word because some might not like it.

This is God’s world. Christ has established his kingdom. He sustains everything by his providence and has established a mission representing his kingdom in the world. As kingdom citizens we are his emissaries to the world. As king he has spoken and interpreted all things. Christ is returning and he will bring his reign to consummation in glory. Until that moment, however, we are left to die to sin, live to Christ, and by his Spirit, read the Word with the church and to acknowledge his Lordship by serving him in every aspect of our lives, in each sphere, to his glory. We are not polishing brass on a sinking ship because the world is not a sinking ship. It is the theatre of his glory. We are serving Christ the King as his people, in the station to which he has called us. He is accomplishing his purposes. He will be glorified.

NOTES

1. It’s interesting to observe, however, how frequently the Christian Coalition uses the crusade metaphor to describe its ideological opponents. In this case, the coalition isn’t describing itself as crusading entity but rather positioning itself as the victim of crusading.

RESOURCES

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
    Author Image

    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.

    More by R. Scott Clark ›

Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!


14 comments

  1. Dr. Clark, thank you for summing up so much in such a compact and succinct article. If the anaemic church in the UK is anything to go by, the focus needs to massively swing to Reformed doctrine and practise instead of the failed pursuit of being contemporary and relevant. Many Christians here seem to take the state of the nation as a sign of our spiritual well being, taking issues like homosexual marriage and drunkenness as issues of critical centrality. Instead they should be looking at the spirituality of the church which is in some quarters supposedly Reformed and in other areas plainly at odds with Scripture and rightly inferred traditional practise. We (well, the Scots!) sent you our best Presbyterians in former years. Can we please have some back to help sort out us out?

  2. I remember J. Vernon McGee from my evangelical salad days in the early 90s: “Jay-roo-say-lem!”

    But one of the oddest accusations came from a neo-Calvinist when I was still in the CRC that 2k-amil views were a form of world-flight Dispensationalism–otherwordliness was even taken to mean something about space aliens. And the irony is how neo-Calvinism creates its own ghetto that smacks of world-flight. Add to that an assumption on transformationism’s part that creation really isn’t as very good as once thought. Change the world? Why, what’s wrong with it?

  3. Paul (UK),

    As a someone who lived in the UK and am thoroughly familiar with the situation there (and continue to consider myself as a Queen’s loyal subject), the confusion between Law and Gospel is rife, even within the more Reformed churches. There is a fear of antinomianism in preaching but which instead tends towards legalism. At the same time, Christian piety ranges from legalism in the ultra-conservative churches to antinomianism in the contemporary evangelical churches. The churches seem to be united on one particular doctrine, if I may put it so every cynically, and that is revival/ revivalism.

    The proper and clear lack of distinction between Law and Gospel leads to the confusion between the two kingdoms – so that the 1st and 2nd uses of the Law becomes confused also.

    The Reformation was essentially the reformation of preaching. The Gospel is not illumination (intellectual or spiritual), feeling (e.g. as produced or induced during revivals or a state of dependence as in Keswick, charismaticism or modern evangelicalism), or some *internal* spiritual experience (like experiencing forgiveness of sins). The Gospel is intensely and purely *external* – in the *form* of words by the preacher which pronounces the end of the sinner and of all righteousness according to the Law and total freedom *from* the Law (and sin, death and damnation). As extra nos, the Gospel then does something to the sinner such that it “overrides” *all* experience — except the experience of *faith.*

    Faith can only cling as a *given* (literally) to the external Word in preaching and in the baptismal promise and in the Words of Institution. IOW, it is not so much (although very true indeed) that faith alone justifies but is never alone – but that faith alone justifies because it is *never* apart from the justifying Word.

    The preaching as found in the UK churches (which are the heirs of the Reformation) lack such clarity. The form and contents of the Gospel become divorced instead of being essentially the *same.* This can have the effect of eroding the distinctiveness of Reformation, particularly Reformed theology, in practice.

  4. J.V. McGee also always said, “May I say to ya”

    As an Amill, I refer to Romans 8:22 when it comes to trying to save the world, whales and culture.

    And while McGee is still on the radio, so is Boice.

  5. Jason, Your incisive and thorough words are much appreciated. Basically the church in Britain is in, to use a northern phrase, a pickle. You are right to say that the holy grail of ‘revival/revivalism’ is still curiously at the heart of many church’s doctrine. It is good and right to want to see the Gospel prosper, but the legacy of Whitefield and his heirs looms large over the UK scene; folks hanker for an awakening in the style of the first celebrity preacher.

    The misuse of the law is the fruit of evangelicalism which is adamant that it will only use the Bible, thus ignoring or minimising the historic use of creeds and confessions to articulate the right use of the law in relation to the gospel.

    Legalism is strangely found in supposedly Reformed churches where there can be a raft of ‘don’t do’ rules on matters of music, dress, Bible versions and alcohol. On the other hand the evangelicals have gone apparently quiet on the right use of the law, with the Lord’s Day becoming more informal and worship is relaxed and easy going thanks to the bridges built with groups like New Frontiers. NF is thoroughly charismatic and ‘apostle’ led in some ways, but their likeable worship leader Stuart Townsend has his songs embedded in most evangelical churches throughout the country.

    More could be said about the UK church and how this country which gave us a semblance of Presbyterianism has gone weak and badly astray. But what is needed is something of a way forward, and so when I seemed to be joking in the last sentence of my previous comment I was actually being serious. It would be a massive help if WSC and others could help in praying for robustly Presbyterian churches to be planted throughout the UK , clearly echoing the confessional basis that WSC has. Sadly, even now those who claim to be Reformed in the UK often give the appearance of being more evangelical than anything else, and include many of the problems I have mentioned.

  6. I am not disagreeing with your overall assessment of Christian viewpoints on eschatology or world view, but to be fair, does any theologian from a reputable Dispensational seminary like Dallas say any thing close to this characterization:

    “This view of Christian cultural engagement was further reinforced by a view of God that suggested that God is selectively sovereign or that his in his ability to control events is limited by the exercise of the human will. Associated with these views was a sort of quasi-Manichean dualism that thought of the world as subject to two competing powers, God and Satan. Much of the world, including daily life, was regarded as subject to Satan and even inherently evil. The material world was with suspicion and sense experience was likewise suspect.”

    J. Vernon McGee would not agree with this: Let’s try to be fair to the best people in an opposing viewpoint.

    Please read the first paragraph of the chapter on “Chiliaism” in “Pauline Eschatology” by Vos. He is a fine example of graciousness to the opposing viewpoint.

    Thank you for your fine work!

    • Dan,

      The idea that God willingly self-restrains his sovereignty is widely held among Evangelicals. The idea that God is by his own nature unable to exercise sovereignty (Open Theism) is also widely held as is the doctrine of Middle Knowledge. Here are a couple of older posts on the latter topic.

      http://heidelblog.net/2009/05/ping-pong-evangelicals-middle-knowledge/
      http://heidelblog.net/2010/04/more-on-middle-knowledge-classic-reformed-definitions-of-the-key-terms/

      That American fundamentalism/evangelicalism has been deeply influenced by a quasi-Manichaean view isn’t really much disputed by historians. I discuss the relations between Gnosticism and American Christianity in Recovering the Reformed Confession and document sources there.

      How did I impute all of this to JVM?

      I’m well aware of Vos’ work. Did he discuss the development of pre-trib, premil eschatology and its concomitant social consequences? I don’t think so.

      • Again, I point is not to disagree with you. I don’t disagree with your characterization of evangelicalism.

        Perhaps, I misinterpreted your point. I thought you laid responsibility at the feet of dispensationalism the source for these errors. My only point is that Griffith Thomas who was to be the first professor of Systematic Theology at Dallas, and most reputable dispensational theologians would not recognize your review of their theology.

        You can pile on dispensationalism, and there is reason to do so, but God used faithful men to bear witness to Christ in dark time of the fundamentalist vs liberalism.

        They are not your enemy–and neither am I. I agree with you.

        • Dan,

          What is at issue is the prevailing ethos (including its view of culture) that emerged from the eschatology most closely associated with classic and even modified dispensationalism.

          • Yes, we need a revival of Kuyperian view of Christ’s lordship over every sphere–and one’s view of eschatology affects that immensely.

  7. I recall listening to a McGee broadcast decades ago while he was answering some letters. One listener wanted to know a good way to interpret scripture passages as he read them. I very distinctly remember McGee saying (in his eloquent TX drawl), “If you don’t understand it, read it again,” a sentence he repeated about a half dozen times, until you understand it.

    His brand of biblicism made me wonder what he thought about Acts 8:26 ff, where Philip was sent to the Ethiopian eunuch so he could explain Isaiah’s prophecy to him. The Bible is not a desert island kind of book.

  8. Our radio station still plays J. Vernon daily. Several weeks ago, he remarked that the Sermon on the Mount didn’t apply to us at all, that it was meant for the millennial kingdom. Of course, this was after blasting amill types and “liberahls” for not taking Scripture literally. Amazing. His was a peculiar type of biblicism, George. And it still goes over the airwaves.

  9. Richard – yes, I recall one of his talks on the first several chapters of Revelation where he declared with all certainty that the various churches of Asia Minor were mirror copies of modern denominations, such as the RC. Now, this is not to say that those congregations don’t resemble some of the goings-on in contemporary Christianity, but it’s amazing how you can pin-point that kind of accuracy into what John wrote.

  10. Paul –
    “Sadly, even now those who claim to be Reformed in the UK often give the appearance of being more evangelical than anything else,”

    It the same in the USA.

Comments are closed.