Independence And The Practice Of The Faith

Mt Soledad

credit: R. Scott Clark

On Independence Day 2014 we should remember that one of the principal concerns of the founders of the Republic was the freedom not only to assemble for public worship but also to practice one’s religion. Since the so-called (and self-described) Enlightenment of the 18th and 19th centuries religion has increasingly become a purely private matter, i.e., entirely theoretical. To be sure, depending upon the passions and whims of the culture at the moment, some public or practical expressions are tolerated or even encouraged (e.g., feeding the poor; but even that is discouraged in some precincts) but today, post-Enlightenment, religion is generally considered by most to be an essentially private matter. As most think of religion it is thought to concern personal, subjective, indemonstrable, theories about matters ethereal and transcendent. For many it is religion is a fairy tale that some old folks tell one another in order to face death. For others it’s nothing but a signal of ignorance and irrationality but whatever it may be, it is private. It is still permitted to gather on a given day and to pray and say, within certain boundaries, what a congregation will and to pray and think as one will at home but there religion must stay.

Those of us who confess the Christian faith, however, will not rest easy under such a regime. The Christian faith is not a purely or merely private matter. It is not purely subjective. We regard the faith, in the first instance, as a series of historical claims about historical events. We confess that God really did speak creation into existence. We confess that he made humans in his own image, that those image bearers sinned, that God acted directly (supernaturally) in history and generally through a long period of redemptive history which came to culmination in a series of supernatural but historical acts. God the Son became incarnate of a virgin. He lived, taught, performed miracles, was arrested and tried unjustly, crucified, and that he rose bodily from the grave on the third day. We confess that he ascended bodily to heaven where he sovereignly reigns over all things and that he is returning bodily to judge the living and the dead. These are not expressions of our subjective experience. These are not metaphors for religious consciousness. Historic, catholic Christians claim these as historical, public facts.

We also confess a body of truth about these events. We accept Scripture not only as the divinely-inspired, true, inerrant, and infallible account of these events but also as the normative interpretation of their significance and ours. We understand Scripture to teach and imply a body of teaching (doctrine) or truth that has implications not only for the way we pray and preach (worship) but also for the way we live and conduct our daily lives.

In the Reformed tradition we confess that Christian faith is both theoretical and practical. By practical we don’t mean what is often meant by that word. We don’t mean “something useful as distinct from something purely theoretical.” No, we understand practical to mean something like “the outworking of our faith.” In our tradition we have typically not set doctrine and practice against each other. Some of our writers have emphasized the moral, spiritual, and ethical implications of Christian teaching and others have emphasized teaching but most of the time, most of our theologians have taught that the faith is both a doctrine (truths) and practice (consequences).

Bernadinus de Moor (1709–80; roughly contemporary to Jonathan Edwards, 1703–58 and a little later than Thomas Boston, 1676–1732) was a Reformed theologian in the Netherlands, who wrote a large commentary on Marckius, 1656–1731, Compendium Theologiae Christianae Didactico-Elenchticum. In 1.28–31 of his commentary, he summarized the various Reformed approaches to defining theology and concluded that it is a “theoretico-practical doctrine.” If memory serves, Francis Turretin (1623–87) defined theology as “partly theoretical” and “partly practical.” Christianity makes historical claims, teaches certain truths, and these claims and truths have implications for the way we live daily.

De Moor continues. Theology includes:

1. the Object, which is God, to be known and worshipped as the first truth and highest good.

2. The Subject, man, to be perfected in the knowledge of the truth, by which his intellect is illuminated; and in the love of the good, by which his will is adorned; in faith, which is extended unto πιστὰ (pista), things to be believed, and in love, which is extended unto πρακτὰ (practica), things to be done.

3. The Principium, both external, the Word of God, which comprehends the Law and the Gospel; the Law sets forth things to be done, the Gospel things to be believed and known: and internal, the Spirit, who is the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of Jehovah, Isaiah 11:2.

4. The End, proximate and immediate, theory of the true and praxis of the good, neither to be excluded, since the knowledge of God is not able to be true, except that with which praxis is joined, 1 John 2:4; neither is praxis right and salutary, except that which is directed by knowledge, John 17:3. Likewise, the End of Theology is the salvation of man: but this also has been place partly in the vision of God, partly in the enjoyment of Him.2

For De Moor, as for the rest of the Reformed, the faith is not purely theoretical nor purely practical. We affirm both truth and practice. This is why the Reformed objected to the insistence of some, in mid-16th-century England, that ministers dress like priests. The authorities claimed that these vestments were morally indifferent, and therefore Reformed ministers are free to wear them. We replied that, if they are truly indifferent, we are free not to wear them. At that point, the Reformed discovered that they were not really adiaphora. That’s always a good test when we’re told that something (e.g., musical instruments in public worship) are indifferent. Say, “well, then we may do away with them, right?” If we may not, then, of course, they aren’t really considered indifferent are they?


attempt-to-land-a-bishopWe faced similar challenges in the 18th century in the American Colonies. We we really free to worship as Scripture requires? We we really free to practice our faith according to Scripture as confessed by the churches? The colonists fled the established church in England. They came to the new world not merely for economic reasons (though that was certainly a factor) but also to find liberty—defined as the relative absence of civil restraint—to practice the faith.1 There were growing fears in the 18th century that the British crown was seeking to impose an established church in the new world. In this 1769 engraving the colonists are throwing a copy of Calvin’s works at the Bishop as he attempts to disembark. They also had in their hands works by Locke, Algernon, and Sydney on (limited) government. Many of those who supported the American revolution believed that it was necessary in order to establish the freedom to practice the Christian faith in the new world.

The myth, which I was taught in the 70s and 80s, is that all the founders were deists and rationalists and that America has always been essentially an atheist nation. That myth is promulgated by Matthew Stewart in Nature’s God. Wheaton historian Tracy McKenzie, however, criticizes Stewart, a philosopher, for his ham-fisted account. Were many of the founders deists? Sure. Were they all deists? Not at all. Even the Library of Congress page on religion in the revolutionary war mentions John Witherspoon (172394) as one of the more significant figures in the founding of the Republic. Witherspoon was certain affected by Scottish Commonsense Realism but he was hardly a deist. The memory of the repression of religious practice was alive not only to Witherspoon and the other more orthodox Christians but also to those who tended toward deism. The Thirty Years War (1618–48) was a part of their historical memory.

In a variety of ways that might have surprised our grandparents (my maternal grandfather was born on the prairie in 1901. He could scarcely imagine the degree to which most of us are dependent upon or increasingly afraid of powerful (and increasingly militarized—should the Department of Education really have armed police units?), all-involved, federal, state, and local governments) American Christians are facing perhaps the most overt civil challenges to the practice of the Christian religion since the founding of the Republic.

It is one thing to say, as the court did in 1962, that school-sponsored prayers are unconstitutional. I doubt the founders would have agreed. When the constitution was ratified there were still state (not federal) church churches. It is quite another thing, however, for teachers to tell children that they may not pray or that they may read the Bible or that Christian students may not speak about their Christian faith at commencement. Mind you I’m not speaking to the wisdom of bible reading in school etc but only to the notion that school administrators and teachers seem to have become convinced that it is a violation of the so-called wall of separation for students to pray, read Scripture, or speak about their faith within the precincts of a publicly-funded building. From the point of view of the founders that is a truly bizarre way to think and yet it is likely the way many Americans think today. It’s not an entirely recent development. In 1979 I was not allowed to mention my faith during a commencement address. I was allowed, however, to endorse the state-sanctioned belief in multiculturalism. It was a strictly unconstitutional limit on free speech. The voluntary, before-hours, on-campus, bible study we organized in 1977–78 was later challenged in court. We live in a time in which the IRS asks groups about the content of their prayers. Planning commissions quietly zone churches and home bible studies out of existence. One of the fastest growing categories on the Heidelblog is Religious Freedom Watch. I doubt that Jonathan Turley and I agree about much but we do agree that religious people in America face serious challenges to their liberty to practice religion.

Practice entails more than prayer and preaching, though it certainly includes them. It entails the freedom to speak and act according to conscience (which, for Protestants, is determined by the sufficiently perspicuous Bible). For those who hold to the historic Christian view of humanity, that means that we don’t murder children in utero and we should not be made to pay for others who do. It means freedom to observe a day of rest and public worship. It means that tax-paying religious people should have equal access to public (tax-supported) facilities. It means that religious people who cannot, in good conscience, support state-sanctioned homosexual unions should not be forced by majoritarian tyranny to support them or to facilitate them any more than Jews should be made to photograph Nazi re-enactment parties or the descendants of slaves should be made to cater a re-enactment of slave auction. It means that religious people should not have to give up or apologize for their religious convictions in publicly-funded universities nor should voluntary student associations be forced to violate their convictions regard sexual morality as a condition of organization. Yet, all these freedoms have been curtailed and seem to be fading.

To anticipate an objection: if allowing native Americans to smoke peyote is the price of religious liberty, we can afford it. Yes, to promote genuine religious liberty we need to re-think some of what we adopted in the 1964 civil rights act.  We should distinguish between private property and public, i.e., taxpayer-funded property.  What about mosques? They present a special challenge to the American experiment of religious liberty. Islam means “submission” and for most of its history that “submission” has come through gentle persuasion but at the pointy end of a weapon. Christians, of course, have their own unhappy history with Constantianism, of which most of us have repented, but the early Christians did not advance their religion by force whereas Islam did and from its very beginnings. Left to themselves, as we’ve seen since 1979, Islamists demand adherence to Sharia. Like some (mainly leftist quarters in this country) they are offended by non-conformity. They use the power of civil and military coercion and even terror (must I say it? 9/11)  to achieve submission. There are have long have been Muslims who have accepted the American theory of religious pluralism. Are they prepared to continue? In so doing are they being consistent with the Qur’an and the major traditions of Islam? That’s an open question. I think not. Whatever the case, it seems clear that Islamists (to distinguish them from Muslims) do not accept the notion of religious pluralism. As I write it seems as if a new Islamist caliphate may be established in Iraq and Syria. Christians in the regions now controlled by ISIS are experiencing Sharia and forced submission to Islam and those regions are hardly bastions of religious liberty.

The question on this Independence Day is whether we still value religious liberty as a freedom not only to think certain things and say certain things behind closed doors but whether we are committed to tolerating the public expression and outworking of those beliefs in daily and civil life. In 2014 it is difficult to be optimistic about the fortunes of religious liberty in America.


1. E.g., The First Charter of Virginia (1606) was mostly concerned with civil and economic interests. §III is the only one devoted to explicitly religious interests although religious language appears elsewhere. The Mayflower Compact (1620) and the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut (1639; see the preamble) are each, by turn, more explicit about the colonial interest in religious liberty. At the same time, the Massachusetts Body of Liberties (1641) was quite restrictive. It was not theonomic (i.e., the institution of the Mosaic civil code) but it was Constantinian. It clearly authorized the magistrate to punish heresy and enforce religious orthodoxy (e.g., the first capital law says, “If any man after legal conviction shall have or worship any other God but the Lord God, he shall but put to death.” (spelling modernized). Yet 95.2 says, “Every church has full liberty to exercise all the ordinances of God, according to the rules of Scripture.” This statute reflects the experience of the non-conformists in England. By the late 18th century, most Americans (the Romanists not officially until Vatican II in the early 1960s) would agree with Roger Williams on religious liberty. To whatever degree the early New England colonists particularly were not prepared to grant religious liberty to those who disagreed with them, clearly they expected to be able to practice  orthodox Christianity without civil interference.

2. The translation is Steven Dilday’s. I have altered the format a bit to make it clearer and easier to follow and I’ve inserted English transliterations of the two Greek terms.

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One comment

  1. Nobody wants to come quite out and admit it, particularly on the 4th, but it is rather obvious that if there are legal, never mind constitutional grounds to force a baker to make a wedding cake for Adam and Steve, there are just as equally legal grounds to force a photographer to film pornography.
    Or a doctor to perform an abortion.
    Or a butcher to sell kosher or sharia meat.
    Or (fill in the blank).
    All this lest horror of horrors, someone’s “rights” are infringed upon and the black hole of discrimination opens under our feet to engulf all in the People’s Republic of/United State (singular) of Amerika (sic).

    So much for the Orwellian redefinition of equality before the law/equal opportunity to mean equal outcome/results. The French Jacobins have certainly prevailed. For the time being.

    Something that hasn’t quite made the headlines yet for Independence Day, nor will it unless the resistance prevails in the end.

    Two, it’s one thing for the civil government or an entity profiting off a government bestowed monopoly to be legally restrained from discrimination, but in the real world, wedding cakes, photographers and hamburger hardly qualify.

    Yet again, in that the liberal progressive Jacobinism politicizes all, the distinction between public and private with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 has been erased. ‘There is not one square inch in which King Caesar does not interfere’ to paraphrase Kuyper.

    Three, if Utah didn’t become a state until polygamy was outlawed, thereby denying Mormons the benefit of the “free exercise”clause, there’s precedent to stop Muslim immigration if “taqqiya/lying to infidels” is fundamental to the Arabian heresy taught in the Koran. Likewise, full body burkhas are a essentially a disguise and violate the 9th commandment, the second table of the moral law by default for the civil magistrate nixing the human sacrifice of voodoo religion.

    But have a Happy, Safe and Sane and Fireworks Free Fourth of July. Be sure and wave your flag and sparklers proudly with gusto and abandon.

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