Reformation Day, The Trinity, And The Culture War

It is clear enough that the West generally and the USA in particular is post-Christian. By post-Christian I do not mean, “after the onset of Christianity in” but rather, I intend to signal the sense, “after the eclipse of Christianity.” The Europeans are ahead of us by about a century but the Americans seem to be catching up. Bob Godfrey is discussing this phenomenon in his adult Sunday School class in the Escondido United Reformed Church. Carl Trueman has brilliantly described the consequences of “expressive individualism” in his recent book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. One of the other consequences of the collapse of Christendom reaction or the attempt to recover Christendom. One sees this in what I call the TheoRecon movement. Crawford Gribben has chronicled the rise and influence of the TheoRecon movement (and militia movements) in the Pacific Northwest, headquartered in Moscow, ID.  This essay concerns the reaction to the collapse of Christendom.

The Heidelblog was born in the midst of the struggle within the confessional Presbyterian and Reformed over the self-described Federal Vision movement, which seeks to corrupt Reformed theology, piety, and practice rather completely. The Federal Vision movement is the theological and ecclesiastical arm of the TheoRecon movement. They are twins. When the Reconstructionists realized that they were not going to attain their goal of reconstructing America in their image and implementing the Mosaic judicial laws, they turned to the visible church, which they had hitherto mostly ignored or seen principally as a vehicle for their social agenda. They adopted a medieval, sacerdotialist view of the sacraments whereby they are said to confer automatically (ex opere) what they signify. They set up two parallel tracks in their doctrine of salvation, a decretal track and a “covenantal” track. On the latter they speak like Medieval Christians. One is in (i.e., elect, called, regenerated, justified, united to Christ, adopted) by baptismal grace and retains those benefits by cooperating with grace. In short, it is a repudiation of the Reformation in favor of something like the very theology rejected in the Reformation.

Christendom Always Marginalized Orthodoxy

Some objected to the critics of the Federal Vision that the social crisis is too great that to be arguing about the Federal Vision. That objection has resurface in recent days in the wake of a social media post in which a prominent member of the Young, Restless, and Reformed Movement and a Baptist theologian has argued, “The Father is the Father because he sends the Son. The Son is the Son because he submits to the Father’s will. The Spirit is the Spirit because the Father and the Son send Him. There is no Trinity without the order of authority and submission” (emphasis original).  As one might imagine, this line of reasoning has prompted a considerable response. In response to the critics, some have re-stated the same argument made by the Federal Visionists and their enablers in 2008: “Are we really going to start arguing about ESS again? With all the other stuff going on in the world, this is the battle some of you want to fight? Again? I seriously do not understand some of you. Like, at all.”

Let us be perfectly clear, the notion that the Son is the Son because he submits or the Spirit is the Spirit because he is sent is not ecumenical orthodoxy. This is not the language of the Nicene Creed, the Definition of Chalcedon, or the Athanasian Creed. The Son is the Son. Yes, he is sent and he goes voluntarily, but that mission does not make him Son. The Spirit is eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son but his being sent does not constitute him the Holy Spirit.

Consider also the case of another prominent member of the so-called Young, Restless, and Reformed movement, which is predominantly Baptist and thus, in fact, not Reformed by any reasonable, historical, or confessional definition) who recently announced that he has become a paedobaptist and, as it happens, has gone to work with the Federal Visionists and The0Recons in Moscow, ID. For more on these various movements and reactions see the resources below.

What unites these various various reactions to the collapse of Christendom is the marginalizing of doctrine. Anyone who knows the history of Christendom, however, will not be surprised. As Abraham Kuyper (1837–1920) observed as part of his argument for the revision of Belgic Confession art. 36, the church-state complex (Christendom) was never a great friend to orthodoxy. The list of creedal and confessionally orthodox civil magistrates is rather short. Most of the time magistrates were either hostile to orthodoxy (e.g., during the struggle for orthodoxy in the wake of the Council of Nicea) or indifferent to it. The assumption by theocrats and theonomists that when they are in charge things will be different is as hubristic as that those Marxists are assure us that when they are in charge, there will not be another slaughter of millions of Kulaks or another Cultural Revolution. Sure the Soviet Union was never able to meet a single one of their vaunted “Five Year” programs for food production but next time, they will get it right and Communism will work. The word risible comes to mind.

Christendom always marginalized doctrine in favor of an alleged higher social good. Magistrates are rarely more concerned about the heavenly kingdom (Phil 3:20) than they are their own. Magistrates, whether hereditary or elected, love power and control. Some of them are positively Messianic in their aspirations for this world. Surely, dear reader, you remember the words Barack Obama, upon receiving the nomination of his party, when he  proclaimed, “this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal” (June 3, 2008).

The Future Is Not Theodosius I

What the TheoRecons and a remarkable number of Baptists do not seem to grasp, is that Christendom is gone and, barring a supernatural work of God of biblical proportions, it is not coming back. The TheoRecons in Moscow, ID are mesmerized by a gauzy, romantic vision of the Middle Ages and seek to rebuild Christendom one family and one congregation at a time. We would all be better served if we acquainted ourselves with Christianity as it existed before Christendom (i.e., pre-AD 381), since that is the sea toward which we are now sailing. We ought to be looking at Ignatius of Antioch, the treatise to Diognetus, Justin Martyr, Polycarp, and Irenaeus for clues on how to navigate a culture that is by turns ignorant of or hostile to orthodox Christianity. None of these writers and pastors sought take over the Roman empire for Christ. They did not flee the culture, if that is indeed what Rod Dreher is advocating (The Benedict Option is still on my ever-growing pile of books to read). Rather, they sought to be faithful where they were. The theologian who tried to persuade Diognetus, perhaps a Roman official, to become a Christian said that, unlike the pagans, we do not worship idols made by hands and unlike the Jews we do not have our own language, food, dress, and “fussy” (his word) approach to the Sabbath (though the Christian Sabbath was a given already). We lived cheek-by-jowl with the pagans. We share our food, he said, but not our wives. Unlike the pagans we do not put our infants on the stoop to die. Rather, the Christians baptized their children (which was also misunderstood by the pagans), loved them, and catechized them. They took care of one another and strongly emphasized the necessity of piety and sanctity before the eyes of a watching and suspicious pagan world.

Neither did they set aside Christian orthodoxy in the interests of transforming the Roman empire. Even as they were being persecuted for the sake of Christ they worked out what would become ecumenical orthodoxy in the Rule of Faith (Regula Fidei). The elements of which appear as early as AD 114. Justin articulated it even as he defended the faith against the its Jewish and pagan critics. Irenaeus articulated the Rule of Faith against the Gnostics and Marcionites. In the early third century Tertullian articulated what would become a core plank of the Definition of Chalcedon. At Nicea, after Christianity had been legalized but during which the Christians were co-existing and not dominating the pagans, the Christians sought to refute the Arians. On premise advanced by the Federal Visionists and Baptist culture warriors, they might better have said, “the social crisis is too great to quibbling over a single iota. Who really cares whether the Son is like the Father from all eternity or whether he is consubstantial with the Father from all eternity?”  We may be grateful that the Council of Nicea did not find such thinking persuasive—and do not think that there were not opportunities to duck the conflict in favor of the culture. There was a party composed of influential figures, the Homoians, who offered them just that off-ramp—and instead stuck to their doctrinal guns despite the possibility that it might lead to social marginalization. It is true that Constantine convened the Council but it is also true that in the intervening decades, until the Council of Constantinople in 381, the victory of Nicene Orthodoxy was far from settled. Indeed, in that period there arose a party who made the same arguments against the consubstantiality of the Spirit with the Father and the Son that the Arians had made against the consubstantiality of the Son with Father and the Spirit. This is why the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381 says what it does about the Spirit.

In other words, the pre-Theodosian church pursued theological orthodoxy despite the social costs of that pursuit. They valued theological orthodoxy that much. They remembered what it was to be marginalized and even persecuted. After all, the Diocletian persecution ran right up to the victory of Constantine on the Milvian Bridge.

Engage the culture and argue with it. Seek to persuade it but to marginalize ecumenical truth in the interests of  recapturing the culture for Christ is seriously wrong-headed. What does it profit a man if he gain the culture for Christ but the Christ for whom he ostensibly gained the culture is not the Christ of Scripture and ecumenical truth? The enablers of the Federal Vision told critics to stand down in favor of the culture war but what point is there in the culture war if, once the warriors win, they have no gospel?


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  1. “… what point is there in the culture war if, once the warriors win, they have no gospel?”

    Thank you for this good summary of where we find ourselves on Reformation Day, 2021. I admit to a great attraction to fighting for the culture. It’s what my flesh wants to do. I attribute some of my former confusion to a poor understanding of eschatology. But, it’s not about me and what I want—it’s about what is accord with scripture, the confessions, and the wisdom that has been gained over 2000 years of church history. We need to reverse the argument, “With all the other stuff going on in the world, this is the battle some of you want to fight? “ We should be asking, “With all the current threats to orthodoxy and the church, do you really want to fight for a culture?” What is going on in the church is of greater eternal significance than the final collapse of Christendom in North America. Culture will never save a sinner.

    • Hi Angela,

      Under the RESOURCES above I listed some resources on ESS but your question caused me to go find more. Perhaps the best place to start is two-part essay by Dr Liam Goligher, Pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church (PCA), Phila. Dr Goligher does a better job than I can do of explaining these issues.

      Briefly ESS = “Eternal Subordination of the Son.” In this view the same submission we see in Christ, i.e., God the Son incarnate is said to be essential to the nature of the Son from all eternity. Proponents of this view make it part of the nature of the Son to be subordinate to the Father. Proponents of this view also see of the Eternal Functional Subordination of the Son (EFS) and the Eternal Relations of Authority and Submission (ERAS). These views all teach this notion that subordination is of the essence of the Son from all eternity.

      As you might imagine, this view has come under tremendous criticism, which is reflected in the resources above.

    • I found the answer.
      “eternal functional subordination of the Son” AKA “eternal relation of submission and authority.”


  2. You are spot on in your criticism of the FV movement. I’ve been exposed to it and Reconstructionism, and found them both wanting. However, as a history teacher, I have some nostalgia for Christendom in that the church-state nexus gave us a shared moral language and also allowed the Gospel to be heard.

    One of my big complaints about the Benedict Option, for example, is that oh-so-generously allowing us the freedom of our private conscience and prayer closet is not a sincere position on the part of the secular left. They will demand that our “new Benedictins” (or Anthony-ites, or whatever) accept and bless their idols of the day. Cultural Marxists have believed since the 1960’s that “the personal is political”. And, since Kuyper was mentioned, did he not rightly hold that there is no area of life which Christ does not claim?

    • The next step I can see coming is the removal of tax exempt status of churches. There can’t be unrealistic spending on outrageous “infrastructure” bills and the like without some extra source of funding. If that happens, most congregations are likely to collapse under a debt burden that the members simply can’t afford. Ironically, the ones with the greatest debt burden are probably the mega-churches, especially with declining membership.

      The justification for taxing churches can’t rest on the basis of failure to go along with gov’t/court mandated bowing to popular idols (SSM, CRT, etc.) alone since many mainline denominations have already abdicated any scriptural dogma or doctrine and have gone right along with post-modern trends. It has to come from another direction. And what that direction turns out to be is going to be most interesting.

      Remember, Godfrey (in an earlier post) quoted the final verses from poet T.S. Elliot’s “The Hollow Men,” – “this is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper”

  3. I greatly connect to this post with my church background in the E Free where doctrinal precision is seen as overly dogmatic. I’d argue it’s precisely the lack of focus on precise doctrine that makes one all the more vulnerable to being swept into these things. If the foundation is faulty, the house will have issues.

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