In the wake of the disaster that was World War I, in which about 8.5 million military personnel died and an even greater number of civilians died, there developed in this country and in Europe a desire not only for a future lasting peace but also a this-worldly orientation among Christians. Such a this-worldly orientation did not begin, however, after World War I. It manifested itself in a variety of ways before then. One such manifestation was the “muscular Christianity” movement associated with the Anglican minister, Charles Kingsley (1819–75), who sought to rebalance what he perceived to be the feminization of the faith with a shot of testosterone. The entry on Kingsley in the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church observes, “Kingsley, who fell under the influence of F. D. Maurice and T. Carlyle, became keenly interested in the movement for social reform. He was a leading spirit in the Christian Socialist Movement…but he looked to the extension of the co-operative principle and educational and sanitary reform rather than radical political change for the amelioration of the condition of the people.” After World War I, however, the movement intensified and Amy Laura Hall connects it to Harry Emerson Fosdick (1878–1969), one of J. Gresham Machen’s opponents in the battle for the soul of the Presbyterian mainline in the 1920s. She also connects this movement to contemporary figures such as Mark Driscoll.1 We see the same impulse in the program of Walter Rauschenbusch (1861–1918), about whom I have written before in this space. See the resources below for more on his “social gospel movement.” To the social right we consider the Temperance Movement, which, in the USA, developed in the early 19th century and, after a century of campaigning, succeeded in getting the 18th Amendment passed, turning off the beer tap to the nation until 1933. In the 1950s and 60s, Billy Graham was both an evangelist for Christianity and a crusader against the global spread of communism. In the 1970s and 80s, of course, we could point to the Moral Majority movement led by Jerry Falwell (1933–2007), D. James Kennedy’s “Center for Reclaiming America,” and the Christian Reconstruction movement. Presently, there are heated debates among Romanists about “integralism” and among evangelicals about “Christian Nationalism.” Kennedy’s center, however, closed in 2007. Commenting on the closing of the center, Cal Thomas wrote,
This is not to say there is no role for conservative Christians in the civic life of their nation. There is. But Christians must first understand that the issues they most care about—abortion, same-sex marriage and cultural rot—are not caused by bad politics, but are matters of the heart and soul. Some evangelicals wish to broaden the political agenda beyond these issues to poverty, social justice and the environment. Politics can never completely cure the ills of any of these, but the message Christians bring about salvation and redemption can. Besides, they can never “convert” people to their point of view.
Too many conservative Christians have focused on the “seen” rather than the “unseen,” thinking appearances at the White House, or on “Meet the Press,” is evidence that they are making a difference. And too much attention has been paid to individual personalities, rather than to the One these preachers had originally been called to exalt.
Nothing in the Bible commands believers to reform or redeem society through government and politics alone, or even mainly. Neither is there any expectation that non-Christians will be converted to the Christian point of view, which can vary on some topics, through politics.2
The Victorian and Post-WWI turn to “muscular Christianity,” to the temperance movement, and to the Social gospel (see the resources below) movement reveals a certain impatience among American evangelicals and even among some Reformed folk. Another way to characterize that impatience would be to call it an over-realized eschatology, i.e., an expectation of or demand for more of heaven on earth now. To be sure, the Reformed churches confess that there is a coming judgment:
Finally, we believe, according to God’s Word, that when the time appointed by the Lord is come (which is unknown to all creatures) and the number of the elect is complete, our Lord Jesus Christ will come from heaven, bodily and visibly, as he ascended, with great glory and majesty, to declare himself the judge of the living and the dead. He will burn this old world, in fire and flame, in order to cleanse it. Then all human creatures will appear in person before that great judge—men, women, and children, who have lived from the beginning until the end of the world. They will be summoned there by the voice of the archangel and by the sound of the divine trumpet. For all those who died before that time will be raised from the earth, their spirits being joined and united with their own bodies in which they lived. And as for those who are still alive, they will not die like the others but will be changed “in the twinkling of an eye” from “corruptible to incorruptible.” Then “the books” (that is, the consciences) will be opened, and the dead will be judged according to the things they did in the world, whether good or evil. Indeed, all people will give account of all the idle words they have spoken, which the world regards as only playing games. And then the secrets and hypocrisies of men will be publicly uncovered in the sight of all. Therefore, with good reason the thought of this judgment is horrible and dreadful to wicked and evil people. But it is very pleasant and a great comfort to the righteous and elect, since their total redemption will then be accomplished. They will then receive the fruits of their labor and of the trouble they have suffered; their innocence will be openly recognized by all; and they will see the terrible vengeance that God will bring on the evil ones who tyrannized, oppressed, and tormented them in this world. The evil ones will be convicted by the witness of their own consciences, and shall be made immortal—but only to be tormented in the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels. In contrast, the faithful and elect will be crowned with glory and honor. The Son of God will “confess their names” before God his Father and the holy and elect angels; all tears will be “wiped from their eyes”; and their cause—at present condemned as heretical and evil by many judges and civil officers—will be acknowledged as the “cause of the Son of God.” And as a gracious reward the Lord will make them possess a glory such as the heart of man could never imagine. So we look forward to that great day with longing in order to enjoy fully the promises of God in Christ Jesus, our Lord.
The TLDR (too long; didn’t read) version is that the coming judgment is bad news for those who who do not trust in Christ and it is very good news for those who do. It is interesting what we do and do not say. There is nothing in our confession about a glorious age before Christ’s return, nor is there anything about a literal 1,000-year reign of Christ on the earth. Indeed, we confess nothing about earthly glory even after the judgment. Our relative silence about that matter should perhaps serve as a brake on the impulse some have to speculate about our life in the new heavens and the new earth. Consider how we speak about our glorification in the catechism:
52. What comfort is it to you, that Christ “shall come to judge the living and the dead”?
That in all my sorrows and persecutions, with uplifted head, I look for the very same one, who before offered Himself for me to the judgment of God, and removed all curse from me, to come as Judge from heaven, who shall cast all His and my enemies into everlasting condemnation, but shall take me with all His chosen ones to Himself into heavenly joy and glory.
It is worth noting that our joy is said to be “heavenly” and not “earthly.” If you, dear reader, find that disappointing, perhaps this is an opportunity to re-calibrate your expectations?
As it was after WWI, so it is now. The same spirit that animated young people then, who wanted “world peace” (think of the Wilson Administration), who thought of the Great War as the war to end all wars, exists now. History has “ratioed” (as they say on Twitter) the arrogance of the Wilson Administration.3 It is driven by an over-realized eschatology. It is too impatient to rely on the due use of ordinary means. It is Corinthian in its ethos. It is unimpressed with Paul as a theologian of the cross (e.g., 1 Cor 1:20; 2:1–5). Paul’s was a message that the “rulers of this age” did not understand or appreciate (1 Cor 2:6). We know that they did understand the message of Christ because if had they, they would not have crucified him (v. 8). Of course, apart from the regenerating work of the Spirit, it is impossible to understand the Christian message (1 Cor 2:14–16; John 3 [all]). The Corinthians wanted a message and messenger that resonated, as people say, with what Paul calls “this age.” He refused them and offered them a message about “the age to come,” as he put it to the Ephesian church (Eph 1:21).
As much as it disappoints some Christians, Jesus was rather plain about this to Pilate: “My kingdom is not of this world. Were my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews but my kingdom is not from the world” (John 18:36). He said it twice. “My kingdom is not of this world.” Paul’s way of putting that is to say, “this age.” It is the same thought. Muscular and culture-transforming Christianity, however, very much wants Jesus’ Kingdom to be of “this age” or “this world.”
Jesus’ Kingdom certainly did enter history and it is here but it is not “from here.” This is why Christians since well before Augustine have recognized that we have a dual citizenship (Phil 3:20) and a dual allegiance. This dual citizenship and allegiance has irritated the powers of this age who want us to acknowledge them as ultimate (which is idolatry) and those who refuse to acknowledge that we are indeed in this world and this age. The monks sought to flee this world and this age. The monastic project was also a failure.
How can we live in this world, this age, without being “of it”? By giving up our desire to be in charge of this world and this age? The Pietist Evangelical movement, thinks that it should be in charge of the culture but if it cannot be in charge it will flee. Coexistence does not seem to be a club in its intellectual golf bag, yet peaceful coexistence is just what the ancient, pre-Constantinian church sought. The various dominion theologies, whether Pentecostal or theonomic, have reacted to the Pietist evangelical dialectic (dominion or world-flight) by opting for dominion. What they cannot do, however, is show from the Old Testament, as interpreted by the New or from the pre-Constantinian church, any basis for their dominion theology. It is truly a Judaizing (in the broad, traditional sense) movement. It reads the Old Testament as if there were no New Testament or as if the New Testament never taught us how to read the Old.
Jesus’ refusal to allow his Kingdom to be drafted into the conflicts of this age or this world is a source of constant frustration for the dominionists and the Pietists and it is a rebuke to those who have become impatient with the progress of the Kingdom on the earth.
I understand that you are in a hurry but if you have given up on the keys that Christ instituted for his Kingdom, whose kingdom are you building? This is what Scripture says:
Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ (Matt 16:16–20; ESV).
The rock on which Jesus’ Kingdom is built is Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God. That is a spiritual secret revealed by the Holy Spirit to Peter. Christ gave the keys to visible the church to administer that message and no other. Our battle is with the gates of hell, over which Christ’s Kingdom shall win. The keys are said to be of the “kingdom of heaven.” Christ is the subject of the verb “to build.”
Perhaps, like the young people after WW I, you are in a hurry to improve this world. You are not the first to be in such a hurry and you will not be the last but Cal Thomas was right. The difference we make in the world is not by refining the engines of the world but by calling sinful and needy people to embrace him who loved sinners from all eternity, who took on human flesh, who accomplished redemption, who was raised on the third day, and who ascended and is ruling all the kings of the earth with a rod of iron (Ps 2:9). He shall break them all with a rod of iron. Contrary to expectations, his lifting up began on a cross (John 12:32). That is when his glorification began. Jesus was a theologian of the cross too. You want to “make a difference” or to “change the world.” Choose your King and your ultimate allegiance very carefully. People have been “making a difference” and “changing the world” for a long time and it still needs changing and it will need changing until the King of Kings returns.
Service to this world is honorable and good but the message of the cross is great and glorious because it is only through the foolishness of the cross, which the Spirit has ordained to change hearts, is there any hope for the future of the world, whatever it be.
1. Amy Laura Hall, “‘No Shortcut to the Promised Land’: The Fosdick Brothers and Muscular Christianity,” Ex Auditu 29 (2013): 161–77.
2. There is a web site devoted to “Reclaiming America for Christ” which is now headquartered in Edmund, OK. It seems to have some connection to Kennedy but it is unclear if there remains any physical location. The links on the site seem to lead mostly to other fundamentalist organizations.
3. To “ratio” something is to bury it under a giant pile of digital ridicule.
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
- How To Subscribe To Heidelmedia
- The Heidelblog Resource Page
- Heidelmedia Resources
- The Ecumenical Creeds
- The Reformed Confessions
- The Heidelberg Catechism
- Recovering the Reformed Confession (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2008)
- Why I Am A Christian
- Support Heidelmedia: use the donate button or send a check to:
Heidelberg Reformation Association
1637 E. Valley Parkway
Escondido CA 92027
- Heidelblog Contributors
- Resources On The Social Gospel And Social Justice
- Resources On Theonomy And Reconstructionism
Fighting is appealing to me, as it’s easy to be fueled by outrage.
“ Jesus’ refusal to allow his Kingdom to be drafted into the conflicts of this age or this world is a source of constant frustration…”
Thank you for this. On the morning following elections, it was good for me to be reminded of this truth.
Stephen Wolfe in his Christian Nationalism claims sinners are redeemed and like the pre-lapsarian Adam are under a dominion mandate. I don’t see this declared in scripture as the goal of the Christian. What is your understanding of this claim?
I am reminded of the condition of Judah at the end of the 7th century BC. There was the equivalent of a Red Wave— Josiah, a godly king, took power and sincerely set about cleansing the land of idol worship. He was a breath of fresh air, committed to God. At the same time Jeremiah was preaching his message of the coming exile and punishment. But only changed hearts could have saved Judah. While I do not want to suggest that America is God’s chosen nation, it is reasonable to compare the peoples—like Judah, our hearts must be regenerated if there is to be hope of a more Christian nation. That said, God has graciously provided true churches and the ordinary means of grace. Let us faithfully worship him and go about our vocations, marrying and having children, and raising them to know, love, and obey the Lord, while loving our neighbors.