Monthly Archives: May 2012

John Piper: Regeneration, Again – “Thrilled and Empowered”

“The new birth enables you to hear Scripture and use Scripture helpfully, redemptively. The new birth doesn’t use the promise “We have an Advocate” to justify an attitude of cavalier indifference to sin. The new birth doesn’t use the warning “No one born of God makes a practice of sinning” to pour gasoline on the fires of despair. The new birth brings a spiritual discernment that senses how to use John’s teachings: The new birth is chastened and sobered by the warnings, and the new birth is thrilled and empowered by the promise of an Advocate and a Propitiation” (John Piper, Finally Alive, 151).

Nevin: Reformation Thought, Again – Theology Wars

“The notable 80th Question proved a constant stench [Q. 80: What difference is there between the Lord’s supper and the popish mass?], in many nostrils. In some cases, when it was known that the minister was to preach upon this questions, troublesome persons would slip into the Church, for the purpose of creating interruption and disorder” (J. W. Nevin, History and Genius of the Heidelberg Catechism (Chambersburg, 1847), 92).

Nevin: Reformation Thought, Again – “Leading Symbol of the Church”

“In the Reformed Church, as thus prevailing in different principalities throughout Germany, various catechisms appeared, and secured to themselves a more or less extensive use. In the end however all of these were either cast aside, or sunk into a secondary rank; while the Catechism of the Palatinate attained to a sort of universal authority, as the leading symbol of the Church” (J. W. Nevin, History and Genius of the Heidelberg Catechism (Chambersburg, 1847), 90).

Book Review: John Calvin’s American Legacy – Chapter 3 – Implausible: Calvinism and American Politics

Chapter 2 review here. Chapter 1 review here. Introduction review here. Initial thoughts here.

D. G. Hart’s Implausible: Calvinism and American Politics wraps up the section on Calvin’s legacy in American society by examining historical evidence and providing surveys of the two disparate Calvinistic camps of thought on American politics, which he refers to as Libertarian Calvinists and Authoritarian Calvinists. After these historical examinations, Hart concludes that it is implausible—it is dubious—to claim that Calvinism was the source and root of American politics.

To set the stage Hart opens with a scene from 1898, Abraham Kuyper’s third lecture delivered on Calvinism at Princeton Theological Seminary, which was on the positive link between Reformed theology and personal liberty. Kuyper’s optimism is incredible—he not only believed that Calvinism was the source and root of all of the political goodness that had expanded across the Western hemisphere (as exemplified in his homeland, the Netherlands, and also in Great Britain and the United States), but, as Hart says, Kuyper “set his sights even higher” (66). How high exactly? Hart quotes Kuyper at length: 

The fact remains that the broad stream of the development of our race runs from Babylon to San Francisco, through the five stadia of Babylonian-Egyptian, Greek-Roman, Islamitic [sic], Romanistic, and Calvinistic civilization, and the present conflict in Europe as well as in America finds it main cause in the fundament[al] antithesis between the energy of Calvinism which proceeds from the throne of God . . . and its caricature in the French Revolution, which proclaimed its unbelief in the cry of “No God no master.”

Hart calls Kuyper’s (and other like-minded academics) take on the matter a “rosy view of Calvinism’s contribution to the modern world” (67). In light of historical evidence, Hart does not think it is tenable to view and attribute the positive political advancements across the Western nations to Calvinistic thought.

Lest this rosy view sit on the reader’s mind too long, Hart quickly goes on to remind readers that the wide-spread credit given to Calvinism eventually turned to blame in the 1960s, however, Hart doesn’t dwell on those criticisms to advance his thesis, rather, he digs deeper into Calvinistic history in order to show that a “survey of Presbyterian advocates and critics of the liberties that became the standard fare of modern statecraft in the West” demonstrates that there always has been varying Calvinistic “perspectives.” Hart believes this enforces that the “effort to correlate politics with theology is never easy,” even going so far as to claim that the surveyed Calvinistic thought teaches, contrary to Kuyper, that the  “the relationship between Calvinism and liberty, like that between Christianity and politics more generally, is fundamentally paradoxical” (66-67).

As I said earlier, Hart divides American Calvinists into two groups: Libertarian Calvinists and Authoritarian Calvinists. The former group is comprised of recognizable household names, e.g., John Witherspoon, Charles Hodge and Albert Barnes. This group believed Calvinism was the source of American and religious liberty. For example, Hodge “believed that the success of Presbyterian government was dependent on the same sorts of virtues that made republicanism tick” (70), both which he viewed as stemming from “scriptural liberty.” This view would eventually mature to the point that it might be encapsulated within the pithy phrase/slogan, “A free Church in a free State.” Many are familiar with Francis Schaeffer, whose thought and writings provided much fuel for the fires of political activism among conservative Christians during the “culture wars” of the 1980s—Hart lumps him among Libertarian Calvinists—although, kudos to Hart, he mentions that from Witherspoon to Schaeffer there certainly is a development, albeit one which essentially argues for the same outlook, namely, that the “American experiment of a republic based on limited government and civil liberty” is rooted in and indebted to Calvinistic thought. After surveying the Libertarian Calvinistic development in America, Hart then goes on to survey those Calvinists for whom a “free Church in a free State” would not have been considered very Calvinistic.

This latter group, the Authoritarian Calvinists, Hart introduces (foregoing name dropping) by noting that “practically every major confession from sixteenth-century Reformed or Presbyterianism churches affirmed that the civil magistrate was responsible for enforcing the true religion and had a duty to protect the true church” (77). Knowing that is key, for it means that civic and religious liberties are intertwined.

Originally, before Americawas a twinkling in the eye of all of the Framers, the Reformed consensus on the church/state relationship was antithetical to the current architecture of American statecraft. The Reformers clearly saw the magistrates (aka, the government) were responsible for enforcing the Lordship of Christ (true religion) as well as protecting the Church, which for most contemporary Americans would be an entirely foreign concept. Hart follows this Authoritarian thought from the Continent and traces it through Presbyterian History in Americato its modern yet few expressions, like Christian reconstruction, or theonomy, and the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America.

Hart emphasizes that “the first Protestants did not have any conception of a religiously mixed society,” and that “practically no one linked civil and religious liberty the way that American Presbyterians did” (77), which helps readers realize that American Presbyterians truly broke from historical Presbyterianism on this issue. On the one hand, the civil magistrates are responsible for enforcing true religion, but on the other hand, the civil magistrates also had a duty to protect the true church, however, the American Presbyterian understanding of civic and religious liberty capitulated toward the latter portion of this dual-affirmation, and in doing so they turned the magistrate into merely a “nursing father” (protector) to the church. This view over time, maturing in a cultural space designated as “neutral” and “secular” obviously got watered down to, well, the America we know today. But how and why did American Libertarian Presbyterians do this?

Starting in 1729, American Presbyterians revised the Westminster Standards for the colonies. At the Synod, held in Philadelphia, reservations were taken regarding the Westminster Confession’s teaching on government, and by the revisions in 1788, as Hart says, “in one fell swoop, the American Presbyterian church swept away almost two centuries of Presbyterian politics” (80). The New World was thinking fundamentally different about politics and religion. The categories of thought had changed. The sphere of magistrate and the sphere of religion were distinct and meaningfully separated.

We know motives for doing this, worries about the state overstepping her bounds and meddling in religious affairs, etc., but the motives and reasoning laid aside, it is still remarkable and historically significant (and very intriguing) to understand  that this was a revolution of sorts in Presbyterian thought. Still, Hart tries to keep the balance on the two views and reminds readers that “the contrast developed here between the libertarian and authoritarian wings of Reformed Protestantism may be stronger on paper than it has been in practice” (83).

And that very well may be true, but clearly the two Calvinist views are mutually exclusive. Yet, in order to bring some relief to the tension between the two, Hart appeals to Philip Benedict’s social history of the Reformation. Benedict argued that, contrary to Kuyper and Libertarian Calvinists, the roots of democratic/representative government (aka, the “American experiment”) can be found in the “feudal” shared experiences of Medieval decentralized society. Hart likes the sound of that. The historical events interpreted through that framework teach us that Calvinism is not a political/economic ideology or “orientation.” Therefore, Hart is confident concluding that the genesis of American statecraft is not Calvinism; American politics do not proceed from the throne of God.

My thoughts: Instead of spending time circumventing bickering Calvinists by attributing genesis of the thing opposed by the one group and promoted by the other group to the social memory and imagination shaped by shared experiences during the feudal and decentralized Middles Ages, I wish that Hart had addressed a very important question: Which Calvinistic view of American Politics (or politics in general) is harmonious with what the Bible teaches?  Hart doesn’t really address the truth claims of one group over against the other’s view in relation to the political imperatives and narratives found in Scripture. Hart’s historical surveys are excellent, but I think not interacting with the historical witness in that type of fashion is a real shortcoming, although it may be outside the purview of an article for this type of editorial. Simply to say, after reading this chapter I thought to myself, “That was really interesting, but . . .”

Parental Joy – Sanctifying

A good day, indeed. My wife and I spent time after dinner watching our two-and-a-half-year-old son play his imaginary violin, using a wooden spoon as a bow. He played and danced; he pranced to Bach and John Willams while parental joy filled our hearts. Sometimes I think that parenting is sanctifying because of the sacrifice required, but this evening I know that parenting is also sanctifying because of parental joy.

This evening I have watched our son, and now I feel equipped even more so to “ride the eruption of Easter” (N. D. Wilson) and to revel in the thought of someday witnessing the child that shall play on the hole of the asp (Isa 11:8).

Renewing Dogmatic Theology

I enjoyed the article “Renewing Dogmatic Theology” by Bruce D. Marshall (First Things, May 2012). Marshall is interacting with Catholic theologian Matthias Joseph Scheeben, and looking for virtues for contemporary dogmatic enterprise. Lots of good things therein, my summary: With “supernatural focus, sympathetic learning, and humility,” the dogmatic theologian disciplines himself to be drawn into the “mysteries of God revealed only in Christ.” Once revealed, he meditates upon these mysteries (Dogmatic theology has its own “domain”–not being Natural). A dogmatic theologian is not a “virtuoso intellectual,” rather, he is a humble man. Humble because of “love for and gratitude to God,” who has exalted mankind beyond our wildest dreams. Therefore, “Dogmatic theology is most creative when it is most genuinely submissive.”

Resource: Holy Bible Crib Sheet

If you look under the header Pages at the top of the right hand column, I have created a Writings and Resources page. On that page I have posted URL for retrieving a Holy Bible Crib Sheet I created; you can use the crib sheet for studying/memorizing books of the Bible and key verses. Download it, print it off and fold it; stick it in your pocket and retrieve for studying during down time. Or, stick it on your smart phone. 🙂

Piper: Regeneration, Again

“The internal call is God’s sovereign, creative, unstoppable voice. It creates what it commands. God speaks not just to the ear and the mind, but he speaks to the heart. His internal heart-call opens the eyes of the blind heart, and opens the ears of the deaf heart, and causes Christ to appear as the supremely valuable person that he really is. So the heart freely and eagerly embraces Christ as the Treasure that he is. That’s what God does when he calls us through the gospel (see 1 Pet. 2:9; 5:10)” (John Piper, Finally Alive, 84).

Book Review: John Calvin’s American Legacy – Chapter 2 – Calvinism and American Identity

Chapter 1 review here. Introduction review here. Initial thoughts here.

The second chapter carries the title “Calvinism and American Identity.” The author is David Little, he has served as a professor at Harvard Divinity School. Little demonstrates that there is no consensus on Calvinism’s contribution to American national identity, showing readers that contemporary historical interpretation of Calvinism’s contribution to American identity are as variegated as the “division over religion and national identity” originating with the New England Puritans, an ambivalence which Little suggest is rooted in the thought of John Calvin himself.
Little’s thesis is tucked away five pages into the article, all that to say, it takes a bit of reading to get to his declared aim, which is, “that the deep division over religion and national identity did not originate with the New England Puritans . . . that ambivalence is at the root of the Calvinist tradition of which they were a part, going back to the founder, John Calvin himself” (47). In the remainder of the article, Little illustrates this division by examining the Puritans thought and then Calvin’s own thought.
Little sees in the Puritans ambivalence regarding whether or not a nation could be considered “Christian”—part of his case study is the Massachusetts Colony where renowned historical figures like Governor John Winthrop and Pastor John Cotton worked through the issues that arose as a society of faith organizes formal civic laws, which in that case led to codified civil rights, e.g. Bay Colony’s Body of Liberties which gave “rights pertaining to religious belief and practice” (see pages 50-53 for key background). However, as these events unfolded one contemporary divine, Urian Oakes, noted that “church and commonwealth are twisted together.”
Although twisted together, this did not mean that there was uniformity of thought and ideals. There was great concern about the potential of church and state opposing one another, since men like John Winthrop wanted society to be “nursing fathers to the churches” (52). Therefore, he opposed the interpretation of “free religion” to permit elders of churches to freely consult “without the concurrence of civil authority” (see page 52-53), which some at that time were advocating. Clearly we see even within this “twisted together” view of Church and state that there is division of thought. This division, however, is mild compared to the position put into motion by Puritan Roger Williams, who spearheaded the Rhode Island charter, which most resembles our current secular, neutral view of government (Rhode Island was the first colony that did not require civil office holders to be Christian).
Little then goes on to examine similar tensions evident in John Calvin’s writings, demonstrating Calvin’s original teaching regarding over the division of religion and national identity, which Calvin later softened in the face of the Geneva council’s execution of heretic Michael Servetus.
In all of this, I have barely begun to scratch the surface of the detailed work laid out before us by Little, but I hope I have shown even with these few brief summarizing paragraphs why Little feels confident asserting in the last sentence of the article: “If Calvinism is as divided as I say, then it is no longer possible to speak unequivocally about its contribution to American national identity” (60).
My thoughts: recommended reading for those interested in or who are currently exposed to the “Two Kingdom” debates (again) being reignited in the Reformed world (e.g., I’m thinking of current buzz regarding Westminster Seminary California, Michael Horton, and John Frame’s The Escondido Theology).