Why Evangelicals are Drawn to the Alt-Right

I.

With the denunciations of the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” protest beginning to subside and our attention turning to reflect on how we got here, I’d like to offer some thoughts on why some Christians, particularly evangelicals, are drawn to the alt-right, white nationalism, and even white supremacy. Like the aftermath of the Trump victory, evangelical leaders have begun to blame others for this mess. They blame Trump, the “silent” pastors, the alt-right, Richard tgc picture raceSpencer, the “old guard” of the Religious Right, and others. Strangely, few if any of these evangelical leaders have looked in the mirror for answers. After all, despite being the leaders, they have failed to influence their followers. I argue here that evangelical intellectuals and leaders share the blame.

 

For decades and especially in the last two years evangelical leaders and intellectuals have provided no robust political alternative between mainstream conservatism and radical rightism. There have been very few constructive and positive works and discussions on place (though see this one), nationality, territory, generational solidarity, etc. Instead you find a tremendous amount of negativity toward those concepts. Russell Moore stands from the towers of the anti-evangelical Washington Post and New York Times and calls his own people “nativists” and “xenophobes” and on the “wrong side of Jesus.” There is no positive acknowledgement by him and any other evangelical leader of the basic human need for a connection between people, place, and things through generations, something found throughout the world in all of history. Rather, with derision and calumny, he and others attack to destroy these concepts with pseudo-courageous, comfy and incoherent gospel-talk.

Most of what you find now in respectable evangelicalism is the sloganeering talk of the #commongood, attacks on “white privilege,” and other special interest advocacy that seems always to derogate straight, white men. Rather than looking like conservatism, their politics resemble something arising from leftist sensibilities, seemingly cherishing internationalism and a nation-less world and a civil society where we all enjoy solidarity in the thought that each of us is an instantiation of that celebrated abstract human. With the relentless onslaught against them, coupled with the absence of any political alternative besides an abortion-less and limp-wristed left-liberalism, is it any surprise that white men have taken the great leap from mainstream conservatism to a more radical right?

I know many Reformed Christians who like me are more right-wing yet not mainstream or “alternative,” and have no interest in “white nationalism” or “white supremacy,” who feel like they have no place to go. There is no ideological anchor between these two ideologies. We don’t fit anywhere. And why is that? Because evangelicals like Moore and others mercilessly attack without qualification all people to the right of them. And with simplistic, misinformed, and incoherent political theology, he provides people the language to undermine any attempt to form an alternative to the “alternative.” The unqualified denunciation of “nativism” and the accusations of “xenophobia” have established and solidified a set of vague and undefined slogans through which to reject any political idea that one feels fits those slogans. Evangelical political theology is not a system or framework of thought, but a series of disparate slogans, catchphrases and weaponized terms to keep others on the right side of Jesus. Not only have evangelical leaders driven people to the radical right, the way they’ve gone about doing it precludes the sort of language one needs to develop a real alternative.

So don’t blame Trump, or Spencer, or anyone else in the alt-right. Blame yourselves and your colleagues. Look at your own tribe and admit responsibility. You’ve failed to provide what human nature desires: a place where the dead live on and are respected in what endures past them and where the living train their young into that respect, thereby connecting the dead, living, and unborn. There is nothing out there like that in the evangelical respectable world. There is nothing but hatred towards the “idolatry” of family and nations. Where else will people go? To the left?

II.

Most intellectuals, especially those on the left and the liberals, have almost extinguished in themselves the capacity to imagine being part of what Burke called the “eternal society”: the connection between the dead, living, and unborn. They’ve taken Tom Paine’s view of the matter, namely, that the connection between living and their dead is accidental and something easily dispensed with in the name of progress. So they have no problem setting their sights and firing off a broadside against past generations, especially against those who are not the “good guys” in their progressive historical narrative.

But average people don’t do this. They link together people, place, and things. Hannah Arendt makes the important point that the human world is made possible by the products of work that outlast those who made them. We wouldn’t even have a “world” if every product of human activity resulted in something as ephemeral as bread. We leave things behind. And we leave places behind as well—places with structures, rules, sacredness, places where memories are lodged and kept safe. Our natural relations between generations are bound up in things and places; we experience a trace of their lives in these things and places. Our positive regard to the dead is bound up in these things and places. Modern intellectuals often lack the imagination (having what Burke called “cold hearts and muddy understandings”) to grasp this, not realizing that by attacking the past they attack the present in a jarring way. Intellectuals see the world through the eyes of Paine and regular people see it through the eyes of Burke.

What happens when intellectuals and evangelical leaders attack our “racist” and “xenophobic” past? They not only attack the past, but people’s experience with the present. Regular people’s warm regards towards their life and place is tied with their affections for the past. The past and present have a linkage supplying meaning, comfort, and consolation in life. This is their world, and having nothing to share but their world, they train their children in it, thereby linking the dead, living, and unborn. This is, I submit, a fundamental feature of human being, something that can be extinguished only by a deliberate self-suppressive effort. This is why people are so defensive when their ancestors are attacked: it is an attack on one’s world, striking their very being. And as an attack on their world and being, it is an attack on life and its security. When evangelicals and other intellectuals attack the past, calling it “racist,” they undermine a basic feature of being human.

Where are white evangelicals who are subjected to this endless assault on their world going to turn to justify their affection for people, places, and things? When all they see from their “leaders” is denunciation after denunciation of “nativism”, where are they going to turn? The response to such relentless attacks is to defend and find ways to shore up your world. Most people, as I said, find their relevance and place in the world from their basic local and familial interactions, including interactions with those long-gone, whose life-stories are handed down to children at the dinner table. Not surprisingly the average person recoils from having their family accused of evil.

So what is their response? Most just try to find some pocket of existence where they can remain in quiet desperation with like-minded others, but many find ideological reasons to hold on. And who supplies them?: white nationalism, white supremacy, and the alt-right. There is no alternative. Let’s be clear: the people who drive Christians to these radical right groups are those Christian intellectuals who indefatigably accuse regular people’s world of being racist, while supplying nothing to shore up a connection between people, place, and things beyond mere abstractions and theologisms about the human person. These evangelical intellectuals have thrown people into the present, and the people respond by reasserting the past in the only ways available to them.[1]

The responsibility for white evangelical support for these groups should in part be placed on evangelical intellectuals and leaders. You should stop blaming others and blame yourselves for this mess. The way forward is this: supply what the average human being needs. Give them some reason to love the past in order to supply a set of affections for the present in which they can socialize their children. That is the human being, and it is time to accept it and accept your culpability in militating against it.

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[1] The SJW Christian is also a result of this. Having your past destroyed all you can do is strive to bring the present into the future. No longer being able to bring the past to the future, they have only the present, so they hurl it to the future.

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The Fallacy of the Hidden Major Premise

The Fallacy of the Hidden Major Premise

This fallacy is the presentation of a minor premise and conclusion without stating the inconvenient major premise involved. It’s a type of enthymeme, though highly problematic. Here is a popular example.

Minor premise: In the New Jerusalem there will be many tribes, tongues, and nations.

Conclusion: The earthly city should therefore have many tribes, tongues, and nations (i.e., multiculturalism or “principled pluralism”).

It seems all nice and good. But what is the necessary major premise?

Major premise: The earthly city ought to be like the New Jerusalem.

(Putting this syllogism in proper form would make the language clunky.)

When the major premise is fully revealed we see that the principle involved is bringing heaven down to earth. The problem is that there are tons of true minor premises that would make a sound syllogism (given the major premise), such as that the New Jerusalem will not have marriage and childbirth.

So if you accept the major premise, you get this valid and sound syllogism:

(1) The earthly city ought to be like the New Jerusalem.
(2) The New Jerusalem does not have marriage or childbirth.
(3) The earthly city ought not to have marriage or childbirth.

(2) could also be about the absence of families and households or about gender/sex irrelevance and many others.

Since the conclusion is absurd, the minor premise is true, and the syllogism is valid, the problem lies with the major premise. It must be rejected. Ultimately, the fallacy is the concealment of a problematic major premise by asserting only true minor premises.

This fallacy is, to my mind, the central problem with neo-calvinist political theology.

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Why Evangelical SJWs Draft Everyone to War

Classical two-kingdom theology distinguishes the merit of each kingdom. Civil merit is, to put it simply, the ability to lead a civil community to its natural end. The order of this civil realm then is a hierarchy of sorts based on the order of civil merit, at least in theory. The order of the spiritual kingdom is determined by spiritual merit, which is produced by internal piety. The spiritual order is eschatological and to be realized in the eschaton.

Since these principles of order are radically different, the first in the spiritual kingdom of God is not necessarily first in the civil kingdom. Likewise, the first in the civil realm need not be first in the spiritual. The pious, lowly, and perhaps uneducated grandma is not on account of her piety, suitable to be the civil leader, though she might be fit to be the first (on account of her piety) in the spiritual/eschatological kingdom of God. These two types of merit are not opposed to each other, but they are still radically different. The civil hierarchy of earth does not easily map onto the future hierarchy of the eschaton, and for good reason.

Evangelical SJWism tends to blur the line between the two kingdoms (or even collapses them into each other) and thereby blur the line between spiritual and civil merit. The consequence, to follow the logic of two-kingdom theology, is that civil leaders are in a better position for piety on account of their civil roles, for the distinction between civil and spiritual merit is undermined. This would produce a two-tiered religion based on civil station. Those with the means for constructive civil action have therefore an additional means of achieving spiritual merit while those without the means for the former have less potential in the latter.  Civil/social station or hierarchy contributes to spiritual station or hierarchy.  Of course, no one wants that, especially God’s social warriors.

So in their conflation of the civil and spiritual, E-SJWs form a priesthood-of-all-believers civil-spiritual merit accessible to all and achieved by fighting some civil/social cause on behalf of the kingdom of God. Instead of internal piety as in classical 2k theology, which is achievable by all apart from civil action, your spiritual act of worship is standing in the streets for justice. Even the lowliest of people can recognize these “obvious” injustices and act, so civil-spiritual merit is democratized and universally attainable.  Even that grandma in a wheelchair can shout from a bullhorn. Since civil-spiritual merit is the Christian duty and achieved through the bold and courageous fight for justice, every Christian ought to seek out some issue for which to be bold and courageous. Your spiritual worship depends on it and resistance against your civil-spirit action is your faith persecuted. The conflation of civil and spiritual merit allows them to demand that everyone fights for the Cause(s) or the “gospel issues.”

This understanding of merit shapes their approach to church (a center for good-works resources), worship (worship begins on Monday, refuels on Sunday), their persuasion tactics (the injustice is so obvious all can see it and feel the need to act), their shaming of others (you are on the wrong side of Jesus) and their view of the Gospel (politically and socially revolutionary).

In my view, it’s all rooted in a failure to properly distinguish the two kingdoms.

progospel

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The Civil Defense of Christianity

A.
(1) Civil government ought to recognize, protect, and privilege true religion.
(2) The Christian religion is the true religion.
(3) Civil government ought to recognize, protect, and privilege the Christian religion.

Though supported by classical pagan authors (Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, etc.), the medieval tradition, and the Reformed tradition, the major premise is the most controversial today. I don’t want to fight about its truth here.

But I want to point out that the major premise is a claim not grounded in revealed religion, but in the natural order. It speaks of “true religion” without reference to any particular of true religion. It simply says, whatever is true religion, it ought to receive special treatment from the civil government. Nature supplies the major premise and scripture alone provides the minor.

This means that recognizing, protecting, and privileging the Christian religion by the civil government is ultimately the fulfillment of a command or principle of nature, not the fulfillment of revealed religion or the Gospel. This does not spiritualize the civil realm; nor does it bring heaven to earth. It is also not a transformation of the natural order. Rather, the Christian commonwealth qua Christian fulfills the natural command (of the created order) that civil society ought to recognize, protect, and privilege true religion.  It fulfills what was commanded from the beginning: the civil protection of true religion. The Christian society then fulfills not something Christianity commands as a revealed religion, but fulfills the prior, natural principle that civil government has special obligations to true religion.

We must distinguish between natural principles of order and spiritual principles of order. The former is determined by civil merit: the ability to lead humans on earth toward their good as earthly beings. Spiritual merit, however, is the merit of heaven, or the merit of the kingdom of God. It is based on fulfilling the spiritual, internal principles of a good work: that one does what he does to the glory of God in Christ, an internal act that is visible only to God and to be revealed and rewarded in eschaton. This means that the first in the kingdom of God is not necessarily the first in the civil realm, for all legitimate vocations can be done to the glory of God and not all vocations are equal in civil merit (i.e., not all qualify one to be a civil leader).

Civil and spiritual merit are not opposed but they are different such that while the spiritual strengthens the former it is not the ground of the qualifications for civil leadership. In other words, one would prefer a king or civil magistrate whose work is approved by God (due to true, godly intentions) but this approval is not the basis of one’s qualification for civil leadership; rather the ground is outward, civil merit.

This distinction helps us see that the Christian commonwealth does not, on account of its Christianity, have to conflate civil and spiritual merit. The principles of order always remain natural and do not transform to spiritual. The lowly, uneducated, and godly laborer is not on account of his godliness qualified for civil leadership. Still, the commonwealth is distinctively Christian because it recognizes, protects, and privileges true religion.

Since all this follows natural principles, the commonwealth can defend its Christianity through natural means. They can use civil force/coercion to protect (civil/cultural) Christianity when in accordance with prudence. Such a defense does not rely on the Gospel or spiritual weapons, and it need not. Just as its civil Christianity follows natural principles so too does its defense of civil Christianity.

B.
(1) Anything natural to a civil community (i.e., that which is conducive to its natural ends) is in principle worthy of civil defense (through law or social capital).

(2) Religious civil culture is natural to a civil community.

Therefore, (3) Religious civil culture is in principle worthy of civil defense.

Given (3), (4) Christian civil culture is in principle worthy of civil defense.

If sound, this argument justifies civil action, official or unofficial, to protect Christian civil culture by appealing to the natural/created order, not the Gospel. So cultural practices such as manners, gestures, social decorum, expectations for church attendance, etc. can be distinctively Christian and be objects of civil defense, including ensuring intergenerational cultural continuity. Such civil action is justified by appealing to natural principles of good civil order.[1] As with our previous syllogism, this one does not spiritualize the civil realm, bring to heaven to earth, or replace natural principles with spiritual ones. Rather, nature is fulfilled.

In my view, however, since Christianity is the full revelation of God, adopting Christian culture perfects civil society relative to the limits of the natural order by adorning itself with symbols, gestures, language, etc. of the the true God as fully revealed. This perfection again does not alter the fundamental, natural principles of civil order, but it adorns civil society with perfective features.

Conclusion

If the two syllogisms are sound, then human civil society can (and ought to) be distinctively Christian, both in religious establishment and civil culture, and protected by civil action, and none of this necessitates the destruction of the natural principles of civil order.

_________

1. For example, “When a single people speaks the same language and observes the same laws you get a certain feeling of community, because everyone shares the same religious rites and so forth.” Plato, Laws (708c)

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Fearing Heaven

The Christian’s duty is to direct his attention to heavenly things, to those promises he will see realized in the life to come. Indeed, he should want his thoughts to be on heavenly life, for it is a life of worship, joy, and bliss. Yet, however odd it might seem, there are Christians who actually fear heaven. They have a phobia few will admit to, and, for that reason, it is seemingly rare or nonexistent. Who, after all, can fear a place of endless bliss? It sounds preposterous. Who would admit to fearing the place Christ prepared for them?

But this fear is real for more people than you think. After meeting one person with a serious and spiritually damaging fear of heaven, I came to meet more. Though strange and seemingly irrational, this phobia deserves a closer look in the Christian community, for its possibility teaches us something important about our present earthly and our future heavenly existence. Further, this fear is more than a phobia, more than something affecting a few to which the rest of us must show patience and support. The phobia uncovers for all of us a vaguely understood or felt feature of the human condition in all its cyclical toiling, rejoicing, and sorrowing—our ever-present contention with time itself and our hope for something firm and final. The rest of us have something to learn from those who fear heaven.

The fear is, from an analytic perspective, irrational, since heaven, as a place of endless joy and delight, cannot be a place of fear. There is nothing in heaven of which one can or will be afraid. All things are subjected to the will of our omnibenevolent God. Yet no analytic attempt to persuade those with a fear of heaven will be effective. They know these truths. They know that heaven is a place of eternal bliss. They assent to the propositional content of heavenly life. Still, they do not see how eternal bliss is possible. They will say, “But it’s endless; you never die. It is never over. celestial cityYou just keep going.” You reply, “Well, yes. But you will be perfectly happy. So what is the problem?” But a lack of propositional truth is not the problem. They will admit that there is something irrational or strange about it. But they cannot get a handle on it; they cannot resolve the problem. The continuous “going, going, going” of heaven is undesirable and even terrifying. Endlessness seems unbearable. The fear of heaven’s endlessness is the powerful sense, usually above clear articulation, of the nature of one’s own temporality in earthly life and the thought that such temporality continues into heavenly life.

This talk of temporality might seem strange and many will balk at what they see as poetic or imprecise language. To understand how a person would fear heaven, however, you must first open yourself up to a certain kind of reflection, namely, on your own lived-experience, especially on your pre-reflective, everyday, and mundane life. When you think of time not conceptually but as a phenomenon, you will discover that the human being is a type of being that is not only in time, but also, and perhaps principally, about time, especially in everyday activity. We are about time even when time is not on the forefront of our mind. Understanding why one might fear heaven requires reflection on how thoroughly our temporality shapes our being in the world. Even those who do not fear heaven might become a little afraid of heaven.

When we bring the concept of time to our attention it is usually to schedule our various future events or to reflect on history. We see time as a thing we are in, as beings moving towards the future and away from the past. Time is sequential, like a series of arrivals or a succession of presents, and we have three distinct and separated tenses. We see the present as stable, the past as fixed, and the future as uncertain. This is one mode of thinking about time, but we also experience time in a related, yet different, and perhaps more primordial way. In our everyday mode of existence, we are not at the present, but are always already bound up in past, present and future. The past is in the present as that which delivers, or determines, the set of possibilities of action for the fulfillment of future ends. The past manifests itself as available options for action to achieve something in the future. It is our ‘facticity’—the facts of our being and circumstances in the world making possible a set of actions. And the set of actions are manifested to us as possible because they are conditions for the attainment of future ends. In our lived-experience past, present, and future are not separated into the abstractions typical of our deliberate attention to time; they are, rather, bound together and inseparably related.

The future seems to pull us towards it. In your typical day, from waking to falling asleep, you are consumed with achieving some future end. You wake up, eat breakfast, get dressed, and drive your car to get to work, and at work you do this and that to accomplish some end. You get off of work and complete a set of actions oriented to getting home. You are always already striving towards some future end by means of the possibilities established by the past.

However, when the future end arrives—when it becomes present—it immediately vanishes and becomes past. The future comes and instantly vanishes before we can grasp it or sustain it. An event comes and goes; it passes by and escapes us. This is one of the tragedies of the human condition: we are bound up in a future that, when it arrives, immediately becomes past. The present, then, is the least stable aspect of time. It is nothing but a series of vanishings. Think of a special day, such as a wedding. You think, plan, and hope for that date for months, and when it arrives, and let’s say it goes well, you cannot maintain the moment. You say “I want this day never to end.” But it swiftly passes and you have only the memory. And marriage is only the beginning for all sorts of future ends we strive for. Indeed, the wedding is an event establishing the possibility of a set of future ends for which you can strive. Each futural end is, then, only a relative end, since each end is also a means to further futural ends. All of life, it seems, is a striving towards death: the inescapable terminus of all our future-oriented activity.

Our orientation to the future, however, is not ultimately towards death; it is toward eternity. Our futurality, our continuous striving to futural ends, is a striving towards the rest found only in eternity, since we are oriented towards the Good and the ultimate Good is resting in God. These relative ends are shadows of the ultimate end. The structure of our being that drives us forward to eternity is part of God’s design, communicating to us that we live in the realm of the not-yet. Our striving for the future that vanishes when brought to the present declares that true rest is not found in this world. Only in God is there true rest—an ever-present divine finality. Our relentless and necessary pursuit of ends indicates that even human temporality speaks to our need for communion with God and our ultimate end. Indeed, this feature of human being points to the existence of God, the immortality of the soul, and life after death. Our hearts are restless until they find rest in God. Even time speaks to our need for the Gospel.

What does this have to do with a fear of eternal life in heaven? Those who fear heaven have a heightened sense of the nature of our temporality, though they probably have trouble articulating it. They experience the anxiety arising from a constant, never-ending drive towards the future that accomplishes a present that does nothing but immediately vanish and pass by. They say in dread, “Heaven goes on forever without end” because they understand that a place without an end, like heaven, and one with a constant orientation toward the future is a place in which there is no true rest. It is an anxiety-filled place. Earthly life, they vaguely understand, at least has death as a rest from labor. There is finality. With this sense of our temporality, they transfer this temporality into heaven and become terrified of eternity, even eternity with God.

True rest, however, must be a rest from our constant and necessary labor to bring about vanishing presents. True rest is a constant present, a present we can grasp and hold on to. Better put, it is constant finality. The beloved day will not end. Heaven is such a place. It is a wedding reception that does not end. As a place of rest, heaven is rest in an un-vanishing present. Time functions differently. We should find peace in the thought that heavenly life is not like earthly life. You will not constantly strive for what simply passes by. You rest not for something, but in something. You perfectly rest in God. And Christ—who revealed the heavenly kingdom of God, satisfied the conditions to enter into it, and renews unto it the minds of those who trust in him—offers a foretaste of it now through confidence in God’s mercy to us through faith in his finished work.

We cannot know what it is like to experience fully an un-vanishing present or perpetual finality on this side of eternity, so any description or knowledge of heavenly temporality will be inadequate and analogous. We can, however, have foretastes of heavenly temporality while on earth. We have fleeting experiences of it. Encounters with beauty certainly can lift us out from the everyday.  Christians should treat such events as eschatological foretastes of heaven and, when perceived by faith, as transporting. As the puritan poet Richard Steere wrote,

Faith Exercis’d on these is of such force,
As to present our minds with future things,
Faith Soars aloft, and thence (preventing time)
Descends with Samples of those Joys to come.

The ultimate foretaste for the Christian is the corporate worship of God on the Lord’s Day, a time when we cast aside our daily concerns and focus on God and his kingdom in Christ. It is the time and place at which we receive a message from another world and receive a foretaste of that heavenly feast. Worship is not for something. It is not chiefly a means to some earthly success or good. It is principally an end in itself, and the end is the worship of God who resides in the world to come. It is the true foretaste of heavenly temporality.

Though this philosophical reflection is no substitute for pastoral counsel and theological reflection, those with a fear of heaven might benefit from this type of phenomenological analysis. The constant striving for a future of vanishing presents in heaven is a legitimate fear. To my mind, you have a better sense of our temporality and our end than most people, since this future-orientation is a structure of human being pointing us ultimately to rest in God. We need to understand, however, that our temporality will be transformed when we enter eternal bliss. Heaven is a rest from labor (Rev. 14:13). We enter God’s rest: God’s Sabbath rest (Heb. 4:3, 9). The night will be no more (Rev. 22:5).  And while we are on earth we should strive to see, with the eyes of faith, heavenly temporality and, with this foretaste, take comfort that our strivings will cease. Wait on the Lord.

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Against Reformed Catholicism

Last month, Mark Jones, a Presbyterian theologian and pastor, published an article at The Calvinist International entitled “Against Calvinism.” The click-baity title leads to an argument against the usefulness of the label “Calvinism.” He rightly points out the oddity of the baptist use of the term. Calvin himself fiercely attacked the radical anabaptists and would have driven them from Geneva.

John-Piper

16th and 17th century Reformed theologians also rejected the term, calling it papist for its veneration of one man. The most significant problem, however, is that a large number of Protestant theologies can be “Calvinist.” It refers only to a set of soteriological positions.

Jones prefers “Reformed catholic,” as did many Reformed and post-Reformation Christians. The use of “catholic” signaled to others a commitment to irenic participation in the broad theological discussion of the Christian tradition. They were not rejecting tradition. Indeed, they thought tradition was on their side. Jones writes,

As Reformed Catholics, we may affirm that we are part of the Christian tradition that includes the impressive work of the Church Fathers (e.g., Irenaeus, Tertullian, Augustine, Cyril), the Medieval theologians (e.g., Abelard, Anselm, Aquinas), and Reformation and Post–Reformation theologians (e.g., Calvin, Beza, Ursinus, Cocceius, Owen, Turretin). Not only that, by avoiding the term “Calvinism” we are recognizing that there were other important theologians during the Reformation period who made similar types of contributions as Calvin, such as Heinrich Bullinger, Peter Martyr Vermigli, and Wolfgang Musculus. Plus, before Calvin, many Reformers were making their own significant contributions to the Protestant cause, such as Huldrych Zwingli (1484–1531), Martin Bucer (1491–1551), Wolfgang Capito (1478–1541), John Oecolampadius (1482–1531), and Guillame Farel (1489–1565)…. The Papists claimed they had tradition on their side. In response, the Reformers did not cry, “to hell with tradition.” Rather, as it quite obviously the case in many of Calvin’s public disputations, they simply showed that tradition was very much on the side of the Protestants. But, even more so, the Scriptures were on the side of the Protestants.

As a Reformed Christian and admirer of 17th century Reformed orthodoxy, I have sympathy with the label. It captures the proper spirit and ethos of Reformed theological study and polemics. We ought to be in conversation with the Christian theological reflection of all ages and even respect the works that have endured over time. But it is not clear to me that the concept behind the label remains relevant for Reformed Christians today. To my mind, there are at least two problems.

  1. The Criteria Problem

Jones lists a number of theologians from the history of Christian theology as part of what I will call the “canon” of the catholic tradition. Notice first that this tradition includes a wide diversity of theological thought. He could have added Origen, Ockham, Scotus, Belarmine, and many others. The catholic canon then has significant theological, philosophical, and even liturgical diversity. Absent from Jones’ piece is any attempt to provide clear criteria that would include those he lists and exclude others. The criteria would have to be profoundly permissive.

Notice too that Jones’ list of authors ends with Francis Turretin. He mentions no post-Turretin theologian. Given the diversity of those he mentions and his lack of criteria for inclusion in the catholic canon, it is entirely unclear who qualifies to be “catholic” after Turretin. Certainly, the catholic canon didn’t close with Turretin. So then who after Turrein is catholic and what is the criteria for including them?

Those who identify as Reformed catholics seem to arbitrarily fix some date in church history as the point from which their catholicism stretches back to the founding of the Church. Without justification, they exclude the rest of the Christian discussion after the height of Reformed orthodoxy in the 17th century. But what justifies this exclusion? Are not the baptist develops in the last few centuries also part of the Christian tradition? On what basis are they excluded from the catholic tradition? Was baptist theologian A. H. Strong a catholic Christian? What about today’s “calvinistic baptists” such as John Piper and John MacArthur? And these are only the conservative Protestants. What about the liberal Protestant and Roman Catholic theologians?

If the catholic canon is a list of “impressive works” (as Jones’ states) in church history, then plenty of works after Turretin must be included, especially given the theological diversity already permitted. This would include a staggering degree of theological diversity. The term “catholic,” therefore, is less meaningful than even “Calvinism.” If you are committed to participating in the theological discussion of church history, then only the present can serve as the end point of church history. Turretin will not do. And if that is so, the catholic tradition is perhaps the most meaningless, incoherent, chaotic, and useless tradition of all. It tells almost nothing about you and it orients you to utter confusion.

The “Reformed” of Reformed catholicism, if anchored to the Reformed orthodoxy of the 17th century, could have a real, useful meaning. But the Reformed tradition is also diverse, and those today most willing to see themselves as Reformed catholic have played up the diversity of the Reformed tradition. And all this emphasis on diversity calls into question any justification for excluding baptists from the Reformed tradition, especially the Particular Baptists of the 1689 London Baptist Confession.

Until there are clear criteria provided (which I suspect is impossible), the label “Reformed catholic” is unhelpful. Whatever use “catholic” had in the 16th and 17th centuries, the subsequent centuries characterized by the rise of baptist theology, ecclesiastical and theological fragmentation, and theological liberalism made it no more than a declaration of irenic and honest discussion. It means nothing more. And if that’s so, Paul Tillich was catholic.

2. Sub-Categorization Problem

But let’s assume that a robust criteria are provided that actually exclude certain people from the catholic tradition. Let’s say this excludes John Piper. I assume that Jones considers Piper to be both part of the Christian tradition and orthodox. This means, however, that “catholic” and “orthodox” are not synonymous terms. Indeed, it means that catholicism is a subcategory of orthodoxy. So Christians such as Piper are non-catholic orthodox Christians.

The problem is that detaching orthodoxy from catholicism seems to be against the catholic tradition. Certainly Augustine, Aquinas, and the Reformers would object to sub-categorizing catholicism under orthodoxy along side some strange group of fully orthodox non-catholics. This constitutes a contradiction. Placing catholicism under orthodoxy violates catholicism. Of course, one could say that the catholic tradition expanded and now permits such sub-categorization. However, if such expansions after the 17th century are permitted, then what reason is there to exclude other expansions, such as that of the baptists?

Of course, this would all be avoided if Piper and others like him are considered heterodox or at least non-orthodox.

Conclusion:

I see little use for the term “Reformed Catholicism.” It communicates only an ad hoc privileging of 17th century Reformed orthodoxy. It arbitrary closes church history in the 17th century. And for this reason, it is arguably a form of restorationism. Instead of treating all of church history as the great Christian dialogue, it jumps over the most recent centuries of fragmentation, diversification, and liberalization and thereby creates a prejudice against anything that arose in those centuries. It attempts to restore a catholic tradition that is long gone, one that is gone by catholicism’s own principles.

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“Gospel Duties” and the Natural Order

Evangelicals often use the word “gospel” as an adjective when talking about engaging the culture: “gospel justice,” “gospel prudence,” “gospel love,” etc. Though these terms are vague, they seem to indicate some significant role of the Gospel in shaping the Christian’s public and political life. The “gospel” modifies some term, forming something distinctively Christian.gospel justice

While I endorse the adjectival use of the gospel in civil matters (as opposed to the claim that gospel inaugurated a radical social project), one must use it in accordance with certain distinctions. These gospel duties (let’s call them) must relate in some way to creational or natural duties.

Let’s say that there are gospel duties. Any proposed gospel duty relates to natural duties in one of four ways:

1. Same (in substance) as the natural

2. Contradictory (in substance) with the natural

3. Indifferent to nature.

4. Perfective of nature.

1. A gospel duty that is the same in substance as some natural duty is essentially the same command given through a different mode of delivery: one through nature known by reason and the other through scripture known by faith. There is nothing substantially new other than the different means of delivering the same command. (e.g., the knowledge that one ought to honor his father and mother is known by reason and faith).

2. When contradictory, the alleged gospel duty contradicts some natural duty. Since the voice of nature and God are the same, any specially revealed duty that contradicts the prior voice of God in nature is a divine contradiction. Since God cannot contradict himself (in this way at least), there is no gospel duty that contradicts a natural duty.

3. Duties indifferent to nature are divine commands about which nature has nothing directly to say. Humans are free to do what nature does not forbid, though all things must be in accordance with prudence and wisdom. (See Calvin on customs). As he did with certain civil laws of Israel, God by his divine right can bind man to laws indifferent to nature.

But any alleged gospel duty of this type must not undermine nature in some way. If their implementation serves to destroy the balance of the natural civil order, then they are not legitimate duties. For example, a Christian school might implement a policy of toleration towards unruly, vulgar, intractable, and disruptive children in the interest of showing them “grace” and the gospel. But the toleration of such behavior, being a major distraction to the disciplined children, would undermine the principal end of the Christian school: education. It undermines the balance of order in the school and thereby undermines the fulfillment of the school’s chief end.

Christians must therefore show that their alleged gospel duty does not undermine the natural order of things. Showing “grace” to the social miscreant might actually work to undermine the natural civil order. The “gospel” would then destroy nature, and Christians would then be agents of disorder.

For this reason, if there are such gospel duties, Christians must recognize that their fulfillment requires careful reasoning and application. They must be in addition to nature, not opposed to it. You cannot propose some gospel duty of this sort without clarifying its relationship to the natural order.

4. A “perfective” quality is one that is necessary for something’s perfection but is dispensable to the thing in itself. That is to say, the thing does not need it to continue being that thing. A car can still run without a shiny paint-job. The paint is inessential to the car as a car, but it is necessary for the car’s perfection. At the same time, the perfective quality is closely connected with the thing it perfects. It is not adventitious, i.e. it is not merely some addition, like a football team car flag. It is rather what is most properly fitting for the thing.[1]

Think of attending a wedding. The request to attend is essentially for you—your person—to attend, but you perfect yourself by adorning yourself with the proper clothing fitting for being in attendance at a wedding. In this way, you and your appearance in that context are fittingly closely connected.

This is the sort of quality that, in my view, the gospel inaugurated. A Christian civil society, for example, is one that conforms to natural principles but adorns itself with Christian culture and worship. By doing so, both people and their culture in the context of God’s world are fittingly closely connected and thereby perfected. Christianity adorns the natural order without replacing or undermining it.

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Evangelicals in their gospel-as-adjective talk usually fail to place their gospel terms in proper perspective. The Gospel is adjectival with regard to civil matters, but not in such a simple way. These additional duties must relate either positively or indifferently to the prior and immutable natural duties. It is better, in my view, to see the gospel as adjective only or mainly with regard to its perfecting of civil life. This means that Christians must necessarily affirm what is natural and seek to perfect the natural without undermining it.

 

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[1] Francis Turretin on four ways to take the word “natural”:

“Natural is taken in four ways: (1) originally and subjectively, drawn from nature and concreated or born together with it and most deeply implanted in it (which is opposed to the adventitious); (2) constitutively and consecutively, constituting the nature of the thing or following and flowing from the principles of nature (as such as are the essential part or properties of a thing which is opposed to the accidental); (3) perfectively, agreeing with the nature and adorning and perfecting it (opposed to that which is against nature); (4) transitively, which ought to be propagated with nature.” Institutes 5.11.2.  And: “It is one thing to speak of the essence of man; another of his integrity and perfection. At the taking away of a part or of some essential property, there follow in truth the destruction of the thing, but not forthwith at the privation of that which contributes to the integrity and perfecting of nature (as such as original righteousness was). The nature indeed remains mutilated and depraved (since it has lost what perfected it), but is not destroyed as to essence.” (5.11.11)

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