By the year 1500, things were really bad in the church. But there were opportunities to hope:
Many looked back with nostalgia to the simplicity and excitement of the apostolic Christianity of the first century. Could not this Golden Age of the Christian faith be regained, perhaps by pondering anew the New Testament documents? This program of reform was the wistful pipe dream of intellectuals throughout half of Europe.
Yet the Renaissance popes seemed more interested in secular than in spiritual matters, and managed between them to achieve a hitherto unprecedented level of avarice, venality, immorality, and spectacularly unsuccessful power politics.
The words of Gianfresco Pico della Mirandola (not to be confused with his uncle, Giovanni), spoken in March 1517, sum up succinctly the thoughts which preyed on many educated minds at the time:
“If we are to win back the enemy and the apostate to our faith, it is more important to restore fallen morality to its ancient rule of virtue than that we should sweep the Black Sea with our fleet.”
There were others, however, who added another demand to this list of long-overdue reforms – a reformation of Christian doctrine, of theology, of religious ideas. To critical observers such as Martin Luther at Wittenberg and John Calvin at Geneva, the church had lost sight of its intellectual and spiritual heritage. It was time to reclaim the ideas of the Golden Age of the Christian church.
The sad state of the church in the early sixteenth century was simply a symptom of a more radical disease – a deviation from the distinctive ideas of the Christian faith, a loss of intellectual identity, a failure to grasp what Christianity really was. Christianity could not be reformed without an understanding of what Christianity was actually meant to be.
Imagine that “the infallible Church” had forgotten what Christianity actually was. But that is an accurate description of the state of affairs at the time of the Reformation.
For these men, the obvious decline of the late Renaissance church was the latest stage in a gradual process which had been going on since the early Middle Ages – the corruption of Christian doctrine and ethics. The distinctive ideas which thinkers such as Luther and Calvin held to underlie Christian faith and practice had been obscured, if not totally perverted, through a series of developments in the Middle Ages. According to these and other reformers of that age, it was time to reverse these changes, to undo the work of the Middle Ages, in order to return to a purer, fresher version of Christianity which beckoned to them across the centuries.
The reformers echoed the cry of the humanists: “back to the sources” (ad fonts) – back to the Golden Age of the church, in order to reclaim its freshness, purity and vitality in the midst of a period of stagnation and corruption. Contemporary writings unquestionably paint a picture of growing ecclesiastical corruption and inefficiency, indicating how much the late medieval church was in need of reform.
It is necessary, however, to enter a note of caution on the manner in which these sources are to be interpreted. It is quite possible that they document growing levels of expectation within the late medieval church as much as declining levels of performance. The growth of an educated laity – one of the more significant elements in the intellectual history of late medieval Europe – led to increasing criticism of the church on account of the obvious disparity between what the church was and what it might be. The growing level of criticism may well reflect the fact that more people were, through increasing educational opportunities, in a position to criticize the church – rather than any further decline in the ecclesiastical standards of the day. But who could reform the church?
By the first decade of the sixteenth century, a fundamental shift in power within Europe was essentially complete. The power of the pope had diminished as the power of secular European governments had increased. In 1478 the Spanish Inquisition was established, with power over clergy and religious orders (and eventually also over bishops). Yet this was an instrument of the Spanish state, not the Spanish church. Control of this system of courts rested not with the pope, but with the Spanish king. The Concordat of Bologna (1516) gave the king of France the right to appoint all the senior clergy of the French church, effectively giving him direct control of that church and its finances.
Across Europe, the ability of the pope to impose a reformation upon his church was steadily diminishing. Even if the will to reform had been there in the later Renaissance popes (and there are few indications that it was), their ability to reform the church was gradually slipping away. This diminishment in papal authority did not, however, lead to a decrease in the power of local or national churches, which continued to exercise major influence over nations. It was the ability of the pope to control such local or national power that declined during our period. The German, Swiss, and English reformations illustrate this point well.
From Alister McGrath, “Reformation Thought: An Introduction” (Kindle Locations 423-440). Wiley. Kindle Edition; pgs 2-3 in the print edition:
By the beginning of the sixteenth century it was obvious that the church in western Europe was in urgent need of reform. The popular cry for “reform in head and members” both summed up the problem and pointed to a possible solution. It seemed to many that the lifeblood of the church had ceased to flow through its veins.
The church legal system was badly in need of overhaul, and ecclesiastical bureaucracy had become notoriously inefficient and corrupt. The morals of the clergy were often lax and a source of scandal to their congregations. Clergy, even at the highest level, were frequently absent from their parishes. In Germany, it is reported that only one parish in 14 had its pastor in residence. The Frenchman Antoine du Prat, archbishop of Sens, turned up for only one service at his cathedral: moreover, his presence and role at this service was somewhat passive, since it was his funeral.
Most higher ecclesiastical posts were secured through dubious means, generally relying upon the family connections or the political or financial status of the candidates rather than their spiritual qualities. Thus Duke Amadeus VIII of Savoy secured the appointment of his son to the senior position of bishop of Geneva in 1451; if anyone had misgivings about the fact that the new bishop had never been ordained and was only eight years of age, they were wise enough to keep quiet about them.
Pope Alexander VI, a member of the Borgia family (famous for its lethal dinner parties), secured his election to the papacy in 1492 despite having several mistresses and seven children, largely because he bought the papacy outright over the heads of his nearest rivals.
Niccolò Machiavelli put the loose morals of late Renaissance Italy down to the poor example set by the church and its clergy. For many, the cry for reform was a plea for the administrative, moral, and legal reformation of the church: abuses and immorality must be eliminated; the pope must become less preoccupied with worldly affairs; the clergy must be properly educated; and the administration of the church must be simplified and purged of corruption.
For others, the most pressing need concerned the spirituality of the church. There was an urgent need to recapture the vitality and freshness of the Christian faith.
My hope, over the coming year, will be to try to fulfill the promise of this blog – to discuss the Reformation, from the point of view of the need for Reformation. In the past, when I thought of the history of the church, there were certain “black holes” in my knowledge that I tried to fill. Like many people, I had a kind of skeletal knowledge of church history. But I wasn’t really aware of the details – the people and the ideas and the political currents of those years, that first of all, helped to pile on the powder of that powder keg, and then the unified sparks that set them off.
In reality, the Middle Ages, and particularly the Medieval years, were a period of particular growth and understanding. But in the process, there were also forces of poison and rot. And most importantly, the slow pace of the time in that era enabled these combining forces almost literally to explode at a time when the spark was applied.
McGrath does a very fine job in tracing the history of some of these movements and understandings. So as the Lord provides the means and the time, I’ll walk through some of the things that he outlines, and I’ll be able to bring to bear things that other writers have said in some of those same contexts. In the end, my hope will be to show both the context of and the need for “the Reformation”, at the time that it finally occurred.
It’s no secret that I’m a firm believer that the Reformation needed to occur. Rome, the official Rome of the papacy, in the era of the Middle Ages, and particularly its boastfulness, had grown to immense proportions. It needed to be challenged. It was challenged. It responded like an arrogant teenager.
I’m going to use McGrath’s work as a kind of rough framework for working through some of these “micro-Reformations”, as he works to discuss the beginnings of what he calls the “macro Reformation”.
This book is primarily concerned with one crucial question: how may the religious ideas of the first generation of mainline reformers – especially Luther and Zwingli – be accounted for? What factors – intellectual as well as social – brought them into being? The quest for the intellectual origins of the Reformation involves the detailed analysis of the continuities and discontinuities between two eras in the history of thought, raising questions of fundamental importance for the historian of ideas and the theologian. It is hoped that this book will go some way toward identifying those questions, and providing provisional answers to them (pg viii).
And as I said, I’ll bring other resources to bear, both upon these questions as he describes them and his answers as well. And in the process, I’ll hope to put some meat onto the bones of the skeletal history of the Reformation.
As I write this, we’re approximately one year away from the time when Martin Luther applied the spark that set off the powder keg of the Reformation. It is my hope that this new series will shed light for both Protestants and Roman Catholics alike.
The English Puritan Stephen Charnock (1628–1680), in his famous work The Existence and Attributes of God, said the following about God’s existence and the proper objects of reason and faith:
Men that will not listen to Scripture, as having no counterpart of it in their souls, cannot easily deny natural reason, which riseth up on all sides for the justification of this truth [the folly of atheism]. There is a natural as well as a revealed knowledge, and the book of the creatures is legible in declaring the being of a God, as well as the Scriptures are in declaring the nature of a God; there are outward objects in the world, and common principles in the conscience, whence it may be inferred.
For God in regard of his existence is not only the discovery of faith, but of reason. God hath revealed not only his being, but some sparks of his eternal power and godhead in his works, as well as in his word. (Rom. 1:19, 20), “God hath showed it unto them,”—how in his works; by the things that are made, it is a discovery to our reason, as shining in the creatures; and an object of our faith as breaking out upon us in the Scriptures: it is an article of our faith, and an article of our reason. Faith supposeth natural knowledge, as grace supposeth nature. Faith indeed is properly of things above reason, purely depending upon revelation. What can be demonstrated by natural light, is not so properly the object of faith; though in regard of the addition of a certainty by revelation it is so.
The principal objects of faith are those truths above reason (e.g., the Trinity), not the truths discoverable by reason, though faith provides certainty on matters of reason, such as the existence of God. Faith therefore is supplemental for truths discoverable through reason and not the necessary epistemic ground for knowledge of such truths.
The following are quotes from Reformed theologians on the possibility of pagans achieving civil righteousness (see my previous post on the subject).
“In political life even an infidel may be called just, innocent, and upright because of [their external and civil life of words, deeds and works], since they have “natural knowledge of and inclination towards the Decalogue.” Althusius, Politica pg. 147 (Liberty Fund)
“The excellent virtues and deeds of renown, which are found among
heathen nations, belong, indeed, to the vestiges or remains of the image of God, still preserved in the nature of man; but there is so much wanting, to constitute that true and perfect image of God, which was at first apparent in man, that these virtues are only certain shadows of external propriety, without the obedience of the heart to God, whom they neither know nor worship. Therefore, these works do not please God, since they do not proceed from a proper knowledge of him, and are not done with the intention of glorifying him.” Ursinus, Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism
“The difference which exists between the works of the righteous and the wicked, goes to prove that the moral works of the wicked are sins, but yet not such sins as those which are in their own nature opposed to the law of God: for these are sins in themselves, and according to their very nature, while the moral works of the wicked are sins merely by an accident; viz., on account of some defect, either because they do not proceed from a true faith, or are not done to the glory of God.” Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism 91.1
“Proof that there is a natural law is found in the “consent of the nations, among whom (even the most savage) some law of the primitive nations obtains, from which even without a teacher they have learned that God should be worshipped, parents honored, a virtuous life be led and from which as a fountain have flowed so many laws concerning equity and virtue enacted by heathen legislators, drawn from nature itself. And if certain laws are found among some repugnant to these principles, they were even with reluctance received and observed by a few, at length abrogated by contrary laws, and have fallen into desuetude.” Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology (IET), 11.1.13
“We do not deny that some strength still remains in man after the fall as to those external and civil good works, so that he can exercise justice and temperance, put forth acts of mercy and charity, abstain from theft and homicide, and exhibit the operations of similar virtues, with the antecedent concourse and general help of God, to which the virtues of the heathen belong.” Turretin, IET, 10.4.3
“Although some of the heathen (comparatively considered and in relation to each other) may have been better than others; although their works civilly and morally speaking may be called virtues, and so followed by the double reward of a well-regulated life, both positive (as productive of some temporal good and peace of conscience in this world) and negative (as making their punishment more tolerable), nevertheless (theologically speaking and relatively to God) their works best in form were nothing than more splendid sins and in the sight of God worthy of no reward.” IET, 1.4.17
“With respect to the moral commandments of the second table of the law there is always much agreement among the nations, inasmuch as the work of the law continues to be written on their hearts.” Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatic (RD),. 3.134
The doctrine of the incapacity for good is a religious confession. In light of the standard people usually follow in their daily life or in philosophic ethics, one can wholeheartedly admit that much of what people do is good and beautiful.” Bavinck, RD 3.123
“Since after the fall people have remained human and continue to share in the blessings of God’s common grace, they can inwardly possess many virtues and outwardly do many good deeds that, viewed through human eyes and measured by human standards, are greatly to be appreciated and of great value for human life. But this is not to say that they are good in the eyes of God and correspond to the full spiritual sense of his holy law.” Bavinck, RD 4.257
“The denial to man of all ability, whether natural or moral, to turn himself to God or to do that which is truly good in God’s sight, does not imply a denial of man’s power to order his external life in many particulars conformably to moral rules, or even to attain the praise of men for virtue.” A. H. Strong, Systematic Theology, 642
“This inability is asserted only in reference to ‘the things of the Spirit.’ It is admitted in all the Confessions above quoted that man since the fall has not only the liberty of choice of self-determination, but also is able to perform moral acts, good as well as evil. He can be kind and just, and fulfill his social duties in a manner to secure the approbation of his fellow-men. It is not meant that the state of mind in which these acts are performed, or the motives by which they are determined, are such as to meet the approbation of an infinitely holy God; but simply that these acts, as to the matter of them, are prescribed by the moral law.” Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology II.8.15.5
If it is the case that fallen, unregenerate man can attain civil righteousness (worthy of praise among men, even from the regenerate) and if regeneration necessarily effects a radical change in the one regenerated, then the principal effect of regeneration cannot be civil righteousness, political, social, or anything related to the basic elements of civil or domestic life. The principal effect must be something else. It must be, then, the restoration of one’s immediate relationship to God, one’s orientation to the spiritual (yet-to-be-visible) kingdom of God, and true worship of God. In short, the principal effect is the adventitious infusing of heavenly gifts and the outward change in religion. The Gospel then is not essentially political, social, or anything earthly other than the true public worship of God.
After Ted Cruz suspended his campaign last week, a flurry of blog posts from evangelical and Reformed Christians massed on the internet both denouncing Trump’s evangelical supporters and calling for a radical renewal of Christian political participation.
Russel Moore, for example, links support for Trump to “nativism” and “white supremacy.” He says that there is “bigotry all over the country” with “not-so-code messages denouncing African-American and immigrants.” And he reiterates that voting for Trump is to “embrace nativism or white supremacy.” That’s a pretty serious charge. To vote for Trump is to support white supremacy, bigotry, the hatred of immigrants, and “nativism” (whatever that means to him).
Matthew Anderson stated that “voting is, and always has been, a moral act,” which presumably means that one’s vote can be immoral. In an earlier essay, he calls Trump a charlatan, huckster, a con-man, and shameless. He calls for evangelicals who support him to “repent.” He says that they are trying to defeat “political correctness through wickedness” and supporting him is tantamount to divorcing “our political commitments from our interest in the Gospel.”
Pastor Steven Wedgeworth argues that “politically-engaged Christians” need to stand against both Trump and the Republican Party, and he agrees with most of Anderson’s arguments. Voting for Trump, he argues, “will be a total abdication of Christian moral witness.”
These are serious charges. Voting for Trump is a serious moral failure. So I wonder: what about church discipline? Consider the following:
(1) All immoral actions are possible matters for church discipline.
(2) One’s vote can be an immoral act.
(3) Therefore, immoral voting can be a matter of church discipline.
As for (1), the emphasis is on possible, since there are important considerations here. The first is we must distinguish between gray areas and obvious sins. You might judge the eating of Sonic burgers to be gluttonous and irresponsible, but that conclusion is not obvious, making a confrontation questionable. The obvious sins are violations of principles and clear and demonstrable moral failures—the type that would cause the pious to flee, denounce (e.g., call wicked) and call for repentance.
As for (2), Moore, Anderson, and Wedgeworth do not explicitly call voting for Trump “sinful,” but palling around with white supremacists, taking part in “wickedness,” and abandoning “Christian moral witness” would seem to be sinful. If not, I wonder what is sinful.
And (3) follows necessarily from (1) and (2). Hence,
(2a) Voting for Trump is an immoral act.
(3a) Voting for Trump can be a matter of church discipline.
The immediate response is, “but censuring political voting isn’t something the church should do.” But this is special pleading. If a few people in your congregation are willing to vote against the “Christian moral witness,” which would dishonor Christ (an end of church discipline Calvin identifies), shouldn’t the church be involved? The Trump voters take part in a “cynical” party that alienates moderate and leftists (says Wedgeworth). They take part in “wickedness,” says Anderson. And all three present their judgment as an obvious one—so obvious that they call for a break from the Republican Party. If voting is a “moral act,” then one would have to show some non-ad hoc justification for keeping this type of act out of church discipline. Would this justification give a pass to voting for Stalin or Hitler?
The sin of Trump-voting, as presented, is a serious sin, and not merely a private one, but a public sin—one that affects the well-being of minorities and immigrants (says Moore). It is an unloving act towards one’s neighbor. How could support for white supremacy be excusable? How could that escape church discipline?
I ask this to the three: how can the sin of supporting Trump be so dishonorable to Christ and yet not a matter for church discipline?
Denying that it is a matter of church discipline undermines the charge that voting for The Donald is a serious sin—a modus tollens. And if it is not a serious sin, then is it hard to find support for leaving the Republican Party and propping up an opposition candidate. Indeed, an unwillingness to make it a matter of church discipline, undermines most of their arguments.
Many Reformed theologians acknowledged the virtue of pagans and their ability to know the natural law as it relates to human social relations—even to the point of acknowledging a sort of natural sociability. Reformed theologians “have always fully acknowledged,” writes Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck,
the existence and moral value of [the virtue of pagans.] Since after the fall people have remained human and continue to share in the blessings of God’s common grace, they can inwardly possess many virtues and outwardly do many good deeds that, viewed through human eyes and measured by human standards, are greatly to be appreciated and of great value for human life. But this is not to say that they are good in the eyes of God and correspond to the full spiritual sense of his holy law.
Calvin affirms a distinction between “earthly” objects (“matters of policy and economy, all mechanical arts, and liberal studies”) and “heavenly” objects (“true righteousness and future blessedness”), and when man is focused on the former he can achieve “some result,” proving that “some principle of civil order is impressed on all. And this is ample proof that…no man is devoid of the light of reason.” Though man “lost all understanding” on matters related to heaven, not all was lost on earthly matters. Man can still be “very acute and sagacious” on earthly matters, but not on heavenly matters. Man’s “supernatural” virtues—those which relate to heaven and the eschaton, such as “the light of faith and righteousness”—were “withdrawn,” but the natural gifts were only “corrupted,” ensuring that there is still “civil order impressed on all.”
Hence, within the Reformed framework there is potential great optimism concerning man’s ability to reach sound conclusions on natural duties. This is why the Reformed political theorist, Johannes Althusius can consistently state, “But in political life even an infidel may be called just, innocent, and upright.” Turretin argues for the existence of the natural law by citing the “consent of the nations, among whom…”
some law of the primitive nations obtains, from which even without a teacher they have learned that God should be worshipped, parents honored, a virtuous life be led and from which as a fountain have flowed so many laws concerning equity and virtue enacted by heathen legislators, drawn from nature itself. And if certain laws are found among some repugnant to these principles, they were even with reluctance received and observed by a few, at length abrogated by contrary laws, and have fallen into desuetude.
More evidence and analysis to come…
 Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: Holy Spirit, Church and New Creation Translated by John Vriend (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 256-7.
 Johannes Althusius, Politica: An Abridged Translation of Politics Methodically Set Forth and Illustrated with Sacred and Profane Examples, ed. and Trans. Frederick S. Carney (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1964), 147. The Canons of Dordt (1619), a major statement of Reformed theology, states that fallen man “shows some regard for virtue and for good outward behavior” (3/4.4).
You can’t avoid city-on-the-hill talk in American elections. Every presidential election season since Reagan must include numerous references to Winthrop’s sermon “A Model of Christian Charity” by those advocating a “return” to American greatness and those complaining about those “dominionist” or theocratic Christian Rightists.
Much could be said on the use of the sermon over the last few decades, but I think it would be useful to place Winthrop’s sermon in his context and see what the text actually says.
1. The sermon was not published, nor widely known, until the mid-19th century. The New York Historical Society first published it in 1838. Between 1630 and 1809, the Winthrop family had possession of the only known manuscript, and it received little attention in the 19th century. So the sermon did not directly influence the development of New England puritanism, colonial politics and society, and the American founding. It had very little significance until Reagan’s appropriation of it. This calls into question John Fea’s recently claim in Christianity Today that “Ever since the Puritan John Winthrop said that the Massachusetts Bay Colony was a ‘city on a hill’ Americans have seen themselves as God’s chosen people—a new Israel with a special destiny.” The American belief in some special destiny did not come from Winthrop’s sermon, at least not until very recently.
2. Most of the sermon is a discussion on social harmony, brotherly affections, rich/poor relations, lending, forgiving debts, and obligations in community emergencies. What ties the people together, claims Winthrop, is love. The irony is that despite the almost exclusive recent use of the sermon by Republicans, the sermon could be used (though wrongly, I think) by left-liberals to argue for robust government programs for distributive justice. Here’s example:
All the parts of this body being thus united are made so contiguous in a special relation as they must needs partake of each other’s strength and infirmity, joy and sorrow, weal and woe. (1 Cor. 12:26) If one member suffers, all suffer with it; if one be in honor, all rejoice with it.
The primary focus of the sermon is internal, not external. There is no call for foreign interventionism, nothing about making the world safe for puritanism, and nothing about some inherent superiority over other nations. Winthrop’s concern throughout the sermon is the relationship of the people in the community. He hoped that the community, by displaying social harmony in mutual love, would serve as an example for future “plantations” and not be a “by-word through the world” due to any false dealing with God.
3. Many misunderstand what Winthrop meant by “city upon a hill.” He never used the word “shining” in the sermon. He did not say “shining city upon a hill.” Here is what he said in context:
Now the only way to avoid this shipwreck, and to provide for our posterity, is to follow the counsel of Micah, to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God. For this end, we must be knit together, in this work, as one man. We must entertain each other in brotherly affection. We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities. We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality. We must delight in each other; make others’ conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body. So shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace. The Lord will be our God, and delight to dwell among us, as His own people, and will command a blessing upon us in all our ways, so that we shall see much more of His wisdom, power, goodness and truth, than formerly we have been acquainted with. We shall find that the God of Israel is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies; when He shall make us a praise and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations, “may the Lord make it like that of New England.” For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world. We shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God, and all professors for God’s sake. We shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us till we be consumed out of the good land whither we are going.
First, notice that brotherly love is what ought to be on display, not power, wealth, or international control. But more important is that being a city on a hill simply means that the “eyes of all people are upon us.” It does not mean that the city is shining; it could be dark. Winthrop’s point is that the Massachusetts Bay Colony could be either an example to follow for future plantations or an example of what to avoid. So Winthrop is not claiming that as a city upon a hill that the colony has a special divine destiny. The whole point is that “the eyes of all people are upon you.” They are a spectacle to others, good or bad. Be an example for others who attempt this experiment, he commands the people.
And what is interesting about the experiment is that it is not socially radical. The first few paragraphs of the sermon affirm natural social hierarchy (and see here). There is nothing radical in the discussion on lending and debt forgiveness either. The exceptional nature of the experiment is something else, which I discuss next.
4. Some people accuse Winthrop of a type of puritan arrogance. After all, he thought that their socially harmonious and godly colony would be the example for others to follow and that the eyes of the world are fixed on them. However, simply reading the sermon would temper, I suspect, any charge of arrogance. True, Winthrop says that the people have covenanted with each other and God to be a godly people (which would not be considered arrogant among Calvinists of his time), but let’s consider also the historical context. Winthrop is giving a sermon to a people who are truly doing something unique. They are traveling to settle in a land largely unsettled by Europeans. It is an incredible opportunity. So what would you say to such a group? “Ok guys, we know that this will likely fail. So let’s be realistic about things and not set a high standard for ourselves. We don’t want people in the future to think we’re arrogant puritans.” The critic of Winthrop would be a terrible coach for the underdog team. When leaders begin something momentous and dangerous, they seek to inspire people to do their best. They are not always realistic, nor ought they be.
Perhaps Winthrop thought of it all as realistic, but it doesn’t matter. The sermon marked the beginning of a momentous event, and for that reason whatever unrealistic standard Winthrop set is perfectly justified. Just imagine a pastor of a new church and new congregation, fully aware that many, if not most, established churches in history went apostate or at least liberal, being realistic: “yes, congregation, your great grandchildren will probably be liberal apostates. So let’s not have high hopes here. Let’s keep it real.” Would any of us accept that? Wouldn’t we rather want to hear a pastor say, “Let us, through our mutual service and love for one another, be an example for existing churches and new churches. Their eyes are upon you.” Yet we can’t accept such optimism from Winthrop.
We need to place Winthrop in context. Regardless of the antipathy you might have towards “American exceptionalism” don’t blame Winthrop for it. He had nothing to do with it. Winthrop did his duty as a Christian leader. He sought the best from his people, and he deserves our praise for it.
Though I usually avoid internet confrontations, a controversy has surfaced that I must address. Apologia Radio, a group of internet broadcasters that offers “Christian radio programming” that “boldly confronts the hard issues of today,” posted an interview with Tony Lauinger, a man who has worked in pro-life organizations for over 35 years and is the state chairman of Oklahomans for Life, and subsequent commentary that is nothing short of defamation. Though it might at first seem shocking, Mr Lauinger and his organization have made public their opposition to Oklahoma bill SB 1118, a bill that would criminalize abortion in the state. He has reasons for opposing it, which he states in the interview and I discuss below. The purpose of this post is to call the people at Apologia Radio, especially Jeff Durbin and Marcus Pittman, to issue a formal apology to Mr. Lauinger for both misrepresenting his positions and unjustly attacking his character.
The title of the interview, as posted on Facebook and their website, is “Interview with Hypocrisy.” The accompanying text with the post calls the interview “shocking,” and in the comment boxes “Apologia Radio” and others associated with the organization call Mr. Lauinger a “coward.” They claim that he represents everything that is wrong with the pro-life movement and that he is responsible for the abortions in Oklahoma.
What is striking about the lead commentary and the comments on Facebook is the utter unwillingness for Mr. Durbin and others to correctly and honestly articulate Mr. Lauinger’s arguments. Mr. Durbin in his opening commentary on the interview video either completely misunderstands Mr. Lauinger’s argument or is deliberately committing a straw-man. I will discuss the arguments below.
But first I want my reader to just take a superficial look at both the interview and the public response from Apologia Radio. By all accounts, Mr. Lauinger is a gentleman, thoughtful, friendly, and respectful. And even Mr. Durbin comes off as respectful, gracious, patient, and courteous in the interview. In the end, one would think that there was constructive disagreement, mutual respect and friendliness between fellow pro-life workers. But no. Apologia Radio played the game of “gotcha.” They lured Mr. Lauinger in and got their sound bites, and then they proceeded to publicly denounce him and attack his character — calling him a hypocrite and a coward. It is all terribly unbecoming, and the reaction says more about the character of those at Apologia Radio than Mr. Lauinger. Some respect, at least, was in order for a man who has spent decades fighting to end abortion. Instead, we witness nothing but the typical millennial dismissal of age and experience. The use of this “gotcha” tactic against Mr. Lauinger, by itself, is enough to call Apologia Radio to issue an apology. Now on to the substance of the interview.
Mr. Lauinger made three main arguments, each either misrepresented or dismissed by the interviewer and his associates.
The first argument concerns the bill itself. Mr. Lauinger argues that SB 1118 is not only pointless but also counterproductive. The bill states that “a person commits murder in the first degree when that person performs an abortion in violation of the provisions of this section.” The provision states that “No person shall perform or induce or attempt to perform or induce an abortion after conception.” The bill effectively criminalizes all abortion.
One would think that the organization “Oklahomans for Life” and Mr. Lauinger would support this legislation, but they do not for specific and, I think, well-founded reasons. The bill is essentially an amendment of existing statutes, and the current statutes include both the Heartbeat Informed Consent Act and the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act. The former act forces abortion providers to ask the mother whether she would like to listen to the unborn child’s heartbeat before performing the abortion, and the latter act criminalized abortion after “twenty or more weeks” postfertilization. SB 1118 changes existing law by eliminating the latter from law and amending the former making it “unlawful for an abortion provider to perform or induce an abortion if an embryonic or fetal heartbeat is detected.” (This seems to contradict the outright ban. I’m not sure how this plays out in the legislative process and law.) What is most important is that the ban on abortion at twenty or more weeks is no longer law, if SB 1118 passes.
Mr. Lauinger’s concern is that if Oklahoma passes SB 1118, the state and federal courts will declare both the complete ban on abortion and the amended Heartbeat Act to be unconstitutional. And if that occurs, the two acts that prevented some abortions will not return to the statutes. The pro-life cause then loses all that it has worked for. The result is the there will be more abortions than before, since the twenty or more weeks ban has been removed from state law. Mr. Lauinger’s argument is one that conforms to a clear principle of prudence.
Some have claimed that if the courts stall the implementation or strike down the complete ban on abortion, the other statutes will remain in effect. But even the language of the bill states otherwise. Near the end, the bill states, “The provisions of this act are severable and if any part or provision shall be held void the decision of the court so holding shall not affect or impair any of the remaining parts or provisions of this act.” The courts could, even according to the law itself, declare unconstitutional only the complete ban while leaving the elimination of the Pain-Capable Act. The result would be more abortions than before, since the removal of the ban on abortions at twenty or more weeks postfertilization remains removed from law.
When Apologia Radio folks are confronted with this argument, they respond with calls for armed resistance to federal tyranny, including having sheriffs, national guard, and civil magistrates take arms. Let’s assume that that is actually a principled response. Still, is it likely to happen? Is there realistic support among the people suggesting that they are willing to risk a violent confrontation with the Federal government? I doubt it. Perhaps there is, however. But nobody from Apologia Radio has offered anything resembling a plan to bring such resistance about.
One response is simply to dismiss Lauinger’s “incrementalism,” and perhaps there is a case against incrementalism in general, but when applied to this case, the anti-incrementalists show themselves incapable of reasoning clearly. Presented before us is a dilemma: either long-term incremental changes in laws and hearts and minds or a ban on abortion now at all costs. There is a third option: we do nothing. This one, of course, is unacceptable. So we are left with our original dilemma. As we saw above, banning abortion now by passing SB 1118 actually results in more abortions, at least that is Mr. Lauinger’s reasonable and supportable argument. At the same time, incrementalism has, even on Mr. Durbin’s admission, prevented some abortions. So the dilemma, when each one’s consequences are determined, is between preventing some abortions and preventing as many abortions as the third option prevents, which is zero. So it turns out that choosing “end abortion now” has the same result as if we did nothing. The do-nothing crowd, then, has, ironically, an ally in the end-abortion-now crowd. Choose wisely.
My discussion and expansion of Mr. Lauinger’s argument from prudence shows that the Apologia Radio’s accusation of hypocrisy is unjust. Hypocrisy, roughly defined, is failing to live up to one’s self-declared ideal. Mr. Lauinger would be a hypocrite only if he thought that passing the bill would actually accomplish his stated end. Since he does not think that it will, he is not a hypocrite for opposing it. Yes, the purpose of the bill is to end abortion, but the implementation of the bill is highly unlikely and would likely make matters worse. One is not a hypocrite for opposing something whose purpose would meet one’s self-declared end yet will not meet the end due to circumstances.
The second criticism of Mr. Lauigner is that he refuses to call the women who had an abortion a murderer. Now let’s be clear up front on his position. He fully supports the eventual criminalization of abortion, as he claimed in the interview. So he is united with Apologia Radio on the ultimate end of pro-life work. The difference concerns the means, as described above. Furthermore, the refusal to label the woman a murderer does not mean that one cannot call abortion murder. Even SB 1118 does not call the woman the murderer, only the one who “performs” the abortion. The abortion provider is the murderer, making an abortion a murder. The mother’s status is irrelevant to the labeling of the event. As he said in the interview, the classification of one’s culpability is based on circumstances, and the relevance of circumstance in culpability goes back at least to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Mr. Lauinger argued that quite often the woman is under pressure from her family, boyfriend, or husband to get the abortion; and workers in crisis pregnancy centers have told me that most women who come in are profoundly ignorant of what is in their body.
My purpose here is not to establish clear criteria of what constitutes murder and a murderer. I simply want to point out that it is not “shocking” that someone might not want to declare the woman who had an abortion a murderer. Given the history of moral reasoning and legal categories on the degree of culpability, it is not immediately obvious what the correct answer is. And Apologia Radio has provided no reasoned argument for their position. They have demonstrated only shock and moral outrage.
The final criticism of Mr. Lauinger is that he wants to use “secular” arguments against abortion with non-Christians, not call them to “repent and believe and Gospel.” Some find this indicative of belief in “neutrality” and others blame his Roman Catholicism. This criticism is not surprising. Those at Apologia Radio, to my knowledge, are committed to presuppositionalist apologetics along Van Tilian lines, so they naturally reject “neutrality” or common ground between Christian and non-Christian. I’m not going to directly engage this issue here. I simply will point out that most Reformed theologians, until recently, held to a sort of common ground – a realm in which both the Christian and non-Christian share the same knowledge of God the Creator and his laws. The Christian sees it all clearer, but, nonetheless, the non-Christian knows the principles of morality and justice. Calvin himself claimed that fallen man shows that he is not “devoid of the light of reason,” that he “cherishes” society, and is drawn to the formation of civil order and decency (See Institutes 2.2.13). Francis Turretin affirmed that there is “in man a natural law written upon each one’s conscience excusing and accusing them in good and bad actions, which therefore necessarily implies the knowledge of God, the legislator, by whose authority it binds men to obedience and proposes rewards and punishments” (Institutes of Elenctic Theology 1.3.5). He even says that the “heathen” can have virtue (1.4.17 & 10.5.2,6). Turretin also argues that “the manner of dealing with them [i.e., non-Christians] can be either theological (by arguments found in scripture) or philosophical, so that by the principles of reason the prejudices against the Christian religion drawn from corrupt reason may be removed” (1.9.23)
Much more could be said on this, but it is sufficient to say that the Reformed tradition has recognized a certain common ground in which we may operate to convince non-Christians or appeal to their moral sense of what is good and what is bad. I’m not sure what those at Apologia Radio would say to Turretin and the broader Reformed tradition, but at least they should not be “shocked” by the use of reason apart from revelation. Their own tradition (and I would argue most within that tradition) recognize the legitimacy of such philosophical inquiry and methods of argumentation.
To my knowledge, I have responded to the main reasons for Mr. Durbin’s shock and awe. By all accounts, Mr. Lauinger is a reasonable, prudent, and thoughtful man who deserves praise, not ridicule and attacks on his character. He is certainly not hypocritical. For these reasons, Jeff Durbin and all those associated with Apologia Radio need to issue a public apology to Tony Lauinger for both misrepresenting his arguments and unjustly attacking his character.