Christian historians and sin

Why Study HistoryA lot of people in the media today, especially those in the Trump camp, are talking about American greatness. Many evangelical Christians, who last time I checked believed in the existence of human sin, want to ignore their country’s past transgressions. Such an approach was on full display last Friday night when Donald Trump delivered a speech at Mount Rushmore. I wrote about this speech here and here.

In this post, I want to cover how a belief in human sin informs how I do history.

Adapted from Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past:

Herbert Butterfield, a twentieth-century philosopher of history, informed us that “if there is any region in which the bright empire of the theologians and the more murky territory of the historians happen to meet and overlap, we shall be likely to find it at those places where both types of thinkers have to deal with human nature.” Historian George Marsden adds, “Of all traditional Christian teachings the doctrine of original sin or of pervasive human depravity has the most empirical verification. The modern world, rather than undercutting this doctrine, seems increasingly to confirm it.”

Indeed, anyone who studies the past realizes that there are no heroes in history. While people may perform heroic acts, all humans are tainted by sin and are susceptible to acting in ways that preference themselves over others and God. Historians understand, better than most, the reality of the pain, suffering, injustice, anger, and vice brought on by sin.

I often tell my Christian students that it is very difficult to understand historical figures like Nero, Caligula, Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Pol Pot without a robust understanding of sin. But a belief in human depravity and the sinfulness of this world can have a much deeper effect on the way we approach the past that goes beyond its mere use as a tool for pointing out individual and systemic justice and oppression. A belief in the reality of sin should provide us with a healthy skepticism about movements in the past committed to utopian ends, unlimited progress, or idealistic solutions to the problems of this world. This, of course, does not mean that we should stop working toward these ends, but history certainly teaches us that we live in a broken world that will not be completely fixed on this side of eternity.

Similarly, a belief in depravity helps us to better explain the human condition–the restlessness, the search for meaning, and the prideful ambition that has defined much o the past, especially in the modern era. Augustine was quite correct when he opened his Confessions with the famous words, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

In the same way that a belief in the imago Dei should shape the stories that we tell about the past, a belief in sin should influence the process by which we craft our narratives of the human experience. Let me draw on my own experience as an American historian to illustrate this point.

The study of American history has always served a civic function in the United States. Schoolchildren learn American history for the purpose of becoming informed and patriotic citizens. What has resulted from this approach to teaching history is a skewed view of the American experience that celebrates certain heroic figures to the neglect of others. Such an approach also focuses on American greatness as defined by the patriotic designers of some of the school textbooks published for Christian Right schools and homeschooling parents. In such a curriculum, American nationalism triumphs over the stories chronicling those moments when the United States failed or when it acted in ways that might be considered unjust.

Such an approach to American history is not only one-sided; it also fails to recognize the theological truth that all earthly kingdoms and nations are flawed when compared to the kingdom of God. While the stories we tell about the United States should certainly not neglect the moments that make us feel good about our country, we should also not be surprised when we encounter stories that may lead us to hang our heads in collective shame.

While such a whitewashing of American history is quite popular these days among those on the political or cultural Right, those who occupy a place on the political or cultural Left can also ignore the realities of human sin on the subjects or individuals that they find to be inspirational. Yet, as Marsden reminds us, it is “a sign of maturity” when “representatives of a group can write history that takes into account that members of that group are flawed human beings like everyone else. In the long run the most convincing histories will be those that portray their protagonists with faults as well as virtues.”

Os Guinness’s Appeal to the Past is Deeply Problematic

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Watch Christian speaker and author Os Guinness deliver a speech titled 1776 vs. 1789: the Roots of the Present Crisis. It is part of an event hosted by the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview.  Someone sent it to me recently.

I have benefited from Guinness’s books, but this particular talk is deeply problematic.

Guinness makes the case that both the English “revolution” of 1642 and the American Revolution were somehow “biblical” in nature. I am not sure how he relates this claim to verses such as Romans 13 or  1 Peter 2:13-17, but I am sure if he had more time he would find a way.  Let’s remember that Romans 13 not only says that Christians must submit to governmental authority, but they must also pay their taxes. I wrote extensively about this in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction. I point you to my discussion there.

Guinness also makes the incredibly simplistic and ahistorical claim that the ideas of the American Revolution flowed from the Bible to John Calvin to John Winthrop and to New England Puritanism. No early American historian would make this claim. The America as “New England-writ large” interpretation has been thoroughly debunked. What is important to Guinness is the “city upon a hill”–the vision of American exceptionalism as extolled by cold warriors (JFK , for example) and popularized by Ronald Reagan and virtually every GOP presidential candidate since.

Guinness also seems to suggest that because America was founded as a Christian nation, and Christianity is a religion of forgiveness, then America should look forward and forget the sins of its past. He even takes a quick shot at the reparations for slavery movement. This reminds me of John Witherspoon, one of Guinness heroes.  In his 1776 sermon, The Dominion of Providence over the Passions of Menthe Scottish born patriot and president of the College of New Jersey made the case that America was morally superior to all other nations, including England. “I cannot help observing,” he wrote, “that though it would be a miracle if there were not many selfish persons among us, and discoveries now and then made of mean and interested transactions, yet they have been comparatively inconsiderable in both number and effect.” The colonies, Witherspoon believed, offered relatively few examples of “dishonesty and disaffection.” This myth of American innocence has been around for a long time. It has blinded people like Guinness from taking a deep, hard look into the dark side of the American past and developing a Christian view of cultural engagement that takes seriously the nation’s sins.

The French Revolution, Guinness argues, was anti-Biblical because it was hostile to religion and informed by the atheism of the French Enlightenment. This is also a very contested claim. As historian Dale Van Kley argued in The Religious Origins of the French Revolutionthe French Revolution had “long-term religious–even Christian–origins.” Guinness’s view also seems to imply that the Enlightenment had nothing to do with the American Revolution. Such a monolithic and reductionist approach to 1776 ignores half a century of historical scholarship. Guinness sounds just like David Barton and the rest of the Christian nationalist historians. He also sounds a lot like his mentor, the late Francis Schaeffer, a Christian thinker who was roundly criticized by an entire generation of evangelical historians, including Mark Noll, George Marsden, and Nathan Hatch. (I cover this story in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation, but I also recommend Barry Hankins’s biography of Schaeffer).

Guinness then argues that the political and cultural divisions in our culture today are explained as a battle between those who follow the spirit of the “biblical” American Revolution and those who follow the spirit of the anti-biblical French Revolution. In order to make such a claim, Guinness needs to simplify and stereotype the character of both revolutions. He fails to acknowledge that there has never been an official or uncontested interpretation of the meaning of the American Revolution. We have been fighting over this for a long time and it is arrogant for Guinness to suggest that he has it all figured out. Just listen to the Hamilton soundtrack. Elementary school kids understand that Jefferson and Hamilton understood the American Revolution differently and had some pretty nasty verbal exchanges as they debated its meaning.

In order for Guinness to offer the cultural critique he tries to make in this video, he must take the Hamiltonian/anti-French side of the 1790s debate and reject the American vision of Jefferson, James Madison, Thomas Paine, James Monroe, and many others. Perhaps he needs to read some books by Gary Nash, Woody Holton, and Edward Countryman. I doubt these social and neo-progressive historians will change his mind, but they might at least convince him that one can study the American Revolution and draw different conclusions about what it set out to accomplish. Heck, even the neo-Whigs like Gordon Wood and Bernard Bailyn, and defenders of Lockean liberalism like Joyce Appleby, did not go so far as to suggest that the American Revolution was “biblical” in nature.

In one of the stranger moments of his presentation, Guinness tries to connect the three ideals of the French Revolution–liberty, fraternity, and equality–with the rise of Marxism, postmodernism, the secularism of the academy, and the American Left. Guinness is not wrong here. But he also seems completely unaware that ideals such as liberty, fraternity, and equality also motivated American reformers who believed that these ideals were part of the legacy of the American Revolution. Anti-federalism, abolitionism, workers’ rights movements, the Civil Rights movement, the Women’s Rights movements, American utopian movements, and many others preached liberty, fraternity, and equality.  But for Guinness, these ideals have “nothing to do” with the legacy of American Revolution “and its biblical roots.”

We should be very, very wary of Guinness’s use of the past. In fact, he is not doing history at all. Guinness takes two highly contested claims–that the American Revolution was Christian and the French Revolution was not–and uses them to build his critique of the American hour. He is using the past to advance a cultural and political agenda and doing it badly. He comes across as just another partisan.

Remembering Donald Dayton

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Theologian and church historian Donald W. Dayton has died.

While I was a student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School pursuing an M.A. in American church history, I read a lot of Dayton. As a young evangelical, I was passionate about exploring the roots of the movement that I embraced as a sixteen-year-old kid. I read Dayton’s Discovering an Evangelical Heritage as well as his unpublished essays that circulated among evangelical scholars and graduate students.

One of those unpublished pieces was a paper Dayton read in January 1988 at the Wesleyan/Holiness Study Project First Fellows Seminar at Asbury Theological Seminary. It was titled, “An Analysis of the Self-Understanding of American Evangelicalism With a Critique of its Correlated Historiography.” The paper criticized what Dayton believed was a Reformed bias in evangelical historiography.

At the time I encountered Dayton’s work in the early 1990s, Reformed historians such as George Marsden and Mark Noll were at the height of their scholarly game. Their books and articles were shaping our understanding of American evangelicalism in profound ways. Dayton did not have the funding Marsden and Noll enjoyed. He did not publish his work in places that would have been respected by the larger academy. But he was relentless. He insisted that modern evangelicalism was a Protestant movement with roots in the Pietist, Wesleyan, and Holiness traditions. Evangelicals, he argued, were abolitionists, feminists, reformers, and defenders of social justice. While Marsden and Noll wrote about Jonathan Edwards, revolutionary-era Calvinists, Old and New School Presbyterians, common sense realism, Princeton theologians, and J. Gresham Machem, Dayton called attention to Jonathan Blanchard, Charles Finney, Theodore Weld, the Tappan brothers, Phoebe Palmer, and A.B. Simpson. Much of his work provided a historical foundation for the Evangelical Left.

To be fair, Marsden’s work on fundamentalism and evangelicalism did take into consideration the revivalist tradition. His books covered D.L. Moody, Billy Sunday, Billy Graham, and the Keswick Movement. (I seem to remember hearing or reading a story somewhere about Dayton giving Marsden a bag of books on Holiness and Wesleyan church history as he was writing either Fundamentalism and American Culture or his history of Fuller Theological Seminary, Reforming Fundamentalism). But I always thought Dayton’s work did not get the attention it deserved. While Marsden and others privileged a Reformed interpretive lens, Dayton tried to imagine what the story might look like if told through a Pietist/Wesleyan/Holiness lens. Dayton believed that this lens offered a clearer vision of the subject at hand.

Much of this debate is covered in Doug Sweeney‘s 1991 Church History essay, “The Essential Evangelicalism Dialectic: The Historiography of the Early Neo-Evangelical Movement and the Observer-Participant Dilemma” (now republished in this book) and in a 1993 issue of the Christian Scholars Review. At the time of Sweeney’s essay (which drew heavily on his own Trinity Evangelical Divinity School M.A. thesis–Sweeney was a few years ahead of me at TEDS), I was corresponding with Dayton about my thesis on separatist fundamentalism. At the moment, I do not have access to that correspondence (no time to find a box of correspondence in the basement for a blog post), but I was able to dig up a July 14, 1991 handwritten letter on Northern Baptist Theological Seminary stationary:

John,

I just got your letter of June 23. I’m in the Orient most of the summer, but was back for a couple of days, before [I’m] off again ’til about Aug. 8. Hence this hurried, informal response.

You have permission to quote my paper. I’ve enclosed a copy plus a couple other articles along the same line. I plan to finish  in Aug. or Sept. a major statement in critique of George’s history of Fuller. I’ll try to remember to send you a copy.

I’ve mixed feelings about Doug Sweeney’s published essay. I liked the thesis better. I wonder if [Carl] McIntire is as “Reformed” as you indicate. Certain features (revivalism, premillennialism, no-smoking, drinking, etc.) would not be as classically Reformed, would they? 

I’ll be back August 8 or so–and would be glad to get together sometime.

Don Dayton

A few notes on this letter:

  • I asked Dayton for permission to quote from the aforementioned “An Analysis of the Self-Understanding of American Evangelicalism….”
  • Dayton’s response to George Marsden’s Reforming Fundamentalism: Fuller Seminary and the New Evangelicalism eventually appeared as “The Search for Historical Evangelicalism: George Marsden’s History of Fuller Seminary as a Case Study,” Christian Scholars Review, 23 (1993).
  • Presbyterian fundamentalist Carl McIntire played an important role in my M.A. thesis. Dayton was trying to get me to see him as a more complex theological figure.
  • Dayton never elaborated on why he liked Doug Sweeney’s Trinity M.A. thesis more than his Church History article.

Nine years later, we resumed our correspondence while I was a post-doc in the Lilly Fellows Program in Humanities and the Arts at Valparaiso University.  I wrote Dayton after a Monday afternoon colloquium devoted to a discussion of Alan Wolfe’s October 2000 Atlantic cover-story titled “Opening the Evangelical Mind.” I was interested in how the road to evangelical “openness” (to use Wolfe’s term) ran through Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper and the broader Reformed tradition. At the time of Wolfe’s piece, the discussion among evangelical academics (especially among historians) had shifted from the debate over the theological roots of fundamentalism/evangelicalism to the state of evangelical thinking and the implications of Mark Noll’s 1994 book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.

Noll, Marsden (his 1997 book The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship was part of the discussion), and others advocating for a renewal of the evangelical mind were building their case on the assertion that American evangelicalism–at least in its 19th and 20th-century manifestations– was a a largely anti-intellectual movement. American evangelicalism, Noll argued, had been so focused on personal piety, activism, evangelism, and acts of social justice that it ignored or downplayed Christian thinking. To me it seemed that in order for these Reformed evangelical historians to make a case for the revival of an evangelical mind, they needed to embrace Dayton’s historiography.

In an October 2000 e-mail, I asked Dayton if he thought the 19th-century Pietist/Wesleyan/Holiness tradition had become the bogeyman for what Wolfe described in The Atlantic as the “opening of the evangelical mind.” I wondered if the current Reformed push for a renewed intellectual life among evangelicals meant that Dayton had won the historiographical battle. In other words, evangelical thinking was necessary in 1994 because 19th-century evangelicalism was defined by the people, ideas, and actions that Dayton had always put at the center of his story. Evangelicalism was more about Finney, Palmer, and Weld than it was about Edwards (and his theological descendants), Warfield, and Machen and this is why renewed Christian thinking was now necessary.

Here is Dayton’s response to my e-mail, sent from his Drew University e-mail account:

I was intrigued by your note and wished I could have been present for your discussion. I tried to call last night and left a message on your voice mail. I may try again. I just saw the Wolfe article as I passed through the airport over the weekend and just read it late last night.

As you probably know, I resist the word evangelical not only because it usually carried the “reformed” connotations but because it fails to convey the historical and sociological reality of what seems to me is really going on.

For me it is noteworthy that we have had pentecostal seminaries only for a couple of decades and holiness seminaries only a generation before that (Asbury took off after WW II, followed by the Nazarenes, Anderson, Western Evangelical, etc.). Part of the issue is whether to see the evangelical seminaries in that line and revealing a similar dynamic of constituencies moving into the middle class (like Pentecostals) and needing a seminary. This is clearly true for Trinity (carried by the Evangelical Free Church–and holiness-like founder [Rev. Frederick] Fransen), and I would argue Gordon (rooted in the ministry of holiness Baptist A.J. Gordon, a major figure in the development of “faith healing”), and even for Fuller, as I argued in my dialogue with Marsden in Christian Scholars Review. If this is true, it seems odd to me to compare the emergence of these very young traditions of theology and intellectual activity with Reformed and Lutheran [which have] half a millennium of university theological tradition. I don’t even know how to dialogue with people like Wolfe who don’t seem to me to see what is going on.

Nor do I know how to enter a discussion with people like Mark Noll (his SCANDAL book). It seems very odd to me to stand in a college that was founded by the Wesleyan Church in the Holiness Movement (ala Jonathan Blanchard), to claim that it is the best available, and then blame the holiness movement for the fact that it is not better. [Noll was at Wheaton College at the time]. The holiness folk founded a majority of the Christian College Coalition schools–especially the better ones (Wheaton, Seattle Pacific, Azusa, Houghton, Gordon–both branches, etc.)  Mark [Noll], Rich Mouw and others were raised in baptistic fundamentalism, went to holiness schools and then grafted themselves into the Reformed tradition (Princeton Theological Seminary for Mark,  CRC & Kuyper for Rich) to do their intellectual work. I understand this; my own theological formation is essentially Barthian and I teach Calvin regularly. But I do object to reading these personal pilgrimages back into the history and confusing genealogy with teleology (Marsden on Fuller or the usual interpretations of the history of Wheaton, emphasizing Blanchard’s Presbyterianism and ignoring the fact that it is “Oberlin Perfectionism” that is at issue).

It is the failure to understand “evangelicalism” historically that leads to such strange claims as those of [Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary theologian] David Wells that there is an intellectual “decline” in “evangelicalism” since Edwards that has not been recovered. But here again we are comparing apples and oranges–Yale and Princeton with “new” schools founded in the 19th and 20th centuries that have NO historical or theological continuities except as products of the latter engraft themselves into the theological traditions of other cycles of theological tradition to enter the intellectual world to achieve a sort of intellectual respectability that involved the betrayal of both their class interests and their theological traditions in which they were reared and/or educated! 

Whatever one thinks about this letter, it was classic Donald Dayton. He was less concerned about defending the theological convictions of the Pietist-Wesleyan-Holiness tradition than he was about getting the history correct. He did not hesitate to call out other scholars for their supposed ambition. This latter claim was the reason why so many Christian academics saw Dayton as a real pain in the ass (and I say this as compliment). The debate continues.

Here is a reflection on Dayton’s life from his former Drew University student Christian Collins Winn:

On May 2, the theological world lost one of its most unique voices, the Wesleyan Methodist Church lost one of its most ardent sons, and hundreds of students and colleagues lost one of their fiercest friends.

Donald (“Don”) W. Dayton was by all accounts brilliant, a voracious reader and lover of books, and one of the foremost interpreters of American religious history. Very few scholars produce work that shapes their generation, even fewer break genuinely new ground that has the potential to shape generations to come. Dayton’s work rose to this level of significance. As a scholar, his contributions in both the historiography of evangelicalism and in the historiography and theological interpretation of the Holiness Movement and Pentecostalism have fundamentally altered our interpretation of American religious history.

Not without controversy—in keeping with the nature of any truly groundbreaking perspective—Dayton had a striking genius for reading against the grain of accepted scholarship, unlocking alternative construals and opening up new pathways for interpretation and appropriation often taken up by later scholars. Many of his early proposals were rejected by established scholars, only later to be embraced; others continue to wait for the academy to catch up. Don also made major contributions through his extensive ecumenical work, where he advocated for marginal voices and traditions to be taken seriously and given a seat at the table. Moreover, his influence can be discerned in the lives and ongoing scholarship of the hundreds of students whom he mentored with his hallmark generosity and loving patience.

Read the rest here.

Rest in peace, Don.

Mark Noll on the Definition of Evangelicalism

Evangelicals Book NollOver at Religion and Politics, Eric C. Miller talks with historian Mark Noll about the definition of evangelicalism.  Noll is the editor of a recent book on the subject (co-authored with George Marsden and David Bebbington) titled Evangelicals: Who They Have Been, Are Now, and Could Be.

Here is a taste:

R&P: Your co-editor David Bebbington famously defined evangelicalism according to four theological tenets—conversionism, activism, biblicism, and crucicentrism—that most of the subsequent historical work has responded to in some way, including several chapters in this book. Why has it been so influential?

MN: The “Bebbington Quadrilateral” identifies four characteristics—and I want to emphasize that he is very serious about calling these characteristics rather than pitching them as an a priori definition—that gave structure to his 1989 book, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain. I think the reason why the fourfold characteristics became so important is that there is a considerable body of historical literature and—particularly since the rise of the Christian Right in the United States—a considerable body of media attention that together have called out for a definition that is relatively simple and transportable for different purposes. As someone who appreciates with some dissent the characteristics, that is in part a good thing, but the negative effect may be to over-simplify evangelicalism and to ease out some of the real complexities that come with its study, either historically or in the contemporary world. So, in short, I think Bebbington provided a straightforward, direct, exportable language that could be used in many different discussions—more, I think, than he originally intended in his book.

R&P: One potential critique that arises throughout the text—in Darren Dochuk’s essay, for instance—states that evangelicalism is not merely a theological category, but that it is profoundly shaped by the times and places in which it operates. To what extent can we think of evangelicalism as a situated cultural product rather than a precise set of religious beliefs?

MN: That’s an excellent question that gets at the nub of the definitional difficulties. I try to explain in the introduction to the book that, considered abstractly as a certain kind of Protestant Christianity, evangelicalism appears relatively simple and makes a lot of sense. Dochuk’s observation, however, is that many strange phenomena inhabit the history of evangelical groups. One of these from our own time is that some people who are regarded as evangelicals use that word to describe themselves, and some others don’t. Another is that political pundits often use the term in very different ways than religious historians do. Several of our essays point out that, when it comes to affirmations of belief and practice, or to theological orientation, the most evangelical demographic in the United States is African American churchgoers. And, as all political observers know, African American churchgoers have been strongly Democratic in their electoral preferences. That reality makes complete sense if you are trying to label the group based on the characteristics that Bebbington outlined, but it makes no sense if you are trying to label them based on the practical alliances, networks, and grids of communication that link groups together, or how these are discussed in our media. Dochuk’s comment is the kind commonly made by an empirical historian—one who is interested in splitting rather than lumping—in reference to –ismterms like evangelicalism.

R&P: Kristin Kobes Du Mez writes—in an essay adapted from a piece published on this site—that evangelical Trump support is largely traceable to a militant strain of evangelical masculinity. Is this aggressive, “warrior Christianity” consistent with evangelical belief?

MN: First I would say that her characterization, like Hamilton’s, makes a lot of sense in the religious-political environment of the last 50 years. The broader question is whether the traditional evangelical characteristics that Bebbington identified naturally or organically or inevitably point in the direction that Du Mez identifies. There are numerous questions, I think, about that conclusion. It’s been the case throughout the history of Christianity that women make up the majority of the constituency. Evangelical Protestantism has had a tradition of gender differentiation, and quite a few of the evangelical and fundamentalist denominations do not allow women pastors, for example. But that is a very different thing than the valorizing of militarism and macho masculinity. My own sense is that Du Mez is accurately reporting on developments coming out of the 50s and 60s—the polarization of politics, the polarization of culture, and conflicts over issues in the public sphere that have become aligned with certain evangelical emphases. She is describing a late twentieth and early twenty-first century American phenomenon that would only be marginally or partially observed in evangelical movements at other times or places.

Read the entire interview here.

John Wesley and the Life of the Mind

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“I am an evangelical Christian, so it was nice to hear a lecture about evangelicalism that was not related to contemporary politics.”

This was our intern Annie Thorn‘s response to Bruce Hindmarsh’s lecture “John Wesley, Early Evangelicalism, and Science.” Hindmarsh, the James M. Houston Professor of Spiritual Theology and Professor of the History of Christianity at Regent College in Vancouver, delivered this lecture on Tuesday night at Messiah College.  Hindmarsh is the author of three books published by Oxford University Press: John Newton and the English Evangelical Tradition (1996),  The Evangelical Conversion Narrative (2005), and The Spirit of Early Evangelicalism (2018).  He is the past-president of the American Society of Church History.

Hindmarsh, whose lecture drew upon his 2018 book on early evangelicalism, argued that the rise of evangelicalism coincided historically with the reception of modern science in mainstream eighteenth-century culture.  The new science was generally embraced by evangelicals as a source of what Hindmarsh describes as “wonder, love, and praise.”  Few did more to popularize the new science than John Wesley.

According to Hindmarsh, Wesley accepted the findings of the new science, but he “nested” these new ideas in the “glory of God.” In other words, there was no tension between the two. Wesley was not an anti-intellectual. He wrote a host of books and pamphlets on science. His contemplation of the created order, and his advancement of society’s understanding of the new science, aroused the same kind of “doxology and praise” that stemmed from his conversion experience, that moment in Wesley’s life when his “heart was strangely warmed.”

I left the lecture with several thoughts.

First, like Annie, I was glad to hear again about evangelicals, like Wesley and Jonathan Edwards, who were intellectuals. If you read this blog regularly, you know I have been re-reading Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectual in American Life.  In his chapter on evangelicalism, Hofstadter argues that New England Puritans were people of the mind, but the project integrating faith and learning all but disappeared with the revivalism of the First Great Awakening.  (Edwards, Hofstadter argues, was the exception here).  Hindmarsh is one of several scholars of evangelicalism who has challenged this idea. (Although I am not sure Hofstadter is completely wrong.  I am inclined to think of Edwards and Wesley as outliers).

As I listened to Hindmarsh in the context of my fresh reading of Hofstadter, I realized again that much of the motivation behind the work of the previous generation of evangelical historians–George Marsden and Mark Noll come immediately to mind–was to challenge Hofstadter’s portrayal of evangelicalism as anti-intellectual. Marsden, Noll, and others authors showed us that evangelicals did care about thinking. They also showed us with their lives and work that “evangelical intellectual” is not an oxymoron.

Hindmarsh’s lecture, and my post-lecture conversation with Annie, made me think about Noll’s book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Noll argues that the anti-intellectual populism of present-day evangelicalism was more of a 19th and 20th-century phenomenon than an 18th-century one.  Modern day evangelicals can find serious thinkers in their history.  Noll showed that it is possible to explain the evangelical move toward anti-intellectualism as a rejection of the intellectual pursuits of evangelicals like Edwards and Wesley.

Second, it was good to listen to a scholar talk about the 18th-century. I told Bruce that his lecture made me long for the days when I used to spend most of my time doing early American history. Indeed, it’s a lot safer there. 🙂 I hope to return to this world once this whole Trump thing dies down!

Third, I left with a question about Messiah College, the school where I teach.  Messiah is rooted in the Anabaptist, Wesleyan, and Pietist traditions of the Christian faith. Of these three traditions, Anabaptism seems to be the one that gets the most attention.  I think this is because Anabaptism’s commitment to peace and social justice often fits well with the progressive mindset of many academics.  But if there are Anabaptist and Pietist intellectual traditions, they often get overshadowed by a kind of activism (Anabaptism) and experiential religion (Pietism) that does not always draw heavily on the life of the mind. (This, I might add, is changing–especially on the Pietism front). But Hindmarsh made me wonder if Wesleyanism, at least as articulated by Wesley himself, might help us with the heavy intellectual lifting necessary for a Christian college to sustain a robust life of the mind.  I will continue to ponder this.

Evangelicals Defend Mark Galli and *Christianity Today* in An Open Letter

CT Trump

It was published today at Religion News Service.  Read it here.

The signers:

Amy Julia Becker, author and speaker

Dale Hanson Bourke, author

Mae Elise Cannon, author and executive director of Churches for Middle East Peace

Rob Dalrymple, author and pastor

Richard Foster, founder of Renovaré

Marlena Graves, author

Chris Hall, president of Renovaré

Daniel Hill, author and pastor of River City Community Church, Chicago

Evan B. Howard, author

Sam Logan, president emeritus of Westminster Theological Seminary and associate international director of the World Reformed Fellowship

George Marsden, professor of history emeritus, University of Notre Dame

Rich Mouw, president emeritus, Fuller Theological Seminary

Natasha Sistrunk Robinson, author, diversity consultant and leadership coach

Ron Sider, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Theology, Holistic Ministry and Public Policy, Palmer Seminary at Eastern University

Nikki Toyama-Szeto, executive director, Evangelicals for Social Action and The Sider Center

Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?

Back in 2015 I joined George Marsden, Mark Noll, and Tracy McKenzie to discuss this topic at a conference on racial reconciliation hosted by Wheaton College.  You can watch the conversation here:

I wrote about this conference in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.  Here is what I wrote:

In early 2013, I received an email from Rev. Ray McMillan, the pastor of Faith Christian Center, a conservative evangelical and largely African American congregation in Cincinnati, Ohio.  McMillan was writing to ask me if I might be interested in participating on a panel at an upcoming conference on evangelicals and racial reconciliation, to be held later that year on the campus of Wheaton College, a Christian liberal arts college in western suburban Chicago.  I was initially surprised by the invitation.  I cared about racial reconciliation, but I had never spoken at a conference on the subject.  I was not an expert in the field, and even my own historical work did not dive explicitly into race or the history of people of color in the United States . I was even more confused when Rev. McMillan asked me to be part of a plenary presentation on the subject of my recent book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?.  I thought I could probably say a few things about race and the American founding, but I also wondered if someone more prepared, and perhaps more of an activist in this area, might be better suited to speak in my time slot.  After a follow-up phone conversation with Rev. McMillan, I began to see what he was up to.  He told me that he and other Cincinnati pastors were noticing a disturbing trends in their African American and interracial congregations.  Many of their parishioners had accepted the idea, propagated by the Christian Right, that the United States was founded as a Christian nation . McMillan believed that such an understanding of history was troubling for African American evangelicals.  The promoters of this view were convincing many African Americans in Cincinatti that they needed to “reclaim” or “restore” America to its supposedly Christian roots in order to win the favor of God.  McMillan could not stomach the idea that a country that was committed to slavery, Jim Crow laws, and all kinds of other racial inequalities could ever call itself “Christian.”  Why would any African American want to “reclaim” a history steeped in racism?  If America was indeed built on Judeo-Christian principles, then its Founders would one day stand before God and explain why they did not apply these beliefs to African Americans.  And if America was not founded as a Christian nation, McMillan needed to tell his congregation that they had been sold a bill of goods.

Is the Southern Baptist Convention Evangelical or Fundamentalist?: Some Thoughts on the Beth Moore Controversy

Beth Moore

As many readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home know, I am not a cradle evangelical.  I spent the first sixteen years of my life as a Roman Catholic.  I had a conversion experience as a sophomore in high school and I left the Catholic church for a non-denominational Bible church.  In other words, I became an evangelical.

When I converted, the word “evangelical” or “evangelicalism” meant nothing to me. I don’t think I ever met a born-again Christian until I started attending the youth group at Gilgal Bible Chapel in West Milford, New Jersey.  I went from the cloistered community of a working-class Catholic upbringing (I seem to remember mostly Catholics and Jews in my public high school, although I am sure there were Protestants as well) to a similarly cloistered evangelical world.  My only exposure to evangelical Christianity came through Gilgal, a church plant with an authoritarian pastor located on a multi-acre site that included a Christian camp and a conference center. (Gilgal had its own unique approach to evangelical Christianity, and its authoritarian pastor had a tragic fall from grace, but I will need to save that for another post or perhaps another book!)

My conversion was real and life-altering.  I put aside a journalism career and prepared for a life in the evangelical ministry.  My pastor recommended I go to Bible college.  So I did.  I initially thought I would be spending the next four years in residence at a place similar to a monastery, but I soon realized that most Bible college students were no different than the students who attended my public high school.  They dressed the same way, had the same haircuts, listened to the same music (despite the fact they were not permitted to listen to “secular music”), drove the same cars, and had the same ambitions and vices.  They baptized these traits with their “calls” to ministry and a sense of Christian piety.  For some, these “calls” were real and I had much respect, and continue to have much respect, for many of my classmates.  For others, I had no idea why they were in Bible college.  In the end, I had a great time at Philadelphia College of Bible (now Cairn University).  I played basketball and made some great friends.  It was like I was attending a four-year Christian youth retreat.  But I digress…

By my senior year I realized that I wasn’t getting much of a liberal education.  In the 1980s Philadelphia College of Bible was a dispensational school.  Bible and theology professors taught us that God had different plans for Israel and the Church.  (One professor, John McGahey, would scream at us: “ISRAEL IS NOT THE CHURCH!). The purpose of this Bible college education, if you could call it that, was to indoctrinate students in dispensational premillennialism. We were required to buy a copy of the Scofield Bible.  We read books by dispensational luminaries such as Lewis Sperry Chafer, John Walvoord, Charles Ryrie, and J. Dwight Pentecost.  We waited for the rapture–the moment when God would raise-up the true believers to meet him in the air.  And our teachers made sure that we knew the rapture would come before the seven-year tribulation.  All of my Bible professors had advanced degrees from Dallas Theological Seminary, the intellectual home of dispensationalism.

Upon graduation, I knew that I wanted to continue my theological education. But I did not want to go to Dallas with some of my other classmates.  I enrolled at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (TEDS) in Deerfield, Illinois.  TEDS was an evangelical seminary, but it was not dispensational in orientation (although it did have a few dispensational professors).  I chose TEDS because I knew that I would find evangelical professors who would expand my horizons.  My goal was to pursue a Master of Divinity (MDiv) degree and use my time to figure out what I might do with such a course of study.  At the very least, I thought an MDiv would allow me to think theologically about the world.  I had no real long-term plan.  My parents helped me out with the tuition, but I also worked as a security guard at various places to get myself to graduation.  I eventually fell in love with history, added an M.A. in church history to my vita, and headed off to pursue a Ph.D in American history.

When I arrived at TEDS in the late 1980s, the school prided itself on its commitment to the inerrancy of the Bible.  Kenneth Kantzer, the retired dean of the seminary, had attracted some of the best evangelical theologians to TEDS for the purpose of providing an inerrancy-based alternative to Fuller Theological Seminary, the Pasadena, California school that abandoned the doctrine of inerrancy in the 1960s.  (See George Marsden’s book Reforming Fundamentalism: Fuller Seminary and the New Evangelicalism).

Some professors made a big deal about inerrancy.  Others rarely mentioned it. I took Scot McKnight for a Greek refresher course.  The subject of inerrancy never came up.  (Nor did it come-up much in his Synpotic Gospels course).  John D. Woodbridge, who taught me how to think historically and encouraged me to pursue a Ph.D in history, was a staunch defender of inerrancy.  My other church history professor, Tom Nettles (who I did not know as well as Woodbridge), did not say too much about inerrancy despite the fact that he was an important historian of the doctrine during the conservative resurgence in the Southern Baptist Church.

But what I remember most about TEDS was the theological diversity of the faculty.  While some of my readers might wonder how a school that upholds biblical inerrancy could be theologically diverse, at the time I did not see it that way . TEDS was not Philadelphia College of Bible or Dallas Theological Seminary.  During my three years on campus I took courses with dispensationalists (Paul Feinberg) and covenant theologians (Ray Ortlund Jr and Walter Kaiser).  I took courses with faculty who opposed women’s ordination (Wayne Grudem) and those who championed women’s ordination (Walter Liefield).  There were Presbyterians and Baptists, Calvinists and Arminians.  I even had one professor (Murray Harris) who did not believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. I sat-in on courses taught by some of the founders of the neo-evangelical movement:  Carl F.H. Henry, Kantzer, and Gleason Archer.  I took theology with Harold O.J. Brown, the Harvard trained scholar who was one of the leading voices of the pro-life movement.  I made a few visits to a class on Puritanism taught by English theologian J.I. Packer.

I don’t know how all of these professors got along in the faculty lounge, but they always modeled a spirit of conversation and debate.  Evangelicals had core convictions, but what made them evangelicals was their irenic spirit and acceptance of those with whom they differed.  This spirit, perhaps more than anything, was what made them “evangelicals” and not “fundamentalists.”  As Marsden once put it, “a fundamentalist is an evangelical who is angry about something.”

At TEDS I learned that evangelicals championed orthodox beliefs– the deity of Christ, the redemptive work of Christ on the cross, the resurrection, the inspiration of the Bible, the Holy Spirit’s role in the pursuit of holiness, and the necessity of living-out the Great Commission through evangelism.  But I also learned that evangelicals differed on what my professors called the “secondary” or “minor” doctrines: the ordination of women, the proper form of church government, the proper mode of baptism, capital punishment, the relationship between God’s providence and human free will, the gifts of the Holy Spirit (speaking in tongues, healing, prophecy, etc.), war and peace, and the way one’s faith should manifest itself in the political sphere, to name a few.

I had classmates from every Protestant denomination imaginable–Lutherans, Baptists, Methodists, Mennonites, Anglicans, and Presbyterians.  Students were preparing for ministry in evangelical denominations like the Evangelical Free Church, but they also trained for work in non-denominational megachurches and mainline Protestantism denominations.

At this particular moment in my life (it was the early 1990s), I needed a place like TEDS.  I loved the fact that evangelicals could disagree on some matters of biblical interpretation.  (I even co-wrote a song about it titled “So Many Views,” sung to the tune of the Monkey’s “I’m A Believer”).  I learned how to think critically and theologically.  I knew that there was a larger theological world out there beyond the evangelical boundaries of TEDS and my experience in Deerfield gave me the skills to navigate it.

I understood the culture at TEDS as representative of the spirit of American evangelicalism.

I have been thinking lot about my experience at TEDS as I watch the debates over the role of women in the church currently taking place within the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). In case you missed it, last month there was a pretty significant Twitter battle on this topic.

It all began when the bombastic Southern Baptist seminary professor Owen Strachan of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary published a piece on women in the church at his blog “Thought Life.”  Here is a taste of that May 7, 2019 post:

Biblical teaching on the sexes is not bad. It is not harmful to women. It is good–thunderously good–for women and for men. If we take the Bible at its word, then we recognize that there is no way for a woman to instruct the gathered church, whether in an authoritative or “non-authoritative” way. Congregational preaching and teaching is authoritative, for the Word of God is authoritative. There is no “non-authoritative” way to preach and teach the Bible. Any who doubt this point might recall how Paul contrasts the “word of men” with the “word of God” in 1 Thessalonians 2:13. If you speak and interpret the Scripture, you speak with the weight of eternity upon you. It cannot be otherwise.

Beth Moore and J. D. Greear are two popular Southern Baptist voices. Both Moore and Greear are gifted individuals, respected within the SBC and beyond it. In recent days, I was surprised to see these two figures endorse, in the context of the church’s gathered worship service, a woman teaching and preaching to the corporate body (see here and here). This was new to me; Southern Baptists have never embraced such a view. As mentioned above, there is no New Testament precedent for a woman teaching the corporate body of Christ (Priscilla’s words in Acts 18 to Apollos came in private, not in public), nor were women called to serve as priests in the old covenant era. Christ did not appoint a woman to be an apostle, nor did any woman serve as an elder in the first-century churches spoken of in Scripture.

And here is his Strachan’s conclusion:

Though many paint women monolithically today, seeing them as instinctually feminist, there are many women in submission to God who wish for men to lead them well and preach the Word faithfully. They do not see the Bible’s teaching on womanhood as “restrictive,” nor the complementarian movement as “afraid” of womanly gifting. Rather, they approach the Word of God with great reverence and awe. They wish to know the will of God, and do it. They take no pleasure in quieting or softening the Bible; they recognize the order that God has established, and they love it. There are scores of such women in church history, in Baptist history, in the modern SBC, and in the broader evangelical world. I know they are out there; I have heard their testimony firsthand. With the whole church of God, these women gladly confess that the counsel of the Lord stands forever (Psalm 33:11), and that the law of God’s mouth “is better…than thousands of gold and silver pieces” (Psalm 119:72).

There is much the Word frees women to do as mentioned above. But for the women I speak of, where the Word gives them a prohibition for God’s glory and their good, they receive that commandment with gladness. They submit to God, as we all must do (James 4:7). In our God-defying age, this posture stands out sharply. It is driven by our total confidence in the unerring mind and will of God. We think of Psalm 119:89 on this count: בַּשָּׁמָֽיִם נִצָּ֥ב דְּ֝בָרְךָ֗ יְהוָ֑ה לְעוֹלָ֥ם, “Forever, Lord, your word is fixed in the heavens.” It is not man who has “fixed” the word of God, and written it in the sky. By God’s own hand and mind, there is order in the home; there is order in the churches; there is order in the world God has made.

Let no one defy this order.

There is a lot that could be said about Strachan’s post.  I disagree with him on the role of women in the church and the family, but my intention here is not to get into these theological and interpretive weeds.  There are indeed a lot of denominations that do not ordain women, including the Roman Catholic Church.  But I will say this:  by ending his post with the words “let no one defy this order,” Strachan reveals his dogmatism on this issue.  I wonder what he would think about someone who does “defy this order?”  Are they living in sin?  Are they outside the fold of Christian orthodoxy?  Of evangelicalism?  Will Strachan still have Christian fellowship with them?  Should they be cast into perdition? What is at stake here?

After he wrote this piece, Strachan turned to Twitter to promote it:

It was at this point that the wildly popular evangelical preacher Beth Moore entered the fray:

Strachan initially responded politely:

But then his Twitter feed got snarky.

For example, he retweeted this:

And then his many followers and others of like mind started chiming in:

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And then this week Albert Mohler, the president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, added fuel to the fire with this tweet:

Those familiar with Mohler will remember that he was instrumental in making Southern Seminary a complementarian school and the Southern Baptist Convention a complementarian denomination.  When one listens to Mohler and Strachan, one gets the impression that they believe their view of what the Bible teaches on the role of women in the church and the home is not a secondary issue of faith, but one that is essential to Christian orthodoxy.  I honestly don’t believe that they really think this, but their rhetoric is so definitive and dogmatic that it certainly sounds like they do.

Strachan is not letting go of this position.  He sees the denial of the pulpit to women such as Beth Moore and others as a non-negotiable theological view in the SBC. In other words, those who take a different position do not belong in the denomination. Here is his tweet in response to Mohler (notice how he continues to see himself in the vanguard of those who led the conservative resurgence, even going to the point of capitalizing the word “Resurgence”):

Of course the Southern Baptist Church leadership has the right to define the role of women in the church in any way they want to define it.  This is what religious liberty is all about.  Millions of evangelicals attend churches that do not ordain women.  As noted above, the largest religious body in the world–the Catholic Church–does not ordain women.  But Strachan and other Southern Baptists also like to fancy themselves as heirs to the evangelicalism that I experienced at TEDS nearly thirty years ago. Strachan writes books and edits books for conservative Christian publishers extolling people like Carl F.H. Henry, Charles Colson, and other members of the neo-evangelical movement.

My professors at TEDS had firm convictions on a whole host of issues, but they did not promote them with the fundamentalist spirit to which I see coming from Strachan and his followers.  In fact, it was this very spirit–the kind of militant spirit I see in their tweets–that made fundamentalism so repulsive to people like Carl Henry, Ken Kantzer, and the other neo-evangelical leaders who broke from fundamentalist militancy in the 1940s and 1950s.

The Southern Baptist Convention can work out their issues on women in the church on their own, without my help, but if you are going to try to make complementarianism a defining and non-negotiable characteristic of SBC orthodoxy please stop writing about how much you love the neo-evangelical movement.

On the other hand, if you do want to claim the Henry/Kantzer/neo-evangelical mantle, perhaps it is time to rethink the Convention’s position on this issue and broaden the tent a bit.

A Visit to Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary

Gordon Conwell

I spent Monday night at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Hamilton, Massachusetts (Boston-area).  Thanks to Gordon-Conwell president Dennis Hollinger for the invitation and Mary Ann Hollinger for her hospitality.

The Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life sponsored conversation on evangelicals and politics that included Boisi director (and Jesuit theologian) Mark Massa, Dartmouth historian of American evangelicalism Randall Balmer, and yours truly.

A few takeaways:

  1. Gordon-Conwell is a seminary founded by mid-century evangelical stalwarts Billy Graham, J. Howard Pew and J. Harold Ockenga.  Over the last fifty years it has been an institutional fixture on the evangelical landscape.  During the course of the evening I did not meet a single Trump supporter.  This is the first time that I have been at a self-identified evangelical institution where I did not meet someone who wanted to make the case for Trump.
  2. I talked with several pastors-in-training (MDiv students) who wanted advice about how to deal with Trump supporters in their future congregations.  My advice:  preach the Gospel in season and out of season.   I hope they will avoid bringing politics into the pulpit, but rather preach in a positive way about what the Bible teaches regarding truth and lying, welcoming the stranger, caring for the “least of these,” loving neighbors,” the dignity of human life, and the pursuit of holiness.  I encouraged them, to borrow a term from Virginia sociologist James Davison Hunter, to be “faithfully present” in the congregations and communities where God calls them to serve.
  3.  All of the evangelical millennials I chatted with were fed-up with Trump and the Christian Right.  It seems like a sea-change is coming.
  4.  During the formal conversation, Gordon-Conwell theology and missions professor Peter Kuzmic talked about how his fellow evangelicals in Eastern Europe were appalled that American evangelicals supported Trump.  I asked him publicly if the evangelical support of Donald Trump was hindering the work of the Gospel in Eastern Europe.  He did not miss a beat in saying “yes.”  This is tragic.  It is the case I have been making during the Believe Me book tour.  I told Kuzmic that I would like to take him with me on the road.  His testimony was a powerful one.  While court evangelicals continue to take victory laps over securing an originalist judiciary that might overturn Roe v. Wade, the witness of the Gospel is becoming more difficult, especially for missionaries.
  5. We talked a lot of about “fracture” within the evangelical community.  The days of a unified neo-evangelicalism (if there ever was such a thing) are over.  George Marsden once said that an evangelical is someone who likes Billy Graham.  Well, Billy Graham is now dead and there will be no one to replace him.  This is not a statement about whether or not there are any potential heirs to Graham.  It is rather a statement about the current state of American culture, a state that Princeton historian Daniel T. Rodgers has called the “Age of Fracture.” I want to write more about this.
  6. It was an honor to share the stage and the evening with Randall Balmer, a scholar who has taught me so much about evangelicalism.

Meeting George Marsden

Marsden and Ally

Some of the readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home blog will recognize the name George Marsden.  He is the author of many award-winning books on American religious history and higher education including Fundamentalism and American CultureReforming FundamentalismThe Soul of the American University,  The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (winner of the 2004 Bancroft Prize), and The Twilight of the American Enlightenment.  He spent his academic career teaching at Calvin College, Duke Divinity School, and the University of Notre Dame.

I did not study with Marsden, but his books and work are part of the reason I entered the historical profession.  When I think of a Christian historian, I think of George Marsden.  The opportunity I had a few years ago to share the stage with Mark Noll and George remains one of the highlights of my career.  Since then, he has blurbed one of my books and I have had the honor to blurb a couple of his.

Yesterday, on the occasion of his eightieth birthday, Calvin Theological Seminary  in Grand Rapids, Michigan (where George now does some teaching in retirement) honored his life and career by having one of his former students, James Bratt, do a public interview with him.

Since George moved back to Grand Rapids after his retirement from Notre Dame he has attended a few Calvin College women’s volleyball games and has become a fan of the team.  As many of you know, my daughter Allyson, a history and psychology double-major at Calvin, plays on the volleyball team.  Whenever George would tell me that he attended a game I would pass the news along to Ally.  (“Hey Ally, a famous historian came to your game last night!”).

So when I learned about the event at Calvin Theological Seminary I sent a text to Ally:  “George Marsden has come to your volleyball games.  You need to return the favor and go to this interview.”  I did not expect her to attend (what college student listens to her father when he tells her to go to a lecture on campus!), so needless to say I was pleasantly surprised when I learned that she not only attended but also introduced herself to George and asked for a photo with him! Very cool.

George, if you’re reading this, thanks for being so gracious with Ally!  And Ally, I hoped you learned something by attending this event!  🙂

What if Trump Were a Democrat?

Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks in Janesville

George Marsden teaches us all an important lesson in historical empathy.  Here is a taste of his guest post at The Anxious Bench:

For those who are (as I am) puzzled and sometimes troubled by how so many fellow believers support and even celebrate Donald Trump and so seem to be ready to subordinate some of their religious and moral convictions to political expediency, I suggest a thought experiment:

Let’s suppose that in some slightly altered historical circumstances, Trump, or someone a lot like Trump, had decided he had a better chance playing the role of a populist Democrat.

Then, by promising everything to almost everyone, he had unexpectedly been elected.

Even if the Democratic Trump would have had to hide his racism, he would have been the same in his essential dishonesty, his constant attacks on the line between fact and fiction, his narcissism, his background of corruption, his record of exploitation of women (despite the Democratic Trump claiming to champion of equality and male accountability), his lack of discernible principle, his disdain for the Constitution and the rule of law, his intimations that his critics in the press should be suppressed, his vilification of his enemies, and his ignorance combined with reckless and ungenerous “America first” ventures in foreign policy.

At first, we can imagine, many principled Democrats would have deeply opposed his nomination and some would have declared themselves to be in the “NeverTrump” camp. But the rank and file would have been energized and many of the working classes would have been brought back to the party.

And then let’s say that the Democratic Trump administration would have succeeded in establishing a single-payer health-care system, tightened environmental regulations, instituted sensible gun-control laws, and appointed several Supreme Court justices who would ensure protections of progressive views for the next generation.

Read the rest here.

Thoughts on Michael Gerson’s “The Last Temptation”: Part 2

Last temptation

Read Part 1 of this series here.  Read Gerson’s Atlantic piece here.

Anyone who reads my work knows that I am a big fan of George Marsden‘s essay “Human Depravity: A Neglected Explanatory Category” in Wilfred McClay’s ed., Figures in the Carpet: Finding the Human Person in the American Past (Eerdmans, 2007).  In this essay, Marsden writes: “Of all traditional Christian teachings the doctrine of original sin or of pervasive human depravity has the most empirical verification.  The modern world, rather than undercutting this doctrine, seems to increasingly confirm it.”

In Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past, I argued that the Judeo-Christian tradition teaches that all human beings are created in God’s image and thus have value, worth, and dignity.  More specifically, the Christian faith teaches that all human beings–past and present–are important because Jesus Christ died for their sins.  People have dignity because they are eligible for redemption.  For Christians, history should drive us to hope in the eschatological culmination of our redemption. It should instill in us a longing for a time when there will be no more sin and suffering.

Sin, the imago Dei, and the Christian understanding of hope and redemption inform my work as a historian.  When I do my work I should not be surprised that human beings are flawed and do horrible things.  I should also not be surprised when men and women perform acts that might be described as heroic or just.  Such acts bear witness to the fact that they are created in God’s image.  The most serious and devout evangelicals have sinned.  They have failed to live according to New Testament standards.  The most serious and devout evangelicals have lived-out their faith in acts of mercy, justice, and love.  Yes and yes.

In his Atlantic piece, “The Last Temptation,” Michael Gerson discusses the first half of the 19th-century as a time when evangelicals led social reform movements to end slavery.  We could also add other reform movements to his story, including efforts to curb the negative effects of alcohol, the crusade to win the vote for women, the movement to reform prisons, and the evangelical commitment to the education of urban young people through Sunday Schools.  All of these reform movements had roots in the genuine desire of “revived” evangelicals (products of the Second Great Awakening) to apply their faith to public life.

But let’s not forget that evangelicals were also, often at the very same time, involved heavily in some of the darker moments in the American past.  They were trying to limit Catholic immigration out of fear that Catholic immigrants would undermine their Protestant nation.  The Southern ministers and laypersons who experienced intense revivals in Confederate army camps were, in many cases, the same people constructing a sophisticated biblical and theological argument in defense of slavery.

Gerson needs to be careful about asking us to return to an evangelical golden age when all born-again and revived Christians were truly living-out the justice-oriented message of Jesus.  His historical analysis in this piece is only half right.  But having said that, I am willing to give him a pass since there is only so much one can do in an essay format.  As I said in my first post in this series, “The Last Temptation” is a very good piece.

More to come.

The President of Fuller Seminary on Evangelicalism and Race

Fuller

Mark Labberton is president of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California.  If you have never heard of Fuller, I encourage you to read George Marsden’s history of the school: Reforming Fundamentalism: Fuller Seminary and the New Evangelicalism.

In a letter to the Los Angeles Times, Labberton responds to Randall Balmer’s recent Times piece on evangelicals and race.   Here is a taste of Labberton’s letter:

There are white people in America who call themselves evangelical yet demonstrate complicity with a white supremacy that scandalizes the gospel — and there are other white evangelicals in America who categorically and publicly disagree.

Balmer points out what many evangelical leaders have been decrying for years and what this election made apparent: that culture sometimes overshadows the gospel in determining the evangelical political vision. Evangelicalism is a movement dedicated to the primacy of faith in the way of Jesus, so this confusion of priorities is a crisis.

The word “evangelical” has morphed from being commonly used to describe a set of theological and spiritual commitments into a passionately defended, theo-political brand. Worse, that brand has become synonymous with social arrogance, ignorance and prejudice — all antithetical to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Balmer’s claims, while not new, are deservedly painful for millions of white evangelicals who are deeply offended by racism, repelled by Trump, and who vocally deny the false theo-political brand that co-opts the faith we hold dear.

Read the entire letter here.

Fuller Theological Seminary Students, Faculty, and Alumni Urge Administrators to Make It a Sanctuary Campus

fuller

Fuller is an evangelical seminary in Pasadena, California.  (Check out George Marsden’s excellent history of Fuller, Reforming Fundamentalism).  

This letter to the administration was signed by hundreds of students, faculty, and alumni.

Here it is:

21 November 2016
Dr. Mark Labberton, President
Dr. Joel Green, Provost
Dr. Steve Yamaguchi, Dean of Students

Re: Fuller Theological Seminary Sanctuary for Undocumented Immigrants

Dear President Labberton, Provost Green, and Dean Yamaguchi:

We the undersigned students, faculty, staff, and alumni of Fuller Theological Seminary write in response to Donald Trump’s election as President of the United States to express our commitment to the safety and dignity of all students and workers in our seminary community. We request that Fuller begins the necessary process to declare every campus a sanctuary for undocumented students and workers.

We, like Dr. Labberton, are dismayed and disoriented concerning this election. Moreover, we are fearful of the hatred that has spread across the country such as xenophobic chants directed at Latina/o youth, bullying of Muslim and LGBT individuals, incendiary graffiti and vandalism. As you know, our own Pasadena campus and its students of color have not been exempt from the hostility that this election season has provoked.

President Elect Trump proclaimed his intention to deport undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States as well as repeal the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)—which provides relief from deportation and work benefits to hundreds of thousands of young people in the United States, including Fuller students and staff. If these policies are enacted they will prove devastating, subjecting students and workers who are integral to our community to punitive measures, and in contrast to Fuller’s stated commitment to “work for the good of human society.”

Jesus Christ commanded us to love God and neighbor—thus as Christians we are called to seek the wellbeing of all people, particularly those who are poor, marginalized, discriminated against, and mistreated. Furthermore, Jesus tells us in Matthew 25 that however we treat the least of these among us, we have treated him.

In light of our Christian convictions and the very real and immediate threats faced by members of our community, we ask the seminary take the following steps immediately, if it has not taken them already:

1. We ask for an unequivocal, public declaration of Fuller’s support for and protection of undocumented students, staff, and their families on our campus.
2. We ask that Fuller guarantee privacy by refusing to release information regarding the immigration status of students and staff.
3. We ask that Fuller refuse to comply with immigration authorities regarding deportations or raids.
4. We ask that Fuller publicly reaffirm the admission and financial aid policies toward undocumented students.
5. We ask Fuller to educate members of the Fuller community, including faculty, staff, and students, on the potential implications of immigration policies on our community.

This past week Dr. Labberton and Dr. Mouw wrote of Fuller Seminary’s non-negotiable commitment to the evangel, the gospel, which calls us to faithfully enact God’s good news of love, justice, and mercy. This is not a time to wait and see how federal policies develop. To the contrary, it is a time to courageously affirm our Christian convictions and proactively work to safeguard the wellbeing of our community. We ask that Fuller act now to fulfill its mission “to put our biblical convictions into practice, even when the price is high.”

Awaiting Your Action,
In Christ The Undersigned:

Report: Society of Biblical Literature Bans InterVarsity Press From Selling Books at Annual Meeting

ivp

Here is Rod Dreher at The American Conservative:

This is extraordinary. The Society of Biblical Literature describes itself like this:

Mission, Visions, and Values
The following Mission Statement and Strategic Vision Statements were adopted by the SBL Council May 16, 2004, and revised October 23, 2011.

Mission Statement:
Foster Biblical Scholarship

Strategic Vision Statement:
Founded in 1880, the Society of Biblical Literature is the oldest and largest learned society devoted to the critical investigation of the Bible from a variety of academic disciplines.* As an international organization, the Society offers its members opportunities for mutual support, intellectual growth, and professional development through the following:

  • Advancing academic study of biblical texts and their contexts as well as of the traditions and contexts of biblical interpretation
  • Collaborating with educational institutions and other appropriate organizations to support biblical scholarship and teaching
  • Developing resources for diverse audiences, including students, religious communities, and the general public
  • Facilitating broad and open discussion from a variety of critical perspectives
  • Organizing congresses for scholarly exchange
  • Publishing biblical scholarship
  • Promoting cooperation across global boundaries

Here are what the SBL says are its “core values,” in a statement revised in 2011:

Accountability

Openness to Change

Collaboration

Professionalism

Collegiality

Respect for Diversity

Critical Inquiry

Scholarly Integrity

Inclusivity

Tolerance

You might wonder why an academic organization devoted to Biblical scholarship holds as its core values “respect for diversity,” “openness to change,” “inclusivity,” and “tolerance”? Isn’t this just one of those typically euphemistic liberal ways of saying, “No Biblical scholars who don’t accept progressive views on LGBT issues allowed”?

Why yes, apparently, it is. SBL has reportedly banned InterVarsity Press from having a booth at the 2017 SBL convention in Boston because of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship’s recent decision to hold firmly to orthodox Christian teaching on homosexuality, and to ask employees who dissent to resign.

Read the entire piece and the links for the full context.

Here is another piece on the topic from World magazine.  If someone is aware of any other posts or articles please let me know.

I am holding judgment on this story until I get some more information.  Certainly the Society of Biblical Literature is not suggesting that men and women and organizations (IVCF) who believe that the Bible teaches that marriage is between a man and a woman should be banned from their annual meeting.  There must be more to the story.

InterVarsity Press publishes some great books.  Some excellent historians and theologians have published with the press, including Mark Noll, Tracy McKenzie, Harry Stout, David Bebbington, Thomas Oden, Douglas Sweeney, Justo Gonzalez, Crystal Downing, Alister McGrath, Gerald McDermott, Roger Olson, G.R. Evans, Brian Stanley, Richard Mouw, and Kevin Vanhoozer.  I don’t know what most of these authors think about gay marriage, but it would be a shame if their scholarship is banned from the Society of Biblical Literature and American Academy of Religion meetings.

I am also an InterVarsity Press author.  I wrote the foreword to John Wilsey’s excellent American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea

I mentioned the American Academy of Religion above.  They have not made any announcement yet on the fate of IVP.   I have never been to a meeting of the AAR, but in November there will be an entire session at this conference devoted to my book The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible SocietyTo be honest, I am not sure what to think about attending a conference that plans to have an entire session on one of my books, but will not allow another book with my name on the title to be displayed in the book exhibit.

Let me be clear:  For me this whole thing is not a matter of the correct definition of marriage.  It is a matter of principled pluralism or what George Marsden describes as a “more inclusive pluralism.”

I need to think this through a bit more and, as I mentioned above, gather more information.

Historian George Marsden Elected to the Academy of Arts and Sciences

OutrageousCongratulations, George Marsden!  Here is the University of Notre Dame press release:

George Marsden, Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History emeritus at the University of Notre Dame, has been elected a member of the 2016 class of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS). He will be formally inducted at a ceremony at the AAAS headquarters Oct. 8 in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Marsden is one of 213 members elected to the AAAS 236th class, which includes novelist Colm Tóibín, La Opinión publisher and CEO Monica Lozano, the jazz saxophonist Wayne Shorter, former Botswanan President Festus Mogae, and Temple Grandin, the author and spokesperson on autism.

A member of the Notre Dame faculty since 1992, Marsden holds degrees from Haverford College and Westminster Theological Seminary and a doctorate from Yale. His historical scholarship concerns the interaction between Christianity and American culture, and particularly Christianity in American higher education. In addition to an award-winning biography of the New England clergyman and theological writer Jonathan Edwards, he has written or edited more than a dozen books including “Fundamentalism in American Culture,” “The Soul of the American University,” and, most recently, “The Twilight of the American Enlightenment: The 1950s and the Crisis of Liberal Belief.”

Founded in 1780 by John Adams, James Bowdoin, John Hancock and others, the AAAS is one of the nation’s oldest learned societies and independent policy research centers. Convening leaders from the academic, business and government sectors to respond to the challenges facing the nation and the world, AAAS research concerns higher education, the humanities, and the arts; science and technology policy; global security and energy; and American institutions and the public good. AAAS has elected leading “thinkers and doers” from each generation, including George Washington and Benjamin Franklin in the 18th century, Daniel Webster and Ralph Waldo Emerson in the 19th, and Albert Einstein and Winston Churchill in the 20th.

George Marsden on *Mere Christianity*

Marsden on MereOver at The Gospel Coalition, Justin Taylor interviews George Marsden about his new book C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity: A Biography (Princeton University Press, 2016).  Marsden’s book is part of Princeton’s “Lives of Great Religious Books” series.

Here is a taste of the interview:

You write in the book that you were not influenced at an early age by Mere Christianity, as so many Christians in the academic world have been. Can you tell us a bit about your own relationship to Lewis’s work?

In the early 1950s, when I was a boy, my father (who was an Orthodox Presbyterian minister) suggested that I read The Screwtape Letters. I enjoyed that and was impressed that such a well-educated writer still believed in the supernatural beings. But I don’t remember encountering Mere Christianity before I was in my twenties. Then I would run into other young Christians who were very enthusiastic about it and others of Lewis’s works. I cannot remember when I first read Mere Christianity and, although I had a good impression of it and others of Lewis’s works, I do not think I read Mere Christianity very carefully. But I was well aware of its soaring reputation. So when, Fred Appel, the Princeton editor, asked me if I wanted to contribute to his series, I suggested writing on that. I had written a couple of books on Jonathan Edwards, and I was looking for a subject that would be similarly inspiring to work on. And I was well rewarded. Almost everything of Lewis is edifying and a pleasure to read.

For Americans in the 21st century, it may be perplexing to know that the origin of this work was as radio addresses for the British Broadcasting Company. How did it come about that a Christian professor was able to give unabashed talks on the truth of Christianity over the public airwaves?

That is an interesting aspect of the origins of the book. The BBC was a noncommercial company serving the British people under a royal charter. It included a substantial religious dimension. Great Britain was officially a Christian nation, and the company leadership took that more seriously than did most of the British public. For instance, until World War II, Sunday programming not only included church services and religious programs, but also had to be tasteful, so that there was no jazz or comedy shows on Sundays. During the war, when the BBC had a monopoly on broadcasting, those rules were relaxed a bit for the sake of the troops. But the religion department oversaw quite a few weekday religious programs as well as Sunday broadcasts. Lewis fit their purposes well. Because of the war, they did not want anything controversial. And Lewis’s talks could be of interest to people of all sorts of Christian backgrounds.

Read the entire interview here.