In the eighteenth century, a commitment to reason denoted a willingness to pursue the truth and to follow the argument wherever it leads, with the confidence that reason will ultimately lead people to converge on the truth. In contemporary political liberalism, in stark contrast, “reasonableness” denotes a willingness not to pursue or invoke for vital public purposes what one believes to be the ultimate truth – a willingness based on the judgment that reason will not lead to convergence but will instead subvert a civic peace that can be maintained only if people agree not to make important public decisions on the basis of arguing about what is ultimately true. (Steven D. Smith, The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse, p. 15)
Category: The Way of All the Earth
Historicism, with its incapacity to distinguish natural from historical teleology, will always tend to confuse the goodness of natural structures with sin and disorder. For if all teleology is historical teleology, and the natural structures have no integrity as totalities within themselves, then actual good and evil alike stand together under the judgment of historical fulfilment, as ‘imperfect’. With creation cut loose from its beginnings and treated merely as another name for history, the beginnings are left without positive characterization; they are merely the unfinishedness from which the end calls us forward. And with sin no longer defined against the criterion of a good natural order, and with only the future as its judge, evil has no definite characterization either. It, too, is merely the historical imperfection from which we are to advance. But one type of imperfection is very much like another. Thus historicism betrays resemblances, both to the old gnostic dualism which called creation evil, and to the idealism which denied the reality of evil altogether. The characterization of history as process replaces the categories of good and evil with those of past and future. Instead of the Christian threefold metaphysic of a good creation, an evil fall and an end of history which negates the evil and transcends the created good, we have in historicism a dualist opposition between a historical ‘from’ and ‘towards’, in accordance with which all the traditional language of good and evil is reinterpreted. (Oliver O’Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order, p. 63)
Would-be reformers are known by the broken trail of people they’ve alienated. True reformers are found in quiet leadership and patient teaching by example.
“The past is dangerous, not least because it cannot go away. It is simply there, never to change, and in its constancy it reflects the eternity of God. It presents to the young mind a vast field of fascination, of war and peace, loyalty and treason, invention and folly, bitter twists of fate and sweet poetic justice. When that past is the past of one’s people or country or church, then the danger is terrible indeed, because then the past makes claims upon our honor and allegiance. Then it knocks at the door, saying softly, ‘I am still here.’ And then our plans for social control – for inducing the kind of amnesia that has people always hankering after what is supposed to be new, without asking inconvenient questions about where the desirable thing has come from and where it will take us – must fail. For a man with a past may be free; but a man without a past, never.” (Esolen, Ten Ways, p. 123)
Marsden again (p. 64):
“Despite its overall similarities to older Christian views of history, dispensationalism has a number of peculiarities that identify it as a product of nineteenth-century thought. These have to do especially with its explanation of how dramatic historical change takes place, a common preoccupation of the thought of the era. In the prevailing naturalistic explanations of change the principal model was development through conflict. This is apparent in the work of the two most influential theorists of mid-century, Darwin and Marx. Marxism in fact has some formal similarities to the nearly contemporary development of dispensationalism. History is divided into distinct periods, each dominated by a prevailing principle or characteristic. Each age ends in failure, conflict, judgment on those who rule, and the violent introduction of a wholly new era. History thus proceeds in dramatic steps toward a final age of peace. The crucial difference is that in the Marxist scheme the scientific approach to history assumes that the laws of change are governed by wholly natural factors of human behavior; in dispensationalism science discovers revealed principles of supernatural laws that have guided historical change.”
I’m creeping my way through Marsden’s Fundamentalism and American Culture; creeping, because it’s one of those books I have to set down every few pages so I can think for awhile.
He makes connections where I’m too dull-witted to readily see one. Here’s an example (p. 54):
“Ironically, the dispensationalists [in the 19th century] were responding to some of the very same problems in Biblical interpretation that were troubling theological liberals in the nineteenth century. If the Biblical statements were taken at face value and subjected to scientific analysis, major anomalies seemed to appear. Among these were that many Old Testament prophecies did not seem to refer precisely to the church, that Jesus and his disciples seemed to expect his return and the establishment of the kingdom very shortly, and that much of the teaching of Jesus seemed to conflict with the theology of Paul. Liberals resolved such problems by greatly broadening the standards for interpreting Biblical language. Dispensationalists did the opposite. They held more strictly than ever to a literal interpretation but introduced a new historical scheme whose key was the interpretation of the church age as a parenthesis. Once the key step was accepted, the rest of Scripture could be fit into the scheme, and aspects that others viewed as inconsistencies could be explained as simply referring to different dispensations.”
Reading through George Marsden’s Fundamentalism and American Culture, I came across an interesting comment about late 19th-century Christian transformationalism; it helps, I think, to distinguish genuinely Reformed transformationalism from the civil religion and/or social gospel with which it is frequently confused:
“Americans were easily persuaded that their nation was destined to lead the way in . . . cultural advances. By the Revolution many evangelicals were already loudly proclaiming that the triumph of the American cause and of American principles was a sign of the kingdom [of God]. The spiritual hope was thus partly secularized and nationalized as the American civil religion was born. At the same time, however, the American experiment and the continuing efforts for cultural reform and progress were to a degree Christianized. The idea of transforming the culture fit well with the Calvinist Puritan tradition, but the idea of ‘Christianizing’ the culture never turned out to be as simple as supposed. In some areas – such as the campaign against slavery – evangelicals succeeded somewhat in transforming the culture by Christian standards. In other areas, just as certainly, the culture – with its materialism, capitalist competitiveness and nationalism – helped shaped [sic] American Christianity. Seemingly oblivious to this distinction at the time, evangelicals generally regarded almost any sort of progress as evidence of the advance of the kingdom.”
This illustrates (and it is too often ignored) that without a robust biblicism undergirding the transformationalist project (i.e., a view of the Bible that takes its authority and truthfulness absolutely seriously), there is no standard for determining whether “progress” is in a Christianizing or secularizing direction.
Kudos to Joe Carter over at First Things for this article. Exceptionally well said.
I’ve recently been reading Philip Jenkins’ The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia – and How It Died. A very eye-opening work, with all sorts of contemporary relevance.
To illustrate, here’s a history lesson the church today would do well to ponder: Jenkins asks why the Christian church in North Africa simply disappeared in the wake of the Muslim invasions of the seventh and eighth centuries, while the Christian church in Egypt has survived to this day and even flourished under Muslim rule. He offers this telling proposal (p. 35):
“The key difference making for survival is . . . how deep a church planted its roots in a particular community, and how far the religion became part of the air that ordinary people breathed [emphasis mine]. The Egyptian church succeeded wonderfully in this regard, while the Africans failed to make much impact beyond the towns. While the Egyptians put the Christian faith in the language of the ordinary people, from city dwellers through peasants, the Africans concentrated only on certain categories, certain races. Egyptian Christianity became native; its African counterpart was colonial. This difference became crucial when a faith that was formed in one set of social and political arrangements had to adapt to a new world. When society changed, when cities crumbled, when persecution came, the faith would continue in one region but not another.”
In my sermon this past Sunday, I referenced a story about the Westminster Shorter Catechism, the exact provenance of which I had not bothered to research. A dear friend (who shall remain nameless lest I embarrass him) subsequently sent me a link to Benjamin B. Warfield’s account of the story. Those who heard the sermon will note that I got a few details wrong, but the substance is there. Here’s the pertinent paragraph from Warfield:
“What is ‘the indelible mark of the Shorter Catechism’? We have the following bit of personal experience from a general officer of the United States army. He was in a great western city at a time of intense excitement and violent rioting. The streets were over-run daily by a dangerous crowd. One day he observed approaching him a man of singularly combined calmness and firmness of mien, whose very demeanor inspired confidence. So impressed was he with his bearing amid the surrounding uproar that when he had passed he turned to look back at him, only to find that the stranger had done the same. On observing his turning the stranger at once came back to him, and touching his chest with his forefinger, demanded without preface: ‘What is the chief end of man?’ On receiving the countersign, ‘Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever’ – ‘Ah!’ said he, ‘I knew you were a Shorter Catechism boy by your looks!’ ‘Why, that was just what I was thinking of you,’ was the rejoinder.”