May 18, 2015
There has been a lot of discussion about the recent Pew study on the “US Religious Landscape.” The report from Christianity Today puts a wee bit of a positive spin on it for evangelicals, just as Jonathan Merritt puts his own spin on it for RNS. I will briefly respond to some of Merritt’s points at the end. But first, I was struck by the percentages of those who stay within their denominational family or tradition. The Baptists are the highest at 57%. The least likely are Congregationalists (31%), Holiness (32%), Reformed (34%), and Presbyterian (34%) — that includes three “Reformed” denominations (Holiness is Wesleyan).
The Baptist Difference
If I may be so bold, I think I know why the Baptists are at the top in this regard. I will have to be partly autobiographical in order to answer this. I was raised in a devout, loving evangelical Baptist home and church. My parents were not Christians when they began dating in the late 70’s, except in the sense that every Southerner at this time would still claim to be a Christian. They were indifferent to the church and not attending anywhere. But when another couple, friends of theirs, invited them to their large Baptist church in Florence, South Carolina, everything changed for my parents and, unknown at the time, their future sons. They were taught the gospel in a very Billy Graham-ish sort of way, for which I praise the Lord. It was this same gospel that they taught me.
Here is the point. When I was born, my parents did not see me as a Christian. My parents saw me as an object for evangelism! I may have been cute as a button, but I was still a rebellious sinner, separated from the love of God in Jesus Christ. What this meant for me and my brother, and all of my fellow Baptists, is that we were evangelized by our parents. I repeat, we were evangelized by our parents. This begins usually at four or five years old and continues long thereafter. I still vividly remember my mom telling me about the gospel in my bedroom when I was five. Did I have a full grasp of what it meant to be a sinner or that there is a God who intervened? Of course not. I still don’t. The important thing is that it was made real and personal for me, by those who I loved the most. The struggles, questions, doubts would come, but there was an anchor.
I am still amazed when I encounter other Protestants (and Catholics) who did not have this experience. Their parents assumed that they were Christian. They never had “the talk” — no, not the sex talk, but the gospel talk. And is it accidental that Baptists would never do such a stupid thing as forget the gospel talk? No, because Baptists reject infant baptism. With infant baptism came a lot of problems, like forgetting the gospel talk. I will not discuss baptism here, and I am a paedobaptist now. So, obviously, I think that paedobaptism is compatible with the above concept of evangelism, but it is not normative. That is a tragedy.
So, that is my proposal for why Baptists do a better job at keeping their kids. It is evangelical piety at its best and most necessary. I am fully aware — more aware than most — of the problems that come along: an overemphasis on the individual, emotional manipulation, doubts about salvation, re-baptisms and endless re-dedications. I get it. That’s where Reformed theology is a salve for so many, even with its own problems.
The Pew Survey
According to the Pew study, evangelicals have declined at 0.9%, the mainline at 3.4%, and Catholics at 3.1%. The time frame is only between 2007 and 2014. The new thing is the evangelical decline (or plateau-with-slight-decline), whereas the mainline decline is just compounding a decades long problem. If you look at page 21 of the full report, you can see the percentage breakdown for each denomination. The Southern Baptists are down from 6.7 to 5.3 percent of the total population, but the independent Baptists have remained the same as in 2007. Nondenominational evangelicals have increased from 3.4 to 4.9 percent. These are Baptists in all but name but without some of the restrictions that are found in the SBC, which frowns upon charismatic expressions and has a more tightly defined confessional basis (the Baptist Faith & Message).
So, as I mentioned above, the CT article has a fairly positive outlook for evangelicals, bolstered by Ed Setzer’s article for CT, “Nominals to Nones.” Jonathan Merritt has a sort of rebuttal, with four bullet points that you can read for yourself. I guess because evangelicals invest in proselytizing but are still struggling, that means something. In his second bullet point, he says that the Assemblies of God and the Presbyterian Church in America “failed to grow at all,” which is not true. The PCA was 340,736 in 2007 but 367,033 in 2013 (the latest denominational report). The AG went from 2,863,265 in 2007 to 3,127,857 in 2013, not counting outside of the US.
Merritt notes, “The nation’s largest evangelical body, the SBC, is declining at roughly the same rate as the largest mainline denomination, the United Methodist Church.” True, but why? The UMC still has a strong evangelical contingent, whereas evangelicals in the other mainline denominations have largely fled, especially in the last tens years. The UMC gives voting privileges to its African bishops, which is a blessing for the evangelical minority in the UMC here, and this is why the UMC has not seen breakaway denominations like the NALC, ACNA, ECO, and more. Also, the SBC is a unique body for evangelicals. It was once the equivalent to the mainline in the South, and (prior to the 80’s) its seminaries were not much different from other mainline Protestant seminaries. Like the mainline, it suffers from demographic changes, as much of the population shifts from small factory towns to major urban metropolises.
But Merritt notes another demographic change: “population data has always indicated that the mainline decline was mostly attributable to birthrates.” Alright, let’s set aside whether “mostly” is warranted, I am happy to grant it as a big factor. But that’s a problem, not a neutral determinant, as Mary Eberstadt has persuasively argued.
Lastly, I have to challenge Merritt’s comment: “Roman Catholics — also theologically and politically conservative — are also declining significantly. This, despite these groups’ evangelistic zeal, orthodox theology, and conservative political stances.” Really? The RCC in America is a different beast entirely, and to say that it has “evangelistic zeal” is downright laughable. There is, of course, a vibrant contingent of evangelically-minded, Vatican-loving, conservative Roman Catholics in America. But you would be hard-pressed to tell the difference between an average Catholic and an average mainline Protestant. There are complicated historical and cultural reasons for this, which I am perfectly willing to discuss, not the least of which is the “mainline” mindset of Rome’s past cultural privilege.
In closing, we have to ask ourselves about the importance we attach to these surveys. Numbers matter, as any dying church can testify. I’ve heard enough of these testimonies from mainline Protestant congregations — where sometime in the ’80’s or ’90’s, they realized that they didn’t have any kids in the sanctuary. At that point, there was no turning back.
Yet, it is also the case that Christians should have a basic expectation of cultural marginalization, which may translate into a loss in numbers. I am not convinced (not in the slightest) that this is why the mainline has declined so precipitously. I think the mainline decline has much to do with lethargy, privilege, and an anemic theology. Even so, the evangelical churches may indeed experience an increased decline over the years, not because of their lack of gospel but precisely because of their gospel. I am not saying that we have lacked privilege or that evangelicals do not have our own self-inflicted wounds. We harbor a neo-fundamentalism that is scared and irresponsible and lacking in basic integrity. If this were to dominate and overwhelm us, then we deserve what we get. We are also responsible for a capitulation to American ideals and social expectations, though this is an enormously tricky thing to parse. Is this why the evangelicals have fared better, as my liberal Protestant friends think? To some extent, sure, but it does not have the exhaustive explanatory value that they think — far from it. But to the extent that this is true, it just means that evangelicals will return to the marginalization that we once enjoyed.
One More Thing that Baptists Do Right!
Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, Glen Campbell, Reba McEntire, Carrie Underwood, and many more — all Baptists.
Thank you, Baptists, for country music.
“Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord),” Johnny Cash and the Carter Family
Image: A river baptism in Appalachia (source: Southern Visions)
May 15, 2015
A lovely performance from a talented couple:
Joey and Rory is a husband-wife country duo, with a devoted fan base. Joey (the wife) has a soft and supple voice. You can find this track, along with other gospel favorites, on their album, Inspiration.
You should also check-out their rendition of “Coat of Many Colors,” the Dolly Parton classic.
May 12, 2015
What has the Protestant Reformation wrought?
Brad Gregory is the Griffin Professor of Early Modern History at the University of Notre Dame. His book, The Unintended Reformation (Harvard University Press, 2012), has received a lot of attention and acclaim. I have not read it, but I have watched the lecture (below) a few times! You can consider this as a follow-up to a recent post of mine, “The Protestant desacralization of the West.” Both Professor Gregory and Professor Eire are doing Catholic apologetics at the highest level, which is technically not apologetics. They are tracing the Protestant influence on Western secularism, with scholarly rigor and peer accountability.
In the following lecture, Gregory offers a highly compressed presentation of his book. He moves very quickly through the material, so you have to pay attention.
There is a lot of good questions that can follow from this presentation. Can we really blame Protestantism for all of this? Was it not inevitable, based upon other (mostly secular) contingencies? I am sure that other folks can offer valuable push-back.
However, I think that Gregory makes an important contribution by focusing on theology (as does Professor Eire) and especially the Protestant doctrine of the Bible’s perspicuity. This is obviously a weakness in the Protestant position. Even if we agree that the gospel, however that is defined, is perspicuous, we still cannot agree on a myriad of other matters, like baptism, which continue to cause disunity. And this disunity invariably causes many to resort to their own subjective and private communication with the divine, where personal experience is the sole magisterium. When that happens, it is game over for Protestants.
May 6, 2015
“It’s inimical to me that any religious entity or organization should be compelled by government to compromise any jot or tittle of their doctrine,” Andrew [Sullivan] said.
Addressing [Gordon College President] Lindsay’s case, he said, “Any personal hurt that he experienced, I want to ask his forgiveness for. It really hurts me that people would demonize, stigmatize, and attack people for their religious faith, whatever it is. I think the Gordon College thing is a clear step beyond anything we have seen before.”
In order to justify biotech reproduction outside the womb, in order to justify surrogacy, and in order to justify same-sex marriage, that natural connection [between biology and parenthood] had to be denied. It is the nominalist position: there is nothing natural inherent in the structure of nature; it’s only matter, upon which we can impose our will.
There is a biotechnical revolution upon us that treats children as products to manufacture. In the United States and around the “civilized” world, individuals flip through catalogues or search online to purchase sperm and eggs from (usually anonymous) donors whose genetic characteristics they find appealing. These shoppers then hire lab technicians to create embryos for implanting in a womb, often of a leased surrogate, for purchaser retrieval after gestation completes.
Thereby do these people manipulate children into existence in a manner divorced from marital love, in which adults intend to deprive them of relationship with or knowledge of at least one, and perhaps both, of their biological parents, as well as their extended kin.
This practice of human reproduction without relationship, of reproduction arranged by commercial transaction with service providers, graphically instantiates the precepts of same-sex marriage ideology. By eliminating the husband-wife marital norm, that ideology sunders even the conceptual connection of the marital union and fertility.
This threat is more radical than many people realize. It’s not merely that Christian schools will have to choose between accepting federal funds and keeping their religious views about sexuality. If the choice were to follow the example of schools like Hillsdale College or New Saint Andrews College and forego taking any federal money, the decisions about what to do would be painful, but obvious.
But what is being proposed is to revoke non-profit status, a move that would destroy many schools. According to the IRS, if an organization’s tax-exempt status is revoked it is no longer exempt from federal income tax and is not eligible to receive tax-deductible contributions. As Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Seminary, notes, “The loss of tax-exempt status would put countless churches and religious institutions out of business, simply because the burden of property taxes and loss of charitable support would cripple their ability to sustain their mission.”
Given the constant threat of terrorism with which we now live, do you believe we are facing a cultural war? Is Samuel Huntington’s thesis that the world is divided into several civilisations based on religious ideals that can be fault lines for conflict still valid for the 21st century?
Scruton: There is certainly some kind of clash of civilisations occurring. However, Islam seems to have forgotten its civilisation, and it is rare now to meet a Muslim who has ever heard of enlightened Islamic scholars like Ibn Sinna, or Rumi, or Hafiz, or who is even aware that a great civilisation once existed, built upon the revelation of the Koran. Western civilisation, too, is losing the memory of its religious inheritance. I am reminded of Matthew Arnold’s “On Dover Beach” in which he expresses his fear for a future in which “ignorant armies clash by night”. So yes, there is a clash—not of two civilisations but of two competing forms of stupidity: one given to violence and the other to self-indulgence.
Image: Andrew Sullivan portrait by Trey Ratcliff (Flickr)
May 4, 2015
“The Protestant Reformation was a major rupture in Western history, rather than some murky transitional era,” according to Yale professor, Carlos Eire. “The great ontological difference between the physical and spiritual realms — upheld by Protestants, especially in the Reformed tradition — drove a wedge between matter and spirit.”
In the following lecture (embedded below) at Gordon College, Professor Eire argues that “in the sixteenth century, something very odd happened, which was that suddenly some Christians started to argue that miracles, such as the ones that are told about in the New Testament, could no longer happen, but in fact that they had ceased to happen when the last apostle died.” That was a theological novum in the history of the church. By contrast, the Roman Catholic world experienced a boom in miraculous accounts, in continuity with the early and medieval church.
Professor Eire wants to extend and modify Max Weber’s thesis that Protestantism desacralized the world, resulting in the secularization of the West. Weber was limited to “magic and superstition.” He did not account for the radical way in which reality was reconceived in theological terms by Protestants, where the divine-world relationship was given an altered metaphysical landscape in contrast to the Christian past. A continuing emphasis in Eire’s academic work is that historians have underestimated the role of theology and belief, in favor of political and social forces (e.g., “class struggle”). He does not discount the latter, of course, but he is taking seriously the theological commitments and their ramifications for social change, which is in fact closer to the self-perception of the major players who were initiating the changes (e.g., Calvin).
Carlos Eire is the Riggs Professor of History and Religious Studies at Yale University. He is the author of War Against the Idols: The Reformation of Worship from Erasmus to Calvin (Cambridge University Press, 1989), From Madrid to Purgatory: The Art and Craft of Dying in Sixteenth-Century Spain (Cambridge University Press, 2002), and A Brief History of Eternity (Princeton University Press, 2011). His most popular book is his award-winning memoir, Waiting for Snow in Havana (Free Press, 2003).
The image above, of St. Bernard of Clairvaux receiving milk from the breast of Mary, is referenced by Professor Eire in the lecture. Image source: Taylor Marshall
I have been reading a lot of Isaak Dorner lately. In my estimation, he is easily the greatest dogmatic theologian between Schleiermacher and Barth. Most interestingly for me, Dorner not only anticipates Barth but provides significant doctrinal formulations that Barth would borrow, especially for the doctrine of God in CD II.1. I have been reading Dorner’s third essay on divine immutability, and I frequently thought I was reading Barth.
Dorner reworks immutability in a way that is strikingly similar to Barth, in order to account for God’s “livingness,” both a se and in relation to the world. Claude Welch translates Lebendigkeit as “livingness” in the volume, God and Incarnation in Mid-Nineteenth Century German Theology, but Robert R. Williams translates it as “vitality” in the Fortress Press edition, which otherwise follows Welch’s translation. I prefer “livingness,” even if it makes for awkward English.
Although his expertise is spread across the whole range of theological loci, Dorner specialized in the doctrine of Christ, through the release of the multi-volume, Entwicklungsgeschichte der Lehre von der Person Christi, published in English as The History of the Doctrine of the Person of Christ. He would later write a multi-volume systematic theology. As is well-known, the nineteenth century was the century of Christ’s humanity, for good or ill. Theologians worked diligently to account for the humanity of Christ, in dialogue with the philosophical and historical interests of the day. One such theologian was Gottfried Thomasius, who used the κένωσις (self-emptying) of Jesus Christ as the basis for reconstructing how the divine and human relate in the person of Christ. Dorner opposed Thomasius. Since Dorner is very difficult to read, it is not easy to find a snippet for blogging purposes, but here is a nice summary by Dorner of his objection to Kenotic Christology:
The point must be this, that instead of God’s reducing himself to mere potence for the sake of the world and his being changed into it, it is rather the actual divine perfection itself and nothing less (and indeed as perennially and immovably affirming itself) which is to be apprehended as the potence for the world. The whole historical life of God in the world takes place, not at the expense of the eternal perfection of God himself, but precisely by virtue of this permanent perfection. Only so does his eternal freedom also remain in its place vis-à-vis the never absolutely closed natural order.
… How could it be supposed to be true and worthy of God that Christianity should have conquered the heathen religions and philosophies by a piece of the doctrine that is at home in the pantheistic schools and religions, by the doctrine of a God who is potential, growing and only gradually working up to self-consciousness or to spiritual actuality in general? If this were the foundation of the chief objective Christian truth, then heathenism, in the myths of the God who sacrifices himself on behalf of the world, would contain more prophecy of Christ than the Old Testament; to them especially the idea is not foreign, that God has thus given and sacrificed himself on behalf of the world. Against such ideas, the Old Testament sets with utter seriousness the inviolable majesty and holiness of God, which is not even violated in love.
[Isaak August Dorner, “The Dogmatic Concept of the Immutability of God,” in God and Incarnation in Mid-Nineteenth Century German Theology (Oxford University Press, 1965), 144-145]
There you have it, Dorner against Thomasius in a nutshell. Though Dorner is not addressing Thomasius here but, rather, Hegelian impulses more generally in theology. You can also see, in the second paragraph, how Dorner is rebuking proto process theologies, even though Dorner is sometimes reckoned as a forebear of process theology because of his “dynamic” account of God’s interaction with the world (through our prayers for example). Throughout his creative proposals for rethinking immutability, Dorner never falters in upholding the aseity and perfection of God. Thomists would not be satisfied, I am sure.
By the way, there is not a single, uniform account of Kenotic Christology. From what I’ve read, Thomasius moderates his position later in his career. And then we have later generations who would offer their own accounts, as in P. T. Forsyth’s The Person and Place of Christ (1909), which may or may not be as susceptible to Dorner’s criticism.
Image: Isaak August Dorner – Portrait Collection of Berlin university teachers, Historical Collections of the University Library
April 29, 2015
I saw Mo Pitney here in Charlotte last week! He did an amazing performance, alongside David Nail, Will Hoge, and others. The most touching moment in the entire show is when Mo talked about losing a loved one to cancer at a young age, which inspired a beautiful song that should be on his upcoming debut album (still in the works). He said, “God is my best friend.” And he seems to be the real deal about his faith. On his Facebook page, he quotes lyrics from “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” and writes about listening to the birds in the morning singing praises to our Lord. I hope the best for him.
Elizabeth Achtemeier (1926-2002) was a Presbyterian scholar of the Old Testament, equally committed to the homiletical imperative of the church. Among her several books are Nature, God, and Pulpit (Eerdmans, 1992), The Old Testament Roots of Our Faith (Baker Academic, 1994), Preaching from the Old Testament (WJK Press, 1989), Preaching Hard Texts of the Old Testament (Baker Academic, 1998), The Committed Marriage (WJK Press, 1976), and she wrote commentaries on Nahum to Malachi for the Interpretation commentary series. She was also an active leader in the pro-life movement in mainline Protestantism.
In her autobiography, Not Til I Have Done, she talks fondly about her days at Union Theological Seminary in New York City during the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. “Union Seminary has never again achieved the theological distinction of having such a faculty,” she writes in reference to Reinhold Niebuhr, John T. McNeill, Paul Tillich, Cyril Richardson, and others. She loved Niebuhr but was far less enamored of Tillich. Here is an excerpt, with a humorous anecdote:
It is difficult to picture the theological intensity that pervaded Union’s campus at that time. Every mealtime involved theological discussion, and if you set forth a theological proposition, there was always some fellow student to challenge it or a graduate student to knock it down There, in those conversations, we hammered out our own positions on the rock of dispute. We learned what could be defended and what was nonsense. Gradually we arrived at theologies that were sound and biblical.
There was no theological professor who was more balanced in his teaching than John Bennett, and it was from him that I learned the essentials of Christian doctrine. Niebuhr taught us about the pride and sin of human beings in a theological realism that is still perennially pertinent. And I think I never knew truly how to worship until I attended morning chapels with Cyril Richardson and heard his “Amen” booming out at the end of collects, as he prayed on his knees.
We had a lot of fun in the midst of that theological hothouse. One day at lunch we discussed Tillich’s theology with Niebuhr. “Tell Tillich,” remarked Niebuhr, “that he’s a damn pantheist.” So off we all scurried to talk to Tillich. Some time later, Niebuhr encountered Tillich in the courtyard, contemplating the flowers growing there. “Paul,” asked Niebuhr. “What are you doing?” The reply came back in Tillich’s accent, “Ze damn panteist is worshiping.”
It always seemed like something of a mental triumph when we managed to wrap our minds around Tillich’s system of theology, a system that he simply read to us in class. But try as he might, Tillich could not reconcile his system with biblical theology, and though he had many disciples most of us faulted him on his distance from the biblical faith. Later we learned about his unfaithful marital life; that simply underscored the weakness in his theology, because a person’s theology is made manifest in his or her actions.
Unfortunately, Union chose to waste the knowledge of the brilliant historian John McNeill by letting him lecture only on dates and conditions in church history, whereas to Tillich was assigned the history of Christian thought. Tillich’s lecture notes proved totally unusable when studying for the history portion of my Ph.D. exams, because they did not illumine the central traditions of the Christian faith.
Contrary to Tillich’s personality, what was impressive about some of the other theological giants at Union was their humility, a humility that we were later to encounter also in Karl Barth. Niebuhr – famous, yet always engaged with students, tall and angular and full of vitality – was never intimidating, but was a beloved friend, and we all wept when he suffered his series of debilitating strokes in the 1950’s. [pp. 38-40]
From 1953-54, she spent time in Basel with Karl Barth, accompanied by her fellow student and husband, Paul Achtemeier. Both would emerge as accomplished biblical scholars at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond. You can read her glowing account of Barth in How Karl Barth Changed My Mind, ed. Donald McKim. She writes, “A rumpled, lovable, old giant of learning, Barth acted toward us as a pastor” (p. 108). In her autobiography, she has a chapter on Barth.
She also has a chapter “On Being Female.” In a previous post, I mentioned that Elizabeth Achtemeier wrote a “hardnosed” diatribe against feminism in her preface to Donald Bloesch’s The Battle for the Trinity. And she continues her complaints in the aforementioned chapter. Unfortunately, her kind is pretty much nonexistent in the mainline Protestant world today.
April 22, 2015
Are you tired, run-down, listless? Do you poop out at parties? Well, I’ve got the inspiration you need! A couple of fellow bloggers have posted several audio lectures by T. F. Torrance and Karl Barth, delivered at Princeton Seminary and provided by Princeton for free:
The Barth lectures are from his only visit to the states and are available in print: the much-beloved Evangelical Theology: An Introduction. The audio for Barth’s American lectures are already available in a 1963 vinyl LP set, now published as a CD set by Wipf and Stock. A friend of mine gave me the audio files to this, so I have briefly compared the two sets of audio.
There are a few differences. The audio quality is a little clearer on the LP/CD set; the Princeton audio is a bit muffled but still clear enough. More importantly, the LP/CD set includes all five lectures published in Evangelical Theology (chapters 1-5), whereas the Princeton audio (above) has four lectures. It is missing “The Word” lecture, which is chapter 2 in the book. Otherwise, the content for the four appears to be identical, but the Q/A is different. Also, the Princeton set has the audio for “Karl Barth Meets the Students of Princeton Seminary.” So, my guess is that the LP/CD set is the audio from the University of Chicago, since Barth gave the same lectures at both places…and he also visited Union Seminary in Richmond, VA, but I don’t know if he gave the same lectures there (probably so). Anyway, I thought that some of y’all may be interested in knowing the differences between the two sets of audio. Feel free to offer any corrections in the comments.