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 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
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.
February 28, 2015
Anthony Thiselton is one of those scholars that I have frequently come across but have never read. Hermeneutics is not my forte. (The bliss of naive realism!)
Thiselton is one of the premier evangelical Anglican scholars working today. With the recent release of his massive (800+ page) encyclopedic volume, The Thiselton Companion to Christian Theology, it is time to introduce him. Here is an excellent video of Thiselton introducing himself:
This is a very interesting and informative overview of his life’s work.
February 27, 2015
This is the second and final installment of a brief, two-part series on Jonathan Edwards’ sermon, “A Divine and Supernatural Light.” See the first part for introductory material and the main analysis. Below, I offer some concluding thoughts.
Edwards repeatedly appeals to the “heart.” It is in the heart that prejudices are harbored, as sin darkens our vision of “seeing” the truth of the Gospel. But, whenever a person discovers for himself, as Edwards writes, “the divine excellency of Christian doctrines, this destroys the enmity, removes those prejudices, and sanctifies the reason, and causes it to lie open to the force of arguments for their truth.” Reason is sanctified – set apart for God – once the heart of stone is changed into a heart of flesh, to cite Ezekiel 36:26. This experience of the heart involves one’s affections, as we have seen in Edwards’ fondness for language of “sweetness.” This is given extensive treatment in Edwards’ much-acclaimed A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections (1746). As in our present sermon, “A Divine and Supernatural Light,” Edwards continues in his later writings to account for the nature of and conditions for our affections toward God. In a basic sense, no Reformed theologian has ever discounted the affections. On the contrary, Reformed theology has emphasized that true faith is only ever present when the heart has been converted and turned toward God, all of which is part and parcel of God’s beneficence toward us in Jesus Christ. As Calvin said, faith is “a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit.” God’s goodness is sealed upon our hearts. In order to highlight the theme of comfort, we could turn to the famous first Q/A of the Heidelberg Catechism. For the theme of joy or delight, we could turn to the first Q/A of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. These are rightly beloved statements in the Reformed tradition and often noted for their “warmth” of expression.
While there is significant continuity between Edwards and his Reformed forbearers, there is still something new with Edwards. It arises from his revivalist impulse, however cautious he was to subordinate the affections to truth. The new thing is the extent to which the affections are a criterion for ascertaining the presence of saving faith. This is especially evident, as Edwards attempted to do, when evaluating the status of a person’s soul according to the expressiveness or otherwise of his affections. It is no wonder that Edwards was ejected from his pulpit in Northampton! We can commend his concern for the souls of his congregants, but the heart of another is not ours to evaluate. We have to be satisfied with the candidate’s statement of faith and let God judge.
Secondly and more importantly, we have to be cautious about emphasizing the affections within ourselves as a measure of God’s love for us. Edwards does not do this precisely, but his revivalist heirs did and perhaps he opened the door. The problem is when the emotions subside, when the elevated feelings are no more – or during times of spiritual “dark nights,” when God’s “absence” weighs heavily on our soul. It is during these times when we need to rely the most on God’s sufficient and perfect work in Jesus Christ, not preoccupied with our malaise and questioning whether God loves us. Otherwise, in vain, we will attempt to stir ourselves and recover the initial sweetness of our conversion, when in fact God is calling us to a deeper maturity and more profound trust in him. As Edwards would agree, we do not have faith in our affections but in Jesus Christ, our eternal High Priest.
 In other words, faith is not the efficacious cause of our salvation; it is the instrumental cause – receiving, not bringing about. The grace of the Holy Spirit in regeneration is the efficacious cause.
 John Calvin, ed. John T. McNeill, The Institutes of the Christian Religion (Westminster Press, 1960), 3.2.7.
February 26, 2015
Yesterday, the Henry Center at TEDS posted a debate between Douglas Campbell (Duke Divinity School) and Douglas Moo (Wheaton College) on Paul’s doctrine of justification. This debate will garner wide interest. I just finished watching it, and I can highly recommend it. Moo is well-known for his several commentaries on Paul’s epistles and as a leading biblical scholar in the American evangelical academy, including his work on the new edition of the NIV a few years ago. Campbell is that rarest of things: a biblical scholar who is an unapologetic Barthian, happy to utilize systematic and confessional categories. You should watch his advice to students.
As the debate progressed, I thought the discussion got more and more interesting, all the way into the Q and A. Campbell and Moo are irenic and respectful throughout. I would have liked to see more exegetical work, but it serves well as an overview of their respective positions.
Embedding is disabled, so you will have to click on the link and watch it on YouTube.
If you are new to these issues, then you would do well to read Joshua Jipp’s introduction to the debate: “Re-Reading Paul: What is Being Said and Why It Matters.” Jipp’s summary of Campbell is probably the clearest that you will find anywhere.
Tip of the hat to Jennifer Guo for alerting us to this debate.
Image: The Carl F.H. Henry Center