July 9, 2013

What muted and sidelined the Presbyterian voice in religion and society?

francis-schaeffer I’m returning to a question I asked last summer but with a slightly different angle. Last summer, I asked what happened to popular Presbyterianism in a world where the Calvinist resurgence is almost entirely Baptist and non-denominational.

In the 1980s and 1990s when I was first introduced to Reformed theology three names dominated the seen were James Montgomery Boice (Senior Minister at Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia), Sinclair Ferguson who was teaching full-time at the time at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, and R.C. Sproul. They are all Presbyterians. In those days “Calvinism”/”Reformed” and Presbyterian were synonyms.

Dr. Bill Evans, the Eunice Witherspoon Bell Younts and Willie Camp Younts Professor of Bible and Religion at Erskine College, has two reflections on how conservative Presbyterianism lost its mojo in recent years here: part 1 and part 2. These posts are helpful.

Matthew Tuininga proposes this as a possible explanation:

Presbyterians have increasingly turned inward, becoming more and more obsessed with intramural squabbles over secondary and even tertiary points of doctrine, and even with turf wars between ever shrinking (proportionally) seminaries and denominations.

So, now I am wondering, additionally, why we don’t hear multiple Presbyterian reflections on the social and cultural issues of our day as well–employing the tools and categories of the Presbyterian tradition explicitly. I am wondering why are Presbyterians not showing up as leaders in culturally leveraged spaces and discussions within the church or outside of it. I was recently on a website watching what was construed as a “biblical” position on a social issue “X” and about 30 seconds into the video I realized that it wasn’t a “biblical” view at all. Instead, it was a particular denomination’s way of thinking about the issue which was very clear and if you knew anything about that denomination’s history.

I am wondering, then, for those who are raising their children in the Presbyterian tradition what resources exists for forming Presbyterian identity in terms of an understanding marriage & family (i.e., the relationship between covenant marriage & covenant baptism in America’s marriage debate), issues related to social & political power & federal political theory (which is derivative of federal theology), divorce and remarriage, war and social conflict, apologetics, and so on? How does a covenantal world-and-life view, and Presbyterian understandings of power structures, unlock the implications for a theology of work & economics when applied to international third world development, and so on?

By extension, I am also wondering what happened to Presbyterians as known and normative leaders of culturally leveraged institutions in American society and culture? Mark Twain and William Faulkner were Presbyterian. More Vice-Presidents of the United States have been Presbyterian more than any other denomination (Presbyterians rank 2nd for the US Presidency). Presbyterians rank 2nd in terms of placement on the Supreme Court in US History. I could go on. . . .

Again, if you wanted to get Presbyterian reflections on a range of issues in multiple aspects of society and the church, where would one go? What Presbyterians are speaking to these issues or leading institutions that are (like think tanks or colleges and universities)? Dr. Phil Ryken is at Wheaton College but is he the only college president of one of the larger evangelical, non-denominational schools who is Presbyterian? Is that right? Again, I could go on. . .

It just seems that not only have Presbyterians been side-lined and muted in popular Calvinism in America and evangelicalism in general, as I discussed last year, but it seems that they also are not too involved in leading the other institutions outside of the church that shape culture either. What happened?

I know, I know everyone points to Tim Keller but, to be fair to him, he is not omnicompetent and shouldn’t be expected to address everything. Before Keller there was Presbyterians like Francis Schaeffer adding much to these conversations. Who are the Presbyterians speaking to larger culture in the spirit of Schaeffer?

If you have names of Presbyterians I am missing who are currently leading in America’s culturally leveraged institutions please list them in the comment section or if you have any insight as to why many national leaders are not coming out of the Presbyterian tradition (like we saw in the past) I’d love to hear what you think!

To be clear, my question is NOT about the influence of “Reformed” this or that, it is a question specifically about Presbyterianism (OPC, PCA, EPC, the renewal folks in the PC(USA), etc.). In an interview at Covenant College, the Rev. George Robertson said that it is his “dream that [the PCA] would be a leader denomination in evangelicalism, and in so doing, a real influencer of our culture, so that people of North America would look to the PCA for resourcing or guidance.” I’m not sure how this can happen while the mute button is being pressed.

10 response to “What muted and sidelined the Presbyterian voice in religion and society?”

  1. I blame Theonomy. Seriously. Full stop. Full answer. The theonomists dominated the cultural/civic issue in the conservative Presbyterian world. to a large degree and most reflection on it was in reaction to it.

    And in the backlash you had a reassertion (by Boice, mildly, with Two Cites/Two Loves; and more strongly with Mike Horton his disciple) that Christianity had nothing ‘cultural’ to say at all. And you had Kline, and the radical two-kingdoms debate.

    The only people left who aren’t klineans are ppl influenced by theonomists, even if they aren’t theonomists (Peter Leithart, etc)

    There is still John Murray’s principles of conduct, which argues for a very strict view of remarriage in divorce. One Prebysterian pastor tole me Murray was fine “in an ideal world” but not realistic any more. Murray also is pro-death penalty.

    Murray is also a proto-theonomist in his view of Matthew 5 and the jots and tittles of the law.

    Also, you won’t like it, but the resources that people mostly find from someone arguing from a reformed viewpoint on many cultural matters like those you mention is Doug Wilson. He’s everywhere. Boice used to cite him.

  2. Presbyterianism spoke well into a political institutional environment of representative democracy under tight constitutional constraints. The current environment has thrown off the constitutional shackles. Ironically the theonomists may have contributed to this shift.

  3. I can think of at least a dozen or more presbyterian churches in the past two to three years planted in acts 29 with pastors with a strictly presbyterian background. Sadly they do not have the scope or ear of the people that keller does yet.

  4. Outsider’s perspective:

    I wonder if the broadening of “reformed” theology has diluted denominational influence all round, not just in Presbyterianism. The SBC is struggling through Calvinism not because Calvinism has never been present among Baptists, but because it has become a question of allegiance. Are you a Baptist who happens to be a Calvinist or are you a Calvinist who happens to be a Baptist? How you answer this reveals where you will you direct your time, energies, and efforts. With the advent of greater networking opportunities and cross-denominational partnerships via the internet, every denomination is struggling to maintain a distinctive presence thus diluting their specific influence on both the Church and society at large.

    I’ve watched this play out in gender conversations. As the conservative church pushed back against feminism, the concern became more about simply being “conservative” than how you got there. Thus a gender framework flowing from a distinctively Presbyterian paradigm like Edith Schaeffer’s was conflated with a Gothard-esque conservatism and ended up muddying the whole conversation. The distinctiveness between the two “streams” was lost, and with it, the distinct contributions of Presbyterian theology.

  5. I’m a life-long Presbyterian (PCA), and I want to respond to your question, but I fear this is far deeper in the weeds than I can swing. Still, I’ll try.

    What about the people at Tenth Pres, like Paul David Tripp? What about everyone at CCEF?
    I think Doug Spada of WorkLife is a Presbyterian talking about faith in the workplace. Bill Peel and Walt Larimore of Workplace Grace lead faith-integration groups in corporations.

    I don’t suppose any of these people are talking about issues from a strictly Presbyterian viewpoint, but we argue for the Bible more than our denomination, right?

  6. The Presbyterians get mired in an unhealthy understanding of church faithfulness. Obviously I’m painting with a broad stroke here, but as a Presbyterian, my own perspective is that we wait for people to come around to us, instead of working to earn an audience. Too often, we seem to take pride in the fact that we are the fringe minority in a place, looking down on the world and other denominations. The more people don’t show up at the front door though, the more we burrow even deeper.

    Many of the Presbyterians having the most impact then are not sitting in PCA or OPC or EPC denominations. They took their theology with them, and they left for places that have much more zeal about influencing the surrounding culture. They owned the reality that the church in America does not look like them (in theology or worship or mission), so they went to where the church is — for better or worse. I would argue then they are having an impact. It’s just not being done under the Presbyterian brand.

  7. A… Your point is well made and I believe true, but I’m not sure its as bad as you think and I don’t know that it was every as good as our impressions of the past would lead us to believe. Bill Frist was Senate Majority leader not all that long ago. Jim Talent was a good, strong voice in the Senate and remains a force in MO politics. And Schaeffer was often though of as a nut during his day by other Presbyterians even though his writings and legacy won out over time.

    Presbyterians are also going through turmoil at the moment as the conservative branches turn inward, the mainline is self destructing and reasonable, outward faced folks are trying to sort out the organizational mess. For example, the EPC has doubled in size over the past four years taking in mostly evangelical PCUSA churches but also PCA churches (almost 30 PCA churches this past year). Think about the burden on presbyteries trying to exam and receive all these pastors and churches! I am the credentials chair in my presbytery and we are looking at 10 exams at the October meeting (ordinations and transfers)! There are several other organization transformations going on among Presbyterians as well.

    Other reasons also contribute but I think the organizational/institutional turmoil should not be overlooked.

  8. I think one reason is the narrow focus of institutional life in Presbyterianism itself. The conflicts of the 20th century saw new bodies formed (nothing new really) that were preoccupied with ministerial concerns. The PCA has been fighting about its own identity from the beginning. As a result whatever institutional identity it has is defined by the conflicts played out in church courts by elders—particularly pastors. The denomination does little to form the identity of the average person in the pew. There is no seal, we don’t have our own hymnal (we borrow it from the OPC), no common devotional practice, etc. Our conferences are largely minister focused.
    Here’s the thing. The Presbyterian influence of the early 20th cen was not monolithic. Presbyterians spoke their own ideas (and were often opposed by other faithful Presbyterians); they just did so as confident Presbyterians. We don’t give our people enough common connections to speak from a common tradition confidently and our preoccupations with our other conflicts don’t give the impression that they have the liberty to do so if they were so inclined.
    I do think our internal conflicts are important but we should be careful to keep them in their place. At the same time; we officers of the Presbyterian church should remember that the Presbyterian church is not just for the officers. I speak from the PCA but I think in some form what I’ve said is true for most of us.

  9. Daryl,

    30 PCA churches went EPC this past year alone??? I know of the ones in NYC, but where are these other churches? Some documentation, please. I am not territorial at all about the PCA, and greatly appreciate the EPC, but this is an important development.

    As to the subject at hand, two of our Presbyterian Presidents were Woodrow Wilson and James Buchanan. Yay. (<– sarcasm).