The Buried Roots of Evangelical Bullying

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This is another sample chapter in a book I’m writing, which maps out how white American evangelical Christianity morphed from intellectual sophistication into an arena for bullies, trashing its heritage and time-honored creeds in the process. Many rightly bemoan the movement’s partisan takeover; but, as seen here, the partisanship stems from a more deeply-embedded disease. 


The question of the hour: Who signed the bully permits so intimidators could grab power, canonize political opinions, and troll their opponents with unfounded accusations?

The answers, I’m sure, are complex and the stuff of sociological dissertations, but two hidden keys open the door to the obvious. First, it must be said: Mainline church leaders are not innocent. Many laid the foundation for partisan religion when they tilted toward the fist-pumping left. Their meetings are peppered with so many clichés you’d swear the Gospels were written by Gandhi, Robert F. Kennedy, Betty Friedan, and Edna St. Vincent Millay – and please rehearse all your sentences so they’re pared of political incorrectness.

Second, there were cracks in the foundation of the mid-century evangelical resurgence, when leaders such as Carl Henry, Harold Ockenga, and Billy Graham invited fundamentalists out of their cultural and intellectual cocoons. The term “evangelical” signaled sophistication, elegance, even urbanity. Evangelicals saw Broadway plays and, maybe, sipped Chablis.

But did they really free themselves of intimidating fundamentalism? I’m now not sure. In fact, I’ve grown more convinced that the seeds for “Fox Evangelicalism,”[i] as Amy Sullivan calls today’s religious concoction, were unwittingly planted at the movement’s advent. Most mid-century leaders never fully wrenched themselves from fundamentalism’s grip. They lionized the austere Old Princeton theologians of the previous century — Archibald Alexander, Charles Hodge, and BB Warfield — and the founders of Westminster Theological Seminary in Glenside, Pennsylvania, which pits John Calvin’s 16th-century Geneva against 17th-century Puritan England as rivals for the Heavenly Land award. The school’s influence spreads far beyond its campus. One of its founding professors, Cornelius Van Til (1895-1987), flaunted an especially ingenious brand of thick-headedness. It’s almost as if his wagging finger still lives.

Just to throw in confusion: Many Westminster teachers are thoughtful even as they pay Van Til homage. The school has played a constructive role as it infuses evangelical academia with scholarly rigor.

Calvinism’s heights …

I’ve needled Calvinism, so I’ll drop back and give it some deference.

To repeat, Calvinism deserves a hearing (see previous posts). Its thinkers legitimately trace their origins back to Augustine of Hippo (AD 353-430), arguably Western Christianity’s most influential theologian after the Apostle Paul. The Augustinian trail wends its way through Catholic Augustinian and Dominican orders and Protestantism’s two most famous fathers, Martin Luther (1483-1546) of Wittenberg, Germany, and Calvin himself (1509-1564), who gave the theology systematic shape in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, one of the Reformation’s paramount documents.

There’s more to Calvinism than its deterministic reading on predestination, much of it commendable, but discussion usually freezes on that subject.

Geneva evolved into a Protestant Mecca under Calvin and his successor, Theodore Beza (1519-1605). Some British divines exported the theology to their native land and were tagged as Puritans. The label stuck. Richard Baxter, John Owen, and Richard Sibbs were among the many English luminaries – although Baxter, along with others, followed Moses Amyrald’s subtly different teachings on election. John Knox spread the word in Scotland and the 17th-century New England settlers planted the theology in North America. Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), arguably America’s outstanding theologian and leading spokesman for a sweeping revival called the Great Awakening, was thoroughly Calvinist.  He was also a Platonist and a mystic, and he saw nothing wrong with the Awakening’s strange manifestations: groaning, crying, shaking, screaming, and falling down.

Full disclosure: Although I don’t consider myself a Calvinist, I wouldn’t feel slapped if anyone called me “Reformed,” a broader theology to which Calvin is a foundational contributor.[ii] As I’ve said, I agree more with Jacob Arminius, the Latinized name of Dutch theologian Jacob Hermanzoon (1560-1609), who walked back from Calvin’s determinism and tried to restore the teaching of most early church thinkers.[iii] John Wesley, Methodism’s founder, popularized his theology in 18th-century Britain. Methodism spread like wildfire and Arminianism became America’s predominant evangelical theology in the 19th century.

But I understand Calvinism’s underpinnings, which hinge on humanity’s depravity and God’s sovereignty. The depravity comes into view with Adam and Eve’s rebellion: The prototypical human couple was made in God’s image, which meant both played the role of temple idols on the Earth and represented God in his rulership, holiness and love. They violated their essence and purpose upon their mutiny and devolved into anti-gods and anti-humans, much like my cells become anti-me when they mutate into cancer.  We could even argue: The Sovereign Being who spans, rules, and sustains the universe not only has the right to kill off such a “spoiled species,” as CS Lewis calls us, he’s obligated to do so. After all, gardeners wipe out ants and aphids; I seek total annihilation of my malignant cells. Which means, say Calvinists, we can breathe a sigh of relief because, in a wild act of extravagant grace, God selected some of those demon-like beings for salvation and ultimate transformation. He even came to the Earth and died in an atonement limited to those he called. God jettisoned cold reason, which would have trashed us all, and chose the path of mercy.

Augustine, Calvin, and Luther give us keen insights: The universe’s story is God’s story, not ours. God is transcendent and rules the cosmos. He’s an absolute, sovereign King, not a constitutional monarch, and not bound to justify himself to us. They didn’t blink when they followed the Apostle Paul and saw our aberrance. We’re not now in our natural state. We’d look far more like gods and goddesses if we were. Love, joy, peace, gentleness, humility, justice, fairness, and graciousness would be reflexive; sin would possess the allure of skunk stench.  Instead, holiness is the ideal, unobtainable now but for God’s grace. Our good works flow from God’s work in us, to follow Martin Luther’s thinking.

But a question yanks us out of deference: Is the Augustinian conception of predestination biblically correct? Arminians point to passages either implying or declaring human choice as well as Jesus’ death for the “whole world” (some examples: John 1:29; 1 John 2:2; 1 John 4:14). Their solution: Humans are, indeed, just as depraved as the Augustinians said, but the Almighty is even more gracious than they saw. God grants prevenient grace to everyone, giving each the ability to say yea or nay to Christ. Those who follow Him are justified by their faith if they “continue in (their) faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel” (Colossians 1:23). Passages invoking predestination usually refer to groups, not individuals.[iv]

I say all that not to convert Calvinists (that involves a much longer argument packed with proof-texts and debate over what biblical predestination actually is – and it’s usually a lost cause), but to make the all-important point: Arminians paddle with the Church as a whole, which has always retreated from determinism.  In 529, conveners at the Second Council of Orange affirmed human depravity while rejecting the Augustinian outlook. Their words left little room for doubt: “We not only do not believe that any are foreordained to evil by the power of God, but even state with utter abhorrence that if there are those who want to believe so evil a thing, they are anathema.” What’s more, Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560), Luther’s collaborator and Protestantism’s first systematic theologian, guided Lutheranism away from his friend on this score. Calvinists often cite the dictums of the Synod of Dort (1618-1619), in which Dutch Reformers spurned and imprisoned Arminius’s followers, and the Puritan Westminster Confession of Faith (1646); but, again, the Church Universal has agreed to neither Dort nor Westminster. Anglicans as a whole never signed on and Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians barely involved themselves in the argument.

Perhaps anyone bucking the tide would adopt humility – especially when they spill gallons of ink proving universal human depravity, which would include themselves.

… and depths

To be sure, many Reformed thinkers are gracious. Pastor and author Tim Keller is one; Richard Mouw, president emeritus of Fuller Theological Seminary, is another – and I think of some of my favorite seminary professors. But much of staunch Calvinism snarls with a mean streak and some of its thinkers now patrol like sentries at evangelicalism’s doctrinal gates, blowing down straw men right and left. They follow the precedent laid by their forbears, who often sprayed a bewildering array of accusations at Arminians: they’re works-righteous (we supposedly earn our way to heaven), antinomian (we’re lawless), closet Catholics, Pelagians (alleged followers of Augustine’s adversary, Pelagius [cerca 360-418], who didn’t believe in Original Sin), and anti-Trinitarian. The Calvinists pick out errant pseudo-Arminians as well as America’s most famous 19th-century evangelist, the Pelagian-leaning Charles Finney, and hold them aloft as the norm. Old Princeton’s academics were especially disparaging. Arminians replied by labeling Calvinists the “frozen chosen.”[v]

Princeton Theological Seminary eventually reorganized and opened up to theological modernism, whereupon old-schoolers led by John Gresham Machen (1881-1937) bolted and established Westminster Theological Seminary in 1929. Westminster possesses Old Princeton’s strengths (academic rigor and intellectual scrupulousness) and weaknesses (a halo gleams over Calvin’s head and the Westminster Confession is God-breathed). Some of the school’s faculty, especially its founders, made a profession of attacking anything failing to measure up to their strict interpretation of Calvinism.

Enter the vitriolic Van Til. He articulated his basic assumption in an article blasting the monumental thinking of Swiss theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968): “Only Reformed theology, based upon the doctrine of a really sovereign God, creator of heaven and earth, whose decrees include ‘whatsoever comes to pass,’ can bring men to a real Entscheidung (decision). Against Barth, as against modern theology which he seeks to oppose, we must once more raise the banner of a sovereign God and of His complete revelation in Scripture.”[vi]

I long to ask: “Did you just say that?” Only Reformed theologians say a sovereign God created the universe and inspired the Scriptures? And just how does this strain of Reformed theology, which proclaims a brand of predestination never encoded in an ecumenical creed and rejected by most of the Church, compel us “to a real decision”? Everything’s foreordained. Salvific decisions are above our pay grade.

But such was Van Til’s launching pad, and all who disagreed were fair game to unfair, inaccurate, and unbridled attack.

His feud with Barth serves as a prime example. Barth guided Protestantism away from 19th-century theological Modernism, which gutted Christianity of its inspired Scriptures, the miraculous, the Trinity, Original Sin, and the resurrection. Modernists whittled Jesus into a mere exemplary human; the Bible, pared of miracles and unsavory brood-of-viper comments, contained profound teaching for generous souls craving the “fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man.”[vii] We’re not bad.  We just need education.

But then came World War One’s slaughter. Supposedly kind-hearted, civilized Europeans lobbed poison gas, lit flame throwers, and braved machine-gun fire over moon-scaped landscapes so they could bayonet each other in the face. Optimistic Liberalism lay on life support.

Barth pulled the plug with his commentary on the New Testament Book of Romans, the first edition of which was published in 1918. He constantly urged in later writings: “back to Luther; back to Calvin” and insisted on an orthodox view of the Trinity (he didn’t call the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit “persons” but, instead, described them as three co-existing, eternal, and self-aware “modes of being.” This was not heretical modalism, as his Church Dogmatics makes clear[viii]). Barth would eventually be lumped with theologians such as Emil Brunner, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and others and tagged “Neo-Orthodox,” although he didn’t like the term.

Evangelicals faced a choice: Was Barth a friend or foe? True, his view on Scripture didn’t align with theirs (he claimed the Bible “contains” God’s Word) and he was fuzzy about universalism (as was Gregory of Nyssa, a revered fourth-century church father), but surely his neo-orthodoxy steered the theological world in the right direction – and kudos for standing up to Hitler and the Nazified “German Christians” in 1934: He wrote the Barmen Declaration, which railed against nationalistic intrusion into the church, while teaching in Germany. He was exiled back to Switzerland.

Perhaps friendly dialogue and genuine debate might tilt him and others into unvarnished orthodoxy.

Van Til would have none of it. Barth was the enemy, a veritable wolf in sheep’s clothing. He saw Barth through the prism of presuppositionalism, which says the (Reformed) Christian faith lays the only platform for rational thought. Thus, there was little room for reasoned debate with non-Reformed thinkers due to mutually exclusive assumptions. In practice, this meant Van Til wouldn’t really argue. He’d second guess his opponent’s hidden presuppositions – often unknown to the adversary himself – and attack them. He convinced himself that Barth’s theology was dangerous because it was anchored in the pivotal but enigmatic philosophy of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), who seemingly viewed formal religion skeptically (interpreters debate over that); second, Barth supposedly believed that God’s activity never intersected with history, which quashed the possibility of Christ’s physical resurrection.

Van Til summed up his views in the 1946 publication of The New Modernism: An Appraisal of the Theology of Barth and Brunner. The reviews have been pouring in ever since. TF Torrance, a British Barth sympathizer, said this:  “ … there is in fact no attempt made to form a fair judgment of the views which are so bitterly criticized from end to end of this volume…”[ix] One normally cool-headed internet observer characterized the book as “comically grotesque.”[x]

Yet Van Til stubbornly clung to his misreading despite all evidence, violating the fundamental rule shared by scholars and respectable journalists: Get your facts right. Lewes Smedes (1921-2002) was once a Van Til student and admirer (“I was mesmerized for one semester by the boldness of Van Til’s thinking”), but then saw his pig-headedness:

“Van Til was convinced that if anyone’s assumptions about God are wrong, she cannot be trusted even when she says that she believes the gospel truth about Jesus. He wrote a book called The New Modernism in which he contended that the star theologian of the century, Karl Barth, was a modernist because, in Van Til’s view, he denied that Jesus was God in human form and denied as well that he had risen from the dead. The hitch was that Barth had affirmed these things over and over and, in fact, was largely to be credited with bringing the gospel back into the churches of Europe. But Van Til said that even if Barth shouted from the tower of St. Peter’s that Jesus was the Son of God, he could not believe what he was saying. His philosophical presuppositions would not let him.

“Several years later, after I had finished my graduate studies in Amsterdam, I had occasion to put the question to Barth himself: ‘Sir, if you will permit me an absurd anachronism, let us suppose that a journalist carried a camera into Jesus’ tomb about eight o’clock on Easter Sunday morning and took pictures of every inch of the tomb, what would have showed up on his film?’ Barth sighed. This again? He had been asked questions like this by every skeptical evangelical who got within shouting distance of him. But he was patient: ‘He would have gotten nothing but pictures of an empty tomb. Jesus was not there. He had walked out of the tomb early that morning.’

“I told Van Til about this conversation. His answer was, for me, a final exhibition of intellectual futility. “Smedes,” he said, “you have studied philosophy, you should know that Barth cannot believe that Jesus rose from the dead.” Cannot! Not merely does not, but cannot believe what he said he believed. Conversation finished.[xi]

Van Til’s straw-man arguments roared past intellectual honesty and swung into raw bullying. Eventually, Barth – no stranger to grouchy assertiveness himself – stopped replying to the constant bombardment from him and others, including Carl Henry. He wrote to Geoffrey Bromily: “Please excuse me and please try to understand that I cannot and will not answer the questions these people put.”  He explained:

“Such a discussion would have to rest on the primary presupposition that those who ask the questions have read, learned, and pondered the many things I have already said and written about these matters. They have obviously not done this, but have ignored the many hundreds of pages in the Church Dogmatics where they might at least have found out—not necessarily under the headings of history, universalism, etc. —where I really stand and do not stand. From that point they could have gone on to pose further questions.

“I sincerely respect the seriousness with which a man like [G.C.] Berkouwer studies me and then makes his criticisms. I can then answer him in detail. But I cannot respect the questions of these people from Christianity Today, for they do not focus on the reasons for my statements but on certain foolishly drawn deductions from them. Their questions are thus superficial.

“The decisive point, however, is this. The second presupposition of a fruitful discussion between them and me would have to be that we are able to talk on a common plane. But these people have already had their so-called orthodoxy for a long time. They are closed to anything else, they will cling to it at all costs, and they can adopt toward me only the role of prosecuting attorneys, trying to establish whether what I represent agrees or disagrees with their orthodoxy, in which I for my part have no interest! None of their questions leaves me with the impression that they want to seek with me the truth that is greater than us all. They take the stance of those who happily possess it already and who hope to enhance their happiness by succeeding in proving to themselves and the world that I do not share this happiness. Indeed they have long since decided and publicly proclaimed that I am a heretic, possibly (van Til) the worst heretic of all time. So be it! But they should not expect me to take the trouble to give them the satisfaction of offering explanations which they will simply use to confirm the judgment they have already passed on me.[xii]

Van Til’s failure to see nuance in his for-me-or-against-me world even rocked his staunchly Calvinist ghetto. He went after fellow presuppositionalist Gordon Clark (1902-1985), whom Henry hailed as “one of the profoundest evangelical Protestant philosophers of our time” and Ronald Nash praised as “one of the greatest thinkers of our century.”[xiii]

Not according to Van Til, who rallied many of his Westminster colleagues in a move to defrock Clark in 1944 after the latter was ordained in their small denomination, The Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Clark’s crime: He believed God’s knowledge and humanity’s knowledge are quantitatively but not qualitatively different. Since all truth is one truth, God’s knowledge and humanity’s knowledge coincide when each apprehends the same reality. We humans can never know anything exhaustively because we’re not omniscient, so our grasp of truth will forever remain a mole hill compared with God’s Everest – even unto eternity.

Van Til said Clark had it all wrong: There’s an insurmountable wall between God’s knowledge and our knowledge, rendering God quantitatively and qualitatively incomprehensible. We only know things as fallen creatures; God knows things as a holy creator. We can only know God via Scriptural analogy and we can never understand as God understands.[xiv]

Most believers respond, “Yawn.”

This debate is all very interesting (I guess), but hardly the stuff of heresy trials. I doubt Spanish Inquisitors would even mumble in their afternoon siestas. But Van Til and his Westminster colleagues went full-bore even after Clark’s vindication. They drummed up charges against one of his defenders, so the wearied Clark faction left the denomination.

Van Til’s Ghost

Van Til’s bullying would remain a single enclave’s historical curiosity but for one thing: Some of evangelicalism’s most influential leaders sat in his classroom. Harold Ockenga graduated from Westminster in 1930; Edward John Carnell, Fuller Theological Seminary’s second president, earned two Westminster degrees and admired Van Til; Francis Schaeffer attended Westminster before transferring to an even more conservative school and popularized Van Til’s misinterpretation of Barth.

Again, there’s the snag that stymies cartoonish caricature: Westminster’s influence is far from thoroughly evil. The gracious Harvie Conn (1933-1999) taught there. Renowned historian George Marsden is an alumnus. Timothy Keller, the former pastor of Manhattan’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church, earned his Doctor of Ministry Degree under Conn’s supervision and served on the seminary’s faculty. Meredith Klein (1922-2007) split his time between Westminster’s western campus (which eventually established its independence), Gordon-Conwell, and other seminaries and wrote orthodox yet innovative interpretations of the Genesis creation narratives. Westminster graduates often achieve Ph.D.’s and populate seminary faculties. Most, like Emeritus Gordon-Conwell Professor Richard Lovelace, follow Ockenga’s lead and embraced a more irenic Reformed theology.

So there’s a Jeckyl-and-Hyde Westminster, with the much-admired Van Til revealing Mr. Hyde.

Mr. Hyde dampens evangelical academia and impedes intellectual curiosity. An assumption – usually unspoken – hovers in the background: The Old Princetonians reign on a pedestal and keep an eye on those bratty Arminians. That’s astonishing, since the 19th-century Princetonians rarely came out to play during the century’s mammoth revivals. They remained the party’s somber wall flowers, disparaging all those emotional Wesley-followers and, later, the early 20th-century Pentecostals. Roger Olson needles them from his perch at Baylor University’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary, but many academics are afraid to take them on.

More troubling is the normalization of Van Til’s ignore-the-facts belligerence among influential evangelical intellects, which eventually fomented an atmosphere of fear and fostered aggressive neo-fundamentalism. The irenicism of Ockenga, Henry, and Graham would fade into the husky cantankerousness of Harold Lindsell, another leader in the evangelical resurgence. He’d write an incendiary book in the mid-1970’s that launched a needless “battle for the Bible,” pitting evangelicals against themselves.

I’ll discuss that pivotal chapter in evangelical history in my book. Suffice it to say that The Battle For The Bible opened the cages, releasing irascible neo-fundamentalists to follow Van Til’s example and prowl for heretics, ignoring facts as they tarred the reputations of the innocent.

[i] Amy Sullivan, “America’s New Religion: Fox Evangelicalism,” New York Times, December 15, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/15/opinion/sunday/war-christmas-evangelicals.htm; recovered, 9/21/2018.

[ii] For a view that Arminianism is one school in Reformed theology, see the essay, “Reformed Arminianism: Oxymoron or Historically Orthodox?” at Society of Evangelical Arminians, April 11, 2016, http://evangelicalarminians.org/reformed-arminianism-oxymoron-or-historically-orthodox/; recovered, 9/19/2018.

[iii] See Thomas Oden, The Transforming Power of Grace (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993), pp. 139-159.

[iv] See Ben Witherington III, The Problem with Evangelical Theology: Testing the Exegetical Foundations of Calvinism, Dispensationalism, Wesleyanism, and Pentecostalism (Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2005), pp. 53-80

[v] Roger Olson surveys Calvinist mischaracterization of Arminian theology in Arminian Theology, Myths and Realities (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006).

[vi] Van Til, Cornelius, “Karl Barth on Creation,” The Presbyterian Guardian, February 27, 1937, Volume 3, Number 10, p. 205.

[vii] This phrase sums up the thinking of German theologian A. Harnack in his What Is Christianity? (English translation: London: Williams and Norgate, 1901, 1904), discussed in James D.G. Dunn, Christianity in the Making, Volume 1, (Grand Rapids, Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2003), p. 38.

[viii] Barth wrote on the Trinity in his Church Dogmatics 1/1: 360 ff. It can be found in an annotated and abbreviated form in R. Michael Allen, Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics: An Introduction and Reader (New York and London: T&T Clark International, 2012), pp. 30-41.

[ix] T.F. Torrance, 1947. “Review of The New Modernism” in The Evangelical Quarterly 19, p.148, 1947.

[x]Ben Myers, “The Worst Book Ever Written on Karl Barth,” Faith and Theology, http://www.faith-theology.com/2005/07/worst-book-ever-written-on-karl-barth.html. Retrieved, March 19, 2018.

[xi] Lewes Smedes, My God and I: A Spiritual Memoir (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), pp. 68-69.

[xii] See Karl Barth, “Letter 3: To Geoffrey W. Bromiley, Pasadena, CA.,” in Barth’s Letters: 1961-1968 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981), pp. 342-343, quoted on The Post-Barthian, https://postbarthian.com/2014/04/29/karl-barths-letter-in-response-to-cornelius-van-tils-questions/, retrieved on March 19, 2018.

[xiii]John W. Robbins, “An Introduction to Gordon H. Clark,” The Trinity Review, July-August, 1993, pp. 1-10 http://www.trinityfoundation.org/journal.php?id=192,  Retrievied March 19, 2018.

[xiv] Van Till’s anti-Clark complaint is found here: “The Text of a Complaint,” Notes on Gordon H. Clark, http://notes-on-gordon-h-clark.blogspot.ca/2014/07/document-1944-text-of-complaint.html, retrieved March 19, 2018.

 

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About Charles Redfern

Charles Redfern is a writer, activist, and clergyman living in Connecticut with his wife and family. He's currently writing two books, with more in his head.

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2 Comments on “The Buried Roots of Evangelical Bullying”

  1. John Eli Says:

    Looks like your book is going to be a deep one. Looks interesting.

    Reply

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