Friday, August 05, 2005

Neo-Pietism or Ostrich Evangelicalism

Steve Camp has recently posted an article written by Phil Johnson, entitled "Ecumenical Politics". (You can find Phil Johnson's own blog, here.)

Johnson is commenting on an article by Charles Colson and Anne Morse entitled "Reclaiming Occupied Territory".

To begin with, what's odd is that Johnson focuses repeatedly on the sin of "ecumenical" politics; at least ten times in his analysis he mentions this concern. But if you read the Colson article to which Johnson is responding, Colson never once mentions the need for ecumenical political alliances. It's as if Johnson insists on finding one of his favorite bogeymen, even when it isn't there. Johnson accuses Colson of failing to "get it," as if the Colson article is even purporting to be a defense of "ecumenical" politics. It's not. But that doesn't stop Johnson from inserting a gratuitous hyperlink to "Evangelicals and Catholics Together".

Johnson claims that ecumenical politics "seems to be the only strategy Colson is willing to consider as a remedy for the moral rot of postmodern culture." This is uncharitable at best. Johnson concocts a false antithesis between the effect of the gospel and the effect of Christian political activity. Here's what Colson really says: "And when we are redeemed, we are both freed from sin and restored to do what God designed us to do: Create culture." Notice that it is when we are redeemed that we are restored to do what God designed us to do. Colson himself acknowledges that the redemption brought by the gospel is crucially relevant to the cultural enterprise, because it is redeemed Christians who are in the best position to engage in the cultural work (in virtue of the fact that they have both been freed from sin and restored to do what God designed them to do). It is because of the effect of the gospel in their lives, therefore, that Christians are best-placed to affect culture.

Johnson continues:

He is convinced that those who don't share his commitment to ecumenical politics cannot possibly 'engage the culture' in any meaningful sense.

Johnson doesn't give any support for this sweeping claim. Indeed, at this point Johnson hasn't even bothered to interact with a single citation from Colson's article. So the reader is already primed to see a conclusion that isn't really there. As a matter of fact, it's quite easy to refute Johnson's claim from the text of Colson's article itself. Here's the list of behaviors which Colson urges upon pastors and individual Christians:

-- "voting"

-- "urging their flocks to vote for politicians who support moral issues" (although "pastors should not make partisan endorsements")

-- "engaging in moral debates"

-- "critiquing false worldviews"

None of these activities involve sharing Colson's "commitment to ecumenical politics". They can quite profitably be engaged in even by those who reject such a commitment. In addition, Colson thinks that any of these activities can effectively engage the culture. Therefore, Johnson's sweeping claim is pretty well as false as anything could be.

Johnson says of Colson: "he clearly does not believe the gospel itself can transform culture." Again, as was seen above, this is a false antithesis uncharitably imposed upon Colson. The problem here is that Johnson has far too narrow a view of how "the gospel itself can transform culture." Sure, one way it can transform culture is for evil men to be directly converted by faith in Christ. But here's another way: Christians who have already been converted by the gospel can live out their faith in a way that transforms culture. Why doesn't Johnson so much as consider that this is an additional effect of the gospel on culture?

Johnson makes it sound like Colson and any other evangelicals involved in ECB are unconverted pagans, so that the gospel has no connection to their cultural endeavors. But they aren't unconverted pagans; they're born-again Christians. And they are living out their faith by trying to engage the culture in various ways: voting, moral debate, critique of unbelieving worldviews, etc. Johnson's arbitrarily narrow construal of 'the gospel transforming culture' is a self-fulfilling, ultimately defeatist prophecy. He repeatedly stresses that is only the gospel which will transform the society, but when people like Colson and others are actually converted by the gospel, Johnson won't allow them to live out their faith in society, or to urge others to do the same! And he supports this by saying that such activity constitutes a denial that "the gospel itself can transform culture"! This boggles the mind.

It's no wonder, then, that the gospel doesn't transform society! Johnson later says that, "Of course, we don't deny that Christianity ought to shape culture, as it has, historically, whenever the gospel has been preached effectively." But his whole response to Colson is predicated on denying what he says he doesn't deny: if the gospel has been preached effectively to your soul, don't you dare go out like Colson and seek cultural change! "Christianity ought to shape culture," except that it shouldn't :-) "The gospel itself can transform culture," but don't let those who believe the gospel take part in doing it!

Johnson claims that:

'Engaging the culture' by Colson's preferred strategy demands, for example, that we downplay or silence the message of justification by faith alone or risk alienating Colson's Roman Catholic allies in the culture war.

But the problem with this kind of observation is that its cogency trades upon equivocation on what it means to "silence the message". I entirely agree with Johnson that it is quite wrong of Colson to regard Roman Catholics as his 'brethren'. But this is a theological, not political, error. For the purpose of political activism (as opposed to, say, for the purposes of church membership or gospel ministry), there is simply no need to appeal to evangelical distinctives in order to engage in this work with others. If Johnson thinks he has a biblical argument that says otherwise, then let's see it. So far, he's merely assumed that uniting around concerns broader than those of the gospel itself, for the purpose of cultural change, is somehow forbidden. Unfortunately for Johnson's stance, Christians in society regularly cooperate with non-Christians in order to bring about a variety of social and cultural goods which are something other than belief in the gospel itself. And so far, Johnson has given no general argument as to why such cooperation is forbidden, much less why cooperative political activity in particular is forbidden.

But here's what's interesting. Notice what Johnson says in the following, which immediately follows the above:

Of course, historic evangelicalism has always regarded the principle of sola fide as the very essence of the gospel message. That's what the Protestant Reformation was all about.

This is of course all true, but why does Johnson think it is relevant against Colson? Apparently, Johnson thinks that "the very essence of the gospel message" sets the boundaries for any and all cooperative endeavor participated in by Christians. If your partners don't believe the gospel, then the cooperative endeavor compromises the gospel. Now, I think belief in the gospel sets the boundaries for some cooperative endeavors engaged in by Christians, and very important ones at that (again, church membership, or gospel ministry, come to mind). But for all cooperative endeavor in society whatsoever? Sorry, but Johnson's going to have to argue for that one. He can't expect reasonably reflective Christians to buy into his socially-restrictive rules on his say-so.

Here's what's even more interesting: Johnson's criticisms depend on conflating the very distinction which Colson is eager to make. In the opening paragraphs of his article (not buried in a footnote, folks!), Colson says:

One asked: "But won't engaging the culture this way interfere with fulfilling the Great Commission? Isn't this our job—to win people to Christ?"

That people still raise this question surprised me. "Of course we're called to fulfill the Great Commission," I replied. "But we're also called to fulfill the cultural commission." Christians are agents of God's saving grace—bringing others to Christ, I explained—but we are also agents of his common grace: sustaining and renewing his creation, defending the created institutions of family and society, critiquing false worldviews.

Here Colson makes a distinction between the Great Commission and the cultural commission, which in turn depends on the distinction between being agents of God's saving grace and being agents of his common grace. When I join with non-Christians at the scene of a car accident, helping to revive one of the victims, I am not an agent of God's saving grace (unless we want to hold to justification by CPR). I am an agent of God's common grace, being extended to the victim (and so is the non-Christian with whom I am cooperating). Now, our efforts are fallible. They may fail, despite the time and energy we put into them. They don't bring about spiritual or eternally enduring goods. In the great scheme of things, saving a single life probably won't immediately effect a spiritual transformation of the entire culture. But, presumably, the common-grace efforts in question are not to be despised on any of these grounds.

Johnson's confusion continues. He asks, immediately after the above: "But if the very notion of 'saving faith' must now be relegated to questionable or secondary status in order to keep peace in the religious right, how does that not 'interfere with fulfilling the Great Commission'?" The answer should be obvious: it does not interfere with the Great Commission because the Great Commission is not the cultural commission. Saving grace is not common grace. The church is not the state. And since pursuing political activism isn't being advertised as a fulfillment of the Great Commission, then obviously it doesn't interfere with it. Indeed, lots of Christians do lots of things every day that can't remotely be considered a fulfillment of the Great Commission, but no one would suggest that, in principle, such activities 'interfere' with fulfilling the Great Commission. Notice that Colson never says that the cultural commission replaces the Great Commission. On the contrary, he is careful to say that "The Lord's cultural commission is, I believe, inseparable from the Great Commission," for as Christians are converted they enter into both commissions.

Johnson continues:

As his circle of allies grows broader, the movement becomes less and less tolerant of gospel distinctives. You simply cannot solicit the support and partnership of Jewish leaders in a moral crusade if you're clearly and forcefully declaring the exclusivity of Christ.

Sure you can. You can "declare the exclusivity of Christ" for salvation, while not making belief in Christ a condition for political activism. Does Johnson actually have a good argument against this simple position?

Perhaps Johnson has an overly narrow conception of common grace, such that common grace is only extended to the rest of the world through Christians alone, and not through the activity of non-Christians as well. But if he thinks this, then he is mistaken. Ge 1:28 was not given to the church in particular but to humanity as a whole. And whenever non-Christian A engages in helpful efforts on behalf of non-Christian B, then non-Christian B has received the common grace of God through non-Christian agency. So the participation of non-Christians in common grace endeavors is entirely compatible with the nature of such endeavors. They aren't the proclamation of the gospel. They're something else.

Notice that Johnson's confusion continues in the following, immediately after the above:

Colson's broad ecumenism is simply incompatible with the politically incorrect (but biblical, and essential) truth that explicit faith in Christ is the only way of salvation (John 14:6; Acts 4:12).

Of course, if political activism were being advertised as a "way of salvation," then Johnson might have a point. For "broad ecumenism" would be inconsistent with Christ alone for salvation. But the kind of cultural engagement that Colson is endorsing is not purporting to be a way of salvation! Acts 4:12 is very true, but unfortunately Peter does not there say, "There is no other name under heaven, by which we must do political activity". Nor does Jesus say, "No one comes to the voting booth, or accomplishes earthly, cultural good, except by faith in me." Johnson needs to find better prooftexts.

Johnson asks: "How much will the Christian message need to be toned down in order to hold that kind of coalition together?" Here's a more relevant question: Why does 'that kind of coalition' need to be identified as distinctively Christian in the first place? Notice that once again Johnson has confused what Colson has distinguished. While common-grace activities ought to be actively embraced by Christians, there is no need for them to be a distinctively Christian enterprise.

Johnson doubts that the work of ECB has anything at all to do with the cultural commission of Ge 1:28. He says, "But we think it's a bit of a stretch to find a 'cultural mandate' for political activism in Genesis 1:28." But let's look at how Colson has defined this: "The same command binds Christians today. We bear children, plant crops, build cities, form governments, and create works of art." Now, perhaps Johnson thinks that one of these things is not like the other. In particular, perhaps he thinks that the forming of governments is not a genuinely cultural endeavor. But I think that's a very hard case to make. But if it is a genuinely cultural endeavor, it falls under the cultural commission just as the rest.

Johnson asks:

If Colson's strategy is the right one, why didn't the apostles forge political alliances with the Pharisees and the Zealots -- not to mention the Stoics, who championed high ethical values and opposed the moral decay of Roman society?

This is a fallacious argument from silence that I have addressed elsewhere. The political means were simply not available under imperial Rome as they are in our modern constitutional republic, which is amenable to peaceful, lawful, democratic change.

In addition, Johnson's comparison here with the Zealots is invidious. As Steve Hays has put it:
These were Jews who incited other Jews to the violent overthrow of the Roman occupation. Are the critics of ECB seriously alleging that Land and Mohler and Dobson and Colson are domestic terrorists fomenting an armed insurrection against the US gov’t? Isn’t that a rather scurrilous characterization of the opposing side?

Johnson says: "What we really object to in Colson's rhetoric is his assumption that preaching the gospel and 'engaging culture' are two distinct activities." I really don't see what is so difficult to understand about this. For instance, one way of engaging culture is to vote. Voting is not preaching the gospel. Another way of engaging culture is to critique unbelieving worldviews. Critiquing unbelieving worldviews is not preaching the gospel. These examples seem obvious to me, and decisive. But perhaps I am missing some fine subtlety in Johnson's denial of this common-sense distinction.

Johnson says: "There is no mandate anywhere for the church to 'redeem culture' through the apparatus of democracy." Well, either Johnson is operating with an excessively narrow (read: spiritual) understanding of 'redeem,' or he simply doesn't believe that Ge 1:28 applies to Christians as individuals, or he doesn't think the state is a genuinely cultural endeavor. None of these options are very hopeful, I think.

Johnson says that "pagan societies are transformed for the better only as individuals respond to the gospel and experience the new birth." Yes, but one way the societies are "transformed for the better" is if those individuals who have responded to the gospel put their faith into practice. Are these not the very individuals Colson is addressing?

Johnson says: "It is no part of our calling to cultivate a higher standard of external morality among pagans." If Johnson thinks that any of the political reforms or causes entertained by ECBers actually go beyond the moral depth of God's holy law -- a law which continues to be binding on all men whatsoever -- he's free to offer specific examples.

Colson says:

If we're tempted to ignore the great moral issues of our day, or dismiss them as "just politics," we are betraying our biblical mandate and our own heritage. Nothing could be deadlier for the church, nor for the culture, since real Christianity invariably provides a healthy influence on society.

Johnson replies that "Colson misses the point completely" (he doesn't bother to say why). Again, for some reason, Johnson insists on precluding one way that real Christianity can provide a healthy influence on society.

Johnson says: "No one is arguing that Christians ought to 'ignore the great moral issues of our day.' What we're saying is that there are no effective political remedies for sin." But again, Johnson trades on equivocation to give his argument plausibility. In this case, it all comes down to what you mean by "effective". Sure, political reforms will never provide a spiritual and everlasting solution to the sinful heart of fallen man. And if Johnson thinks that Colson really thinks this, he's free to offer up citations to that effect. In the meantime, the Bible makes it clear that the state is, in many cases, an effective remedy for sin, not by converting the human heart, but by punishing and deterring the evildoer. But perhaps Johnson thinks that the state is not an institution ordained by God and accountable to God, the "minister of God" which is just as much a part of our culture as anything else. Perhaps Johnson thinks that the persistent example of OT prophets in rebuking not just the general populace for their sin, but the kings in particular for their dereliction in enforcing God's laws of compassion and justice, has absolutely no teaching/rebuking/correcting/training relevance for us today. But if he really thinks this (contra 2Ti 3:16-17), he should say so.


  1. Interesting critique Steve. I found the following most interesting:

    Johnson's claim from the text of Colson's article itself. Here's the list of behaviors which Colson urges upon pastors and individual Christians:

    -- "voting"

    -- "urging their flocks to vote for politicians who support moral issues" (although "pastors should not make partisan endorsements")

    -- "engaging in moral debates"

    -- "critiquing false worldviews"

    None of these activities involve sharing Colson's "commitment to ecumenical politics". They can quite profitably be engaged in even by those who reject such a commitment. In addition, Colson thinks that any of these activities can effectively engage the culture. Therefore, Johnson's sweeping claim is pretty well as false as anything could be.

    It is preplexing that Phil would take such a stance given that the focus of his blog centers on church on moral decay (at least of late) and he has seemed to be an advocate for associting the Gospel to a brand of activism in "cleaning up the church" and society (although his articles seem to center more on pointing to problems rather than to offer solutions).

    That said, and notwithstanding to Colson here, I do think the above highlights a major problem in the church today, as many Christians have fallen under the illusion that sharing their politics is synonomous with sharing the Gospel. As a result, the world now looks upon Christans as a bunch of bitter, hypocritical, holier-than-thou political zealots instead of being known of their love for one another. The solution here is simple, though the execution is what trips us most, we should be more zealous in sharing our faith as our politics and seize every opportunity to present the Gospel.

  2. Thanks, Brad.

    As a native of the Evergreen State myself, we share a sentimental bond--as well as a Christian bond.

    Actually, this critique was written by JD, not by me. But as long as it comes in for a lot of positive feedback, I'm more than happy to claim all the credit. If, however, it comes in for a lot negative feedback, I reserve the right of shifting the blame to where it squarely belongs! :-)

  3. Hi Broken Messenger,

    I agree with your comment completely, especially this part: "many Christians have fallen under the illusion that sharing their politics _is_ synonomous with sharing the Gospel." Yes, and to the extent that this is the case, it needs to be rebuked. The Great Commission is not the cultural commission. But this is a two-way street. Critics of ECBers often seem to think that political activism is _antithetical_ to the gospel. It's not.

  4. But this is a two-way street. Critics of ECBers often seem to think that political activism is antithetical to the gospel. It's not.

    Agreed Jus, but the weight of the church has certainly tilted to the other side as the "Critics of ECBers" are soundly out numbered. Anyway, very good article.

    Steve, sorry about the mix-up I'll make sure that you never receive undo credit again... ;o) Good to hear I'm in good company here in WA.


  5. Steve said:
    It is because of the effect of the gospel in their lives, therefore, that Christians are best-placed to affect culture.

    What? Christians are best-placed to affect the mass murderer and the rapist?

    How can that be?

  6. Good word Jus. I think it is also helpful to keep in mind Phil’s background. The fire of his fundamentalist flame was not forged in reformed Dutch theology, but in the right-leaning dispensational tradition. A dab of Kuyper’s “sphere sovereignty” would be helpful.

    Additionally, from the early 20th century there has been a severe reaction against anything akin to the Social Gospel by fundamentalists. That darn slippery slope is so deadly that we had better not even put on our skis.

    Even though I strongly disagree with a lot of what Mark Noll has to say in his Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, I think he has valid criticism of those with positions like Phil and Campi.

  7. No, Frank, "Steve" didn't say that. That's "JD" summarizing "Colson." Try to pay attention.

    In addition, you are twisting Colson's position into your own tendentious paraphrase by cutting and splicing ideas which he did not connect in that fashion. Is this what you're reduced to?

  8. Jonathan,

    I completely agree with you. This has nothing to do with Calvinism and everything to do with fundamentalism--and a pretty retro version of fundamentalism at that.

  9. Jus, while I certainly agree that the gospel is not antithetical to political activism, I think Phil has a point about the necessity of bringing in Chuck Colson’s context, specifically ECT. That document is an outline for political activism that sets aside serious differences, like salvation, between Evangelicals as Romanists. What value can any political victory have it is not based on a solid biblical foundation?

  10. Hi Lee,

    You say:

    I think Phil has a point about the necessity of bringing in Chuck Colson’s context, specifically ECT. That document is an outline for political activism that sets aside serious differences, like salvation, between Evangelicals as Romanists. What value can any political victory have it is not based on a solid biblical foundation?

    I think you need to read some of the follow-ups to this post, such as this one:

    I join Phil (and Al Mohler, for that matter) in rejecting the ECT document. I have no interest in accepting Roman Catholics as 'brethren'. But my main point is that little to none of Colson's arguments in the article to which Phil was responding depended upon an appeal to ECT. It just wasn't a fair reading of the arguments which Colson did give.

    As for "setting aside serious differences," well, as I wrote, it all depends on why you do this. Do you do it for the sake of receiving others in church membership, or for the sake of joining together in gospel ministry? Then that is bad. But if you do it for the sake of political cooperation, I don't see the principled objection to it. Does belief in the gospel set the boundaries for any and all cooperative endeavor in society whatsoever?

    I'm not sure what you mean by the 'political victory' not being 'based on a solid biblical foundation'. If it's the state carrying out its God-ordained mandate, how can that not be, objectively speaking, a biblical foundation? But perhaps this is a reference to the subjective motivations of the people involved or something? You're going to have to clarify, I think.

  11. Jus,

    I shall try to clarify using the example that Chuck Colson uses in his article. He begins his piece by encouraging ministers to support a Federal Marriage Amendment. If we set aside our serious differences about the Biblical foundations of marriage in order to gain the political victory of passing the Federal Marriage Amendment, then our victory is a hollow one. I would also go on to say that it would actually be a defeat for the church in fulfilling its cultural mandate. If Christians or the church join forces with Feminists, Evolutionists, or any other non-Christian group that would oppose the legalization of Homosexual Marriage, to pass an Amendment about marriage that does not state God created marriage, and it is therefore unalterable, how has the church preserved anything? Marriage would be officially defined by the Federal Government, not by the Bible. And as we have seen in history with things like Prohibition, just as easily as it is passed, so it can be undone. In fact, it would be easier to undo because the church had already worked to pass an Amendment to the Constitution giving the Federal Government the right to define marriage. Colson is wrong. Political activism is not always the answer or the best way to fulfill the cultural mandate. Thus, a political victory without a solid biblical base (such as a Biblical definition of marriage in the amendment) is a hollow victory if not an outright defeat. It will only delay the inevitable. Christian political activism must be accompanied with solid Biblical truth. The goal of the Feminists, Evolutionists, and Christians may be the same in passing the FMA, but the reasoning is different, the basis is different. And it is that difference that makes true cooperation, even political cooperation a dangerous thing.

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