The Briefing 01-26-17

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Senate Democrats promise fight if Trump's Supreme Court nominee isn't "mainstream"

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Divinity schools abandon theological heritage and require gender-inclusive language to refer to God

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Defender of the faith? Queen's chaplain resigns after criticizing Koranic reading in Christian service

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Transcript

The Briefing

January 26, 2017

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

It’s Thursday, January 26, 2017. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Senate Democrats promise fight if Trump's Supreme Court nominee isn't "mainstream"

It is now expected that President Donald Trump will announce his pick for the Supreme Court on Thursday of next week. That nomination would come as a replacement for Justice Antonin Scalia, who died now almost a year ago, and it’s abundantly clear that the White House is sending signals that it expects a fight in the United States Senate even as the White House gave indication that the President’s final decision about the nomination would likely come by the end of this week.

The reason why there is going to be so much attention to this nomination is simple. The Supreme Court really matters. And that means every single seat on the Court matters. Justice Scalia was by almost any measure the most influential conservative justice on that court for the last generation. His death left a massive absence on the Court, not just in terms of an empty chair, but absent arguments. Furthermore, it shifted the math on the Supreme Court. There had been until Justice Scalia’s death a tenuous 5 to 4 conservative majority, but there we have to be careful because on many, many questions there wasn’t a conservative majority. Justice Anthony Kennedy sided with so many on the liberal side, especially on the most contentious issues, including at least some abortion decisions and most particularly decisions related to the LGBT revolution.

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Thus everyone was already expecting a pitched battle, and when President Obama nominated Judge Merrick Garland last year to fill the seat, it was clear that Republicans in the United States Senate would not move forward with the nomination at all. The argument made by the Republican leadership is that it was not timely for the President to make such a nomination in the midst of an election year, even as his term was coming to an end. Now President Trump is at the beginning of an elected four year term, and he does so with majorities in both the house and the Senate of his own party.

But the crucial issue here is the Senate, and the Republicans have 52 votes. The math here is really important because it takes 60 votes in order to overcome what is known as a filibuster. That’s the mechanism in the rules of the Senate that allows the minority to delay and sometimes indefinitely to defer a vote. The issue cannot come to the floor without 60 votes known as a vote for cloture. The Democratic leadership, including minority leader Chuck Schumer, United States Senator from New York, have given every indication that they will fight any nomination given by President Trump.

But here’s where the story gets really, really interesting from a worldview perspective. When he was running for office, now President Trump offered a list of about 20 conservative judges that he said would be indicative of the kind of justice he would nominate to the United States Supreme Court. Now at least much of the speculation is about at least one of the names on that list, and it’s also a speculation that has to do with exactly how the battle over this nomination is likely to shape up. In the front page article for the New York Times, Michael D. Shear and Adam Liptak report,

“President Trump said on Tuesday that he would reach a decision this week on his nominee to fill the nearly yearlong vacancy on the Supreme Court, a choice that will plunge the nation’s capital into what promises to be an all-consuming political fight only weeks into his presidency.”

Now let me pause in order to interject that if you are a newly elected President of the United States and you want to make a long-lasting impact on the country, then you cannot possibly leave a nomination like this for long fallow. You need to make the nomination and then you need to fight for it. The next several sentences in the New York Times story are especially important. The reporters say,

“The refusal of Republicans last year to even consider President Barack Obama’s nomination of Judge Merrick B. Garland to fill the vacancy created by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia last February remains a source of deep bitterness for Democrats. They have vowed to embrace the same tactics against Mr. Trump. Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the minority leader, has said Democrats are prepared to try to keep Justice Scalia’s seat open indefinitely”—listen very carefully to the next words—“if the president proposes a nominee who is out of the legal mainstream.”

Now that’s really crucial language, and we need to notice it for two different reasons. In the first place you see how the Democrats are making the argument. They say they will oppose any nominee to the Supreme Court made by Donald Trump that is outside of the “mainstream.” The other thing you need to note is that the New York Times picked up that language as if it makes common sense, as if it makes perfect sense to everyone that there is the danger that President Trump will nominate someone to the court who is outside of the mainstream. The word mainstream here is not put in the voice of Senator Schumer, nor is it put in scare quotes as if it is a particularly controversial word. But of course, it is.

It’s also interesting to note that in a second article in yesterday’s edition of the New York Times, the same issue arises again. Chuck Schumer, the minority leader of the Senate, is shown in a photograph, and under the photograph it says this,

“Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, said his party would insist on having a mainstream Supreme Court candidate.”

In this article, and remember it’s the same newspaper on the same day, Carl Hulse writes that Senator Schumer and his fellow Democrats are unlikely to try to return the “tit for tat” in terms of not even allowing a hearing for a Trump nomination to the Court. But then Hulse writes,

“Top Democrats say they don’t intend to play ‘tit for tat’ with the nomination. But they say they will insist on what they consider to be a mainstream candidate capable of securing at least the 60 votes needed to thwart any filibuster. Otherwise, they promise to do whatever they can to block the nominee.”

The word mainstream shows up a fourth time in just two articles in the same newspaper on the same day when we read,

“‘We are not going to do what the Republicans did,’ said Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, ‘but if the candidate’s out of the mainstream, I can tell you I will fight and my caucus will fight tooth and nail against them.’”

Well there’s the declaration of war over the Supreme Court nomination, but what’s really, really important from a worldview perspective is that four times, no less than four times, the word mainstream is used as if we should all know exactly what that implies. But at that point, perhaps it’s more clear than we might suggest. The word mainstream in this context clearly means following the precedent of the progressivist liberal interpretation of the Constitution that has marked the larger trajectory of the United States Supreme Court since the Court was headed by Earl Warren, particularly in the decade of the 1960s.

Social location really matters. We should simply think in these terms. If you write for the New York Times or if you edit for the New York Times, if you’re likely to be expected to be a reader of the New York Times, you just might consider that progressivist liberal inclination to be the mainstream. For those on the American left, the rise of conservative jurisprudence, conservative lawyers, legal theories, law professors, and judges was one of the unexpected and unwelcome surprises of the last half of the 20th century. The Supreme Court had been largely influenced by a very liberal team of justices, and that filtered down to the appellate courts and to the federal district courts as well. The law schools and especially their faculties have been overwhelmingly liberal ever since at least World War II, and that progressivist understanding of the Constitution and the law that is traceable at least back to President Woodrow Wilson was so dominant that many people believed it to be an impregnable fortress.

But all that began to change in the 1970s and it accelerated in the 1980s with the rise of conservative legal scholars who began to teach in the law schools. Later, they became judges and justices, and their conservative theory of understanding the Constitution and the law became a truly rival system of legal thought to that progressivist liberal interpretation. The understanding of the text was very central to this. The liberals argued that the text of the Constitution was where one began a consideration of constitutionality. They argued that the Constitution should be considered as a malleable, evolving, and even living text, to use their words. And they argued that justices and judges could find in the Constitution what’s patently not there and furthermore was not in the intention of those who framed the Constitution. That same philosophy was extended to statutory law.

Justice Antonin Scalia and others came back and argued as what were called strict constructionists or originalists, later textualists, that it was the text of the Constitution that mattered. The text limited its interpretation. The words and propositions, the sentences of the Constitution were what would establish the authority. And in terms of interpreting beyond the words, what was most important was the intention of those who framed the Constitution and its language in the first place. Justice Scalia as a textualist also applied this to statutory law, that is the law adopted by Congress. The textualists argued that it’s the law, the actual words of the law that should determine its interpretation, not even statements made by legislators in adopting the legislation. Scalia and his colleagues made the important point that it’s what was actually adopted by action of Congress and signed into law by the President that really matters. You have to understand that this was a revolution that that was completely unexpected by those on the left. And of course not only was it unexpected, it was vehemently opposed.

Christians looking at this equation can understand the immediate parallel between the responsibility of interpreting the Scripture or interpreting another text such as the U.S. Constitution. The leftward and the rightward systems of thought in interpreting those texts are reflected in theology as much as in the law. Liberal biblical scholars have argued that it isn’t the text of the Scripture that should be of the authority, but rather the interpretation of that could be very creative coming from liberal scholars concerning what the Scripture means now implying that it could mean now something very different than it meant originally. And of course conservative evangelical biblical scholars have responded that it’s actually the words of Scripture that are the authoritative text. And of course behind that is the verbal, plenary understanding of the Bible’s inspiration. It’s verbal revelation that stands at the very center of the evangelical understanding of Scripture.

Now that’s to say that how you define the text inevitably determines how you will interpret it. If you define the text of Scripture merely as ancient religious literature, then any modern interpreter has every right to reconstrue the meaning of the text as he or she may feel is right and important or even urgent. But if you believe that it is the inerrant, infallible, verbally inspired text, the very word of God, then the interpreter, whether ancient or medieval or modern, has no right to invent a new meaning, nor to find a meaning that isn’t clearly in the words, in the syntax, in the sentences, in the propositions.

That same system, of course, applies to the U.S. Constitution. And thus we find ourselves at the thresholds announced next week in terms of the nomination President Trump will make to the Supreme Court. We’re looking at the threshold of an epic battle that is likely to reshape not only the Supreme Court, but our national conversation on these issues. And given the centrality of the Supreme Court to so much of American public life, it may well determine the trajectory of many issues, court decisions, and cultural trends for many years, even generations, into the future.

Divinity schools abandon theological heritage and require gender-inclusive language to refer to God

Next, looking at just how closely some of these issues are interrelated, National Review Magazine in recent days ran an article that has this headline,

“Top Divinity Schools: Use Gender-Neutral Language to Refer to God”

The article’s by Katherine Timf, and she’s writing about the fact that many modern, liberal divinity schools are now requiring gender-inclusive language for God. As Timpf writes,

“The divinity schools at Duke and Vanderbilt Universities have instructed their professors to start using more ‘inclusive’ language when referring to God because the masculine pronouns ‘have served as a cornerstone of the patriarchy.’”

Now there’s something about this story that needs to be noted. This is not quite so newsworthy as at least some might assume. The headline says this is news, and it is in a very limited sense. It’s only news in the sense that these two liberal divinity schools are now sending down new requirements of their faculty in terms of how God must be identified and addressed in classroom instruction, and furthermore by extension, these are policies that are understood to apply to students as well in terms of handing in their assignments. But what’s really behind this is a very long-term development, one that came to fruition not just in terms of our own times, but back in the 1970s and the 1980s. The ideology of feminism began to influence liberal theological schools, and one of the central arguments of the feminist was that using masculine language for God inevitably supported a patriarchal agenda and furthermore established the male as authority at the expense of the female, which is to say men at the expense of women.

Back during the 1980s when the enrollments at many of these divinity schools began to tip towards a female majority, it was also the case that many liberal denominations began to scrutinize their own worship language and sometimes even the text of their scriptural translations. And given the fact that they believe that masculine language, it was claimed, was inevitably patriarchal that inevitably oppressed women, they began to change that language. The effort was first packaged as a movement for inclusive language referring to God, that in the name of inclusivity it might be all right from time to time to use masculine words and terminology for God in worship or in theological writings, but that must be balanced with the use of feminine or female metaphors and language and names for God, coming right down as well to pronouns.

But that inclusive language was a rather short-lived project. It led several liberal Protestant denominations to officially change their hymnals in order to balance female with male references and also in terms even of their scriptural translations, so there were inclusive language translations and inclusive language hymnals. But as might be expected, that movement towards inclusivity has inevitably collapsed upon itself because now it is claimed that even anecdotal or occasional references to God in masculine terminology would be oppressive to women and harmful. And so what you see now is the effort to replace any kind of gendered language for God with a gender-free or gender-neutral language.

Timpf tells us that the current catalog of the Vanderbilt Divinity School says that the school “commits continuously and explicitly to include gender as an analyzed category and to mitigate sexism.”

Similar instructions were also offered by the administration at the Duke Divinity School. And to that there was the retort coming from National Review that at least in terms of heritage Duke was a historically Methodist institution. As a matter fact, we should also note the same was true for the Vanderbilt Divinity School. Duke’s guidelines actually suggest avoiding gender-specific pronouns when discussing God and suggest using the term God and Godself instead of God with himself. Timpf simply injects there,

“Yes – ‘Godself.’”

She then writes,

“Look: The great thing about this country is that your religion can be whatever you want it to be. If, in your eyes, God is a woman or genderfluid or a microwave, then you can totally refer to God as being a woman or genderfluid or a microwave. Literally no one is stopping you. In fact, there is an entire Constitution protecting your right to worship His Holiness Microwave if that’s how you want to live your life. But if you are talking about the God of the Methodist religion, then it’s just plain inaccurate to refer to Him as anything but ‘Him.’ It would be like teaching Hamlet and calling Hamlet ‘she.’  There is a point where an obsession over political correctness can blind people from basic of facts, and call me archaic, but I really do feel like facts are still the way to go.”

Keep that in mind when we understand the controversy over facts and alternative facts and the irony of so many people in this postmodern age or post-postmodern age, insisting that the word facts makes perfect sense when they were the very people who undermined the very idea of objective truth, the knowability of that truth, and the existence of anything that could rightly be called a fact.

But the big point here in this article in National Review is that these divinity schools have basically turned themselves on the very theological heritage in which they were established. And now National Review notes they have given themselves to a theological radicalism that requires a change in the language. This is where Christians should also pay very close attention, because when you change the language, you change the theology. And furthermore eventually if you change the theology, you’ve got to change the language.

Here we need to look at the fact that biblical Christianity, Christian orthodoxy, biblical theism as we might describe it, absolutely requires adherence to biblical terminology. If we free ourselves from biblical terminology, we are actually abandoning the God of the Bible. As one great literary scholar said during the 1980s, this is a God who definitely likes his name. He has the right to name himself. And in Scripture he does so over and over and over again, even declaring in the Ten Commandments “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.” He names himself. The creature does not get the right to name the Creator. The Creator has the sovereign right to name himself, and in Scripture it is abundantly clear that God is not male in the sense that he is a spirit who has no body. But it is consistently true in Scripture that God reveals himself in terms of masculine language, including naming himself as Father.

Consummately in the Lord’s Prayer in the New Testament, it is Jesus who taught his disciples to pray, “Our Father who is in heaven,” not “Our mother who is in heaven.” Those are not interchangeable words, and the use of that masculine terminology is not rightly understood oppressive to women. It is rather expressive of the nature of God. The Duke guidelines actually stipulate that it would be preferable not to refer to God as Father or even as Mother, but simply as Parent. Here we have to understand what has been reduced in terms of the use of the language. To say “Parent” is not the same thing as to say either “Father” or “Mother.” Behind this, we have to understand it is not only a feminist agenda when it comes to language and the revolution of doctrine. What’s also behind this is the absence of the normativity of what it means to be male and female, the absence of the expectation that we understand that there is a difference between being merely a parent or being rightly understood as father or mother. God identifies himself by naming himself as Father and by giving his human creatures, through Christ, the right and privilege of addressing him even in prayer as our Heavenly Father.

Defender of the faith? Queen's chaplain resigns after criticizing Koranic reading in Christian service

But finally on another very important theological note, The Telegraph of London has reported that the Queen’s Chaplain who had bravely criticized a reading from the Koran by a Muslim in a supposedly Christian service in an Anglican congregation, even Cathedral, in Scotland, has resigned his position as the Queen’s minister, the Queens Chaplain, because it was evidently a step too far when he criticized what was an act of heresy in the Cathedral.

The Reverend Gavin Ashenden, one of several chaplains to the Queen, had been evidently required to resign after controversy ensued when he complained that there had been the reading of the Koran and a particular reading of the Koran that denied that Jesus is the Son of God in a Christian church in the course of Christian worship. At the time the chaplain had said that the reading of the Koran in Christian worship was “a fairly serious error.”

But now The Telegraph tells us he has had to resign over the content of his comments. But what’s really interesting is the response that came from Buckingham Palace. A spokesperson for the Queen said,

“Dr. Gavin Ashenden has tendered his resignation from the honorary position of Chaplain to The Queen. The Royal Household has accepted the resignation with immediate effect.”

That’s the thanks for defending the faith. But wait just a minute, the coronation oath that was undertaken by the British monarch Queen Elizabeth II required her to affirm her responsibility to defend the faith. Sadly, it turns out that when one of her chaplains actually defended the faith the supposed Defender of the Faith sacked him. That in itself is a very powerful commentary on our times.

Dr. Mohler recording The Briefing