The Briefing 03-23-17

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How the secularization of America has led to more partisanship and deeper cultural divide

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"Prophetic opposition"? The history and theology behind Princeton's decision not to honor Tim Keller

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Transcript

The Briefing

March 23, 2017

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

It’s Thursday, March 23, 2017. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

How the secularization of America has led to more partisanship and deeper cultural divide

We’ve been watching over the course of the last several decades as the process of secularization in American society has not only continued but has radically accelerated. But even those who have been celebrating this secularization process are now having something that can only be described as second thoughts. Evidence of this came in The Atlantic monthly this week in an article by Peter Beinart entitled,

“Breaking Faith”

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The subhead,

“The culture war over religious morality has faded; in its place is something much worse.”

The essence of Beinart’s argument comes down to this: Secularization has not brought a softening of America’s cultural oppositions, but rather a sharpening of arguments, even a sharpening of elbows thrown at one another in terms of these cultural controversies. This is not what many of the prophets of secularization had promised. They said that if you take religious arguments out, you’ll be left with a civil, though secular, public square, that arguments that are based upon theological terms are inherently divisive because someone who comes saying, “This is what God thinks” about an issue has an unfair advantage, and this tends to lead to an intolerant kind of holding to those positions. Beinart argues that in this new secular age there are actually now sharper arguments that intolerance has not decreased, but rather has increased. He’s looking at the current political moment, and he’s asking quite honestly, What has secularization wrought? He writes this,

“Over the past decade, pollsters charted something remarkable: Americans—long known for their piety—were fleeing organized religion in increasing numbers. The vast majority still believed in God. But the share that rejected any religious affiliation was growing fast, rising from 6 percent in 1992 to 22 percent in 2014. Among Millennials, the figure was 35 percent.”

He went on to say,

“Some observers predicted that this new secularism would ease cultural conflict, as the country settled into a near-consensus on issues such as gay marriage.”

A liberal group known as the Center for American Progress indeed championed the fact that,

“‘Demographic change,’ led by secular, tolerant young people, was ‘undermining the culture wars.’”

Those identified to some extent at least with the cultural right, and in this case arguably David Brooks, a columnist for the New York Times similarly said that Americans growing more detached from religious beliefs would “put aside a culture war that has alienated large parts of three generations.”

But in retrospect that now looks to have been something of an incredibly false hope. If anything, American culture is now more polarized than ever, and it’s not just a partisan divide. It’s an even deeper divide over basic issues of morality. Here’s the importance as we’re trying to think through a biblical worldview. The secularists had promised—and we have to believe they meant it when they said it, they believed it when they made the argument—that their new secular age would bring a decrease in cultural conflict. They actually did believe that on the other side of this moral revolution there would be no one who would basically be any important outlier in terms of taking the positions on the right side of history, as they define them, particularly on issues of sexuality and other deep moral controversies. They actually only believed that deep moral differences would appear where there are deep theological differences. They genuinely believed that if you take theology out of the equation, if you do really enter a completely secular public space, then there will be no room for those sharp theological arguments to bring about sharp moral disagreements and the continuation of what has been described as the culture wars.

But as Peter Beinart points out in The Atlantic monthly, that’s not how it’s turned out. It’s not that secularization didn’t happen. It’s that it didn’t deliver on the promises of this new tolerant age. Now at this point we need to note that more liberal observers of this situation, you might say more accurately more secular observers of this situation, are scratching their heads wondering why is it that a new secularization didn’t bring about this kind of new tolerance, this new reduction in terms of cultural conflict and moral controversy. But while secular observers are probably very much befuddled by the situation, this is where Christians need to understand that we affirm that deep moral disagreements exist even when there are no explicit, deep doctrinal commitments. The reason for that is the fact that God has made all human beings as moral creatures, making us in his image.

Morality as a deeply divisive issue that is filled with opportunities for conflict does not disappear when religion is relegated to the margins. But what’s missing in this new secular age by this understanding is not merely the permissibility of strong doctrinal arguments, but the fact that those who were making those arguments also felt themselves to be tempered by the very theological imperatives that brought them to those moral conclusions. That is to say that conservative Christians, for example, not only feel themselves bound to particular moral commitments that are revealed in Scripture, but also bound to contending for those moral commitments in a particular way that is also consistent with God’s revelation in Scripture.

One of the most amazing sentences in Beinart’s article is this,

“Secularism is indeed correlated with greater tolerance of gay marriage and pot legalization. But it’s also making America’s partisan clashes more brutal.”

Peter Beinart is often a very interesting writer, and this essay is of course no exception to that rule. He’s trying to make the argument that if you want to understand some of the tension points in American political culture right now—he points for example to the rise of the alternative right or the alt-right as it is known—you need to understand, he argues, that this is now “conservatism for a more secular age.”

Behind this is the fact that many of the figures in the so-called alt-right have indeed embraced paganism rather than Christianity, especially when looking at the cultural roots of our own self-understanding. But if in this new secular age conservatism is redefined, Beinart acknowledges so is liberalism. He writes this,

“Secularization is transforming the left, too. In 1990, according to PRRI, slightly more than half of white liberals seldom or never attended religious services. Today the proportion is 73 percent.”

Looking at the distinction between Black Lives Matter and the historic Civil Rights Movement in the United States, Beinart writes,

“The decline of traditional religious authority is contributing to a more revolutionary mood within black politics as well. Although African Americans remain more likely than whites to attend church, religious disengagement is growing in the black community.”

He then also cites Emma Green, also at The Atlantic, who wrote,

“The difference between the Black Lives Matter movement and the civil-rights movement is that the civil-rights movement, by and large, was first out of the Church.”

Beinart concludes his article by writing,

“For years, political commentators dreamed that the culture war over religious morality that began in the 1960s and ’70s would fade. It has. And the more secular, more ferociously national and racial culture war that has followed is worse.”

At this point Christians need to pay very close attention to the argument because there’s really something important here. For one thing the article is an affirmation of the fact that theological commitments are about more than just arguments. There is indeed the combination of making Christian arguments in a way that is consistent with Christian morality and with the ethos that a Christian should bring to any kind of argument or controversy in the public square. This is where Christians also need to understand that secularization in the public square almost automatically can be followed by some kind of paganisation of the public square. There is no genuinely secular space. Instead something will fill that space, and furthermore as Beinart makes very clear looking at multiple examples, if you’re trying to make these moral arguments entirely secular, you do not decrease the passion, but instead you raise the opportunity for even more revolutionary and more strident arguments.

It’s also really interesting to note that Beinart’s article begins by citing this new more secularized age. But by the time you reach the latter part of his article, he is openly describing it as post-Christian. That’s a reminder to us that this new secular age did not come out of a vacuum. It is the repudiation not just of religion in general but of Christianity in particular. From a biblical worldview, it’s easy for Christians to understand that if you reject Jesus where he says, “I am the way the truth and the life. No man comes to the Father but by me,” it’s simply also rather automatic to learn to ignore Jesus when he says, “Turn the other cheek.” Beinart’s clearly concerned. As he says in this article, when you add these post-Christian realities together,

“It’s easy to imagine American politics becoming more and more vicious.”

At that point we should all hope that he’s wrong. At the same time, I fear that he’s right.

"Prophetic opposition"? The history and theology behind Princeton's decision not to honor Tim Keller

Next, a host of important issues are raised by a news story that moved yesterday at Religion News Service. The headline,

“Princeton Theological Seminary reverses decision to honor Redeemer’s Tim Keller.”

The writer of the report, David Gibson, writes,

“Faced with mounting criticism for its decision to give a major award to the Rev. Tim Keller, founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan and one of the country’s best-known conservative Christian thinkers, Princeton Theological Seminary has reversed course and said Keller will not receive the honor.”

In an email sent yesterday to the Princeton community, Craig Barnes, the institution’s President, said that “he remains committed to academic freedom and ‘the critical inquiry and theological diversity of our community.’”

But at the same time, he said that giving Tim Keller the annual Kuyper Prize for Excellence in Reformed Theology and Public Witness would indeed imply an endorsement of Tim Keller’s views against the ordination of women and, it says here, LGBTQ people. The Kuyper award by the way is of course named for Abraham Kuyper, formally the Prime Minister of the Netherlands, and of course one the most famous reformed Christians of the 20th century. Kuyper was a Dutch theologian as well as politician who gave one of his most important theological lectureships at Princeton Theological Seminary back in the early years of the 20th century. The controversy over the proposed award, now the award withdrawn, to Tim Keller made an RNS news story that ran just several days ago with the same reporter, David Gibson. As he reported then, the Rev. Traci Smith, a seminary alum, that is of Princeton seminary, currently a PCUSA pastor in San Antonio, Texas, she said,

“I’ll let others argue finer points of Rev. Keller’s theology. My personal soapbox is much less refined. It boils down to this: an institution designed to train men and women for ministry shouldn’t be awarding fancy prizes to someone who believes half the student body (or is it more than half?) has no business leading churches. It’s offensive and, as I have taught my four and five year olds to express, it hurts my feelings.”

Carol Merritt, writing in the Christian Century, that’s long been the main periodical of liberal Protestantism, said that even as she was in the midst of a book tour she was amazed at how this controversy had arisen. She said,

“Princeton Seminary, the flagship seminary of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), is giving an award for Excellence in Reformed Theology and Public Witness to Tim Keller, one of the loudest, most read, and most adhered-to proponents of male headship in the home. I am literally shaking with grief as I write this. I have spent years with women who have tried to de-program themselves after growing up in this baptized abuse. I know that people are angry that Tim Keller doesn’t believe in women in the pastorate. But, my friends, this goes much, much deeper than women not being able to be ordained as Pastors, Elders, and Deacons. Complementarianism means married women have no choice over their lives at all. So as Princeton Theological Seminary celebrates Tim Keller’s theology, I will be mourning. As he presents his lecture and receives his $10,000 award, I will lament for my sisters who have been maligned and abused. So much of my ministry has been dedicated to aiding the victims of these poisonous beliefs.”

She concludes that Princeton would be “honoring and celebrating a man who has championed toxic theology for decades.”

In the letter that Craig Barnes, the President to Princeton Theological Seminary, sent to his community back on March 10 defending the award in the event, Barnes had wrote,

“I am aware that many in our community are deeply concerned by the invitation of the Kuyper Center at our seminary to have the Reverend Tim Keller come to campus next month.”

He went on to describe the lecture. He said,

“The focus of the concerns that have come to me is that Rev. Keller is a leader of the Presbyterian Church in America, which prevents women and LGBTQ+ persons from full participation in the ordained ministry to Word and Sacrament.”

He continued,

“Our seminary embraces full inclusion for ordained leadership of the church. We clearly stand in prophetic opposition to the PCA and many other Christian denominations that do not extend the full exercise of Spirit filled gifts for women or those of various sexual orientations. We know that many have been hurt by being excluded from ministry, and we have worked hard to be an affirming place of preparation for service to the church.”

Well, just to put this in a historic perspective, we’re looking at a seminary that represented Protestant orthodoxy of the most biblical sort for generations, but which was reorganized—that’s the historical word for it—and had its confessional basis completely reestablished in the early decades of the 20th century, particularly in the year 1929 and following. Princeton Theological Seminary had been the very home of what was called Princeton Theology, and that was especially during the 19th century considered the quintessential expression of Protestant orthodox theology. All that changed with that reorganization and Princeton moved in a far more liberal direction.

Now according this letter sent on March 10, the President of Princeton declares his institution to stand in prophetic opposition to the PCA. He added to that other Christian denominations that do not ordain women to the pastorate nor those identified here as LGBTQ persons. Now what’s really interesting about this is that here you have the President of Princeton declaring himself and his institution to be in prophetic opposition to an entire Presbyterian denomination. The Presbyterian Church in America is an evangelical denomination. It is a denomination of conservative Presbyterians who intend to identify themselves and their faith in confessional continuity with the Reformed tradition of orthodox Protestantism and in particular the very Princeton Theology that was once represented by Princeton Seminary. So in this case when the president of Princeton Seminary says that he stands with his institution in prophetic opposition to the PCA—he would include of course the SBC, that is the Southern Baptist Convention, in that same condemnation—insofar as he condemns the PCA he is also standing in what he describes as prophetic opposition to the history of his own institution. That’s really the more important point.

In the letter that was sent by President Barnes yesterday, that’s the letter that withdraws the award that was to be given to Tim Keller, it is also announced that Tim Keller is going to deliver the lecture. He’s just not going to receive the award. If you’re watching this particular theological dance, consider these words,

“I want to thank all who have communicated with the administration of the seminary as this important conversation has unfolded on campus. We have heard many heartfelt perspectives from both sides of the debate. It has been a hard conversation, but one that a theologically diverse community can handle.”

Here’s what I want us to notice. There is no truly theologically diverse campus, not one that is theologically diverse in order to encompass everything. A claim of theological comprehensiveness is itself a false claim, because you’ll notice here that the theological diversity that is championed at Princeton does not include the very theology that Princeton was established to contend for. It takes a certain amount of laxity with the vocabulary to be able to claim in a letter withdrawing an award on this basis to a Presbyterian pastor that you represent theological diversity—but not enough diversity to award the Kuyper prize to Tim Keller.

Now here’s something else that’s interesting in this, of course, Tim Keller is indeed a very well-known evangelical pastor and a best-selling author. He is indeed one who argues the case for Christianity. He is also a man of very calm demeanor. He is not a combatant in terms of the culture wars. He has received criticism from the right for years for failing to engage on many of these issues. He has argued that he has done so in the course of his biblical teaching and exposition within his congregation. He has not been known for signing statements on moral issues. He certainly has not been known as a combatant in terms of this kind of cultural conflict. But now he is receiving criticism from the left because even as he has not been involved in controversies over these issues, even holding to the ordination requirements of the Presbyterian Church in America, upholding the confessional continuity of the church of which he is one of the most famous pastors, is enough to have committed the theological crime against religious diversity and of course the new sexual revolution that Princeton now says it’s not going to award him the Kuyper prize.

We are often told that it is the theological right that is intolerant. And of course a part of what it means to hold to confessional Christianity to the faith once for all delivered to the saints is the necessity of making very clear what the Bible teaches and obeying those biblical teachings. That means establishing very clear boundaries, and about that, conservative Christians must never be embarrassed. That’s the whole point of being a confessional Protestant. But when you then look at the left who claims a commitment to theological diversity, what you see is that that diversity cannot be without boundaries either. And when you start drawing the boundaries from the left, the persons who get cut out are those who are not on the left.

Next we also need to note the role of feelings in all of us and most importantly feelings cited as moral authority. What we need to note is that when doctrine is abandoned, feelings take on an all new importance and outsize dimensionality. You’ll recall the comment made by the Rev. Traci Smith in initiating much of this controversy when she complained about Tim Keller appearing at Princeton. She concluded by saying that Tim Keller’s appearance would be offensive “and as I have taught my four and five year olds to express, it hurts my feelings.”

Just to state something that should be fairly obvious to us, in previous ages of controversy of matters of theology and doctrine, even in matters relating to theological institution such as Princeton Theological Seminary, it’s fair to say you would not have seen anyone cite their feelings, especially as compared to four and five-year-olds as moral authority.

I also want to go back to that column that was written at the Christian Century by Carol Merritt because in this you’ll notice the absolute antipathy, the hatred, of complementarianism. Now at this point, those who are committed to complementarianism, that is the understanding that God created male and female with a purpose and a pattern that is revealed in Scripture and where there is a pattern of male leadership, particularly in the church and in the home.

We need to understand that there have been and even are now abuses of this very important biblical pattern and this difficult teaching. And where abuses are found, they should be condemned and identified for the abuses that they are. But what we need to note here is that Carol Merritt has not called for anyone to address those abuses. Rather she says the very theology of complementarianism itself is a form of abuse. This is an argument we increasingly find on the left, and you’ll notice the absolute lack of engagement with the biblical text in any of these arguments. If one is going to throw out complementarianism, one has to acknowledge honestly that one is also throwing out the entire pattern of gender relations and the reality of what it means to be male and female as expressed in Scripture.

What should have our attention perhaps more than anything else are statements made in this controversy in which the President of a theological seminary, now very much a part of liberal Protestantism, declares himself and his institution to stand in prophetic opposition to an entire denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America. And then when you have the theology that is held by someone like Tim Keller simply dismissed—no not merely dismissed, absolutely opposed as a toxic theology—if you want to try to understand where conservative Christians stand in terms of the current cultural reality, it’s hard to come up with a more crystallizing moment than this.

It’s hard to imagine any evangelical minister nicer than Tim Keller, and evidence of his own character is seen in the fact that he’s agreed to go ahead and give the lecture—if indeed he’s allowed to give the lecture—even as Princeton has withdrawn the prize. But Tim Keller’s demeanor and character were not why he was rejected, nor were they enough for Princeton not to reject them. What we need to note was theology, what was rejected is the theology represented by Tim Keller and the denomination of which he is a part. So even in the supposedly post-theological age, here you have the left making very clear what we’ve been saying all along. Theology matters. It always matters.

Dr. Mohler recording The Briefing