Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Book Review: "Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ," by Todd Billings

At age 39 and as the father of two children, Dr. Todd Billings, theology professor at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan, learned that he had a cancer of the bone marrow: multiple myeloma. The disease accounts for about 1% of cancer diagnoses and 2% of cancer deaths in the United States: the first number points to its rarity; the second relative to the first, to its lethalness. Indeed, while multiple myeloma remains without a cure, the extensive amount of research given to the malady over the last couple of decades has resulted in a doubling of the median life span from diagnosis:  it is now about 5 years. However, Billings is much younger than the typical myeloma patient, and some of his doctors think that his chances of living a decade are good.

He was 39 at diagnosis. The optimistic only give him a decent chance of making 50. In that case, he won't see his children reach junior high.

In the modern west, it is difficult not to regard longevity as a right -- and early death as an assault on human dignity. In addition, even those who are ardently opposed to the prosperity gospel will often feel the tug -- either internally or externally-- of the notion that adversity is a form of retribution and that ongoing adversity proves a lack of faith. For those who struggle against such views -- and for those simply trying to get their feet back under them after being jolted by hard realities, Billings has written this spiritual memoir combining theological reflection with his own ongoing experience of treatment for incurable cancer. The result, Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ, is a wonderful gift to those enduring similar suffering -- and to those that would minister to them.

"Rejoicing in Lament" is a book of theological reflection discussing big issues: how a good and powerful God can permit evil, the nature of prayer, and so forth; however, it is not reflection that takes place in a vacuum. Every section of the book mingles meditation on these themes with Billings' experience as a cancer patient. In fact, much of the discussion was taken from his CarePages entries written contemporaneously with the experiences that he is describing. 

And, much of what he describes provides insights that much of the church is in danger of losing, at the peril of its members. Billings emphasizes more than once that diverse sections of the church -- Reformed, Arminian, Roman, Eastern Orthodox -- have expressed truths now largely forgotten.  A large portion of the book is given to discussing the Psalms of lament, with lament involving both expressions of sorrow and protest that things are not as they are supposed to be. The Kingdom, while promised, has not yet come in its fulness, and in the meantime, things are not as they ought to be. In much of the modern western church, emotional expression has been reduced to celebration -- we even say nowadays that we go to funerals to celebrate. Whereas Calvin referred to the psalter as "the anatomy of the parts of the soul," the modern church now has a songbook that is, even projected, paper thin. The result is a hollowing out of the emotional life of the church in a way that also makes her superficial, particularly to those that are hurting.

Any Christian reflection on suffering would be expected to include a section on the Book of Job, and Billings does not disappoint. It is commonly said that Job tells us why there is suffering, though Job himself never learns that. In addition, Billings notes that Job's friends display the same redistributionist thinking about prayer and faith as is common in the modern world. To the contrary, God speaking out of the whirlwind tells us that frequently we will not know why He permits evil and suffering. Rather, Job's conclusion serves to remind us that God is God, and we are creatures. This theme is important to understanding much of the Bible beyond Job. Billings  writes, "The biblical practice of leaving suffering as an open question before God can be difficult to maintain, particularly as we consider the providential care and power of God. Yet, leaving the problem of suffering and evil as an open question is essential if we are to affirm Scripture's testimony about who God is and who we are. It enables us to embrace two sides of the psalmists' testimony: that the covenant God of Israel is the sovereign and benevolent King, and that, because of God's covenant promises, we are to thank the lord when we see his promises come to fruition and complain to him in lament when we do not.... As the New Testament testifies, lament is part of the Christian life until the final kingdom comes." 

Perhaps Billings is at his most poignant when discussing Christian prayers for healing. While not denying the power of God to heal (and while not wanting to come across as the prayer police), Billings says that some prayers in that regard leave the one being prayed for feeling alienated. He pointedly notes that we don't typically pray for the restoration of amputated limbs while asking why a prayer that medicine will bring the cancer into remission shows a lack of faith. He contends that prayers should be more informed by the pattern of lament and trust found in the Psalms, as well as the kingdom focus of the Lord's Prayer.

One of the treatments for multiple myeloma involves transplants of one's own stem cells. In his final reflections following a procedure that was both difficult and successful, Billings writes, "[T]his process of displacement of our old self and incorporation into Christ is a long journey.  It is long because of he persistence of our sin, our love of life that moves away from God's ways and seeks out autonomy rather than communion with God and neighbor. But as I discovered anew during my time of recovery after the transplant, it is also a long journey because until the kingdom comes in its fulness, our lives will be ones both rejoicing and lamenting before our covenant Lord."

I highly recommend this book.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Tainted Histories

In the New Testament, Hebrews 11 lists people and deeds from the Old Testament that demonstrated great faith in God. In the Old Testament, we read some other things about many of those same people:

Noah, following deliverance from the flood, became drunk with a tragic result.

Abraham lied about his relationship to his wife, putting her in a dangerous and compromising position.

Sarah laughed at God's promise.

Isaac was a weak man who ignored God's instruction and was manipulated by his wife and son.

Jacob was a cheater.

Moses was a murderer.

Gideon doubted God's promises. Samson's sins are too many to list. Jephthah made a rash vow regarding his daughter. David committed adultery and tried to cover it up with murder.

Do we see a sad pattern here?

The point of this is not to tear down men and women who are regarded as great, though one might be better off regarding them as ordinary men and women (people like us) delivered by a great and gracious God. 

More to my present point, we see in this something from the Old Testament that makes it remarkably different from the histories produced by most ancient cultures. Those other cultures -- almost universally -- scrubbed their histories of failures and crimes, making their renowned leaders look pristine and great. In the Old Testament, God's people told the truth about their historic figures, for good and for ill.

Given the strength of the Bible, which Christians regard as the Word of God, in such honesty, it is sadly ironic that God's people, in the past and at present, seem to struggle with it so. It is hard to see in our heritage both good and evil. My own denomination provides an example of this. The Presbyterian Church in America was primarily formed as a southern Presbyterian response to theological liberalism -- our founders were concerned about doctrinal orthodoxy, and for that I am grateful and rejoice. Some among them also were interested in resistance to the civil rights movement, and for that I am saddened and shamed. However, it must be acknowledged as true.

Some Americans who are both southern and Christian seem to be struggling with this of late. They will talk about the antebellum period and the "war between the states" as though their "peculiar institution" was not even of tangential significance as a cause of war. They will gloss over the cruelty of Jim Crow. They will forget that the Stars and Bars mostly disappeared for nearly 100 years before reappearing as a symbol of protest -- not against northern aggression -- against civil rights for blacks.

The southern United States through much of our history was not a land of liberty or opportunity -- certainly not if one was black.

These are hard truths. Acknowledging them means admitting that those we admire were tainted by evil. What does it say about our heritage?

The Old Testament would remind us that honesty will reveal that our triumphs are often mingled with tragedy. For Christians, it is a reminder of the danger that even the best among us may be blinded by sin and stand in need of the grace of God.

Unfortunately, a refusal  to face history often results in a failure to understand the present, and those whitewashing the past will provide aid and comfort to those who continue to harbor sin and ill will in the present. For that reason, honesty -- even when painful -- about our past is something that we should all value.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

A Look at Pew's Religious Landscape Study

Yesterday, the Pew Research Center released its Changing Religious Landscape Study updating research previously performed in 2007. News headlines fronted the study's finding that the percentage of American adults (note that all of the information described herein concerns the adult population) that identified their religious affiliation as Christian had declined by 8 percent since 2007. As that news began to depress the faithful, it began to be noticed that evangelicals had actually increased by 2 million adherents during the time frame, causing those believers to declare the larger decline a mainline (read: liberal) Protestant and Catholic problem. While they had grown numerically, the evangelicals had declined by roughly 1% when compared to the overall population. Thus, population growth has outpaced evangelical growth. Nonetheless, relieved to express thanks that they were not like those mainline publicans, evangelical writers quickly told their readers that they could sleep tonight knowing that all is well.

Both versions of the poll's interpretations are overly simplistic and tell only part of the story. Neither Pollyanna nor Chicken Little is right. What is the truth?

Before trying to answer that question, I would urge readers to take time to look beyond the headlines to the actual study. For those not inclined to read the entire study, Pew has a user friendly interactive tool that is actually quite helpful. Quite apart from the issue everyone is talking about, there is a wealth of interesting and useful information. For example, the survey found that evangelicals in the United States are 55% female and 55% married, and that 43% have not attended college. I was surprised to find that 35% had an annual household income of less than $30,000, and 57% had an income below $50,000. This provides a different perspective than might be assumed by those who associate evangelicalism with suburban megachurches, and I wondered if those income numbers are skewed downward by older evangelicals on fixed incomes or if Christianity is really doing that well among folks with meager incomes. Regardless, all of those data points could create some interesting points of discussion regarding Christian ministry and outreach.

The survey also allows for isolation of religious trends in some metropolitan areas. For example, it was interesting to note that evangelicals in Dallas are 51% male, while they only make up 45% of evangelicals nationwide. I would be very interested in hearing from anyone who has a theory as to why that would be. Evangelicals comprise over 25% of the population across the southern tier of the country (38% in Dallas), but never represent more than 20% in the north and are in the single digits in some metropolitan areas, thus making clear the extent to which large swaths of the country are really a mission field.

The numbers of evangelicals and Christians in the opening paragraph were developed based mostly on church affiliation, and they are not reflective of extent of commitment, the level of influence one's faith has on his or her life, or the level of understanding that one has of the faith. Churches that got people included in the evangelical grouping ranged widely, from Pentecostal and charismatic groups to most Baptists (but not the mainline American Baptist Convention) to conservative Presbyterians and Lutherans (not the mainline PCUSA or ELCA). The liberal mainline denominations have declined rapidly, and the Catholics are not that far behind in that regard. As mentioned previously, evangelicals have fared better.

But that should not be taken to mean that all is well. Not only have evangelicals failed to pick up adherents from those abandoning mainline denominations, but they also have not been able to really take advantage of the fact that evangelical birthrates are likely higher than other more liberal faith groups. In addition, socially conservative Catholics comprising much U.S. immigration have not found their way into evangelical churches in large numbers, at least not large enough to move the needle on overall percentage. Finally, the time period between 2007 and 2014 includes a serious economic downturn. In previous eras, such national crises tended to be associated with upticks in religious belief, but that doesn't seem to have happened at all during this time.

Finally, evangelicals should not feel good about the increasing numbers of people defining themselves as hostile toward or indifferent to religion. As a percentage of the total population, atheists have nearly doubled from 1.6% to 3%, and agnostics have seen a roughly 40% increase by the same measure. The percentage of those that just don't care has also continued to increase. That growth has tended to be young and highly educated, and the continuation of that trend may have significant repercussions for American culture. How will evangelicals proclaim a robust faith in the face of a growing secularization of the culture.

American Christianity over the last more than two centuries have been accustomed to a largely accommodating cultural environment. While evangelical numbers remain relatively stable, the future promises to provide more headwinds in opposition to evangelical faith and practice. The church needs to gird itself for that reality.

Monday, May 11, 2015

David Barton: Can you Handle the Truth?

This post provides reaction to the fourth presentation delivered by David Barton at the 2015 Texas Home School Coalition meeting in Arlington. I covered his previous presentations here, here, and here.

Mr. Barton's 4:15 session on May 8 was provocatively entitled "Truth in History." The title is provocative because Mr. Barton has been widely accused by his critics, including evangelical Christian academics, of obvious errors in his writings and presentations. In response, the founder of Wallbuilders has continued to restate the same mistakes while dismissing his opponents, as he did in this presentation, as revisionists, secularists, and atheists. Christians who disagree with him were accused of being dupes fooled by their teachers. He even managed to misuse scripture (Luke 6:40) to try to explain why any Christians would be against him. They were not above their misinformed teachers. Simply dismissing critics in this way, rather than actually engaging their arguments, requires considerable chutzpah.

Nonetheless, Mr. Barton began his lecture by referring to early American historians, such as George Bancroft, who would identify God's workings while relating historical events. There is no doubt that early American historians did this, but it is also true that many Christians today -- both academic historians and conservative evangelical pastors -- warn against this sort of thing. The Bible provides both a recounting of historical events and their interpretation from God's perspective, but it is important to remember that Christians regard Scripture as divine revelation, meaning that God communicated to his prophets the proper interpretation of events. No one should view the working of historians writing after the completion of the canon as inspired on par with the biblical writers. Thus, there is wisdom when Christians, both historians and otherwise, exercise caution in making claims about God's providential intentions in historical events.

Even so, Mr. Barton made an obvious factual error when he claimed that George Whitfield and Charles Finney were unaware that they were in the midst of revivals, and that only historians looking back on them were able to identify those eras as such. This is a rather absurd claim given that Rev. Finney published a book entitled "Lectures on Revival," in which he wrote in the preface, "Because it pleased Christ to grant me experience with revivals of true Christianity, I thought that through the publication of these lectures I might in a small way serve the church at large." Whitfield similarly showed awareness that God was bringing about an unusual spiritual awakening, and his friend Jonathan Edwards wrote multiple books defending the revivals as "a surprising work of the Spirit of God." Of course, given that Edwards and Whitfield's opponents were sometimes Unitarians, perhaps it is understandable that Mr. Barton failed to get the point. More on that momentarily.

After dismissing those disagreeing with him as revisionists, secularists, atheists, and duped Christians, the speaker then proceeded to describe four "traps," for which he misused Scripture to dismiss as devices of Satan, that Christians should avoid when making decisions on text books. Most of the terms he used are technical terms utilized in literary and other liberal arts studies, but Mr. Barton gave definitions and descriptions of them that would be foreign to anyone outside of himself that uses those terms. Thus, he equated "poststructuralism' with identity politics. "Modernism," he said, involved using words differently than how they would have been understood in their historical setting. "Academic collectivism," to Mr. Barton, means reliance on secondary sources and not consulting original ones. Finally, he referred to deconstructionism as a sort of anti-western mentality.

When someone uses academic terminology in a fashion that appears not to understand the meaning that academics give to those terms, it is hard to avoid the judgement that the speaker is attempting to provide an academic veneer that disguises the fact that he does not really understand what he is talking about. I will leave it to the reader to determine whether that is a fair conclusion.

Nonetheless, in explaining these terms, Mr. Barton made perhaps his most jaw dropping error of the day -- that is a bar set fretfully high. In talking about what he called "modernism" and complaining that others use language anachronistically when relating the views of the founders, Mr. Barton made this claim:

Historians and their readers make a mistake when they see the term "Unitarian" in 1774 and they think of it from the perspective of what that word means today. Oh, no. In 1774, a Unitarian was someone that was concerned about the unity of the church.

No, I promise, he really said that with a straight face. That there was no laughter in the room I can only hope was due to the fact that the audience was working as hard as I was to be respectful.

For any who do not know, Unitarians, both in 1774 and since, are opposed to the Trinity. The term has never had anything to do with unity among believers. Actually, they divided from orthodox believers.

The other amusing thing about this was that just after he accused others of using language anachronistically, he set out to prove that George Washington was not influenced by deism by relating the first President's references to "providence" to the definition of providence found in the 1590 edition of the Geneva Bible.

Also, in this portion of the presentation, the speaker told a story about conversing with "three PhD's," and he inserted a statement that he also has a PhD. This is not true. Mr. Barton holds a B.A. from Oral Roberts University and an honorary doctorate from Pensacola Christian College.

Most of the remainder of the presentation was comprised of an effort to claim that Thomas Jefferson, a deist, was in fact a marginally religious but fully orthodox Christian. One of the most prominent of the many problems with that claim is that Jefferson created a Bible (an edited version of the four gospels, actually) from which he removed all of the miracles and references to Jesus' divinity. The Jefferson Bible concluded following Jesus' death and prior to his resurrection. Nonetheless, Mr. Barton claims that the first of the Jefferson Bibles (there were two, he insists) was intended as a sort of red letter edition gospel to be given to the Indians (this ignores the fact that the Bible removed some of the sayings of Jesus and that there is no indication that it was ever given too the Indians) and that the 1820 final version was an effort to isolate the moral teaching of Jesus for comparison to other moral philosophers. These claims, as well as others that Mr. Barton makes about Thomas Jefferson, have been thoroughly debunked, and evangelical publisher Thomas Nelson withdrew his book about Jefferson due to numerous thorough critiques that showed obvious errors in the work.

With this fourth post covering Barton's appearances at this convention, I will close by asking a question:  why is this man speaking at a reputable home school conference. I will hasten to mention that my wife homeschool's my stepson, and we are a family committed to evangelical belief. Our politics are generally conservative. Whatever my biases, they are not against conservative politics or evangelical faith.

In fact, it is because we are committed to Christ and his church, as well as conservative principles, that I took the time to listen to Mr. Barton, analyze what he had to say, and write about what I heard. I believe that these posts, though only dealing with four presentations, have sufficiently shown that he engages in serious doctrinal error and that he makes serious mistakes in the realms of history and politics. These mistakes make improper use of the Bible, downplay the importance of redemption, bring the home school movement into disrepute, damage children who trust their authorities and go into adulthood believing things that are untrue, and poorly prepare Christian children to grow up to engage in discussions of Christianity, religion, history, and politics based on an educated person's understanding of the real world.

Christians are committed to truth. Why is this a leader speaking and exhibiting at home school meetings.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

David Barton: We Don't Need No Progressive Education

This is my third post in a series of four on presentations given by David Barton at the Texas Home School Coalition's convention in Arlington on May 7 and 8. Previous posts covered his speeches on "What Makes America Different?" and "The Bible and America." This one will react to his session on "American Education: Then and Now."

After an introduction by reality television's favorite patriarchal couple, Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar, David Barton used again slides shown in earlier presentations arguing that the United States has an oversized, relative to population, abundance of wealth and scientific creativity. He attributed this to the place of the Bible in American life and education.

Mr. Barton is undoubtedly correct when he argues that Bible based moral and religious instruction were important components of much early American education, and his elaborations on provisions of the Northwest Ordinance (1789) and quotations by Gouvernor Morris, Benjamin Rush, and others seem largely unnecessary. While some may agree or disagree with the approach, it would be nearly universally acknowledged that this sort of instruction was incorporated into much early education in this country, and the New England Primer that Mr. Barton uses to focus his discussion would have been familiar to all of the founders of the country. The mode of instruction in that textbook, which originated in colonial America, would also have been familiar in many communities for much of the country's early history.

Nonetheless, Mr. Barton's ideology leads him to simplify his discussion in ways that are historically inaccurate. In other words, he takes some snapshots from American education and makes them out to be a continuous running video of what constituted the nation's educational program for the first century and a half of its existence. He even claims that the New England Primer remained influential in American education into the 1930's, which is simply not true (it continued to be published, but was not nearly as frequently used after the 18th century). Interestingly, he quoted from the religious instruction in a version of the New England Primer from the 1770's, which this blogger recognized as having come from the Westminster Shorter Catechism. If Mr. Barton knew that, he didn't say, as he gave the implication that this material was unique to the primer. Additionally, his statements that this catechism remained a part of ordinary American education into the 1930's ignores the fact that religious catechetical instruction waned even among the churches over the first 200 years of American history, though it is making a small comeback, particularly among self-consciously reformed congregations, in more recent years.

The reality is that American educational values changed tremendously in the century and a half following the Revolution for a variety of reasons: frontier expansion, immigration and an increasingly pluralistic population, revivalism and its emphasis on experiential rather than formal religion, the waxing and waning of commitment to universal education, and the development of normal schools for training teachers, to name just a few. None of this was acknowledged by Mr. Barton, who seemed to see the educational approach as standard and pristine over this time frame.

In all of his lectures at the conference, Mr. Barton had a knack for including information that left one shaking his head, and this one was no exception. While saying that modern education has lowered expectations for young adults, he spoke of the Hebrew language, which he described as "especially precise" and as "God's first language." Given this imagined status (the fact that the Pentateuch was written in Hebrew doesn't give it status as "God's language", and like all languages, Hebrew is precise in some ways and the opposite in others) for Hebrew, the speaker considered it important that the language didn't include words for "fair" and adolescence." He also found it important that there is no Hebrew word for "rights," which was odd because in other lectures he claimed a scriptural basis for all of the provision in the U.S. Constitution's Bill of Rights.

That Mr. Barton considered John Dewey and friends as beginning the downfall of modern education is not exceptional, as many conservatives, both Christian and secular, scholarly and populist, have gone down that same path. However, Mr. Barton's critique was hardly conventional, and he defined the debate over educational philosophy in a way that no one would recognize. Thus, he described the early American approach to education as focused on teaching "thinking skills," while he said John Dewey and other progressives focused on "learning." He claimed that the focus on learning made people "gullible."

While I would not claim to be an expert in educational philosophy, I have my doubts that either Mr. Dewey or his critics would recognize that evaluation. The broad change that Mr. Dewey brought about was moving the emphasis of education away from content (as can be discerned, for example, in The New England Primer) and instead focusing on educational experience. Along with that, Mr. Dewey's school wanted the educational process to be more student driven in line with student interests, rather than focused on a canon for instruction driven by existing authorities. In terms of religion and moral values, Dewey rejected traditional Christianity and took a different approach to moral instruction.

The conventional critique is both widely known and reputable among evangelicals, but it was never mentioned in Mr. Barton's lecture, leaving this listener curious as to why he rejects it in favor of his own idiosyncratic approach.

In closing, Mr. Barton quoted Proverbs 1:7, "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge." He ridiculed the idea that the verse referred to religious and moral knowledge, saying that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge of things like math.

Proverbs 1:7 provides a sort of introduction to the rest of the book. I looked, but didn't find any math knowledge contained there.

Tomorrow, I will write my final post, which Mr. Barton provocatively entitles "Keeping Truth in History."

Saturday, May 09, 2015

David Barton's Moralistic Bible in America

In my previous post, I wrote about David Barton's speech to the Texas Home School Coalition's annual conference held in Arlington. In that post, I argued that Mr. Barton's historical errors, though significant, were less serious than his doctrinal ones, and I suggested that his theological misunderstandings actually contributed to the historical. On Friday morning, May 8, he presented a workshop entitled "The Bible and America" that seemed to confirm those initial observations.

Given the subject, it is not surprising that Mr. Barton provided quotations from a large number of American Presidents and other noteworthy persons. He did not include this statement from Dwight D. Eisenhower shortly after his election as President in 1952:  "In other words, our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don't care what it is."

President Eisenhower's statement may be fairly unique for its undisguised lack of candor, but no one should imagine that he was the first or the last American politician to extol the importance of religion for opportunistic purposes. In addition, any Christian looking at statements by historical figures on the importance of the Bible need to consider the philosophies of those figures providing those statements. American civil religion has tended to view the Bible as a guide to moral conduct. Because almost everyone, both Christian and not, considers good moral conduct to be something of value, nearly everyone not openly antagonistic to the notion of religious practice will be glad to see the Bible applied in that way. Of course, that does not mean that those historical persons -- or modern ones, for that matter -- understand the inspiration or the importance of the Bible in the same way that Christians do.

Of course, I say.

Thus, it is significant that Mr. Barton frequently quotes people to make them sound like they share the concerns of modern evangelicals while failing to provide enough background to give the hearer a sufficient understanding of where that person is coming from. In this and all of his other presentations at the conference, Mr. Barton gave prominent attention to Dr. Benjamin Rush, who he described as among the most important, though lesser known, founding fathers. Mr. Barton suggests that Dr. Rush is not better known because his legacy included strong religious beliefs. Indeed, Benjamin Rush was an important figure in the history of the American Revolution, politics, medicine, psychiatry, and education. He was also a religious person who believed that religion was important in education and government for purposes of moral improvement. However, Mr. Barton does not convey that Rush did deviate in some points from historic orthodoxy. Benjamin Rush was a universalist in his faith who even wrote to John Adams that his religion was a mixture of orthodoxy and heterodoxy. While he did believe, like other universalists of his time, that some bad people might have to endure some amount of suffering in the afterlife as recompense for their moral failures, he believed ultimately in universal salvation. Understanding that gives a different conception of what Dr. Rush had in mind with regard to religious instruction. If Mr. Barton knew it, he did not let his audience in on it.

Yet, it is also unclear if Mr. Barton is concerned about this, as he seems quite comfortable with the notion that the Bible is more of a moral and political guide than a book about God's redemptive activity. Thus, he suggests that in five Bible verses one can make the case for free market capitalism, in spite of the fact that such a system is never really advocated in the Bible, certainly not for Old Testament Israel, which is the only nation for which we have significant material regarding its civil structure. To be clear, I believe that free market capitalism is a system that can be espoused by Christians; I just would not say that the Bible advocates it in the way Mr. Barton describes. Similarly, he claims that the Bible clearly sets forth seven potential forms of human government and that the founders chose republican government because it is the most favored in the Bible. Again, ancient Israel was not a republic, and while Christians can see the value in republican government and find it consistent with biblical understandings of human nature, to say it is advocated in Scripture is going much too far.

Nonetheless, Mr. Barton did not discern the impact of Benjamin Rush's universalism, and he similarly couldn't come to grips with Benjamin Franklin's deism. In spite of the fact that Mr. Franklin famously wrote of his rejection of the Gospel while listening admiringly to Whitfield, Mr. Barton, while admitting Mr. Franklin to be less religious than most of his peers (you don't say!), nonetheless contended that his famous speech before the constitutional convention calling the delegates to prayer proved the founder's orthodoxy.

Nonetheless, Mr. Barton gave the appearance of positively advocating the use of the Bible apart from its redemptive context. The speaker incorrectly stated that the Second Great Awakening lasted 77 years (most historians of the period would say that it peaked and began to die out in under 50 years), but he was accurate in his claim that many of the sermons of the period addressed practical, not spiritual issues. He explained this as a good thing. Thus, if modern preachers would mimic those of the Second Great Awakening, he said, their sermons would prominently address things such as the National Defense Authorization Bill. He saw this as the great need of modern pulpits. He further claimed that Bible verses clearly delineated the proper Christian response to political tactics regarding the fiscal cliff, progressive versus capitated taxation, and support of Israel. All of these involved significant misuse of biblical texts, but they are the sort of things he insisted that ministers should be discussing on a weekly basis.

Referring to himself as a consultant to the U.S. Department of Justice, Mr. Barton showed data suggesting that the dismissal of Bible programs from government schools caused a dramatic increase in crime (he didn't discuss any social, societal, and demographic changes occurring in this time period. Notably, Mr. Barton's graph ended in the mid 1990's and, thus, failed to show the drop in crime rates since that time. Such a shift both undermines his claim that ending Bible reading in school accounts for the increase in crime and supports the suggestion that demographics largely, though not entirely, account for both the growth and decline of crime rates.

The session closed with a citation from John Quincy Adams, who said that he had made a habit of annually reading the Bible in order to "advance my wisdom and virtue." Just as I was regretting that this seemed to describe Bible reading as nothing more than a program for self-improvement, Mr. Barton praised John Quincy Adams for saying he read the Bible "practically" and not "devotionally."

Is such non-redemptive reading of Scripture what home schooling parents have in mind for their children? One hopes not.

I will write tomorrow on Mr. Barton's next workshop on The Bible and Education.

UPDATE: Based on further reading, I have softened statements in the original post regarding Benjamin Rush's beliefs. While it is accurate to say that Rush was a universalist, it is also important to note that his beliefs generally -- for example, on matters such as the Trinity and the deity of Jesus Christ -- were more in line with historic orthodoxy than most in Jefferson's circle of friends. I have modified my earlier statements to reflect this.

Friday, May 08, 2015

David Barton's Religion: Moralism, Deism, and Pelagianism, oh My!

The Texas Home School Coalition held its annual Arlington meeting this week. In addition to a large exhibit hall which allows for vendors to shop their wares to motivated home school shoppers, the meeting includes a full docket of presentations and workshops during the three day affair. The stars of this year's event were the Duggar's of reality television fame. The second most nationally known act was provided by Wallbuilder's founder and president David Barton, who presented an opening night address and three workshops.

For those not in the know, Mr. Barton has been a popular, if controversial, figure in conservative Christian circles, and his claimed expertise and published materials on American historical and constitutional issues have made him popular on the home school circuit. That said, his published writings have sometimes taken positions with which no knowledgeable person can agree. Thus, his work on Thomas Jefferson, in which he claimed that the founding father was an orthodox Christian (Jefferson was actually a deist), ended up being withdrawn by its publisher, Thomas Nelson, after conservative Christian scholars joined others in debunking Mr. Barton's claims (two Christian college professors even published a volume refuting Mr. Barton's work). Rather than admit error, Mr. Barton has self-published the work.

Having known about this and other controversies, but not having read the works involved, this blogger decided it might be worthwhile to do a bit of gumshoe reporting by attending Mr. Barton's sessions. Given what I knew, I expected that I would disagree with his historical constructions, and he certainly made assertions that were factually incorrect and misconstrued. Nonetheless, it was surprising to me that his religious claims were far more objectionable than his historical ones.

This will be the first of four posts looking at Mr. Barton's four presentations at the conference. While some attention will be given to his historical, legal, and political claims, more attention will be given to his religious statements, which, in fact, are far more concerning with regard to his personal views and his influence within the home school movement.

Mr. Barton's Thursday evening address on "What Makes America Different" centered around "five immutable principles" found in the opening section of the Declaration of Independence. Things became interesting as he discussed his fourth principle, that there is a fixed moral law. The natural law doctrine summarized in the Declaration's reference to "the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God" has a long and reputable place in American jurisprudence. However, Mr. Barton's explanation of it can only be described as unorthodox and even bizarre.

The idea of natural law is normally rooted in the idea of a universal, or near universal, human conscience that agrees upon basic matters of justice and human rights. One looking to the Bible for a Christian justification of this notion might look to Romans 2, which does affirm divine revelation of a moral sense shared by those without knowledge of scriptural revelation.

However, Mr. Barton went instead to Romans 1, which he proceeded to expound in unusual ways. Romans 1:20 says that God's "invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made." Normally, that passage is taken to mean that the orderliness, beauty, and expanse of visible creation reveal information about the power, unity, and wisdom of the Creator. It is also generally added that mankind has suppressed this knowledge due to the Fall.

Mr. Barton said that this passage proved that creation revealed "the intricacies of the godhead," with the result that we can know "everything" that there is to know about God from nature. No mention was made of the Fall (it will be noted below that he acknowledged the presence of sin in the created order, but he deals with that also in an odd way). This confidence in the ability of mankind to learn everything that is needed about God blurs the distinction between general and special revelation while ignoring the impact of original sin on the human race. This has the feel of Pelagianism, which is the notion, regarded by both Catholics and Protestants as heresy, that unaided man has the full ability and freedom to respond adequately to God's commands (requiring no aid from the Spirit of God in order to obey), and what follows will serve to reinforce that concern.

Having said briefly that creation reveals God's intricacies, he turned quickly to morality. Again, this is a bit odd, as typically the Christian exposition of Romans 1 focuses on Creation's revelation of divine attributes, while Romans 2 is used to develop the idea of a moral sense in human conscience. Mr. Barton, strangely, finds his proof of a moral sense and evidence in creation of inalienable human rights in the animal kingdom. The way horses treat their young proves for us the right to self-defense. Notions of liberty, including opposition to slavery and opposition to abortion, are revealed by the nature of animals, and he went on for quite some time about other examples of rights revealed from the animal kingdom. Of course, this sort of analysis required considerable cherry picking, as it is obvious that many species do not demonstrate the characteristics he described. While some species, both male and female, care for their progeny, others will eat their young.

At the end of that discussion, he did acknowledge that violations of his principles occur in nature, but he then argued that is where the Ten Commandments come in. Thus, instead of seeing the Decalogue as a codification of the moral law revealed in nature, he treated it as an appendix to it. One should also note that the purpose of all of this -- natural law and the Ten Commandments -- was to produce a knowing and righteous moral response. Nothing was presented as differentiating pedagogical and civil uses of the law. Nothing was presented suggesting the biblical ideas of law condemning us in order to point us as needy sinners to Christ, who is revealed to us in the Gospel as a Savior of lawbreakers.

These are serious errors and omissions. They may also explain why Mr. Barton finds it so easy to claim that men such as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin are orthodox Christians who just weren't as religious as most of the other founders. If Mr. Barton himself has managed to mingle dominant strands of moralism, deism, and Pelagianism into his understanding of Christianity, he certainly shares more in common with Messrs. Jefferson and Franklin than with the historic faith.

On Friday morning, Mr. Barton led a session on "The Bible and America." I will write about it tomorrow.