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Modern Reformation: Thinking Theologically

A Response to Rev. Johnson

Published Tuesday, June 16, 2020 By Michael S. Horton

I think that Pastor Johnson has misunderstood my position and the main thesis of my article.  I agree with him entirely that the Christian faith restrains the human arrogance of building towers of Babel in this present age.  God must come down to rescue us, which he did do two thousand years ago and will consummate at his return.  In the meantime, he is gathering people from every nation to his kingdom through the preaching of the gospel, Baptism, and the Supper as well as the discipline and communion of the saints.  I place no trust in princes.

At the same time, we are creatures of history.  Conservatism is a historical construct, basically (in its present form at least) hailing from the 1950s, as the antithesis to the “Progressive” agenda.  At the turn of the nineteenth century, most conservative Protestants were postmillennialists—believing that the kingdom of Christ would be realized progressively through the efforts of Christians.  The evangelical revivalists were “progressives,” at the forefront of abolitionism and the right of women to vote.  After the “War to End All Wars” didn’t, a pessimistic premillennialism (especially in its Dispensationalist variety) became the coup de jour.  Lost in all of this was the view held by amillennialists since the early church, that the Book of Revelation encapsulates (like Jesus’ Olivet Discourse in Matthew 24) the whole period between Christ’s two advents.  I cannot go any further into that here, but this exegetical shift was determined in no small measure by the mood of the United States.  Liberals, who rejected a supernatural worldview, had no other reality to consider than that the morals of Jesus might keep some relevance for churches in a society that was no longer interested in a saving God-Man.

Limited government is, I believe, a reasonable response to the inherent sinfulness of human beings.  I do believe that there was a residual biblical and Augustinian view of the propensity of humans to seek power in order to create greater disaster behind the thought even of not quite church-going people as James Madison.  He learned something from his professor at Princeton, the Presbyterian John Witherspoon.  I love our Constitution in part because I think that it reflects a view of human fallenness that would not even occur to a new generation of constitution-writers.

At the same time, the maxim of the Declaration of Independence that “all people are created equal” was not realized in the text of the Constitution when it came to slavery.  So the Fourtheenth Amendment finally guaranteed equality under the law.  If the Constitution had sufficed, there would have been no need for an amendment.  The Southern states had argued, persuasively to many Notherners, that Africans were not fully human and therefore were not equally protected under the law.

Then came the civil rights movement.  We rightly despise modernism, but why were they at the forefront of the cause of realizing the meaning of the Constitution and Bible-believing Christians were largely on the opposite side?  This is not about whether we believe in limited government or a progressive state, but whether we think that there is any reason for a federal government at all to enforce the values of our constitutional republic.  Had the federal government not acted in a decisive manner, who knows where the U. S. would be right now?  Evidently, there are many voices today, even some who call themselves “pro-life” that would be quite happy with segregation, Jim Crow, and other immoral policies.

I have no interest in defending progressivism over conservatism.  My bent is toward the latter.  However, I agree with the conservative writer Yuval Levin that many who claim to be conservatives today are disdainful of all institutions (ironically, similar to the Left), including government.  The federal government is a fallen institution in a fallen world that has positive as well as negative responsibilities to pursue jusice.  Christians believe that God instituted government after the fall to keep us from killing each other.  Government is not bad.  The institutions established by the Constitution are good, but stop-gap measures and led by sinful human beings who are going to be called to account one day for their decisions.

I understand when Christians think that Donald Trump is better than the alternative.  I’m pro-life and in favor of limited government.  But what I do not understand is evangelical leaders applauding the President and explaining away his appeal to our sinful instincts—misogynist, racially-divisive and sacrilegious use of a God to whom he doesn’t need to confess his sins—as if he were the restorer of God’s kingdom.  Theologically, I will stand as opposed to this heresy as to the equally human-centered strategies of the Left.

My goal was not to evaluate the moral equivalency of conservatism and progressivism, but to point to the imperative entrusted to the church as an institution to proclaim God’s Law to the nations.  Every Christian right now should read Augustine’s City of GodWe will never have ultimate peace and justice in this age.  Only when Christ returns will there be absolute justice, freedom and peace.  Yet, as he argued, there can still be relative justice, goodness and peace even in the fallen cities of our age.  May God keep us from embracing false saviors and kingdoms on one hand and from using the truth of “all will be well one day” to avoid human responsibility here and now to love our neighbors.

  • Michael S. Horton

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