The biggest challenge is when the church wants to transform the world or the culture. It’s one thing if you want to make the whole world Presbyterian (which might put a dent in Christmas festivities). But if you let changing the world overwhelm your teaching and polity, you are headed for liberalism or modernism. The best definition of the latter is the self-conscious adaptation of faith to the modern world, or the idea that in order to minister effectively, we need to take on ingredients of the modern world.
[Editor: Dr. Darryl G. Hart is a scholar of religious, political, and cultural history. He is currently an associate professor of history at Hillsdale College in Michigan, and has previously taught at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia and Westminster Seminary California. He has written or edited many books of history and analysis, including the most significant (in the interviewer’s mind) Defending the Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the Crisis of Conservative Protestantism in Modern America. His personal blog is oldlife.org. This interview was conducted via email exchange.]
Brad Isbell: As you know in times of ecclesial controversy and change the conservative, confessional, or traditionalist side is often accused of making slippery slope arguments. Sometimes these arguments are consciously made as in Jon Payne’s recent post at the Gospel Reformation Network, where he calls the situation in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) not just a slippery slope, but a very slippery slope. Are slippery slope arguments fallacious, alarmist, or are they sometimes appropriate?
D.G. Hart: People are sometimes prissy about metaphors. If a slope is slippery it could be dangerous. Pointing out the overuse of a metaphor does not discredit the point the metaphor user is making.
From a historical perspective, nothing in history is inevitable. If a church went liberal in the past, it’s not a guarantee one is doing so in the present. Though, if someone isn’t worried about going liberal, I’m not sure what Protestant history that person is reading. I’m reading and writing now about English Presbyterians after the Glorious Revolution. They opposed subscription and overwhelmingly went Unitarian by the middle of the 18th century. Does that mean the PCA or Orthodox Presbyterian Church is headed on a similar trajectory by changing ordination standards or polity? Not really. But the opposition to the slippery slope argument is often the exceptionalist position — it can’t happen here. That seems crazy to me. In all the places where the Reformation produced some of the most solid theology and ministry the churches became liberal by the 18th century. Instead of saying it can’t happen here, the surer point, it seems to me, is it will happen here unless we—dare I say—fight to prevent it from happening.
Of course, this is not simply a perspective that comes from the history of Protestantism. If you read the Old Testament, it’s not exactly a story of Israel going from strength to strength, bright light to even brighter light. The fall happened. Regenerate people struggle with sin. Sanctification is putting sin to death. That sounds difficult and painful. Of course it is. The same point can be made about God’s people corporately. Institutions veer from original truths and pieties. That truth could well lead us to wonder “Is this happening to us?” It’s kind of depressing or exhausting to live like that, but it’s also necessary if you take the fall seriously.
B.I.: You’re a (J. Gresham) Machen scholar. Was he accused of alarmism and making slippery slope warnings? Did history prove him right?
D.G.H.: The question makes me wonder where the metaphor emerged. I don’t remember seeing any reference to it in the reading I did on the fundamentalist controversy. The common objection to Machen was that he was unloving (or mean) and distrustful of his fellow Presbyterian officers.
One way of thinking about slopes and Machen is to remember he was late to the declension of the PCUSA. I am firmly convinced that the 1869 Reunion of the Old and New Schools was based on a social gospel and even a Christian nationalist outlook—the idea that the church must serve a nation that is facing new conditions at a time when “union” (and the war for it) proved why joining together was better than being divisive. 1869 was the beginning of the ecumenical movement in American Protestantism (formally) and it went hand in hand with the social gospel — which was an effort to preserve the Christian character of the United States.
In that sense, Machen’s 1923 book was like the Dutch boy putting his finger in the dike. To his credit, he was the rare Dutch boy.
B.I.: When it comes to slopes and ditches—dangers and errors—do you think the only thing for presbyterian and Reformed people to really fear is the type of full-blown theological liberalism that Machen fought, or are newer forms of cultural accommodation and current hints of social gospel nearly as concerning? Are they tougher to oppose and combat because of their subtlety and because of their seeming compatibility with evangelicalism? Or maybe you don’t think they’re subtle or compatible at all — at least with confessional Presbyterianism.
D.G.H.: Call me an obsessive Old School Presbyterian, but it’s hard not to see New School Presbyterianism as the picture worth a thousand words. New School Presbyterians were not liberal in the 20th-century sense. They were supernaturalists, even evangelical by Billy Graham standards. But they were not very good Presbyterians, which is okay. Not everyone has to be Presbyterian. But if you are Presbyterian, you may want to pay attention to pieces of Presbyterian identity. But New Schoolers sensed that doctrine, polity, and even worship hindered the larger work of civilizing and evangelizing the nation.
In other words, the biggest challenge is when the church wants to transform the world or the culture. It’s one thing if you want to make the whole world Presbyterian (which might put a dent in Christmas festivities). But if you let changing the world overwhelm your teaching and polity, you are headed for liberalism or modernism. The best definition of the latter is the self-conscious adaptation of faith to the modern world, or the idea that in order to minister effectively, we need to take on ingredients of the modern world. That was as much a part of the liberalism that Machen opposed as were denials of the Virgin Birth or the divinity of Christ.
B.I.: I’ve often contended that, for the moment, the conflicts in the PCA (and maybe other Presbyterian and Reformed bodies) is between Presbyterians and Evangelicals rather than between the theologically orthodox and theological liberals. Do you think that’s right? Also, do you see evidence of a slippage to something like liberalism in broader Evangelicalism? What are the signs, if any?
D.G.H: That’s probably correct. Do we see conservative Presbyterians conducting biblical study or doing theology in ways that depart from doctrinal norms? It’s not clear other than the flap over complementarianism and the Trinity from a couple years ago.
But if liberalism is more a product of transformationalism or social justice then, yes, there are signs of liberalism in the PCA and other Reformed communions. Some will recoil from the idea that activism is synonymous with liberalism. But if you think the church has a certain work to perform, to minister the gospel, save the lost, and prepare people for judgment day, the church’s mission is inherently otherworldly. That is clear in Paul’s writings such as 2 Cor 4:18: “So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”
Such otherworldliness recognizes that the ministry of Word and Sacrament is way more consequential than urban renewal, police reform, or redistribution of wealth. But often in church history Christians have thought that yes, we have the message, but the church needs to do more in this particular moment. In those cases, the present becomes as important, in some cases, more important, than the eternal. And in that case, someone may affirm the Trinity or the atonement and then say, “So what? What’s it doing for my neighborhood or my ethnic group right now?” And once you have that, you have a kind of doctrinal indifference that if not liberal is adjacent to it, because a believer or church officer does not recognize the significance of what God’s Word reveals.
At the same time, alarmism is not necessarily a welcome response. It often reflects a perception that a communion was fine and now we are in trouble. As uninspiring as it sounds, the church is always in trouble. After all, Paul wrote: “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavens” (Eph. 6:12). What makes us think that we are any less in a battle than the apostles were in his day? And if people somehow think that, “Well, yes, warfare with the world is constant, but not in the church”—well, have they read Galatians or John’s epistles?
Worries about departures from what is right and true can be obsessive. But arguably even worse is the idea that we don’t need to worry, everything is fine.
Brad Isbell is a PCA ruling elder, board member of MORE in the PCA, and co-host of the Presbycast podcast.