More than sixty years ago, Carl F. H. Henry’s The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism (1947) chastised fundamentalists for their anti-intellectualism and cultural pessimism. While commending fundamentalists for preserving doctrinal fidelity to the supernatural gospel, Henry lambasted their “pessimism” and “indifference” to social ills. He also lamented the fact that “social reform movements dedicated to the elimination of such evils do not have the active, let alone vigorous, cooperation of large segments of evangelical Christianity.” For Henry, a Christianity “without a passion to turn the world upside down is not reflective of apostolic Christianity.” He even cited J. Gresham Machen as illustrative of the older conviction that “Christianity has a message relevant to the world crisis, however staggering the issues.”(1)
Today, many heirs of Carl Henry, including some within the Presbyterian and Reformed community, have abandoned individualistic pietism and embraced a more holistic vision of the gospel. In fact, it would not be unfair to suggest that some have even identified a particular political agenda as the only one sanctioned by the Bible and suggest that any dissent is tantamount to doctrinal heresy. For instance, in a book published just before the 2008 election, How Would Jesus Vote? A Christian Perspective on the Issues, D. James Kennedy argued that one can furnish a simple answer to that question. Jesus “left us all sorts of commands and principles to follow.” To be sure, Kennedy acknowledged that there was sometimes ambiguity over some of the principles that “well-meaning” Christians fight over. But at the end of the day, Kennedy’s work points unambiguously to the conclusion that Jesus would vote Republican.(2) Of course, similar examples of identifying a specific political party with Christianity abound on the religious left as well. For instance, a prominent United Church of Christ minister recently proclaimed that the “agenda found throughout the Gospels coincides with the Democratic platform, it mirrors the principles of Socialism more acutely.”(3)
Perhaps the heirs of Henry would do well to consider the insights of Machen’s colleagues at Old Princeton regarding the relationship between the Bible and politics. Although one should avoid the almost hagiographic admiration of Old School Princeton that still characterizes some Presbyterians, it would not be inaccurate to say that these conservative Christians took a decidedly more thoughtful, measured, and judicious approach to questions of theology and politics than many outspoken combatants in today’s “culture war.” This is not to say that Old School Presbyterians did not engage in polemics. They certainly did. Their contributions on this subject were not knee-jerk, however. Their serious scholarly reflections were always taken seriously by their theological opponents. In other words, their careful contemplations would not fit very well into our culture of shallow bumper-sticker slogans, op-ed pieces, or tweets.
The work of William Brenton Greene (1854-1928) presents an interesting case study of Old Princeton’s understanding of the relationship between Christianity and politics. Greene was a Presbyterian blueblood. A graduate of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) and Princeton Seminary, Greene succeeded Francis Landy Patton as Stuart Professor of the Relations of Philosophy and Science to the Christian Religion at the seminary in 1892. In 1903, he became the professor of apologetics and Christian ethics. Greene was a conservative Calvinist who was a sharp critic of the theologically liberal Social Gospel movement, but he cautioned the orthodox not to become ideologues. Writing at the height of the Progressive movement in 1912, Greene identified three points often forgotten or overlooked by today’s Christian conservatives. He stressed first that Christians should avoid allying their faith too closely with a particular political movement. Greene criticized liberal Christians on this point fairly harshly. In Greene’s estimation, Social Gospellers view the church’s primary mission as solving social problems. Consequently, the movement wrongly preaches “sociology rather than theology.” Yet Greene did not dismiss social reform and counsel as an otherworldly quietism. In fact, he called such social reform “indispensible.” While there is a healthy interaction between church and society, he warned that “to unite them we must tend to weaken the former and to embarrass the latter.” While Greene had in mind the Social Gospellers’ close identification with the Progressive movement, his insight applies to reformers on both the left and the right today.(4)
Second, Greene admonished clergy who preached certain political positions not taught explicitly in Scripture. As he explained: “In the case of extra-biblical questions, such as whether the railroads should be run by the state or, as with us, by private corporations, the minister may express his opinion as an individual; but he should never use his pulpit for this purpose.” From the pulpit, he speaks “with the authority of God, and neither in his Word nor in his works has God pronounced on these questions.”(5) Evidently, Greene did not hold that the Bible proscribed public ownership of one sector of the economy in 1912!
Though a minister might believe that certain biblical principles were undermined by particular policies, he should preach the principles and not “use his pulpit for an anti-socialistic crusade,” Greene advised. Moreover, denouncing other believers who drew different conclusions from their principles was ruled out by Greene. In fact, Greene said it was “absurd” for a minister to “desert” his authority as a minister by getting distracted by “extra-biblical questions.” When it comes to particular “social issues” that are “not referred to in Scripture,” Greene said, the minister should only “proclaim and illustrate” the general “principles” articulated in Scripture. “He ought not refer them to particular persons or movements.” In other words, ministers should preach only biblical principles, not advocate particular political policies from the pulpit, because Christians of good faith can disagree over the application of those principles. Moreover, Christians who prefer different policies “have a right to insist that they be not publicly assailed in the house of the God and Father of us all.”(6) Preachers need to ensure that it is the cross of Christ that gives offense and not the minister’s particular political hobbyhorse.
Finally, Greene warned that even when focusing on the “evils explicitly condemned in Scripture,” citing “the social evil, drunkenness, [and] extortion” as examples, the minister “must constantly be on his guard against becoming only or chiefly a reformer and agitator. Regeneration rather than transformation should be his aim. The Gospel rather than the Law should be the burden of his preaching.” Of course, to insist that the minister has a “commission” that is “higher,” as Greene put it, “than the mission of the mere social reformer” does not suggest that the gospel message has no social consequences. Although Greene’s focus in his 1912 article was primarily on the role of the clergy in these matters, today’s spokespeople for evangelicalism may want to ponder his wise advice. More conservative evangelicals could stand to take greater care in reading specific public policies into Scripture, and avoid excoriating their fellow Christians who do not find the same political economy there.
Greene’s advice might disappoint some Christian conservatives today. It is ironic that many in the religious right reflect a partisanship far more sectarian than Old School Presbyterian orthodoxy. It is hard work to strive to reach the common good in the public square when particular partisan policies have been baptized as the only biblical position. Much of what Christians disagree about in the political realm is really a matter of prudential reasoning. To Greene, Christians can disagree over the application of biblical principles to specific policies that are designed to promote the common good. “To identify the church,” Greene warned, “with political parties or benevolent associations is to dim her distinctness and so to lessen her efficiency as a spiritual force.”(7)
1 [ Back ] Carl F. H. Henry, The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1947), 117, 28, 19.
2 [ Back ] D. James Kennedy and Jerry Newcombe, How Would Jesus Vote? A Christian Perspective on the Issues (Colorado Springs, CO: WaterBrook Press, 2008), chapter 1.
3 [ Back ] See http://www.faithandsocialism.org/?p=38.
4 [ Back ] William Henry Greene, "The Church and the Social Question," Princeton Theological Review 10 (1912): 380, 395.
5 [ Back ] Greene, 395.
6 [ Back ] Greene, 395, 396.
7 [ Back ] Greene, 396.