Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Worthen: Presuppositionalists and the End Times (10)

It neareth the end: Chapter 10 of Molly Worthen's, Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism

Reviews of previous chapters include:

Chapter 1 (Birth of Neo-Evangelicalism)
Chapter 2 (Evangelicals on the Edges)
Chapter 3 (The Strivings of Christianity Today)
Chapter 4 (Mennonites and Nazarenes in the 50s)
Chapter 5 (The Drive to Accreditation)
Chapter 6 (The Church Growth Movement)
Chapter 7 (The Canterbury Trail)
Chapter 8 (Democrat Evangelicals)
Chapter 9 (A Form of Intellectualism)

And now, chapter 10, "God's Idea Men."

The final sentences of this chapter are worthy to start with: "Schaeffer, Falwell, and other self-appointed spokesmen of the Christian Right appeared, to casual observers, to reflect some kind of consensus. One must not underestimate the power in this illusion of solidarity--but one should not take it for reality either" (240).

1. This statement comes at the end of a section called "history is written by the victors," which tells the story of the conservative take-over of the Southern Baptist Convention. Prior to the 80s and 90s, the Baptists tended to be Arminians, were largely opposed to any kind of credal statement, and put a strong emphasis on "soul competency," the idea that each individual is only accountable before God.

But by the end of the century, the Southern Baptists were controlled by 5 point Reformed Calvinists and had added credal requirements like inerrancy to their core statements. Clear roles for men and women were added to their statements to prevent women in ministry. When I was at Asbury in the late 80s, there were still ordinations of women even in Kentucky, before Al Mohler's notorious purge of the faculty at Louisville Southern Baptist Seminary.

There is an important point here. It can feel like the Bible has an obvious meaning and that all contemporary evangelicals see it. This sets up evangelicalism to be the true elect, those who are truly following the Bible. What isn't remembered is that there was a thirty year political struggle through which a particular ideology consolidated its power. The current "clarity" of Scripture within contemporary evangelicalism is an example of history told by the winners.

2. The chapter begins with the influence of "Reformed presuppositionalism," such as that espoused by Schaeffer, on the American church. Schaeffer wrote, "People have presuppositions, and they will live more consistently on the basis of these presuppositions than even they themselves may realize" (221). His mistake is that he is talking about large ideological systems. He is right that people have underlying values that they live by, but to equate them with overarching philosophical systems is to skew the discussion.

And people are inconsistent. We operate by different paradigms depending on what the area of life is. More primary are our drives and urges, not our thoughts--which often are rationalizations that aim to justify what we want to do. And to the extent to which we might operate by presuppositions, they tend to be micro-presuppositions rather than grand recits.

But we have the "high end" presuppositionalists of Alvin Plantinga and Nicolas Wolterstorff. They argued that belief in God is "properly basic." That is to say, belief in God is something that does not need proof but can be assumed like an axiom of geometry.

They could be right although obviously it is obviously a matter of dispute. I have not read Plantinga's tome where he sets this out (Warranted Christian Belief), but I suspect his claim connects with the ontological argument in some way. If it is impossible to conceive of existence itself without a necessary Being, then the existence of God might be considered properly basic.

I suspect this sort of presuppositionalism is compatible with Wesleyanism, although I consider it a foreign body within our theology. I believe pragmatism is more at home within Wesley-Arminianism, and I hope there will always be room for the more natural breed. By contrast, a whole army of IWU students was indoctrinated in presuppositionalism by one of IWU's best known twentieth century professors.

Rushdoony is another presuppositionist, so radical in his thinking that he wanted to bring back stoning disobedient children. He influenced conservative American thinking with a stark capitalist ideology that he fused with biblical interpretation, sanctifying a particular economic approach as the Christian approach.

John Whitcomb and Henry Morris gave rise to the creationist movement. It's easy to forget some of the diversity that used to exist on evolution in earlier times. They effectively squashed options like the "gap theory" and gave form to the current assumed consensus within fundamentalism. Again, we live at a time when the positions of fundamentalism seem obvious and seem a straightforward reading of the Bible to many, but this consensus was won over a half-century of American religious politics.

3. The final element in this chapter to mention are the envoys of the end times, Hal Lindsey and Tim LaHaye. "Like Schaeffer's offhand references to Locke and Jung, Late Great Planet Earth made the reader feel smart, in the know, and personally involved in history's climax" (229). It is worthwhile noting how often the revealed antichrist has changed over the years. Lindsey was sure that the USSR was going to attack Israel and that the European Common Market reflected the ten horns of Daniel. Who is the antichrist of the day now? It seems to change with the decade.

One more chapter...

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