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Theology & Politics: An Autobiographical Note
No.160: May 19, 2023
Welcome to The Square Inch, a Friday newsletter on Christianity, culture, and all of the many-varied “square inches” of God’s domain. This publication is free for now, but please consider clicking on the button at the bottom to become a paid subscriber to enjoy this along with Monday’s “Off The Shelf” feature about books and Wednesday’s “The Quarter Inch,” a quick(er) commentary on current events.
I was searching through some documents on my computer the other day because I was looking for something I’d once written about Norman MacLean’s A River Runs Through It. I came across a sort of autobiographical essay that I’d once written for some now-forgotten reason. I do know that it was never published, and I thought you might like to read it. It will give you a clearer picture of the context and background of The Square Inch Newsletter and its writer and publisher. I hope you enjoy it!
As a lifelong Presbyterian from Montana, I am obliged to begin with Norman Mclean’s classic opening paragraph from A River Runs Through It:
In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing. We lived at the junction of great trout rivers in western Montana, and our father was a Presbyterian minister and a fly fisherman who tied his own flies and taught others. He told us about Christ’s disciples being fishermen, and we were left to assume, as my brother and I did, that all first-class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly fishermen and that John, the favorite, was a dry-fly fisherman.
I am from south-central Montana. My father was not a minister. I do love fly fishing but I am terrible with dry flies. However, I did, like Norman and Paul, learn the wonderful first question and answer of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. “Q: What is the chief end of man?” “A: Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.”
The church I grew up in started in our living room. I was an infant at the time, and it was a small gathering of Christian believers, each growing in spiritual seriousness, and each dissatisfied with what the local churches were offering. In the course of their search for something more theologically rigorous they became quite taken with Reformed theology, that major branch of the Protestant Reformation rooted in Geneva but flowering and maturing in (Hugenot) France, the Netherlands, Puritan England, Scotland, and beyond.
Given these newfound sensibilities, the obvious answer for this renegade band was to start a Reformed and, of course, Presbyterian church. So that is what they did. And that is also the beginning of how I became a Reformed theologian. It all started, I suppose, with my own infant baptism—I suspect this was some time before the trend of Baptists in America fashioning themselves “Reformed,” which I think Calvin and company would have found strange.
Of course, one must at some point learn to embrace one’s identity, and so I did, without much drama or fanfare. I never really experienced a typical youthful rebellion against my upbringing. Instead, I read (and barely understood) a small book by a brilliant man named Francis Schaeffer, who opened my eyes to a Christianity consisting of far more than just personal piety, getting saved, and going to heaven; I suddenly saw it as a world-and-life view with implications for everything. I was fourteen years old at the time, and instantly fascinated. Soon after, for my birthday, my parents bought me Schaeffer’s five-volume complete works and I devoured a good number of them. I was an unusual teenager.
Schaeffer was my first conscious introduction to what you might call a particular intellectual ecosystem or tradition. He had enrolled for a time at Westminster Theological Seminary, a Philadelphia institution somewhat familiar to me because my first pastor graduated there (I much later discovered that that itself is a fascinating bit of American history involving, at the margins, Abraham Lincoln. You can read about it here). So I started reading the Westminster men, too: mostly J. Gresham Machen and Cornelius Van Til. But quickly I discovered a host of new names I needed to learn: Hodge, Warfield, Kuyper, and—particularly elusive—Bavinck. Who were these people? Naturally, I sought to find out.
Here’s the short story: Princeton Theological Seminary was North America’s premiere Reformed Presbyterian academic institution from its inception in 1812 well into the 20th century, home to giants like Charles Hodge (1797-1878) and Benjamin Breckenridge Warfield (1851-1921). In the 1920s, following Warfield’s death, the seminary board was reorganized and took a decided turn in a direction they viewed as kinder, gentler, more progressive and liberal. What they really did was leave all the important doctrinal content of Christianity behind (e.g., the deity and resurrection of Christ), and a New Testament professor named J. Gresham Machen left Princeton in protest. Taking a few colleagues with him, he crossed the Delaware and founded Westminster. Machen once remarked that when the pallbearers had carried Warfield out of the church, “they carried Old Princeton with him,” and Westminster was Machen’s personal response. There the tradition of “Old Princeton”—the confessionally Reformed theology embodied in the Westminster Shorter Catechism—would carry on.
While his institution survived and thrived (at present a mere six years from its centennial), Machen himself died suddenly in 1937. He was eulogized in the pages of The Baltimore Evening Sun by no less than the celebrated H.L. Mencken. The constitutionally cranky Mencken had to get in his witty cheap shots, as you would expect, writing that Calvinism “occupies a place, in my private closet of horrors, but little removed from that of cannibalism.” Nevertheless, he greatly admired Machen as a “man of great learning and, what is more, of sharp intelligence,” and when it came to conflict with the liberal Presbyterian establishment, Mencken had no doubts who had the better of the argument. While Machen might have failed to convince his “fellow adherents of the Genevan Mohammed,” Mencken concluded, “he was undoubtedly right.” Personally, I would rephrase that to say that what accounts for the failure is that these were really not authentic “fellow adherents” of Calvin, and it wasn’t any deficit on Machen’s part.
I am an odd initiate into this storied tradition, being born out of place and time in the far-flung Rocky Mountain west. But I was baptized into it by a Machen man. So I eventually followed the bread crumbs back to the sources. I attended and graduated from Westminster Theological Seminary. There I discovered that the branches of Reformed theology are plentiful, intertwining, and fruitful. In particular, I discovered that Westminster was not just influenced by Old Princeton, but also by Old Amsterdam: the European world of Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) and Herman Bavinck (1854-1921).
I continued to follow that trail. It led me physically to the northeast coast of Scotland, the University of Aberdeen, where I spent three years writing a PhD thesis on Herman Bavinck. Together, Kuyper and Bavinck were leaders of a movement in the Netherlands commonly called (initially pejoratively) “Neo-Calvinism.” Schaeffer may have introduced me to Christianity as a “world-and-life” view with implications for everything, but I’d discovered that he certainly didn’t invent it. Dutch Neo-Calvinism was there long before him, and Abraham Kuyper had put his money, time, and labor where his mouth was. He founded the Free University of Amsterdam, a newspaper, a church, a political party, and served a term as Prime Minster while he was at it, to name just a few of his seemingly endless endeavors.
And do you know the name of his Neo-Calvinist political party? The Anti-Revolutionary Party. It was named as an explicit rejection of the spirit of the French Revolution, which had continued to haunt the continent over a half century after the event. I’d finally arrived, I discovered, in a very conservative intellectual place. Kuyper and Bavinck were standing athwart History and yelling “Stop!” long before William F. Buckley, Jr. took up that cause in launching National Review magazine in America. Neo-Calvinism is deeply conservative—in some ways it can be difficult to distinguish from Burkean classical liberalism: suspicious of centralized power, suspicious of sweeping social change, and enthusiastic about the various free and pre-political “spheres” of life and society that are the lifeblood of a culture. If one wants to talk about civil society, free associations, subsidiarity, pluralism, limited government and the like, Neo-Calvinism has a treasure trove of intellectual resources to mine. As for me, it has provided pleasant harmony between my theology and my politics.
This tradition, the Reformed tradition, has been and remains my home. It was my nurse-maid from that first church service in my infancy and beyond, my youthful inspiration by way of Schaeffer, my profound teacher through Westminster Seminary and its legacy, and it became my truest and deepest intellectual love through the works of the one whom I believe is its greatest theological exemplar of all, Herman Bavinck.
In A River Runs Through It, Norman and Paul recite the answer to that profound catechism question together in unison, so that if one of them forgets it the other can carry on. I may not be from the trendy parts of Montana, and I may not be a great dry fly fisherman, but I can say that by God’s grace I’ve never, even slightly, forgotten the answer.
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