The Fourth Turning and the Future of Reformed Leadership

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In 1997, William Strauss and Neil Howe published The Fourth Turning, a study of the long cycles of American history. Since that time, William Strauss has passed away, but Neil Howe is out with a follow up book called The Fourth Turning Is Here. I won’t rob you of the value of reading both of them, but so that you might know what I am going on about here, I will summarize the basic thesis by way of introduction. I have written about some of this before.

Not only do individuals have predictable life stages, but so do cultures and nations—so do societies. The span of what the Romans called a saeculum is the length of one long human life, meaning from 80 to 100 years. During this time, there are four predictable cycles, four turnings. They correspond to the seasons of the year—spring, summer, autumn, and winter. The fourth turning is the winter, a time of convulsion and crisis, out of which spring emerges. We are in the middle of a fourth turning now, and there is no turning around and going back. We have to go through.

Our previous fourth turning was the Second World War. The one before that was the War Between the States. The one before that was the War for Independence. This is not exactly history by metronome, but there is in fact a very predictable rhythm to it. In their first book, Strauss and Howe predicted the crisis we would be in now, and the thesis does not appear to me to be made up of esoteric speculations. You can watch it happening, and you can do the math.

We don’t know exactly why we follow this pattern, but it appears that we really do. We don’t know why cicadas come out every seventeen years either, other than that their Master would have it so.

According to Howe’s current book, we are due to punch out of this phase in the next ten years or so—say, 2033. Until that time, budget for more white water.

How Then Shall We . . .?

There are two kinds of Reformed leaders in the church today. There are those who look at the chaos of the times and think of it as an adequate excuse for not doing their duty. The conditions were not “right” for stalwart obedience. The circumstances were not conducive. The sun was hot. He twisted an ankle. There was a lion in the streets.

There are others who look at the chaos of the times and see it as a summons, as a call to stand up and do their duty. The trial causes the right kind of men to emerge. These are the men who will come out of the fourth turning with some scars, but with the moral authority to lead. It will be a different world then, and people will want to follow men they can trust. They will therefore look to the men who, in the crisis just passed, were trustworthy.

As we think about these things, we have to remember that times like these have happened before.

“Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables. But watch thou in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, make full proof of thy ministry.”

2 Timothy 4:2–5 (KJV)

What are we to do? We are to preach the Word. That is our calling. That is our basic and foundational duty. Moreover, we are to do this in season and out season, meaning that we are to preach the Word when people are eager to hear from us, and we are to continue to do the very same thing when they don’t want to hear from us at all. Preach the Word, whether or not you are in Aaron Renn’s negative world.

This is the central call, the basic duty. The times do not determine our duties, but the faithful performance of our duties will in fact shape the times. The times do not determine whether or not Jesus rose from the dead, and the times do not get to say whether or not Jesus is Lord. We live in a changing world, unstable as water, and we are messengers of an unchanging gospel. When we are being faithful in the business, the former gives way to the latter. What happens in a collision between a thick fog and an outcropping of granite rock on the shore? It is the fog that gives way.

Too many of our erstwhile Reformed leaders tried to determine what was relevant by looking at what was the current thing in the world. This was the “hello, fellow kids” approach. But nothing is more irrelevant than the ache for that kind of relevance. It is actually one of the hallmarks of the spirit of theological liberalism. It is one of the signs that we have ceded leadership to the hollow men. We say we are being led by modern men when we are only being led by momentary men.

“All that is not eternal is eternally out of date.”

C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves

Those who change and adapt with the times will soon discover that the times are a fickle lover. If the times were a classic pop song, we would call her Runaround Sue.

But we are not apostles of a flickering shadow. We are sent into the world as preachers from the one who is without shadow or variation due to change. We are sent as heralds of a message that was established in the will of God before ancient times, before the world was fashioned. We preach the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world, which means that this Lamb that was slain is the foundation of the world.

This Secular Saeculum

Now this current crisis is happening to a secular order. The wheels are coming off of Pharaoh’s chariots, not ours. Our secular sages and pundits have all collectively lost their minds. And this has happened to them, not because they valued civic freedom so much, but rather because they sought to make godlessness the foundation of our civic freedoms.

The freak-out over Christian nationalism, including squawks from many Christians, boils down to this misunderstanding. Too many of us have come to believe that Christlessness is somehow a solid foundation. But look what happens to all such houses when the storm comes. Read these words with the recognition that we are in the storm now.

“And every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it.”

Matthew 7:26–27 (KJV)

People hear Christian nationalism and they think “ecclesiastical tyranny.” They conjure up a vision of Reformed ayatollah weird beards, contemplating a new round of sumptuary legislation and draconian restrictions. But it is not the Christian nationalist who wants to make you eat cricket burgers.

There is such a thing as a lawful secular and mundane space. There is a lawful form of secularism. But there is never a lawful form of godlessness. Bear with me for a minute, because I am trying to explain to you that Christian nationalism is basically Christian secularism. Not godless secularism, but Christian secularism.

The Church is the realm of Word and sacrament. There is to be separation between Church and state. The proper separation of Church and state is a Christian doctrine. But there is no lawful separation of righteousness and state. As soon as any Christian applies a biblical standard of righteousness, as defined by God, to any of the collective actions of society, then he is, like or not, a Christian nationalist. He may fulminate against being so labeled, but the fact remains. The fact is just sitting there, looking at him with a fat face. He may call Christian nationalism all kinds of names—Hegelian, integralist, whatever—but if his ideas of righteousness are formed by Scripture, and if he wants the state to be righteous, then he wants the state to recognize that we are endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights. A blind evolutionary process endows us with nothing but privileges, and they are rapidly vanishing privileges to boot.

This Creator sent His Son to die, and the Father raised Him from the dead. This has political ramifications, and we need to just deal with it.

This is the Word. Preach it.

In the meantime, always remember that the storm we are currently in is a storm that is occurring in this world. That makes it a limited and finite storm. And because it is a finite storm, the clouds contain a finite amount of water. There will come a time when this storm runs completely dry. When it does, we will walk around and survey the damage. Some ministries will have collapsed entirely. Some will be damaged, but still there. And some will have been revealed as antifragile. That will be the time to go get your pick-up, and pitch in on the clean-up.