The Case of Owen and the Memorials

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In a talk at the G3 conference last week, Owen Strachan attempted to take a bold stand, and it did not go well for him. He said, in a “here I stand” sort of way, that God’s love extended beyond white people. Whoa. This unobjectionable sentiment was rightly fisked by many of the wits of Twitter, in august Congress assembled, and together they all made merry.

The reason it was not surprising that this happened was because Strachan was acting as though there were some unnamed people out there who would in fact object to his unobjectionable bromide, thereby revealing themselves to be bigots. And it was a shrewd move to keep these folks largely unnamed because some of them were likely sharing the platform with him there at G3. What he was doing amounted to casting Russell-Moore-like smear shade at advocates of Christian nationalism.

And at just about the same time, an online ruckus exploded over some proposed memorials on ethnic issues that the CREC is considering this coming week at our Council. For an example, here is one response. The contention of some of the participants in this row was that the CREC was considering doing the same thing that Owen Strachan seemed to be doing—e.g. performative virtue signaling and kowtowing to the woke. Oh no, was the general sentiment about all that.

And hence it became necessary to fire up my computer. I would apologize, but you guys apparently asked for it. Because this controversy, like love, is a many-splendored thing, I am going to need to hit a number of different issues here.  

A Little Background

A month or so ago, I was interviewed by a gent from the Religion News Service. He had previously interviewed Owen Strachan about all these things, who had said in the course of his interview that those of us out here in Moscow have a responsibility: “I’m very interested—with a lot of people—to see how Moscow operates in days ahead,” Strachan said. “Because I think they bear a real duty.” The resultant article is here.

But the reason Owen’s widely circulated comments at G3 invited the derision it got was not because he said something wrong. What he said was absolutely correct. “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world, and I will take on all naysayers over this contentious issue.” That wasn’t the real problem. The problem was that he had a target in mind and he wasn’t going to let a little thing like agreement get in the way of opening fire at that target.

The target was Christian nationalism, which—given the times—is a difficult target to hit. A far easier target to hit is white Christian nationalism. Now I am going to say a few negative things about Bulverism in a moment, and so I am not about to speculate here about Owen’s motives in this, because I don’t know what they were.

But I do know the reason a number of conservative Baptist leaders might be jumpy in these times. One general reason Christian nationalism needs to be a target is that (because of all the crazy of the last few years) a lot of Reformed Baptists are now seriously considering historical Presbyterian political theology, babies and all. So if you don’t have a robust and worked-out political theology, as the North American Baptist tradition largely doesn’t, the fact that a detailed and plausible response to clown world is being offered by Presbyterians presents a threat. So in this context my exhortation to the Reformed Baptists generally would be three-fold. First, encourage, promote and fund those Baptists who are working on a political theology within a Baptist framework (e.g. Walker, Aniol). Second, continue to attack kinism. Have at it. Be my guest. Third, stop using your attacks on kinism as a way of smearing Presbyterian Christian nationalists who (together with you) reject kinism.

Owen and I were both interviewed for the same article. And in that article, as it was published, I provided all the assurances that someone like Owen should need. And so what I would want, in order to withdraw my view that Owen was grandstanding for some reason, would be a simple statement from him. All he would need to say would be something like, “I am glad to see that the folks in Moscow have taken a strong stand against kinism, and that they have been doing this for many years. Their brand of Christian nationalism is not what I am talking about.” If he does that, great, and I will applaud it, and not just in my heart. I will say so. If he doesn’t do it, then the lameness of the smear remains.

That said, let me push the other direction for just a moment. This is to prove how even-handed I am being. I am also sure that Owen has seen enough racist trolling in response to his talk to justify—in his own mind—the need for his talk in the first place. And this is how it goes. The progressive obsession with blaming whiteness for everything has produced a bona fide backlash, and is fomenting the very racism it pretends to loathe. Someone like Owen might look at that and start to think that maybe Russell Moore was right, and all that bile was lurking just under the surface all this time. But I look at it and marvel at just how much ethnic hostility can be ginned up in a short space of time by the race hustlers of identity politics. So I really do sympathize with many young kinists who have been maneuvered into a bad and untenable spot by the constant drumbeat of identity politics. So I don’t despise that kind of kinist, not at all. I love every bone in their heads.

So when issues like this erupt, in all the various comment threads, it should be noticed that all the puppies and kittens come out to play. Owen is not hallucinating when he says that this kind of thing exists. It does, and it is the reason I stopped having open comments at my blog, and now only open the comments occasionally. Consider this little gem.

So we in Moscow bear a “real duty,” do we? I have written a couple of books that go into the subject in detail (Skin and Blood, Black & Tan). I have a third manuscript submitted to Canon now on Israel, antisemitism, the Jews, and on Gentiles as true covenant heirs. I am in the early stages of planning a full-length commentary on Philemon. I did the initial work on the memorials that Knox Presbytery approved, and which they recommended to Council, and which appeared in that article together with Owen and me. What do our critics want, egg in their beer?

Owen has apparently believed some lies about Moscow, and he shouldn’t have. He apparently is not in a position to acknowledge that we hate genuine white supremacy as much as he does. (Note: we don’t hate the fake kind, the kind of white supremacy that shows up to work on time.). That’s to his discredit. If he is tilting at Moscow, he really is tilting at windmills. But to his credit, the enemy he is talking about does exist, and showed up promptly to help him out with an apparent justification of what he did.

I am reminded of a story recently told by a friend. He was walking with a mutual friend, a black conservative. They walked by a house with a BLM sign, and the black man wondered aloud if he should go up to the house and say he was offended because the sign wasn’t any bigger. That story also answers those who think that we are somehow seeking the left’s approval in all of this. We know we will never have that approval because they will always say that our sign “needs to be bigger.” We are not doing anything for them.

But this is what Owen is saying to us. He is saying that our opposition to kinism needs to be “bigger.” But it is already bigger than his, and has been for decades now. What is he talking about?

Review the Standard Once More

Just to review. Here is the standard I have maintained for decades. If you want to understand my behavior in all matters ethnic, this would be the metric you should use. If in these troublous times a minister of the gospel is not routinely accused of racism and misogyny, then he ought to do some serious soul-searching as to whether he is being faithful or not. At the same time, and with equal emphasis, it is crucial that the charges be a slanderous falsehood. Those are my fixed points. They are what I navigate by.

Faithful ministers in these times must never be given to ethnic malice or conceit, but they must draw those charges anyway, and it is best if they do this with some regularity. If they do this regularly enough, they will find that they attract some followers and admirers who really are bigots, and so he should regularly disappoint them also. They will express this disappointment by saying that we are “selling out,” “going woke,” and going in for other cuckservative stuff, equally grievous to them. Well, too bad, so sad.

In order to accomplish this, it will be necessary for these faithful ministers to say and do different things at different times, but they should only do what they want, and only say what they think. If I say that I despise ethnic vainglory or animosity, it is because I do despise it, and not because I am engaged in performative truckling. And if I also say that a white Virginian slave owner named Philemon Culpepper owned a black slave named Onesimus in 1847, and that he did this while being careful to follow all of Paul’s injunctions to Christian slave-owners (e.g. Eph. 6:9; Col. 4:1), giving his slaves what was just and equal—Paul’s words, not mine—it would miss the mark to say that I was trying to curry favor with . . . actually, who would that curry favor with? Perhaps I am closing in on the secret of my unpopularity.

It certainly would not win the admiration of those evangelicals who are big on the “authority and sufficiency of Scripture” but who will simply not acknowledge that a man could be a slave owner and a godly disciple of Christ at the same time. Was it possible for a man like Philemon to treat a slave in a manner that was just and equal? Yes or no? Please speak into the microphone. The big “sufficiency of Scripture” bravado men won’t touch certain passages of Scripture with any kind of exegetical frankness. And if they ever do have to apply 1 Tim. 6:2 in a sermon, they apply it delicately, like a donkey eating a thistle, to a Christian shift manager at Arby’s who is cranky sometimes.

But I am a Scripture man, first and last, and this is going to come up again in just a few minutes.

A Bulverism Fest

And this brings us to the proposed memorials for the CREC that are coming up before Council. One of them is from Hus Presbytery, and two from Knox. The two from Knox have already been adopted by Knox as our statements for the record. If any of these are approved as memorials, then this would mean that they would represent the commitments of the entire CREC, and we would need to have pointed discussions with all entering churches about them.

These proposed memorials have somehow appeared online, and have drawn variegated responses.

And Joel McDurmon, an ever reliable purblind critic, responded to the proposed memorials from the other direction: “This proposed CREC propaganda appears detailed and strong but has holes big enough that a busload of racists and anti-semites can, and will, drive right through. The Hus statement is best but still wonky, and including “Critical Race Theory” just cries ignorant and laughable.” Propaganda, eh? Sounds pretty sketchy. “Holes big enough.” “Wonky.” Telling criticism indeed.

Bulverism was a term coined by C.S. Lewis. Instead of engaging with someone’s arguments, you went straight to an explanation of why he came to embrace that position. Explain the why, and the arguments themselves can be dismissed as mere rationalizations. No need to engage, because the real issue was obviously resident in the motives . . . that you successfully surmised at a distance. Just call it great experiments in telepathy.

In other words, you must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong. The modern method is to assume without discussion that he is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became to be so silly. In the course of the last fifteen years I have found this vice so common that I have had to invent a name for it. I call it ‘Bulverism.’ Some day I am going the write the biography of its imaginary inventor, Ezekiel Bulver, whose destiny was determined at the age of five when he heard his mother say to his father—who had been maintaining that two sides of a triangle were together greater than the third—’Oh, you say that because you are a man.’ ‘At that moment,’ E. Bulver assures us, ‘there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of argument. Assume your opponent is wrong, and then explain his error, and the world will be at your feet. Attempt to prove that he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall.’ That is how Bulver became one of the makers of the Twentieth Century.”

C.S. Lewis, Bulverism

But I have not seen anyone refuting the memorials, and I have seen quite a few pronouncements from folks on what our motives had to have been for considering them. We were apparently showing off our sensibilities for the commies. And if you know anything about our ministry here, it is how much we care about not ruffling the feathers of the commies.

Supposedly, the reason the CREC is considering these memorials is because we are engaged in a little performative virtue-signaling, trying to get the left to like us. But we know for a fact that they never will. So I wonder if there could possibly be another reason why we are considering them. Perhaps we are interested in the pastoral care of our flocks, and we want to make sure that ethnic malice and vainglory don’t take root there. And perhaps we are considering this because we have seen troubling signs that this could quite possibly happen, and is in fact happening. I know for a fact that it is. Maybe we have, you know, talked to people, counseled people, dealt with people who have a real problem in this area. Maybe some pastors really are dealing with ethnic grease fires.

Another thing is that in order to be performative, there has to be a performance. What we have here is an agenda item. The consideration of these memorials was not made public by the CREC. We haven’t debated them yet, and I do not know what will happen when we do. But because I would love to see them adopted as memorials, a little gratitude from me would be in order. I do not know who first made the memorials public, and started this ruckus, but I am greatly indebted to whoever it was. This enables everyone to listen to the responsible voices in the various debate, but then there is also the real lesson down in the comment threads. If you want to know why we thought it was worthwhile to consider memorials such as these, all you have to do is a little comment-scrolling. There be trolls down there.

Off to the right is a tweet of Stephen Wolfe’s that he posted last year. Was that performative? Perhaps it was just a deft way of shutting people up who shouldn’t be talking quite so much. It is as plain as a pikestaff that Stephen is not a kinist. And so unless the anti-kinists have another agenda, which is to get Christian nationalism and white Christian nationalism to be used as interchangeable synonyms, there is no reason why they would resist letting Stephen agree with them. Incidentally, in trying to get those phrases to be interchangeable, they have the same objective as the kinists do. Working arm in arm, they are.

Do I think that Stephen ought to be more sensitive to ethnic misbehavior on the part of some of his supporters? The guys down in the comment threads? Sure. But I think the same thing about Owen. I think he ought to be more aware of the dynamics he is playing with. Some of the people currently applauding and using Owen right now think that whiteness is a disease. And not to leave myself out, have I ever attracted bad actors who cheered me on for a time? Yes, I have, but I try to disappoint them regularly.

The Text of Those Memorials

On to the merits.

I think the Hus proposal is fine, and would not be at all distressed if it passed. But I prefer the Knox proposals. And so in the spirit of encouraging critics to stop it with their Bulverizing, I have helpfully broken the memorials down for you, pointing certain features out as we go along. To prevent sprawl, the CREC requires memorials to be short (100 words or less). Supporting documentation can be longer, but the memorials themselves have to go right to the point. Hence the brevity.

Here is the complete text of both, followed by some helpful comments interspersed.

On Ethnic Balance

We believe the human tendency to congregate around shared affections is natural and can be good—it creates the blessing of cultures and subcultures, for example. But as with all natural goods in a fallen world, there is a temptation to exalt it to a position of unbiblical importance, thus making it an idol. While an ethnic heritage is something to be grateful for, and which may be preserved in any way consistent with the law of God, it is important to reject every form of identity politics, including kinism—whether malicious, vainglorious, or ideologically separatist/segregationist.

Knox Presbytery, December 1, 2022

On Anti-Semitism

We believe the conversion of the Jews is key to the success of Christ’s Great Commission, and it is incumbent upon us to pray and labor toward that end. While, apart from Christ, the Jews are as all others—alienated from God—they have remained an object of God’s care because the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable. God’s plan for converting them is for them to see Gentile nations under the blessings of Christ’s lordship, thus leading them to long for the same. Hence, the cancerous sin of anti-Semitism has no place in God’s plan.

Knox Presbytery, December 1, 2022

So here are some comments about the first one on ethnic balance:

“We believe the human tendency to congregate around shared affections is natural and can be good—”

Grace does not replace nature, but rather perfects it. That which is natural in all shared affections is to be received with gratitude.

“it creates the blessing of cultures and subcultures, for example.”

Everything that is reasonable in the kinist protest against the DEI multicultural blender is found here, while excluding the sinful over-reaction of the kinists.

“But as with all natural goods in a fallen world, there is a temptation to exalt it to a position of unbiblical importance, thus making it an idol.”

Idolatry of family, or kin, or of culture, does not happen just because it is received with gratitude, and then defended and protected. It becomes an idol if it is exalted to a position of unbiblical importance. This would happen, for example, if your family were more important to you than Christ is (Luke 14:26). It does not happen if your family is more important to you than Russell Moore’s views on immigration are.

“While an ethnic heritage is something to be grateful for, and which may be preserved in any way consistent with the law of God,”

When our critics say they are against “mono-ethnic Christian nationalism,” what they are saying is that they do not want anybody to evangelize Japan, or Finland, or the Navajo. It is cheerfully granted that the evangelization of Brooklyn would need to be multi-ethnic, but there is no ethical imperative to turn Iceland into Brooklyn. So a Japanese grandmother who would prefer her grandson marry a Japanese girl is not sinning. Is that wish consistent with the law of God? Yes, it is. And is it lawful for a young Japanese man to marry a Swede? Also yes. Grow up, everybody.

“it is important to reject every form of identity politics, including kinism—whether malicious, vainglorious, or ideologically separatist/segregationist.”

Some critics have complained that the proposed memorials are somehow “vague.” But I do know what malice is. And I know what vainglory is. And every pastor needs to be able to detect both of those sins. He can’t do his job otherwise. And the rejection of separatism and segregationism is not a rejection of birds of a feather doing their natural thing. That is natural enough, and grace does not compete with nature, but rather completes it. The poison is found in that word ideological—those who demand separation of various ethnicities as a matter of principle find themselves at odds with the ethnic demands of the New Testament. You might not want to serve a Scythian at the Lord’s Table, but if he comes your church, and he is a baptized believer, then you gotta (Col. 3:11).

Now on to antisemitism:

“We believe the conversion of the Jews is key to the success of Christ’s Great Commission, and it is incumbent upon us to pray and labor toward that end.”

This has been a standard feature of historic Reformed theology for centuries. Stephen Wolfe is very well-read in this literature, and he really ought to know that this is no boomercon thing (jump down to the next section for context on this).

This emphasis started early enough, with Bucer and Beza. I don’t have space for a complete roster, but let me just fill out this paragraph with snippets: “It shall come to pass that when the Jews come to the Gospel, the world shall as it were come quicken again, and rise up from death to life” (Geneva Bible, notes); “Hence I gather that the nation of the Jews shall be called, and converted to the participation of this blessing” (William Perkins); “the gospel [to be] propagated throughout the world, the Jews called, [and] the fulness of the Gentiles brought in” (Westminster Larger Catechism, 191); and “in taking into his kingdom the greater sister, that kirk of the Jews” (Rutherford). If time permitted, I could probably cite references to this effect until the conversion of the Jews—John Owen, Thomas Manton, John Flavel, David Dickson, Jeremiah Burroughs, James Durham. Richard Sibbes, Increase Mather, Jonathan Edwards, Thomas Boston, John Newton, Charles Hodge, and Robert Haldane. I could even go on and quote my own commentary on Romans, but modesty forbids.

“While, apart from Christ, the Jews are as all others—alienated from God—”

The place of the Jews in our theology is to be filed under eschatology and prophetic fulfillment. We do not share the quirk that some Christians have in their soteriology, by which they say that everyone must come to Christ except for Jews. No, no one gets a bye. God calls all men everywhere to repentance. Everyone is summoned to faith in the Messiah, the Jews especially. Jews are sinful, and wicked, and fallen, and broken, just like everybody.

“they have remained an object of God’s care because the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable.”

This is a soft supercessionism. The Church is Israel now, as per all supercessionism, but Paul’s kinsmen “according to the flesh” are nevertheless promised a return. They will be grafted back into the olive tree, which will result in life for the world.

“God’s plan for converting them is for them to see Gentile nations under the blessings of Christ’s lordship, thus leading them to long for the same.”

I am invested in this because it is the Puritan postmillennial approach to world evangelization. God’s plan for evangelizing the Jews, and then the world, is not only not antisemitism, it is the photo-negative of antisemitism. If antisemitism is Christians envying Jews, the pursuit of Deuteronomic blessing for Gentiles results in Jews envying Christians. This was Paul’s strategy, and he knew that it would work on his people. He laid it out plainly—“if by any means I may provoke to jealousy those who are my flesh and save some of them” (Romans 11:14, NKJV).

“Hence, the cancerous sin of anti-Semitism has no place in God’s plan.”

The Hus proposal is good in that it condemns antisemitism by name. But I prefer the Knox proposal because it grounds our opposition to antisemitism in biblical exegesis, and locates the results of that exegesis in the stream of historic Reformed orthodoxy. It is an exercise in Reformed resourcement. Simple denunciations of antisemitism are more vulnerable to manipulation by ADL types, and I want a case against antisemitism that was formed by the Reformed when medieval pogroms were still a recent memory.

But Stephen Wolfe Also Swings and Misses

Stephen Wolfe doesn’t like the proposed memorials either, but with a completely different argument.

He alleges in this tweet below that the CREC has a number of ordained men who deny the visible/invisible church distinction and imputation, and who are screwy on justification and covenants. I really don’t know who he specifically has in mind, but this appears to be a rehash of the FV controversy. But I do agree with him that ministers who dishonestly subscribe to our confessional documents really would be acting in bad faith. So who are they? The CREC has grown rapidly enough that this kind of theological dishonesty is possible. But you can’t just assert it. I have sat through a number of our presbytery exams, and Stephen hasn’t. I myself was examined by the CREC on these very issues. Has Stephen listened to that exam?

For myself, as the one who wrote the initial drafts of these proposed memorials from Knox, I affirm the visible/invisible church distinction. I affirm the imputation of the obedience of Christ, both active and passive. I subscribe to the Westminster, the original British version, and am an orthodox Westminsterian. I have written a commentary on the Westminster (Westminster Systematics), if Stephen would like to check my work. In addition, in an attempt to prove that I am a totally out-of-control fan boy, I set the Westminster Confession into verse. And back in the heyday of the FV controversy, millions of words were written on all the various aspects of this—and I know this to be true because I probably wrote a couple million of them myself. What Stephen has said (rightly) many times elsewhere—”please do the reading”—needs to be said here. On this aspect of it, Stephen Wolfe is not up to speed and needs to do the reading.

See again my brief commentary on the memorials above. They are anything but a “boomercon” thing. The historic Reformed position on the conversion of the Jews was hammered out between four and five centuries before the first boomer was born. And the Reformed developed this approach to all things Jewish during a time when antisemitism was perfectly acceptable with the cool kids. I don’t believe we should abandon it just because this particular spiritual fungus is somehow becoming popular with the cool kids again.

In Sum and Then Some

Faithful exegesis of Romans 11 can occur whether you were born in 1953 or 1993. Malice is something that every Christian is warned against, and ethnic animosity is something that every Christian is also warned against. And as it turns out, all believers are instructed not to think of themselves more highly than they ought, so vainglory is also out. Ministers of the Word are told to preach the message in season and out of season—meaning when the people want to hear it, and when they don’t want to hear it. And when they don’t want to hear it, they can come up with many creative speculations about why you chose to preach on that particular theme this Sunday. Here’s a plausible one. It was because of the year you were born.

And then there is the claim that the suite of ministries here in Moscow is trying to sidle up to the woke. First Gilder, and now this. This is what Moscow is known for . . . placating the commies, and groveling for the feminists. Can we at least agree on this one thing? If we are trying to flatter the woke into liking us, can we all acknowledge that we are very, very bad at it?

If you want to debate these memorials, then come at it with an open Bible. Make an argument grounded in Scripture, as we have sought to do. And just so you know, the fact that I am a boomer isn’t anywhere in there, not even in the minor prophets.