One of the central reasons why the Federal Vision controversy elicted such strong reactions is that it is a topic that, in one form or another, Americans have been debating since the 1630’s. The topic was debated earlier than that in Reformation history, of course, but we were debating it at the same time our institutions were forming, and at the same time that our foundational cultural ethos was taking shape. What is the relationship of a baptized man to a Christian commonwealth? What is the relationship of a truly converted man to that same commonwealth?
It is one thing to debate these issues in England (as happened in the Reformation) when the Christian instiutions around you go back a thousand years, and to do the same thing in New England when the Christian institutions around you go back for a thousand days.
To complicate matters, the Christian gospel was subsequently successful in shaping the basic American disposition and outlook — formally for 250 years, informally for another 200, and then actively rejected by our American Christendom deniers ever since. But these active denials have not erased the ongoing effects of our Puritan DNA. There is our sense of destiny, which comes from postmillennialism. There is our activism, which comes from the Puritan work ethic. There is the famous pollster question about whether America is on the right track/wrong track, which goes back to basic covenant theology — blessings for obedience and chastisement for disobedience. There is the idea of the need for American leadership in the fight against global evil, whoever it currently is, which goes back to the Puritan views of Antichrist. And there are our periodic spasms of introspection, which used to involve the Ten Commandments, but which now involve ethical shopping tangles and what country your coffee beans came from. Nobody but a Puritan could agonize over something like that.
Chesterton once said that America was a nation with the soul of church. And when he said it, it was true enough. But today we are a nation with the soul of a mainline church, which is to say, things have gotten pretty diseased. But despite the diseased state of the soul, we still have all this infrastucture lying around. America is still Christian in the same way that Woodrow Wilson was still Presbyterian — we have all of it, except for the Jesus part. We have everything we need, except for the blood on the altar. We have it all, and have managed to do this in such a manner as to have nothing.
But we don’t get to start over from scratch. We must call our people to repentance, but it must take into account two things. We must recognize what true repentance is, of course, but we must also understand who “our people” are, and how we got here. There will be no American reformation unless we retrace our steps. What did we do?
It would be simplistic in the extreme to say that because of how we handled the Halfway Covenant, and how we understood Jonathan Edwards and Solomon Stoddard, et al. it all fell apart right there on the spot, and it has been secularism’s game ever since. Not a bit of it. For those who want to get a handle on this long war over America’s soul, I would recommend that two books be read in tandem. They will reveal two basic realities — we are much worse off than we thought, and we are much better off than we thought. So there’s that encouragement anyway. The books are God’s Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right by Daniel Williams and The Puritan Origins of American Patriotism by George McKenna.
For the present, suffice it to say that we cannot have reformation without preaching the gospel — Jesus crucified, buried, and risen — and we cannot have an American reformation without preaching that same gospel. But if the Spirit stirs up some preachers so that this happens, we will not be declaring a Jesus who was rejected in the American public square 500 years ago. Give or take, it was more like 50 years ago.