Machen and Wilkins

Darryl’s next chapter, on the rise of a democritized Protestant faith in America is quite good, and very helpful. Toward the end of the chapter, his doubts about democracy start come to the fore. “Rather than learning about democracy from Christianity, more often than not American Protestants have felt compelled to defend democracy under a veneer of Christian devotion” (p. 152). I share his doubts, and it appears for the same reasons, but I need to refrain from commenting on this point further — I need to wait and see how Darryl reconciles this suspicion about democracy with his commitment to a secular civil order. It seems to me our deep cultural commitment to the latter is propelled by the former, and so I will just put my reactions on hold.

Like I said, this is a very strong chapter — but he does say something in the course of it that collides with the weakest portion of a previous chapter. Recall that I have noted the political involvement of the Westminster Assembly, operating as it was in the midst of a Civil War. Darryl took the section on Christian liberty in the Confession, and teased out of it an incipient secularism, ignoring the teaching of the Confession on the civil magistrate himself, and also ignoring the intrigues that were swirling around the Assembly at the time.

But this is not because he was unaware of these things, as became evident in this chapter. Keying off Woodrow Wilson’s positive reference to the Solemn League and Covenant, Darryl says this — indicating that the Archangel Woodrow (as Mencken called him) — did not know what he was talking about.

“But since the Solemn League and Covenant was part of a political process that for starters led to regicide, the rule of a tyrannical Puritan, the slaughter of Scottish Presbyterian ministers, and a heightened animosity between the English and the Irish, Wilson’s appeal to it as the basis for international peace, friendship, or even ‘the triumph of right’ sounded amazingly anachronistic and naive” (p. 127).

Everything Darryl says about Wilson’s naivete here is true, and the itemization of the fallout from the Solemn League is also accurate for the most part (although I would want to say Cromwell was a tyrant in the ancient sense, not the modern sense). But here is the problem. The English Parliamentarians wanted the help of the Scots in the First Civil War, and the price the Scots asked was this covenant that would unify their forms of faith and worship. The agreement was reached between Parliament and the Covenanters and, more to our point, the whole enterprise was approved by the Westminster Assembly.

Darryl complains, as he ought to, about “a bastardized [democratic] understanding of the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura” (p. 131). But this bastardized understanding, what we have before called solo Scriptura (“just me and my Bible”) is an understanding that depends entirely on a bastardized understanding of liberty of conscience, and that bastardized understanding of liberty of conscience is what Darryl argued from in order to make the Westminster Assembly an incipient font of secularism.

But the Westminster Assembly was theocratic. The idea of secular state did not trouble their dreams, and, if it had, they would have all thought of it as a nightmare. This is explicit in the historical context of the Assembly (the Civil War), what the Assembly voted for and supported (the Solemn League and Covenant), what the Assembly said (in their chapter on the civil magistrate), and in how the delegates argued privately outside the Assembly (e.g. Rutherford). Soup to nuts, this was quite a group of theocratic Calvinists. Grass is green, the sun rises in the East, and the Westminster Assembly was theocratic.

There are some temptations I struggle against, some that I understand but don’t have to struggle with, and some that I don’t understand at all. For example, the thing that makes some men want to gamble away their paycheck has been left out of my make-up, and so I don’t claim victory where I have never fought. The reason I mention this is that I at least understand the pull of secularism, and I understand why someone of Darryl’s judiciousness would be attracted to it.

Theocratic government is not only appealing to those who can follow a theological argument, those who understand that unless there is a transcendent authority over the state, then the state becomes the transcendent authority — if there is no God over the state, then the state is god. But theocratic government is also attractive to headstrong sectarians. If you set up a government in the name of Jesus, you will not just get Patrick Henry — you will also get the Rev. Samuel “Sabbatarian” Gradgrind, along with proposed legislation to ban the tossing of frisbees on the Lord’s Day.

I hold to the recognized lordship of Christ over all things, including the civic realm, because I am persuaded that Scripture teaches it. I do not hold to it because I am inspired by the judiciousness of Christians generally, or the even-handedness of Reformed Christians in the throes of ecclesiastical politics in particular. In this chapter, Darryl helpfully outlines how Machen got railroaded by the Presbyterian establishment — and what they were willing to do in the plain light of day was astonishing. They were embarrassed by the news coverage, but it didn’t slow them down any, and the predetermined verdict was reached.

But those were liberals. We conservative Reformed Christians have all learned our Machen lessons, right? Not really. Nothing has changed. Steve would be embarrassed by me making this comparison, but Steve Wilkins is today’s Machen. He also is being railroaded (in the plain light of day). His presbytery vindicated him twice. No charges against him personally have ever been brought. The General Assembly appointed a study committee on the general topic that was so stacked it was falling out of its dress. They issued a series of declarations that another body, the Stacked Judicial Commission, is going to be using to determine if Steve’s presbytery ought to have cleared him in the way they have done. And when they have finalized their decision, there is no appeal. What a slick system! It’s not everybody that can get a conviction without a trial, and without the right of appeal. I bet the Assemblies of God don’t know how to do that.

But bringing it back to the point, these are the people who would have civic influence in a theocracy gone wrong. And so, it is understandable to me why the very thought of a theocracy would give reasonable men the willies. What I don’t get is how it is possible to look at seventeenth century England, and the role of the Westminster Assembly in those events, and see anything other than theocracy.

And on a related point, another thing I don’t understand about Darryl’s argument for secularism is what makes him want to privilege our democratic secularism, somehow finding an origin for it in the nether regions of the Westminster Confession, but not subjecting it to the same critical eye that he is giving all the other American religiosities.

Leave a Reply

Notify of