Outhouse saint Michael Horton has just released the last in his four-part volume of systematic theology, People and Place. From what I can discern so far it promises to be brilliant, of course.
In fact, Horton recently published an article entitled Transforming Culture with a Messiah Complex that gave the careful reader a foretaste to this final installment. The general thrust is to make the case that the point of Christ’s absence is lost on the modern church. The reality of the broader Christian witness having more to do with the so-called “transformation of culture” in its various manifestations throughout western Christendom instead of holding out an unfettered gospel is case and point here. In a word, instead of “staying put” and feeding on the body and blood of the risen Christ the church seems to have a Messiah complex and seeks to do what is only the rightful place of God alone. And from Constantine to Warren, voila, out pops Christendom. Actually, this article is vintage Horton. He has had his finger on the pulse of cultural religion for years.
But I wonder if in this sort of “prequel article” that what Horton generously gives with one hand (and it is generous in every good sense of that term) he might take away a bit with the other.
Horton has in various places often employed the example of William Wilberforce and John Newton to bring certain similar points home. And I always wince a little. The topic is human slavery as we 21st century westerners understand it. He does this just before the conclusion of the article:
“Surely the abolition of the slave trade was a noble work. Yet in Britain it was not the church as an institution that abolished slavery, but Christians in public office who had been formed by the church’s ministry. When William Wilberforce came to John Newton for advice on whether he should enter the ministry, Newton encouraged his friend to pursue politics instead. It was as a member of parliament that Wilberforce loved and served his neighbor, benefiting from the ordinary means of grace that Newton ministered to him. The church preaches God’s transcendent law and gospel, and her children pursue their cultural mandate in their secular vocations. One wonders what might have happened if, instead of dividing over national policy, Protestant churches in the antebellum American North and South practiced church discipline against slave-holders. After all, according to numerous accounts, South African apartheid in our own time came crashing down when the Dutch Reformed Church confessed that its religious justification of the system was ‘heresy.’ Disciplined by its sister Reformed churches around the world, the church did what only the church could do, and the result was that the system lost its moral legitimacy.”
I wonder if the larger and commendable point may be relatively lost on the example.
Instead of pointing to William Wilberforce as Horton portrays him I might prefer to point to Stuart Robinson as Hart presents him in A Secular Faith. Robinson (1814-1881) was a Kentucky Presbyterian minister:
“…Robinson wrote The Church of God as an Essential Element of the Gospel (1858), a book that despite its devotional title addressed implicitly the impending sectional crisis and the religious doctrines that were driving it, both North (anti-slavery) and South (pro-slavery). Like his own political commitments, Robinson’s book was border-state and neutral…The state’s [end] was to restrain evil and cultivate social order; the church’s was to save a remnant of the human race for the world to come…Robinson’s argument was so consistent that he drew criticism from fellow Southerners when he would not endorse the Confederacy and from Union soldiers when he questioned their tactics of preserving the Union. For his consistency, Robinson needed to go into exile during the war and lived in Canada until it was safe for him to return to Louisville.”
No where in Hart’s account is any mention of disciplining members for holding slaves. In fact, in Preston Graham’s biography of Robinson (A Kingdom Not of This World) he relates that his congregation not only numbered those who had both non/abolitionist views but also slaves. To my knowledge, there is no account of slave owners coming under discipline.
I can’t help but detect in Horton the same need to show the world that a dominant or majority cultural morality is being sought here, just in a more indirect way. (For what it may be worth, I share in that majority morality, so my own mores have something to lose in the point I am trying to make.) In other words, don’t worry; the church will see to it that human slavery as understood in the 21st century feels the weight of modern ire. But we’ll do it by disciplining our own, not by directly meddling in the world’s affairs. It seems a lot like the way certain Presbyterian and Reformed denominations issue statements about abortion under the pretense that it has something to do with managing one’s own house. But that always comes off as incredulous as speaking a bit louder in a crowd to your spouse about your promotion so your co-worker can hear you from across the room.
It is likely that when the name William Wilberforce (or John Newton) is uttered everyone has a more immediate association than when Stuart Robinson’s name is spoken. But it would seem to me that pointing to what drove Robinson’s flee during societal unrest may be better at making the point than the reaching back across time and place in order to appeal to the culturally and morally settled baggage of the present.
But if Anne Bancroft’s Mrs. Robinson always blocks out Murray Hamilton’s Mr. Robinson I guess it is no wonder that the lionized statesman is first pick over the exiled minister.