Activism or Confessionalism?

Ever watched Adult Swim’s Moral Orel? It’s like a spoof of Davey and Goliath, and serves as a platform for heavy-handed satire of the moralistic idiosyncrasies of some Christians. Most Christians would find it distasteful to watch, although it probably reflects more truth than our kind are willing to admit—when it isn’t’ caricaturing moralistic Christianity.

Upon watching a few clips of this show and seeing just how much they make it look like an edgy version of Davey and Goliath, I was reminded that this show isn’t only a satire of politically Right-wing Christians, but can step on the toes of liberal Christians as well. The fact is that Davey and Goliath was a production of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, a theologically liberal denomination of Lutherans despite the presence of the word “Evangelical” in their name. But it is also true that a generation or more of conservative fundamentalists and evangelicals were raised loving Davey and Goliath and being conditioned to liberal forms of moralism. This must be a small reason why moral and social do-good-ism is an example of common ground shared by today’s conservative culture warriors and liberal progressives. The development of the contemporary political spectrum among Western Christians has a long and storied past, involving the influence of eschatology, pietism and revivalism among other things. These influences raise a question, the answer to which we may find instructive.

“On which is it better for the Christian church to focus her efforts:

civic moral activism, or her own doctrine and practice?”

I submit the following:

  • Organized religious efforts toward civic moral activism are derived from a fundamentally utopian vision of eschatology and therefore society, and generally tends to minimize doctrine and practice.
  • Organized religious efforts to maintain the purity of each denomination’s own doctrine and practice are drawn from a fundamentally realistic vision of eschatology and therefore society, and generally tends to minimize organized religious civic moral activism.

What’s eschatology got to do with it?

Amillennialism

  • An Augustinian interpretation of the millennium shared in its broadly among Roman Catholic, Lutheran and Reformed branches of Christendom
  • The Roman Catholic version promoted medieval Constantinianism (church over state).
  • Lutheran and Reformed reformed amillennialism, tended to focus on doctrine and practice (confessionalism), but had little opportunity to engage in organized religious civic moral activism as we know it today.
  • Post-Reformation Protestant Europe replaced Constantinism with ecclesiastical establishmentarianism (state over church); Confessional Protestants complied, affirmed the state’s role in defending the church from heresy, and theoretically denied the state’s right to affect church’s doctrine.
  • Twentieth/Twenty-first century Reformed Amillennialism of three varieties (at least): Kuyperian, Two-Kingdom and Theonomic (aka, “Dominionist”)

Postmillennialism

  • An “over-realized” (or utopian) form of amillennial eschatology
  • Tended to engage in organized religious civic moral activism
  • Held by theologically liberal progressives as well as fundamentalists in the early 20th century.
  • Twentieth/twenty-first century Reformed Postmillenialists of two varieties (at least): Kuyperian and Theonomic.

Premillennialism

  • Anabaptist eschatology (Anabaptism a non-Roman Catholic version of medieval monastic mysticism)
  • Tended to retreat from society and thus avoided both organized religious and individual civic moral activism.
  • Adopted by fundamentalist Protestants during the bulk of the 20th century in reaction against theologically liberal Postmillennialists.

Two religious trends add complexity to the preceding eschatological and social tendencies: Pietism and Revivalism:

Pietism

  • Lutheran deviation
  • Focused on personal piety, neglected doctrine and practice

Revivalism

  • An essentially Wesleyan trend adapted by Calvinists (Reformed); partly inspired by Pietism.
  • Focused on individual conversion and piety and promoted organized religious civic moral activism.

Conclusion

  • It is better for the church to focus on maintaining the purity of her own doctrine, piety and practice, and to leave civic activism (moral or otherwise) to the individual.
  • Thus, I find that an Amillennial, Confessional Protestantism that is relatively uninfluenced by pietism and revivalism is the ideal approach for the Christian church.

The preceeding is my attempt to organize the many things I’ve been learning over the years regarding the development of modern American Protestant confessionalism, liberalism, fundamentalism and evangelicalism. This being merely a blog post, and not an academic essay, those of you who are more informed on these issues are invited to critique my bullet points for the sake of accuracy. Those readers for whom the above raises questions or critical comments, these are especially welcome. You sharpen my iron, I’ll sharpen yours!

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5 responses

  1. Having come to reformed theology by way of Wesleyan Arminianism and later Roman Catholic semi-Pelagianism, I think you have hit the nail on the head John!

    1. Thanks, Tom. I’m just aware that my summary is so concise that I’m likely to have over-generalized on some point, or otherwise missed the mark, and I want extend the discussion to that extent to help me fill in the blanks in my own thinking.

    2. Tom –

      That is one interesting testimony you have. Do you have it written up anyplace?

      Andrew

  2. Nice analysis John!

    I hope this inspires a series…

    1) I’d like to see a compare/contrast with the different forms of a-mil you listed above.

    2) Were there any prominent fundamentalist post-millennialists in the early 20th Century? It would make sense for the post-revivalists to have a leaning that way. Makes more sense to me that pessimistic dispensationalism.

    From what you’ve written (and my experience), it would seem the more intensely internally people get focused, the more they lean toward pessimistic eschatology. On the other hand, the more communally they focus, the more the lean toward optimistic eschatology.

    It’s so easy to say, “I just believe what the Bible says”, but it is amazing how our outlook/presuppositions affect our interpretation.

    1. 1) Doubt it. I generally don’t have the attention span for very many series. For example, I’ve been posting “Theological & Doxological Meditations” for years, but am only about forty-some into the WSC. I do intend to get around to posting the next one soon.

      2) Certainly. But as time went on the postmillennialism gave way to dispensational premillennialism. J. Gresham Machen, whom many want to classify as a fundamentalist, refused to be categorized as such because of his postmillennialism. I can’t really give you a list, but I’m certain there are exceptions to the rule. There are too many people in the world for there to be simply no early fundamentalists who were postmillennial.

      Granted, if you’re into the postmillenial optimistic/pessimistic dichotomy. I prefer utopian/realist myself. May I suggest an article? Dr. Kim Riddlebarger writes “Eschatology by Ethos: Why the “Optimism” vs. “Pessimism” Paradigm Doesn’t Work,” in Modern Reformation Magazine:

      http://www.modernreformation.org/default.php?page=articledisplay&var1=ArtRead&var2=1281&var3=issuedisplay&var4=IssRead&var5=120

      I agree our preconceptions color our interpretations.

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