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Ecumenism, Progress, and the Culture Wars

Seeing that our interview with Darryl Hart on the regulative principle was released today, I figure I should go all in and just make it a DGH day. The culture wars continue and the 2K discussion threads multiply and lengthen, yet it was something I recently read in a book (of all places) that I found to be particularly striking. In Seeking a Better Country: 300 Years of American Presbyterianism, D. G. Hart and John R. Muether see many of these themes taking root in a key time in American Presbyterian history.

…the late-nineteenth-century ecumenical impulse was a manifestation of the social gospel, whether it deserved to be designated by capital letters or not. Of course, substantial numbers of Presbyterians continued to believe in the necessity of individual conversion and regeneration. But often the salvation of individuals was a means toward the end of shoring up public order. More important, the areas in which Protestants agreed to cooperate overwhelmingly concerned matters of public morality. Observance of the Sabbath, consumption of alcohol, labor and management issues, and the dangers of infidelity, materialism, and Roman Catholicism were all issues that had a direct bearing on public life and became the criteria for judging whether or not the nation was Christian.

In turn these concerns moved Presbyterians to conceive of the work of the church more as social than spiritual. It was the New School’s idea of the church prevailing over the Old School’s. Public morality and civic righteousness pushed aside Word and sacrament. Practical results rather than doctrinal standards became the measurement of churches. [p. 173]

This excerpt, from Hart and Muether’s chapter “Ecumenism and Progress,” reminds us that the issues we so often think to be new have precursors in ages past. A reexamination of Presbyterian history can shed light on the concerns of all sides of the present 2K discussion, but we may need to step back even farther before we get there.

Personally, I think the 2K discussion gets unnecessarily confused by perpetual equivocation. It’s as if we need a version or reference number after each instance of “2K” to know about which variety we’re speaking. At a very basic level, many people would consider most Vossians and Van Tilians (and even Kuyperians!) to be “2K.” Vossians, for instance, often get accused of being so heavenly minded that they are of no earthly good, and I’ve interacted with plenty of Van Tilians and Kuyperians that hold to a healthy view of the spirituality of the church.

But in my estimation, these distinctions are frequently glossed, and people find themselves inside (or outside) a camp to which they may or may not actually belong. For example, there ought to be space between a concept of the separation of church and state and a technical definition of two-kingdom theology that incorporates specific views of revelation and natural law. Until we get a handle on these issues, we won’t make much progress—didactic, that is, not theonomic.

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