Every now and again, I feature one of my favourite Calvinists, Dr Michael Horton, Professor of Apologetics and Systematic Theology at Westminster Seminary California, author of numerous books, host at White Horse Inn (WHI) and Editor-in-Chief of Modern Reformation magazine.

In ‘The politics of enthusiasm’ (White Horse Inn blog) Horton recently examined the Christian beliefs of some of the more high-profile candidates in the 2012 presidential race.  He has also given us a bit of American religious history behind these beliefs.  Emphases below are mine:

Just as the Iowa straw-poll concluded last Saturday, with Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul taking first and second place, Texas Governor Rick Perry announced his candidacy.  Happily, the kingdom of Christ is neither threatened nor furthered by the kingdoms of this age.  Nevertheless, the way in which not only the media but professing Christians distort Christianity in public should be of serious concern to all Christians—including those who support the political agenda of offending candidates.

The media has had a feeding frenzy over Gov. Perry’s prominent role in a Houston prayer service.  Secularists will be unhappy with any political leader who exhibits strong religious convictions in public.  The furor over Michele Bachmann’s former membership in the Lutheran Church-Wisconsin Synod, which is confessionally bound to the view that the papacy is “antichrist,” points up the incomprehensibility of traditional churches (Catholic or Protestant) to many journalists.  The press hostility churned the already murky waters of religious and historical ignorance into a whirlpool of secularist bigotry.  No one in the press corps apparently Googled the fact that the confessions of 10 Presbyterian and 2 Dutch Reformed U. S. presidents said the same thing.

At the same time, why is it that so many public figures belong to strange churches or identify with extreme movements and leaders?  President Obama’s now estranged pastor, Jeremiah Wright, traced God’s hand in the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack to American sins against non-white and disadvantaged peoples.  “America’s chickens are coming home to roost,” he preached.  Of course, it’s wacky, but the only difference from a lot of right-wing sermonizing is the choice of targets (and reasons) for divine retribution …

Please note that ‘enthusiasm’ has a different — and negative — theological meaning from what we think of when we hear the term.  Enthusiasm has a long and sometimes violent history:

However much the press will get it wrong—and oddly declare the free exercise of religion somehow unconstitutional—U.S. politics seems more dominated than ever by what the Protestant Reformers called “enthusiasm.”  Meaning literally, “God-within-ism,” Luther and Calvin had in mind the radical Anabaptists who thought they were new apostles.  Hearing God’s voice directly within, they did not need an external Word (the Scriptures) or the external ministry of preaching, sacrament, and discipline.  Some of the early radicals even sought to take over civil government.  In the city of Mühlhausen, Thomas Müntzer succeeded, albeit briefly, until his violent, polygamous, and communist theocracy (“The Eternal League of God”) was defeated.  Like Müntzer, many political radicals since have appealed to the twelfth-century mystic Joachim of Fiore and his prophecy of a coming “Age of the Spirit” that will replace all external government and churches.  Everyone will know God by direct revelation and there will be no need for the law or the gospel, the state or the church.

This is a dangerous, not to mention unbiblical, outlook to adopt — despite the fact that it has gained much currency in the United States since the age of revivalism with Charles Finney in the 19th century.  Like Charles Taze Russell, who founded the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Finney was another Presbyterian who went off the rails because he could not bring himself to accept confessional — and scriptural — tenets of the faith.  Two of Finney’s better legacies were his strong abolitionist stance and belief in education for all, regardless of sex or colour. But I digress.

Horton continues:

The religious left and the religious right have roots in the Second Great Awakening, which in many ways carries on this radical Protestant impulse.  And while Charles Finney’s broad agenda of public justice and personal morality has split into two divergent streams (indeed, political parties), they are twin offspring of revivalistic Protestant enthusiasm.

Mormonism is a quintessential offspring of the millennarian, restorationist, and heretical impulse of radical Protestant sects in nineteenth-century America.  Although Mitt Romney professes deep commitment to his Mormon beliefs, he has shown no sign of taking his cues from the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in Salt Lake City … 

That’s ironic, because the other Republican front-runners not only believe that the extraordinary office of apostle is still in effect (as Mormonism teaches), but apparently share the hope of their closest religious advisors that they will be emissaries of the Spirit to bring a decadent nation back to God—through the political process.

This American-style 19th century enthusiasm has taken some strange turns since the days of the Religious Right from the 1970s, as we shall see:

First, Michele Bachmann.  Though she used to belong to a conservative Lutheran church, Bachmann’s faith seems to have been shaped more by the Pentecostal-theonomist synthesis of “dominion theology.”  (See Ryan Lizza, “Leap of Faith: The Making of a Republican Front-Runner,” The New Yorker, Aug 15 2011, p. 54-63).  She has spoken openly of having had a vision of the person she was to marry, while he was having the same vision of her.  Influenced initially by Francis Schaeffer’s “A Christian Manifesto,” she eventually enrolled in the Oral Roberts University Law School and then moved to Virginia Beach, where her husband took a degree in counseling at Pat Robertson’s Regent University.  Serving on the school board of a charter school led by Christian activist Dennis L. Meyer, she says she admired his philosophy of governance: “Denny encouraged the board to do things and move forward not because we ‘think’ it should be done a certain way, but because God wants us to” …

Horton tells us that Bachmann served on the board of Summit Ministries in Colorado.  He adds that Summit’s founder David A Noebel was a member of the ultra-conservative John Birch Society. Bachmann’s time at Summit encouraged her to enter politics with this same philosophy.

Why would someone desert Lutheranism for evangelicalism? Wouldn’t she have wanted to remain a member of the original Reformation church with a sound doctrine?

Then, there’s Texas Governor Rick Perry.  Horton writes:

Second, Rick Perry. First, a little background—sorry in advance for the autobiography.  I edited two books in the 1990s—The Agony of Deceit (1990) and Power Religion (1997).  The first one investigated the theology of then-prominent prosperity evangelists … my goal was to search beneath the televangelism scandals in the news to examine the heart of prosperity theology itself.  After a TIME magazine story on the book and its charges, a firestorm of controversy ensued—including letters from the lawyers of some prominent televangelists.

The theology that undergirded many of the televangelists’ ministries was shared by other men and movements like C. Peter Wagner, the Vineyard movement, the “Toronto Blessing,” and the “Kansas City Prophets.” Together they were the self-styled “Next Wave,” a Third Great Awakening.  Behind this movement lay the “Latter Rain” (a.k.a. “Shepherding”) movement of the 1970s: a bizarre aberration all its own that continues in the New Apostolic Reformation movement I mention below.

You can read more about C Peter Wagner here.

And what you will read below explains why I am leery of evangelicals on a national stage.  We can never be sure what ‘brand’ of evangelicalism they believe.  Back to Horton:

Through many of these leaders, the radical fringes of Pentecostalism found their way into more mainstream evangelicalism.    

More radically, many “Third Wave” Pentecostals linked up with R. J. Rushdoony’s “Christian Reconstructionism,” radical defenders of the antebellum South, and other assorted enthusiasts.  Popular versions of dispensational premillennialism (waiting for the Rapture while the world gets steadily worse) gave way to an extreme—and highly politicized—postmillennialism (preparing the way for a golden age of Christian dominion before Christ returns).

And this really is as strange as you might imagine it to be.  What Horton refers to as ‘radical defenders of the antebellum South’ includes a belief in kinism, which is staying within your own racial group and adopting the superiority which accompanies it.  I have read of families who will move cross-country to be part of one of these churches, believing that the pastor and that church will somehow save them from not only spiritual but social ills.

But, let’s go back to C Peter Wagner, founder of the church growth movement, and his New Apostolic Reformation. (Why Horton refers to it as ‘NAP’ instead of the usual ‘NAR’ is unclear.)

C. Peter Wagner, Fuller Seminary professor and pioneer of the church growth movement, was the theologian of the Vineyard movement.  He also launched the phenomenon of  “spiritual mapping,” where various cities or regions were identified with specific demons to be bound by international prayer warriors.  I met with some of these leaders years ago and I don’t question their sincerity, but I do question their orthodoxy.  Until recently, I had assumed that the whole thing was just another revivalistic movement that had come and gone like an Arizona monsoon.  Not so, evidently.  Enthusiasm never goes away, it just keeps reinventing itself.

And this is why I hope that Sarah Palin will work behind the scenes instead of upfront, as she, too, has an indirect connection with prayer warriors, dating from the 2008 campaign when she ran as vice president on John McCain’s ticket.

This year, however, Horton points us to Rick Perry’s purported links with this group:

According to Wagner and the NA[R] circle, the office of prophet and apostle, moribund for centuries, was restored in 2001—with Wagner and his associates as the chief candidatesWhile most Pentecostals have been somewhat a-political and the Assemblies of God (a Pentecostal denomination) has consistently repudiated the succession of movements leading to the NA[R], this group is radically postmillennial and politically engaged.  Its “Latter Rain” roots are on many points theologically heterodox, its discipline verges on cultic, and now it seems that it wants political power.  The “New Reformation” such groups envisage is more like the radical Anabaptist theocracy of Thomas Müntzer that Luther thundered against in “Against the Fanatics” and Calvin excoriated in “Against the Anabaptists.”

We can be sure that if Luther and Calvin took a theological stance against a belief that it was for just cause — being unbiblical and doctrinally unsound.  The question is — do these politicians understand what they are getting into?  I am not convinced that they know why these movements are theologically objectionable. We shall see as the 2012 campaign progresses.

Reportedly, Governor Perry has close ties with the New Apostolic Reformation group.  Rather than rehearse the reports, you can read and evaluate them for yourself, especially the Texas Observer story and the recent Rachel Maddow report.  I’m not suggesting that we should uncritically accept the claims of journalistic neutrality from either source, but this movement—and similar yet less defined sub-groups—will no doubt bring greater disgrace to the cause of Christ in the minds of a biblically illiterate society.  You’ll hear more about it in coming months.  Regardless of how one judges the merits of the candidates’ political positions, the close identification of evangelical Christianity with radical enthusiasm (a direct, unmediated, extraordinary work of the Spirit in charismatic individuals) will only become more justifiable in the minds of many of our neighbors.  Its politicization will only make it more difficult to have serious conversations with our friends and co-workers not only about the common good of civil society but the gospel.

The last thing we need is for a Republican candidate to identify with Christian fringe movements.  It also makes it difficult for us to evangelise in our daily lives when this is the only Christianity the public hears about from the mainstream media — and, believe me, it will be.

The Gospel is apolitical. Jesus said: ‘My kingdom is not of this world’ (John 18:36).

Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross was, is — and ever will be — sufficient atonement for our sins.

God does not need our help in accomplishing His divine purpose for the world.

Whatever temporal and imperfect transformation we can effect now comes from a godly and moral life as individuals, not as organised theocratic groups or movements.

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