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  • Writer's pictureMichael Ives

A Welcome Hearing for Establishments

Establishments got some good press last week, at least on a respectable Reformed podcast. Kudos to Christ the Center for welcoming on Timon Cline to a panel discussion last Friday. While I’ve never heard of Timon before, I am sure going to read and listen to more of him. And I’m sure I’m not alone!

The panel discussion focused on Dr. Alan Strange’s newly published book, Empowered Witness: A Panel Discussion on Politics, Culture, and the Spiritual Mission of the Church. Giving feedback and critiques were D. G. Hart, Nick Wilborn, and Timon Cline. I’ve not read Strange’s book, so I’m only commenting on the video. The discussion up to Timon and related rejoinders was interesting enough. But Timon sure rocked the boat pretty hard when he brought up the obvious (at least from a historical Reformed perspective and not an American echo-chamber), that is, what about the spiritual nature in the church in light of the classic, confessionally Reformed and Presbyterian endorsements of religious establishments?

It’s clear that Dr. Strange was a bit flustered, though keeping a gracious demeanor. Sadly, though a respectable and accomplished Reformed scholar whom I otherwise appreciate, Strange’s response to Timon was more or less a rigmarole of informal fallacies and non-answers. Hart, however, just became flummoxed and unhinged. In contrast to Cline’s calm, measured demeanor, and even more importantly, to his much more careful, close, and logical reasoning (they guy’s a practicing lawyer, and it shines), Hart just full-on melted down, notwithstanding a clever little jab about Timon’s alleged tap-dancing like James Cagney. But even that was more amusing than apropos, as it only thinly veiled his chagrin. The young no-namer clearly bested his betters.

Some things I loved. Constantine got plugged. And the pantheon of Reformers who plugged him got plugged. It shone. I’m just so weary of post-Christendom Christendom’s apology for existence. Kind of like white guilt. Was it perfect? No. Far from it. But the only rap it has received almost since the Enlightenment is a bad rap. It just isn’t reasonable or fair.

Did establishments work? The assumption is that they didn’t and were in fact a ruinous failure. But Timon responded so well, turning the tables, and questioning the questions. What matrix of ‘success’ do we use? It’s never really articulated. Maybe there’s allusion to the general weariness over European wars of religion, or perhaps the Salem witch trials? Whatever the case, to me, the whole objection just reeks of sheer pragmatism. As Americans, we just have an over-inflated view of our self-importance on the world stage. The American experiment is just such an unqualified success because it worked (nevermind, as Timon points out, that the experiment hasn’t yet run its full course). Is this the best we’ve got against our Reformed fathers? Your establishments just ‘didn’t work?’ So weak. And so presumptuous, given that Protestantism just may have been smothered in the cradle had it not been for a few good men in positions of power.

The theological development discussion was interesting, and I wish we could have had more. The anti-establishment voices wanted their cake and eat it too, especially Hart. Now, they imputed that to Timon. Only, Timon just acknowledged that development can be good, or not. I just wish there was more time for him to expand on that. As I see it—and I imagine this is how Timon might have responded with more opportunity—theological development either is legitimate or illegitimate. Not everything the Bible teaches is explicit in a single proof-text. Some doctrines are deduced by good and necessary consequence, and the Church often finds its collective understanding of Scripture doctrine developing over time and especially through the fires of controversy. Hence orthodox Trinitarianism and Christology (thanks at least in some part to Constantine’s patronage!). Alternately, there is illegitimate development, as in Romanism. It is not enough to make the claim of legitimate development. One must prove it. The Reformers and Protestant Orthodox actually made the arguments for religious establishments. They are out there aplenty. They are in our original confessions. But on the other side to me just seems mood, emotion, and handfuls of pragmatism. And, frankly, a lot of Anabaptist presuppositions pretending to be Reformed.

I think the most powerful moment was near the end, when Cline pointed an unhinged Hart beyond Hillsdale. Sadly, Hart seemed to read an accusation of provincialism where it wasn’t. Cline’s point was that, whether or not we want to admit it, there is always some kind of establishment. Into every confessional vacuum a confession shall come. Today, a caste of leftist academics forms a state-sanctioned priesthood for our new, secular Baalism. Its sacraments are abortion and the disfiguration of ‘trans’ bodies. And so the words of Jesus are again verified, “No man can serve two masters” and “He that is not with me is against me.” Honestly, I’m kind of surprised that Van Tillians aren’t more open-minded to the old ‘non-neutrality’ establishmentarian position.

This is no critique of Timon. One can only say so much in a limited amount of time. But the whole ‘how is this gonna work today?’ thing, the short answer is, the Holy Spirit. Timon touches on this objection once or twice, but it needs to be abundantly clarified that we cannot force an establishment into existence. It is rather a happy byproduct of the Gospel. It is a domino—if you will—that falls of itself in a series of chain events set in motion by faithful Gospel preaching, the outpouring of the Spirit, and transformed hearts both in the electorate and in positions of power. That’s not to suggest that there is nothing at all to be done besides prayer, preaching the Gospel, and shedding martyr blood. But classic establishmentarianism is not can-do Christian reconstruction. So no, an establishment is neither possible nor even desirable today, at least with Mr. Biden at the controls!

My only reservation about this rather articulate newcomer is his possible connection with Doug Wilson. Wilson’s unapologetic pro-Christendom outlook is a breath of fresh air for sure; but the pungent odor of the New Perspective yet lingers, and his brash brand of patriarchy unsettles me. But now that I’ve learned that Cline belongs to an OPC church with an elder whom I deeply respect as a churchman and a brother, I can rest a little easier on that score.

Camden Bucey, as usual, moderated things with excellence and tact. I’m a long-time listener of Christ the Center. Dr. Willborn and Dr. Strange were complete gentlemen, notwithstanding my content critique of Strange above. Daryl Hart, on the other hand, just went, well . . . postal. He is unquestionably a very accomplished Reformed academic and has made many contributions to the Reformed cause over a number of decades. But his cleverness and wit can backfire, and it certainly did that here. Big time, if the YouTube comments or my little pittance here is any indication. Years should speak. But sometimes an Elihu needs to stand up and say his piece.

In any case, I think what became patently obvious is that there is an increased willingness to question the status quo these days, both within and outside the Church. And will the anti-establishment position of our godly 18th and 19th century American fathers really suffer if we open the window some and let the breeze in? Truth need not fear a fair and open contest. Thankfully most of those men were willing to listen and discuss, even if they respectfully disagreed. But those who can’t listen just may find their audience dwindle.

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David Shedlock
David Shedlock
Mar 05

Let me be the first to comment. I hear an historical basis for establishment, but I remain unconvinced of its Biblical foundation. It seems to me that there is a paucity of Scripture for the notion that any earthly nation can truly be called "Christian". Does a government's Constitution or its leaders make that decision and does writing it down make it so? And what does it mean in Biblical and practical terms. What I mean by practical is not pragmatism, but what is supposed to look like? Is it theonomy? I think the Bible may be pointing out that the only "Christian Nation" is the church (I Peter 2:9). As for the postmillennial view of Kings coming t…

Michael Ives
Michael Ives
Mar 06
Replying to

Some good questions here, brother. There's a lot to be said, but I would certainly be quick to recognize that the Church is the Israel of God, the chosen nation, the royal priesthood, the peculiar people. And kingdoms come and go, but the Kingdom of Christ transcends all nations and powers. I'd also point out that establishmentarianism isn't necessarily tethered to a postmillennial eschatology. Augustine definitely believed in the Christian magistrate and was amillennial.

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