The Psychology of Evangelicalism

Philip Greven is a respected historian, and his book Spare the Child: The Religious Roots of Punishment and the Psychological Impact of Physical Abuse addresses the issue of corporal punishment against children in its historical context and what light this can lend to the consequences of hitting, striking, and spanking children today.

In one particularly illuminating passage, he describes the psychological temperament of evangelicals, Calvinists, and fundamentalists, all of whom teach the suppression of self-will and spank their children form an early age as part of their religious framework.

Melancholy and depression have been persistent themes in the family history, religious experience, and emotional lives of Puritans, evangelicals, fundamentalists, and Pentecostals for centuries. Assaults on the self and self-will are the central obsession of vast numbers of men and women from the early seventeenth century to the present. Suicidal impulses frequently appear in these Protestants’ self-portraits as well, although those who write memoirs and autobiographies are usually survivors, not suicides. They may have successfully thwarted their inner impulses toward self-destruction, but the experience of conversion and the new birth rarely relieved them fully of their depressive symptoms. Michael Wigglesworth, whose apocalyptic “Day of Doom” was one of the best-selling publications in early New England, suffered from profound melancholy from his early twenties through at least his early fifties. Punishment was central to both his psyche and his theology. Many evangelicals, generation after generation, voiced their anxiety and depression in their diaries, letters, and autobiographies. In some families, such as the Mathers, melancholy afflicted fathers and sons for at least three successive generations. The persistence and, indeed, the centrality of menacholy and depression for an understanding of religious and secular experience in America, from early-seventeenth-century Puritans to lat-nineteenth-century Victorians, has been explored brilliantly by John Owen King in his illuminating book, The Iron of Melancholy. Some of the most compelling historical evidence we possess concerning the nature and history of depression comes from the religious tradition associated most directly with Calvinism and evangelical Protestantism over the last four centuries.

Closely linked to the recurrent depression evident in so many individuals is the theme of buried and smoldering anger–more often suppressed and denied, disguised and obscured, than openly acknowledged and expressed–visible in many of the most subtle studies of the life histories of Puritan, Calvinist, and evangelical individuals. The depression that manifests itself consistently throughout their lives is nearly always associated with the suppression of anger throughout their adulthood. Cotton Mather, for example, was one of the angriest men living in New England during the colonial period. His words and actions betrayed his inner rage however much he sought to deny it and obscure it from himself and others. Kenneth Silverman has noted that the preacher’s early stuttering was rooted in anger; Silverman observes the continuous impact of the “muffled rage” that Mather simultaneously vented and denied. Throughout his life, this rage underpinned his apocalyptic fantasies of the end of time. Mather “projected personal anger into visions of a world consumed, and hopes for personal vindication into sights of Christ returned to punish the wicked and avenge the virtuous.” The violence suffusing his language and his religious experience, including his intense apocalypticism, is exceptionally clear. (pp. 132-133)

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The Nonviolent God of the Exodus

Derek Rishmawy has been one of the Calvinists leading the charge against Jesus’s authority to reinterpret the Old Testament and its portrayal of God as violent. Of course, he wouldn’t say that’s what he’s doing, but the end results are the same. This week he argued that “Losing the Exodus means losing the God of the Exodus.”

By this, he means that if we reject the exodus as history we must of necessity lose the liberating God of the exodus who opposes oppression and rescues his people.

This is actually a clever rhetorical argument to make, because those of us who advocate for a nonviolent God tend to see God’s opposition to oppression as vital to His character.

But Rishmawy’s argument is completely bogus, for several reasons.

The first reason is pretty simple. There’s no historical or archaeological evidence there ever was an exodus in the first place, or a conquest of Canaan for that matter. Conservative Christians have tried to find alternative explanations or suggestions that it could have happened, but in the end all those arguments fail and we’re left with the fact that, historically speaking, it didn’t happen that way. So right off the bat, if Derek is right, then everybody loses the God of the exodus, including him. We just have to deal with this fact and move on.

Which leads us to the second problem. Which is that what happened historically doesn’t matter, frankly, because what actually matters is what the text says about God. The exodus doesn’t have to be historically accurate in order for us to get the point that God is all about liberation and his faithful determination to rescue his people. We don’t need to know whether the parable of the unforgiving servant was historical in order to understand that showing mercy on the undeserving is central to God’s character. That point is clear regardless of what might have been the case historically.

In the end, Rishmawy makes the mistake all conservatives do when he assumes the goal of a nonviolent hermeneutic is to “screen out” or “set aside” violent passages or parts of the Old Testament. This is completely untrue. No one is getting rid of bits of the Old Testament. The OT is part of our sacred scriptures. To say that it didn’t happen the way it is recorded is not the same as saying they are worthless or ought to be tossed out. Most of us are completely comfortable saying they represent what oppressors like Egypt deserve to have happen to them, regardless of whether it did.

If the concern is over whether the texts are still relevant for Christians to wrestle with, there is no disagreement. Of course they are.

But ultimately, the real question is this: “Is Jesus the fullest and final revelation of who God really is, or isn’t he?”

If he is, then the Old Testament is not the fullest and final revelation of who God really is, and we must work to reinterpret it in the light of Jesus.

If Jesus is not the fullest and final revelation of who God really is, then we have problems that are a whole lot bigger than a few violent passages in the OT.

More Trouble at Mars Hill

Mark Driscoll has had kind of a bummer of a year. First he was accused of plagerism in a book; later he was found to have plagerized passages in a few of his other books too. Then he crashed John MacArthur’s charismatic conference. Then it turns out he paid a company to manipulate the sales of Real Marriage to hit bestseller status. Then financial malfeasance began to emerge from his church, claiming he had used missions funds to expand the audio/visual department. This led Driscoll and his church to be kicked out of the Acts 29 network, forced Driscoll to step down for six weeks, and prompted the Acts 29 network, five satallite pastors of his church to urge for his resignation, and 21 elders at his church to bring formal charges against him.

It has definitely been a bad year for Driscoll.

But now KING5 news, an outlet in Seattle, has revealed that one of the pastors who condemned Driscoll has just been fired for “rebellion against the church.” We don’t know what that means yet, but it sure sounds like he was fired for dissing his boss, Mark Driscoll, in the formal letter.

Paul Tripp, who headed up the reconciliation team in Mars Hill, reported to KING5 that “This is without a doubt the most abusive, coercive ministry culture I’ve ever been involved with.”

Getting Radical

Frankly, I’m fed up with Anthony Bradley. Who, you might ask, is Anthony Bradley? Bradley is a professor of ethics and theology from King’s College in Philadelphia and is a research fellow at the right-wing Acton Institute. In the last year, it seems that Bradley has decided to make the “radical” movement his whipping boy in print. He’s written on how caring for the poor and relocating to underprivaleged neighborhoods is the “New Legalism” of the evangelical world, accusing pastors and authors like David Platt of all kinds of unsavory things.

It is, however, readily apparent from what he has written that he has conflated a number of different approaches and movements under a single roof, and that he doesn’t even accurately understand that which he is critiquing. Or, to say it a different way, he is unable to make sense of anything that doesn’t come to him in the pre-packaged categories of the neo-Reformed movement.

Bradley even says this. In his review of Platt’s excellent book Radical, he complains about Platt’s approach and then writes, “Admittedly, I am biased. I’m a Reformed theologian who understands the biblical story in terms of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration.”

Yes, Bradley, you are biased.

Platt is not a 19th century or 2nd Great Awakening holdover revivalist, as Bradley complains. He writes, “in the end readers are left with nothing more than a ‘compassionate revivalist’ Christianity that fails to radically call Christians to live in harmony with God’s desire to redeem the entire creation.” Bradley is certainly right to say that we’re called to live in harmony with all of creation. The question is how we’re called to do that. How is the creation to be restored? Well, St. Paul tells us: “the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God,” (Rom. 8:19). The creation is waiting for the redemption of all things that will begin with the unveiling of the Church. The “present time” is the former age that was passing away in St. Paul’s day, while the coming revelation of glory is the glory of Yahweh dwelling on earth in the Church. The Church is the principle place where the redemption of the creation takes place, because it is the redeemed community, the spring of New Creation in the world, the living Temple in which the Spirit dwells.

Somehow the Reformed community has gotten to a place where we think that making disciples and focusing on the community of the people of God is somehow retreatist, a charming holdover of pietists and Holy Rollers, fundie-anabaptists bent on fleeing the world. Reclaiming a good teaching (God is redeeming the whole creation) has bent our theology so far out of shape that we now think that this is His primary agenda, or that He will accomplish this miraculous deed outside of the Church. But when Jesus gave instructions for his Church to follow, He did not say, “Work according to your vocation, according to your skills, cooperating with a neo-capitalist society in order to live in harmony with God’s desire to redeem the entire creation.” You can’t find anybody in the NT that says this. What Jesus does say, however, is to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” This statement replaces the creation mandate of Genesis 1 in the New Covenant. When did Reformed people stop understanding that this is a call for cosmic restoration? When did we start thinking that Jesus’ commands to us shouldn’t have to stand front and center, at the top of our list of things to do? When did we start pitting Jesus against some supposed doctrine that trumps His Own words?

This “radical” (pun!) restructuring of the priorities of the Christian faith is seen everywhere in Bradley’s review. “Christians are called to be more than disciple-makers.” “Disciple-making is a major part of the cosmic redemptive mission of God, but the work of the Kingdom transforms people, places, and things.”

Yes. That last command of Jesus couldn’t possibly have anything to do with the means by which we transform the whole creation. It’s a part. Maybe even important. But not the thing. Not the central thing. No, the central claim of the gospel is that we ought to adopt a neo-capitalistic work ethic and “do business” for the Kingdom of God.

Part of the problem, of course, is the pervasive confusion about the Church and the Kingdom. Most neo-Calvinists today see the Kingdom as broader than the Church. The Church is one thing, but Kingdom work is what’s really important, and our duties are duly outlined. Do your work, don’t complain, be content, get married, have babies, and work to support the common good. But the Kingdom of God is clearly and repeatedly identified as the Church. The Church is the Kingdom and the Kingdom is the Church. No, this doesn’t mean you should go get a “Church job,” but it might mean rethinking your vocational skills so that they operate within the sphere of the redeemed community. It might be that the only way to accomplish the good ends we say we want to accomplish will mean giving up on the dreams we thought could get us there. It might mean that God’s economy of sharing and vulnerability and risk is better, in the long run, at doing what we say we’re trying to do using Mammon’s economy.

The problem with Bradley’s radical alternative is that it simply isn’t radical enough yet.

Re-Exploring Total Depravity (1)

I am an enthusiastic and robust fan of Augustinian Christianity, including its doctrine of the fall, but as with everything, we frequently seek justification of our position through the wrong passages because do not carefully consider their context.  One great example of this is Keith A. Mathison’s book Dispensationalism.

In chapter seven, he critiques the dispensationalist view of sin and the fall, and while his overall point was true, I cannot help but notice that dozens of his cited passages had nothing to do with a general sinfulness of man. I’m going to be re-exploring the passages typically used to defend the doctrine of total depravity in order to see what we’re left with, and how we are to understand those texts.

He writes that all men are born in sin, and provides only two passages to defend this statement, Psa. 51:5 and Psa. 58:3. Yet PSalm 51 is the account of David’s repentance for sleeping with Bathsheba and is a personal record that he, specifically, was born in sin (Psa. 51:5). Similarly, Psalm 58:3 states, “The wicked are estranged from the womb; these who speak lies go astray from birth.” Once again, this is speaking only of the “wicked,” not all of humanity. In contrast to these wicked who have been wicked from birth are the righteous, who will be vindicated (Psa. 58:10).

To bolster his claim that humanity’s heart is “utterly wicked” and blind to God, Mathison uses a number of erroneous passages. He begins with Genesis 6:5 and 8:21. In Gen. 6:5, God observes the sins of man and says that their hearts were turned to wickedness continually; but this is also not a universal statement, for Noah and his family was righteous (Gen. 6:8-9). God’s statement in 8:21 cannot mean any more than this, and again excepts Noah and his righteous line from the statement.

His next passage is Ecclesiastes 9:3, part of which states, “the hearts of the children of men are full of evil.” However, Ecclesiastes is a notoriously complicated book and the context again doesn’t match Mathison’s point. Once again there is a contrast between the “righteous” and the “wicked,” meaning that we cannot use this as a universal declaration. Solomon is discussing death in Eccl 9, and “the same event [death] happens to the righteous and the wicked.” In 9:3, Solomon defines death as “evil,” and then discusses the fate of the “children of death.” BUT, he goes on in 9:4, “he who is joined to the living has hope.” So the righteous and the wicked of 9:1-2 become the “one who has hope” and the “children of evil.” Solomon is not speaking universally.

Mathison’s next passage is Jeremiah 17:9, which states that “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” This passage hardly bolsters the total depravity claims of Calvinism, which claims the heart is dead; the passage says only that it is desperately sick. The context of this comment, of course, is the particular sins of Israel, not a default position of every human heart; immediately following this claim Jeremiah tells us who Yahweh is speaking to. Those in Israel who “gets riches but not by justice,” (Jer. 17:11), and declares that “I have not desired the day of sickness” (Jer. 17:16). Like with Noah, Jeremiah is excluded from the category of those whose hearts are deceitful.

He then uses Mark 7:21-23, in which Jesus says, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts.” Again, Mathison is seeking to prove too much. In the first place, the passage says nothing about every thought and deed coming out of the heart is evil continually, but simply that the origin of all evil thoughts is the heart (just as would be the origin for all good thoughts). Moreover, the term “man” in the Scriptures most often refers to Jews, not universal humanity (the symbolic structure of the OT presenting Adam in the Garden as the proto-Israelite who is given dominion over Gentile “beasts of the earth”). The heart is also parallel to the Temple; thus, to say that evil thoughts and deeds come out of the “Temple of Israel” would make this a pointed critique against the corrupt priesthood that is leading the people astray (which makes better sense of the context anyway).

Mathison also goes to John 3:19, “the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.” Now, the gospel of John is one of the most misunderstood books of the NT because John uses terms like “world” in very different senses than we do. For John, the “world” is Israel (van der Waal, Search the Scriptures). The same is true of the “people who dwell in darkness.” John has already defined the “light” as Jesus and the “darkness” as the “world,” which is Israel (John 1:5, 10-11). Thus, this is not a universal statement at all, but rather a comment that Jesus came to Israel and the people loved the darkness of the Old Covenant rather than the Light of the New, because Israel was corrupt.

He also uses Romans 8:7-8, “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” Like with “world” in John, so too the “flesh” for Paul. The “flesh” refers to the Old Covenant and Torah-keeping, The one “in the flesh” would be Israel after the rejection of Jesus and the New Covenant; that Israel is hyocritical and already condemned for breaking the law, Paul has been at pains to establish already (Rom. 2:17-23). Those in the flesh of the Old Covenant cannot please God now that Jesus has come.

Another passage Mathison employs is 1 Corinthians 2:14, “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritual discerned.” Like the one “set on the flesh,” the “natural man” is Israel. This is clear from the context (1 Cor. 2:5-6, 8). Far from a universal statement, this is again dealing with Israel after rejecting Jesus and by extension His Spirit/Community of the Church.

He also uses Titus 1:15, “to the defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure; but both their minds and their consciences are defiled.” Once again, Paul is describing Israel, not humanity broadly speaking. His main point in the context is for Titus to keep the Cretans from “devoting themselves to Jewish myths and the commands of people who turn away from the truth,” (Titus 1:14). Those who are defiled and unbelieving are Israel, who “profess to know God, but they deny him by their works,” (Titus 1:16).