Michael S. Horton
Who's Got the Center?
Re-Forming the Center: American Protestantism 1900 to the Present, edited by Douglas Jacobsen and William Vance Trollinger, Jr., Eerdmans, 1998, 492 pp.; $28, paper
"If you label me, you negate me." I'm not certain who said this first, but I'm quite sure it was someone raised in California during the seventies. Nevertheless, there is a rising tide of far more nuanced reaction against modernity's rigid and simplistic categories. Individuals and movements, perhaps partly due to hubris and partly due to legitimate distinctives, wish to have their unique positions entered into the public record, defying neat and homogeneous taxonomies. To engage in a bald example of such type-casting, it is a case of the social historians taking revenge on their elders, the intellectual historians. It is time to abandon the one-dimensional mapping and acknowledge the diverse topography of the American Protestant landscape.
In his 1970 work, Righteous Empire, veteran American religious historian Martin Marty articulated what has come to be called the "two-party" thesis. According to that scheme, as Douglas Jacobsen and William Vance Trollinger, Jr., summarize it,
since the late nineteenth century two Protestant parties (the "private" party and the "public" party) have dominated the American religious landscape in much the same way as the Republicans and Democrats have dominated the American political scene.
Among others, George Marsden, especially in his Fundamentalism and American Culture (1980), strengthened this two-party reading of American religious history. But it was especially James Davison Hunter's binary opposition of "orthodox" and "progressive" types in Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America (1991) that fortified this thesis with alarmist rhetoric. It is this thesis, so dominant in the popular imagination, which the editors and authors of Re-Forming the Center wish to call into question.
The book grew out of an effort to move "beyond the two-party system of American Protestantism" and was the result of national conferences held in the summer of 1994-96. The editors note in their acknowledgments that while "one of us is currently a member of the United Church of Christ and the other is now a member of General Conference Mennonite Church," nevertheless
neither of us has ever been particularly beholden to any one denomination. … We also both tend to be more pietistic and ethical in our faith than doctrinal. This disposition has, no doubt, encouraged us down the road we have taken in this project.
Two agendas seem to guide this work: in addition to the historiographical, the theological. We may explore this collection of essays with that in mind.
The collection of 23 essays begins with general analysis and critique of the two-party thesis, moving to case studies which provide obvious examples of how the traditional typology fails to do justice to the pluralism of the American religious landscape. It is not simply a question of applying nuance to basically reliable though general categories, but of missing the trees for the forest. David Sikkink draws on recent studies to demonstrate the relative insignificance of the conservative/ liberal divide for the average American, including Christians. "Religious identities articulated in the language of expressive individualism," Sikkink suggests, "may tend to displace a concern for doctrine and truth, and to increase a concern for civility to ward and tolerance of other religious and secular groups." Shrugging off the distinctions which may have mattered to their grandparents with the expression, "I just say I'm a Christian," there is little that unifies the thought or identity of such people, but they represent a fairly sizable percentage.
Fred Kniss argues for a modified two-dimensional map in which morality is the chief criterion: moral authority and the definition of that which constitutes the moral project. So, for instance, the new poles are (under moral authority) modernism and traditionalism and (under the moral project) libertarianism and communalism. And Martin Marty himself argues for a chastened two-party model. There are still two parties, Marty insists. Public stereotypes and academic convention render this the case, despite criticism: "The 'vision' of history that needs 'revision' is more often closer to reality than are many revisionist substitutes." As for his own commitments, Marty describes himself as a "James Madison type, finding freedom and security neither in 'unum' nor 'bipartisan' or 'bipolar' life but in pluralist existence."
William Weston and D. G. Hart offer case studies of the Presbyterian controversy as counter-evidence to the two-party thesis. According to Weston, both the progressives and conservatives in the Presbyterian Church failed to win the support of the loyalist center. Many who might have been theologically sympathetic to the conservative cause were put off by what they perceived as disloyalties to denominational polity and process. Thus, the war was lost not over doctrinal differences alone, but because of tactical failures and a missed opportunity to attract the support of the loyalists. Hart demonstrates how J. Gresham Machen, the Princeton professor who led the conservative Presbyterian cause and eventually founded Westminster Seminary, defies easy categorization: "I never call myself a 'Fundamentalist,'" Machen said in 1927, although—if the alternative is modernism, he would gladly defend that cause. "But after all, what I prefer to call myself is not a 'Fundamentalist' but a 'Calvinist'—that is, an adherent to the Reformed Faith."
A two-party thesis envisions a church made up of liberals and conservatives, but these examples demonstrate the failure to account for the majority (loyalists) and for the distinctions which must be drawn between Reformed confessionalists like Machen and fundamentalists like Carl McIntyre or Bob Jones. If the two-party thesis doesn't work here—in the fundamentalist/modernist controversy—it probably doesn't work anywhere.
Several of the pieces enter their unique traditions as exhibits for the prosecution against the two-party thesis. Reformed and Lutheran confessional churches, the African American church, various Hispanic church traditions, as well as the Disciples of Christ, simply cannot be categorized by the left-right typology. For many of these churches, the fundamentalist-modernist fight was remote. Even in the mainstream "fundamentalist" movement, there were exceptions to the two-party system. The Winona Lake Bible Conferences (1895-1968), the now defunct Biblical Seminary in New York, and the missionary enterprise (including groups such as Youth for Christ and Young Life), were far more mainstream than the imposition of polar extremes would allow. They incorporated a wide cross-section of Protestant America, from the roster of speakers to denominational and institutional representation on their boards.
Taken as a whole, these examples represent the majority of American Protestants over the last century. Hardly marginal groups (as the two-party system appears to assume), their distinctive contributions can be omitted only at a price of misunderstanding American religious history.
This book is not about theology, but its subject matter requires the authors to make some theological moves. As the quote cited above from the acknowledgments makes explicit, the editors are motivated by a certain preference for pietism over ecclesiastical or confessional commitments. This is perfectly consistent with the ethos of American evangelicalism, a network of parachurch agencies and movements which continues to defy a monolithic description. The editors have made this prejudice explicit, a refreshing alternative to the assumption of some two-party theorists that they are simply "doing history," even as their "mar gins" and "mainstream" often look curiously like "them" and "us," respectively.
With the editors' preference comes a certain notion of the "center." And, as with most of the "centrist" thinking I have encountered, it just so happens that their position is that via media. So the undogmatic pietism which they announced as important for this project becomes the golden mean between two extremes. But doesn't the very notion of a "center" rest on the assumption of the two-party system's validity? Such deference to "centrist" thinking is no less aloof from dogmatic positions than a commitment to liberal or conservative points of view. The "center" is truly in the eye of the beholder.
This is the place where the theologian rants about the boars in the Lord's vineyard, and I should be remiss if I missed the opportunity. While this volume offers a successful defense of pluralism over two-party reductionism in the study of American religious history, one is reminded that even among evangelical historians and sociologists, theology is often given short shrift. While such writers might justly complain that religion is treated epiphenomenally in secular scholarship, theology is often treated as such, even by Christians, in the study of religious history.
Many of the contributions borrow schematizations from sociology. Again, this is a welcome antidote in some respects to proponents of intellectual history who fail to recognize the role of embodied life (viz., economics, politics, institutional structures) in shaping the times. Nevertheless, when James Davison Hunter (not a contributor) applies the categories of "progressive" and "orthodox" across the religious confessions, one is left with the impression that socio-political elements are more determinative than theological ones.
In the process, the enormous power of religious convictions may be unwittingly reduced to effects of one's socialization. A term generally associated with theological discourse such as "orthodox" now be comes an indicator of one's political position in the culture wars. The writers criticize the polarities of the two-party system such as Hunter's, but on the whole the volume continues to underplay the significance of the actual religious or theological distinctives of various groups.
The centrist agenda of the editors and of many of the writers may explain why theological distinctives are less important. But is it not the case in actual fact that what a group believes is more determinative than how firmly or idiosyncratically those views are held, or how they forge ostensibly more important effects, such as political and economic ones?
So once more we are reminded of the persistence of the two-party system even in this largely helpful critique. Mark Ellingsen, for instance, refers to the division "between moderates and fundamentalists … in the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod." But, as Mark Granquist's piece on American Lutheranism points out, Lutherans (like confessional Reformed churches) cannot be categorized in these terms. It is not only imprecise, but erroneous, to refer to those confessional Protestants who are simply affirming their traditional dogmatics as "fundamentalists." Similarly, for those like Hodge, Warfield, and even Machen, the Old School/New School divisions went to the heart of what it meant to be a confessional Presbyterian in a way that the fundamentalist/modernist polarity failed to do, despite its much wider currency. In pitting "fundamentalists" against "moderates" in the LCMS, Ellingsen boldly suggests by his very typology that the correct position (i.e., the "center") is represented by those who left the denomination because they had accepted many of the conclusions of higher criticism. They are not "liberals," nor are they "non-confessional." Rather, they are "moderates."
What is even more intriguing in Ellingsen's piece is his thesis that narrative theology (specifically, the "Yale school" variety), represents "the pre-Enlightenment ethos of the American Protestant center." These postliberal theologians propose a recovery of confidence in the biblical narrative, reading it the way Luther and Calvin read it, rather than the way Tillich and Henry supposedly read it. So far, the movement of a certain segment of the academy to the center. But evangelicals are now more prepared to meet postliberals in that center, "as a result of the 'liberalization' of the evangelical movement," involving a greater friendliness to Neo-Orthodox positions. To reach this "middle ground," evangelicals surrender their commitment to inerrancy and the mainline theologians surrender their obsession with (though not necessarily the conclusions of) higher criticism.
Indeed, Ellingsen appears to go beyond the mild pragmatism of George Lindbeck's theological method. Sounding a bit like Richard Rorty, Ellingsen says that "Christians on grounds of their theological model properly assume the truth of the biblical accounts until they no longer help them cope with ordinary reality." I would submit that this is not only beyond anything that most evangelicals would accept, but that it is beyond anything in the work of Frei, Lindbeck, Kelsey, or other Yale representatives.
The identity of the losers in Ellingsen's plea for a new "center" sympathetic to Lindbeck's The Nature of Doctrine (1984) is quite clear: "the Puritan/Reformed tradition that introduces into the conversation a preoccupation with biblical infallibility." Still under the spell of a two-party thesis which presses particulars into general types even if the former do not fit, Ellingsen writes that evangelical critics of Yale postliberalism
have been enticed by the continental Enlightenment tradition to adopt an objectivist approach to the biblical text. This disposition has been heightened by the impact of The Westminster Confession of Faith, whose use of the language of inerrancy either encourages the endorsement of the concept or its militant repudiation, on the theological perspectives of many American Protestants.
Aside from the fact that the Westminster Confession and Catechisms nowhere mention the term "inerrancy," connecting that Confession (1647) to the Enlightenment is a popular but sloppy account. Even if certain figures identified as "Enlightenment thinkers" were working during this period, the content of the Westminster Confession is virtually indistinguishable from the Reformed confessions of the sixteenth century. An interest in doctrinal precision bears greater resemblance to ancient and medieval texts than to the accommodating apologetics of the Enlightenment. It was the Enlightenment, after all, that found in pietism an ally in the preference for morality over doctrine.
Undoubtedly many evangelicals will find Ellingsen's analysis attractive, but the result is to marginalize the tradition that provided early American Protestantism with much of its content and form. Hence what Re-Forming the Center dismantles in the historiography it occasionally reinstates, with the call for a "center" that is neither conservative nor liberal. But haven't we always had a word for that: namely, "moderate"? And aren't "moderates," despite all of the characteristics with which their temperament favors us, often reticent to take unpopular stands? Is there not a history of moderate indecisiveness and unreflective accommodation to the spirit of the age? The "center" is not innocent. It is a real place on the map, which demands that all "others" be related to it as margins to the mainstream.
Why do we need a center at all? Perhaps it is the case that various communions will go on with their somewhat different "centers," determined by confessional commitments as to what the Scriptures teach, instead of negotiating a broad settlement. Is it not possible that the search for the "center" is itself reflective of modernity's passion for the one over the many, homogeneity, a stable option to which we ought to assent if we wish to avoid the pitfalls of dogmatism on either side? Such "golden mean" thinking seems somewhat naïve, especially since we all seem to grant to ourselves the self-portrait of moderation and middle ground.
In terms of historiography, Re-Forming the Center is a terrific set of case studies against the two-party model. Besides that, it offers fascinating tours of specific movements and communities that have been marginalized in scholarship. In terms of theology, the book warrants a more mixed review. Here, the ambiguous relationship of many evangelical historians to theology is all too apparent. As such, Re-Forming the Center affords a good opportunity to reflect thoughtfully not only on how to understand the American Protestant past but also on how to envision its future.
Michael S. Horton is associate professor of historical theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in California. He is the author and editor of a number of books, including most recently A Confessing Theology for Postmodern Times (Crossway).
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Re-Forming the Center, edited by Douglas Jacobsen and William Vance Trollinger, Jr.
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