Joe Thorn recently did a Doctrine and Devotion podcast with Nick Batzig on the Federal Vision, the Communion of Reformed Evangelical Churches (CREC), and Pastor Doug Wilson. That podcast has now been taken down. But I listened to the it before it was removed and found it intriguing and worthy of further comment. The two points that stuck out to me were that Joe Thorn mentioned something about getting regular questions about the CREC and Nick Batzig, amid discussing the Federal Vision, acknowledged that to the shame of 20th Century Presbyterians, they lost their historic teaching on covenant. Here’s why I find that interesting.
Reformed Evangelicalism is obviously in a time of great transition. You might say we are in a great reset. Only a few years ago, everybody was happily reading The Gospel Coalition, men sang classic hymns in unity at Together for the Gospel, and a whole bunch of Southern Baptists were young, restless, and reformed, joyfully cohering around Calvinistic soteriology and Jonathan Edwards is my homeboy t-shirts. But things have changed. The Reformed and Evangelical Coalition has broken up, and not merely due to political tumult in America mind you. In times like these, fractured and reorganizing times, Joe and Nick took aim at a Communion of Reformed Evangelicals that seem to have their act together better than most.
Pastor Joe is a with the SBC and Pastor Nick is with the PCA. And without any acrimony to them or their church communions, I tweeted the following last week:
“It’s weird when guys that are a part of church communions that are muddled about gay pastors and women pastors warn about the dangers of a church communion that holds to the historic reformed confessions and maintains that pastors should be male and straight.”
Now the cultural chaos we have all been through over the past few years has exposed our need for greater doctrinal understanding. Many of the men who once followed the voices of Reformed Big Eva, are now not only looking for a community, a coalition, a togetherness, they’re also looking for specific doctrinal answers to questions regarding God’s law, the kingdom of God and the kingdom of man, worldview and apologetics, the nature and purpose of the church, manhood and womanhood, and the doctrine of the covenant, just to name a few.
So the interest in the CREC is intriguing and not surprising given the number of people tracking with Moscow, its flourishing Christian community, and various institutions, ministries, and organizations with which it is associated: Canon Press, Crosspolitic, the Association of Classical Christian Schools, New Saint Andrews College and the like.
We’re dealing with a fascinating moment and a striking phenomenon. That phenomenon involves the breakdown of the long established order of Big Eva and the insatiable desire among Reformed Evangelicals to get answers to the doctrinal and practical questions of the day. By adding “of the day” to the previous sentence I do not mean that these doctrines and practices are merely pragmatic. In fact, in a very real sense they are not pragmatic at all. Pragmatism is one of the idols that resulted in the present collapse of the long-established evangelical order.
The doctrinal interests of the moment have risen to the surface given the cultural moment. But the doctrines themselves arise from Scripture and are informed by a historic formulation that has been lost. This is where Nick Batzig’s comment on 20th Century Presbyterians losing their covenant theology comes in. I have spoken with Presbyterians from across the pond who have pointed out what Nate did in the podcast. The general sentiment is that American Presbyterians have lost their covenantal heritage. I used to be a Reformed Baptist, and back then the non-Reformed Baptists would often charge the Reformed Baptists with being “Deep-water Presbyterians.” Very funny that was. But the joke can run in the other direction as well. It seems many American Presbyterians are simply “Shallow-water Baptists.” And this is what Pastor Nate indicated in the recent Doctrine and Devotion podcast. By and large, American Presbyterians don’t hold to their covenantal heritage. Several of them are Baptistic in their outlook and covenant understanding while going on with the practice of infant baptism.
So the question would be, “Did the American Presbyterians recover their covenantal heritage?” The answer is, and this is likely going to make certain people upset but here it goes, the answer is, yes, the ones in Moscow did. So the rising interest in the CREC and Moscow is not unrelated to a recovery of the covenantal heritage that 20th Century Presbyterianism lost. It is worth mentioning here that you may find a well-meaning confessional fella somewhere who will say something like, “Yes, Moscow does a great job with cultural issues but not with doctrine.” And I’d like to simply point out that that is one of the funniest things a man might say—
“For every tree is known by his own fruit. For of thorns men do not gather figs, nor of a bramble bush gather they grapes” (Luke 6:44).
Recall that the doctrines of great interest at the moment concern God’s law, the kingdom of God and the kingdom of man, worldview and apologetics, the nature and purpose of the church, manhood and womanhood, and the doctrine of the covenant. And this last doctrine listed, the doctrine of the covenant undergirds the previous ones listed. Likewise, Christians are increasingly interested in cultural reformation, public theology, classical Christian education, family duties and responsibilities, and a general sense of real Christian community that trumps all of those woke bonds of intersectionality. And the doctrine of the covenant undergirds all of those, too.
So in a real sense, the covenantal conversation is unavoidable. It makes sense that Joe and Nick brought it up in their podcast about Moscow and the CREC. They had the right ingredient, but they made a mess of the dish. The logic just doesn’t work and people are noticing in droves that it doesn’t work. That broken logic goes something like Doug is a prolific author, plus that Classical Christian School movement is really something, plus Crosspolitic is fantastic, plus Canon Press is a wealth of Christian wisdom, plus New Saint Andrews is one of the best Classical Christian Colleges in the nation, plus the CREC showed some real backbone on COVID, and on LGBTQ, and on the Wokeness, and their Reformed, Evangelical, and Confessional, plus the Arts and Psalm-Singing out there in Moscow are top-notch, plus the diligent work of dominion and Christian witness is so strong that the town itself is starting to have to deal with the Lordship of Christ, plus, plus, plus, equals . . . Moscow Man Bad.
No, sorry, that doesn’t add up. And again, the Reformed Evangelicals who are looking for truth and community in times like these know it doesn’t add up.
A Key Ingredient
The fact is that at the bottom of the flourishing of Moscow sits a healthy understanding of the covenant (albeit that is not the only thing going on). But it is a fundamental ingredient to the robust, gracious, vigorous Christian community out here. Likewise, a misunderstanding of the covenant is an essential ingredient in the collapse of the Reformed and Evangelical coalition I referenced before. Again, a misunderstanding of the covenant is not the only thing going on there. But it is a key missing ingredient.
For example, this historic, Reformed, Westminsterian covenant theology teaches that the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ is the visible church (WCF 25:2). Thus the kingdom is in a real sense visible. As that idea works its way throughout a community, good things happen. And the collapsing reformed and evangelical consensus has not held to this teaching about the kingdom of God. And you reap what you sow. For example, if God’s kingdom has nothing to do with this world, then let’s just worship at home when the government says we must (which is what happened). There were exceptions. But by and large, that’s what happened.
Similarly, this historic, Reformed, Westminsterian covenant theology teaches that not only professors of the true religion are in the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, but their children are too. Thus, covenant nurture and covenant education is in order, desired, and pursued vigorously. Such a community knew to keep their kids out of government schools long before Big John started using the girls bathroom. And now that Big John is using the girls bathroom and the saints far and wide are seeing the problem, such a community knows how to raise a flag and tell the saints who are waking up, “Assemble here and provide your kids with a classical Christian education.”
Likewise, civil society is another sphere impacted by one’s covenantal understanding. It is not for nothing that Lex Rex is both being republished by Canon Press and was written by Samuel Rutherford, a historic reformed Scottish Presbyterian. Modern Calvinistic Evangelicals failed by and large on the COVID tyranny test because they failed to see that the Covenant-Keeping God rules not only over the church, but also over the state. Without this covenantal understanding, evangelicals will be played again when the next round comes.
Moreover, the historic, reformed, covenantal understanding holds that the man baptized in the Triune name and eating the Lord’s Supper with you is in the covenant with you. He is your covenant brother. You have clear cut duties to such a man. The Calvinistic Evangelical consensus, the one that is falling apart, does not believe this. If, for instance, such a baptized man were indeed unregenerate, then the vast majority of Calvinistic Evangelicals would say that he is not your covenant brother regardless of his baptism in the Triune name and his supping with you at the Lord’s Table. It is no surprise that many of these evangelicals put a greater priority on intersectional victim identities than they did on what they perceive as merely a misty and shadowy Christian brotherhood.
Much more could be said about the doctrine of the covenant. My point is that the current interests in the kingdom of God, the family, Christian community, education, cultural reformation, public theology, and a Christian order and civilization are interests that will be at home in this historic Westminsterian covenantal understanding. And from the other direction, a group of Christians who have this historic, Westminsterian, covenantal understanding will produce, by God’s grace and Spirit, a community where Christian families, education, law, arts, media, business, and the like, flourish.
Bye Bye Modernity
Here is another way of talking about what is cooking in the Moscow kitchen. And this is just a snapshot from 10,000 feet. I recall a certain feeling years ago after I finished reading No Place for Truth by David Wells. That feeling was something like, “Houston we have a problem.” Wells laments modernity at the outset of that book. And by the time you’re done with that book, you’re not sure what to do but you know something must be done. Wells went on to write Courage to Be Protestant as something of a solution to the problem. And that in essence is what’s cooking in the Moscow kitchen, Courageous Protestants.
It is striking to me that the flow at the moment seems to be going from modern sensibilities to premodern ones. We see this movement in several places. It is there in the doctrine of God with the recovery of divine simplicity (see James Dolezal’s work All That Is In God). This same direction is seen in the doctrine of man with Carl Truman’s recent work The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. This premodern move appears in hermeneutics with Craig Carter’s recent book Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition. The same movement appears in the Classical Christian Education movement (seen in the very structure and content of that education). We see this impulse in worship with many longing for worship that is focused on God rather than dumbed down and oriented to guests (see The Lord’s Service by Jeff Meyers). We observe this rejection of modernity in our conception of law and justice with several conversations going on about theonomy and the common law tradition (see an intriguing recent article by Stephen Wolfe entitled, Classical Reformed Theonomy. We can even track this way of thinking in cosmology with the resurgence of zeal for C. S. Lewis (see Lewis’ The Discarded Image).
With all of these doctrinal movements going on, we shouldn’t be surprised that there is a recovery of covenant theology that aligns with these other doctrines. I’m not pointing out anything new by signaling a general and covenantal movement that is out of step with modernity. Pastor Doug has made this point many years ago—
“It is our conviction that certain epistemological developments since the Enlightenment have caused many modern conservative Calvinists to read their confessions in a spirit alien to that which produced them” (Reformed Is Not Enough, 66).
“We believe ourselves to be in the process of recovering what our fathers taught from the Reformation down to the Enlightenment—that is, a Reformed and medieval mindset” (Reformed Is Not Enough, 85).
“We believe our opponents to be sincere and honest Christians, but men who have erroneously made a bad truce with modernity and who have accommodated their theology to the abstract dictates of the Enlightenment” (Reformed Is Not Enough, 85).
Those lines are from 20 years ago now. And they still ring true. Except now several theologians are walking certain doctrines in that same premodern direction, away from the Enlightenment, and toward a historic, Reformed mindset. While we are in process of recovering such a mindset on the doctrine of God, man, hermeneutics, law, and the like, we need to go ahead and do the same with covenant. And the fruit of this historic, reformed, confessional recovery will be Mere Christendom, a Mere Christendom where you might even find a communion of churches that hold to a variety of historic and reformed confessions.
I understand that some of you may have some hesitations about Mere Christendom. So I simply ask that you take those hesitations and weigh them against your present concerns about the Mere Paganism that we’re presently living through. Do you have them there in the scales? OK, let go and let’s see what happens. Ah, yes . . . Mere Christendom it is.