Jordan Reviews Weber

In the Westminster Theological Journal 44, No. 1, James Jordan reviews Robert E. Webber’s book “The Secular Saint: A Case for Evangelical Social Responsibility.” He writes:

When the present writer accepted the assignment of reviewing this book a year ago, I anticipated a relatively simple assignment. I found, however, the task to be difficult. On the one hand, The Secular Saint appears to be designed as a simple introduction to the questions of the cultural mandate and Christian society. Each chapter ends with questions for discussion and recommended further readings. On the other hand, the book also claims a more rigorous purpose: “What I hope to do, therefore, is to set forth the various historic models, show their grounding in Scripture, illustrate them from history, and evaluate their effectiveness in the modern world. In this way I hope both to provide a theology for social concern and to set forth the major models of social awareness that have appeared in the church” (p. 14).

Accordingly, I shall review the book from two perspectives. First, let us consider whether Dr. Webber has written a “safe” and reliable introduction for young Christians to the matter of biblical thought. The book is well laid out, with each chapter broken up into sections and sub-sections. The questions for further discussion are helpful. The Reformed reader, however, will not be so happy with the recommended further readings. Liberal and neo-orthodox writers vastly outnumber orthodox ones. The student is directed to the works of Richard Niebuhr, Jacques Ellul, Gerhard von Rad, John Bright, and Wolfhart Pannenberg, among others. The only conservative book on the cultural mandate recommended is that of Henry Van Til; ignored are the works of R. J. Rushdoony, E. L. Hebden Taylor, F. N. Lee, H. van Riessen, Carl Henry, Francis Schaeffer, etc. The reader is, however, directed to the writings of recent “left-wing evangelicals,” such as Richard Mouw and Ronald Sider. The resulting impression is that only liberals and left-wing evangelicals have done any work in this area, an impression which is misleading. The overall effect is likely to lead the student away from historical evangelical orthodoxy and toward loose views of Scripture, sadly increasingly common in modern evangelicalism today.

Moreover, still considering the book’s possible usefulness as an introduction for young Christians, many church leaders will be distressed by Dr. Webber’s setting aside of the question of the historicity of Genesis 1–11 (p. 35). My guess is that Dr. Webber accepts these chapters as at least partially historical, but his idea that the question of historicity can be set aside, even for a moment, actually destroys, in my opinion, everything he is trying to say. As C. Van Til and F. A. Schaeffer have so often pointed out, the cultural mandate cannot be grounded in mere ideas, which substitute the “idea of history” for history itself, and the “idea of creation” for the truth of creation ex nihilo. Ultimately the world and society do not matter at all if they are merely constructs projected by the Kantianized mind of man. Doubtless Dr. Webber would agree with me here, but one wishes that he had given a clearer statement of the matter in his book.

Orthodox Christians will be distressed to read on p. 39 that the woman, after the Fall, “is to be subject to her husband, a perversion of the partnership she enjoyed in the garden.” At the very least, this smacks of modern egalitarianism, not of biblical covenantalism. And what are we to make of the statement on p. 177 that God’s self-disclosure “is preserved in Scripture as a trustworthy record of God’s revelation”? The Bible is far more than a mere record of revelations; it is itself written revelation.

My conclusion is that this book, considered as an introduction to the social mandate for young Christians, is too often misleading and unhelpful. Let us now review the book at a more sophisticated level, as a treatise on evangelical social responsibility.

After two helpful introductory chapters on defining terms and problems, Webber has two chapters on biblical background. There are good observations here concerning man’s place as the image of God, dependently creative, and man’s rebellious attempt to become independently creative. The brief discussion of the nature of Cainitic civilization as characterized by violence is also well written and helpful, but pales in comparison with Rushdoony’s treatment of the same subject in Revolt Against Maturity (Thoburn Press, 1977). The biblical discussion is marred, in my opinion, by Webber’s premillennialism (p. 65) and by an incomplete discussion of the relationship between OT law and NT “kingdom ethics”: he rightly says that NT ethics is thoroughly grounded in the OT (p. 60), but discusses the Sermon on the Mount almost as if “kingdom ethics” were to be identified with the recorded teachings of Jesus while He walked the earth (p. 69). The relationship between the teachings of the pre-incarnate Christ on social matters (in the Torah) and the New Covenant is foundational to any attempt to set forth a Christian social ethic, especially in setting forth biblical canons for evaluating various proposed Christian ethical options.

There follow three chapters, on the separational model, the identification model, and the transformational model. The problem with Webber’s discussion here is that he fails to see that the orthodox or transformational model actually and by design incorporates the virtues of the other two. Questions can be raised, moreover, regarding his discussion of the history of the three positions. I think that the pre-Constantinian church should be classified as transformational, within its permitted parameters, rather than separatist. Why else all the apologetic writings? Moreover, the idea that the early church was pacifistic is certainly debatable. Many would hold that the early church rejected military service on the grounds that it involved idolatry, not on pacifistic or separatistic grounds (cf. Tertullian, De Idol. 19;  De Corona Militis, 11). Similar considerations underlay the early church’s objection to its members’ becoming judges. There is no biblical basis for objecting to capital punishment, and the church did not go through some flip-flop when Constantine came to power. The church had been working to transform the world from a position outside society; after Constantine she was working from a position of ascendancy. More appropriately, Webber uses the anabaptists as illustrations of separatism, and orthodox Lutheranism as an illustration of identificationalism.

In the section on identificationalism, there is a section on civil religion. While Dr. Webber’s discussion of folk religion is useful, his application of the concept of civil religion to modern America is strangely misdirected. The civil religion of the United States for the past 150 years has been liberal humanism. The ecclesiastical wing of this civil religion is not evangelicalism but the liberal mainstream denominations. Evangelicals and fundamentalists have definitely been outsiders during this period. Conservative political thought, isolationistic and libertarian, favoring the death penalty, etc., has also been a minority opinion for a long time, and the election of Ronald Reagan does not indicate any real reversal of that trend. Webber’s identification of conservatism, evangelical and political, with the established civil religion of America is highly questionable, and functions as a red herring. We are left to think, I suppose, that men like Ron Sider are outsiders. Actually Ron Sider and his friends are very close to the mainstream of modern American civil religion, as their widespread popularity and acceptability indicate.

Dr. Webber says on p. 174 that “evangelicalism appears to be aligned not only with conservative theology but also with conservative politics, and it is certainly not (as a whole) in the forefront of social reform.” What is this supposed to mean? Contrary to Dr. Webber, it means that evangelicals are definitely working for social change, since the prevailing orthodoxy in America is liberalism. Evangelicals involved in working against organized theft (fiat paper money), against organized murder (legalized abortion), against pornography, and for the reinstitution of the death penalty, are working against the tide of prevailing liberal orthodoxy. In an age of liberalism, conservatism is radicalism.

Dr. Webber’s discussion of the transformational model includes sections on Augustine, Calvin, and (!) liberation theology. The historian can only wince to read such statements as this, written with reference to Calvin’s times: “A rapidly growing capitalism had the effect of increasing the cost of living while at the same time decreasing the value of human labor” (p. 150). In fact, capitalism has never had such an impact, rather just the opposite. It is state-manipulated mercantilism that is the culprit here. Webber summarizes Calvin’s own thought at one place with this statement: “He [the rich man] is to share his wealth so that the poor will no longer be poor and the rich will no longer be rich” (p. 151), surely a superficial reporting of Calvin’s views.

Most liberation theology is not even Christian, and so one questions what it has to do with this book. Liberation theology generally is simply Marxism couched in Christian language; to the extent that it has any genuinely Christian elements at all, they are almost wholly Roman Catholic. Moreover, liberation theology is not transformational, but is a form of identificationalism: the Christian is to identify with the “poor and oppressed,” whoever they may be. This is in principle no different from identifying with the rich and powerful. The so-called “gospel” is wholly identified with the political platform of one-party—it just happens to be the party that gets all the sympathy from secular humanists and from “left-wing evangelicals.” It has nothing to do with transformational Christianity.

The final chapter, designed to give a contemporary perspective, is also misleading. Webber is excited about the social reform movements that came out of Arminian and Pelagian (Finney) movements in the 19th century. These groups were in fact characterized by a considerable number of quasi-manichean notions, such as the sinfulness of using condiments and drinking wine, the morally transforming effects of using Graham flour, abolitionism (which taught that all slavery, even biblical slavery, is wrong), egalitarian feminism, etc. Webber would have done better to discuss the life and work of Abraham Kuyper, or of J. Gresham Machen.

From a Reformed or conservative evangelical viewpoint, The Secular Saint cannot be recommended. Its discussions are too often misleading and one-sided. The conclusion of the study, that Christians should live in the world but not be of it, does not really advance the discussion. Any treatment of these issues must be compared with H. Van Til’s classic Calvinistic Concept of Culture, currently sadly out of print, and there can be no question which is the more profound and helpful book: Van Til needs to be brought back into print.

Serious typographical errors occur on p. 131 (line 12) and p. 177 (lines 26–28). Other than that, the book was in good condition as regards format.

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