Dale, I take it the question you are concerned about here is something like, “does the spirit of Reform give elites too much power?” I’m going to defend the spirit of Reform here, but before I do, I want to heartily join you in affirming that elites should not be trusted with too much power in the church any more than they should be in the state.

When Lord Acton uttered the famous line “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” he was speaking about ecclesiastical power, not political. He traveled to Rome to lobby the First Vatican Council against promulgating the doctrine of papal infallibility, alas unsuccessfully. He wrote in a letter:

I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption it is the other way, against the holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority, still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it. . . . Quite frankly, I think there is no greater error.

One of the main advantages of Presbyterian church polity, to my mind, is its careful division of powers among a diversity of church courts, so no one has too much power—a system the U.S. founders looked to in devising the division of powers among local, state and federal authorities. Having kept abreast of some of the business of the OPC General Assembly, I can report that in my experience the system seems to work more or less as intended; there is no one who is able to simply demand his way and get it. To the contrary, my impression (admittedly as an outsider) is that nothing important happens in the GA without literally years of difficult consensus-building among diverse constituencies. (Yes, even a tiny denomination like the OPC is big enough to have diverse constituencies!)

I also think you and I are both more culturally “horizontal” than Taylor. His tragic narrative of Reform is the same story the aristocrats tell in every age: people reject their traditionalistic aristocracies in order to enact a more just social order, but the leaders of the rebellion turn out to be tyrannical demagogues; everyone ends up under their bootheel, forgetting about justice and chasing after sex, money and thrills. You can read this story in Plato’s Republic; it’s as old as the hills. Only the aristocrats can stop you from becoming a barbarian!

That having been said, it’s clear that in some respects you perceive yourself as aligned with Taylor against at least some forms of Magisterial Protestantism. You may be right, but the difference can be a healthy one rather than a cause of hostility.

You strike the heart of the matter when you describe a movement that you label “evangelical revivalism” and state that it seeks spiritual renewal, “but not by way of doctrinal conformity.” My view is that spiritual renewal cannot happen if it does not include doctrinal renewal as at least one central element (not the only element, of course). In that, I think I am typical of Magisterial Protestantism. I expect you’ll affirm that doctrine is not unimportant, so the question of “conformity” is probably what lies between us.

Presumably we could agree that everyone’s understanding of doctrine should be in “conformity” to what God teaches. So why do you view “doctrinal conformity” as a bad thing? Because you have in mind not “conformity” to God but “conformity” to some human standard. And I would agree in affirming Christian liberty and the sovereignty of the conscience.

But what does the church look like in practice if it is a community of diverse people who are all trying to conform their beliefs to God’s teaching? Here we come back to something I mentioned much earlier in our exchange—that Magisterials have a different “sociology of belief” than the rest of evangelicalism.

Not all people are equally learned in doctrine, or equally equipped to develop their own understanding. This is why God raises up teachers in the church. Magisterial Protestantism, while rejecting the Roman Catholic understanding of the church’s teaching authority, nonetheless attributes an important and distinct role to those who are gifted to teach. The Magisterial understanding is that this “class of men” (if I may borrow ironically from our earlier discussion of Warfield) do not have the authority to command, except insofar as they may open their Bibles and declare what God commands. This is where we differ from Rome, as our earlier discussion covered. But they do have the authority to teach; why else would the Bible call them teachers and commend believers to “respect” them?

To be blunt, the implied theology here is that the church’s reason can and must be applied (in constant dependence upon the Spirit) to make sense of revelation, and the implied sociology is that not all people are gifted with equal amounts of reason. We want everyone to understand doctrine for himself, because all human beings are rational creatures, but this cannot be achieved in practice unless we recognize that some people are more naturally gifted for understanding than others.

I am not unaware that this may sound very similar to the aristocratic narrative in Taylor and Plato. But where the aristocrats of “vertical culture” directly invest the teachers with power, the “horizontal culture” of the Reformation separated the teaching class from the political class and even—to the extent possible—from day-to-day ecclesiastical power. Where Revelation is the ultimate standard, there is no one who cannot be challenged.

Hence, the robust affirmation that Reason must be used to understand and apply Revelation inevitably produces not aristocracy, but the spirit of Reform. And social movements for Reform do have as leaders people who have the gifts necessary to grasp the issues at stake and help large numbers of people understand them. (This applies whether the reforms in question are good ones or bad ones, of course.) So Taylor is right that movements for Reform empower elites to some extent. The question is whether we should therefore abandon Reform. My argument is that we cannot, for Reason + Revelation = Reform.

True story: When I was in graduate school, a student in my cohort presented a paper in which she argued that popular movements for democratic political reform in a certain Latin American dictatorship were less desirable than they could be because these movements were “elite led.” I asked her whether there had ever been any social movement for anything, anywhere, that was not elite led. She looked at me like a deer in headlights. Subsequently, she revised the paper to remove the presupposition that it is intrinsically undesirable for political movements to be elite led.

The gift of reason can be overvalued, and I think there is a good case to be made that academic theologians in the Magisterial traditions were overvaluing it in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Recently there has been some important retrenching of opinion about Warfield and Old Princeton in this regard; longstanding attacks on them to the effect that they were enslaved by Scottish Common Sense are being significantly revised. They are looking less rationalistic than they used to. But we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. There was always something to the traditional critique. In Counterfeit Miracles, especially in the chapter on Roman Catholicism, you can see that Warfield has overinvested in a triumphant narrative of rational enlightenment overcoming the darkness of medieval superstition. As Reason ascended, Theology and Science were both progressing toward greater and greater triumphs. Reports that they were starting to come into conflict were obviously exaggerated; how could the children of Reason quarrel? This is why Warfield invested so much in attacking Darwinism; the rumor of a breach between the children of Reason had to be shown to be bunk. This excessive faith in reason was not abandoned even by the generation of Magisterial theologians who were cast out of the mainline churches for their failure to bow to Darwinism and cheap rationalism; Hart’s intellectual biography of Machen brings this out clearly.

But that was then. I do not think you will find anything like the same kind of overinvestment in the historical narrative of triumphant Reason among most Magisterial theologians or pastors today. Like Aragorn, we are Isildur’s heirs, not Isildur himself. To the contrary, my complaint is that there has been an overreaction in the other direction—but I won’t press that point today.

I think we know now, if not perfectly then at least better than we did a century ago, that reason is not the only thing that matters, and the teachers need to be kept humble. Tim Keller has written a very powerful essay about this, arguing that there are three kinds of Christians: people who especially love doctrine, people who especially love experiential piety, and people who especially love cultural impact. When the members of these groups view one another as all having a distinct and indispensable contribution to make, the church flourishes. When the members of one group view the other groups with suspicion and hostility, the church moves toward disunity and spiritual disaster.

So, on the one hand, I’ll agree with you that nobody’s passion for doctrine should be given such free rein that it becomes contemptuous of “popular religion” or declares as heretical people who are not heretics. (For the record, while Warfield held Rome to be heretical, he didn’t think belief in charismata was per se heretical; see the description of Wesley at the beginning of Chapter 4.) On the other hand, let me ask you to consider whether you might have developed an unfounded presupposition that people who do not believe in charismata generally view you as heretical. If you walk into the conversation with a chip on your shoulder, you make it harder to create unity. You are not as looked down upon as you may think.

Articles by Greg Forster

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