James the Presbyter at Princeton

I have been paying a good deal of attention to the recent goings-on at Princeton Theological Seminary for one reason or another. The issues themselves are small potatoes, it seems to me; in comparison to the reasons people have given for their responses to those issues. The event itself will come and go; I fear that some of these justifications will remain to trouble us for generations.

What’s going on at Princeton?

Here’s the short version. One of the centers resident at Princeton [1] offered an invitation to a popular conservative pastor to receive an award and give a lecture on a topic completely appropriate to the seminary. The standard procedure is for any constituent part of the Seminary to ask the Seminary to issue an invitation on their behalf. The Seminary is therefore the inviter of record, even the it is not the source of the invitation.

identity theology 1No one questions the speaker’s qualifications to speak on the assigned topic, but he is a member of an organization (the Presbyterian Church of America) which is more conservative than the Presbyterian Church USA, the home denomination of Princeton Seminary and the PCA is a great deal more conservative than the faculty and students at the Seminary itself.

The speaker’s membership in this denomination is being treated as if it were equivalent to membership in the Nazi Party or in the Ku Klux Klan. And treating him in this way is being justified by people from whom I have come to expect better behavior. These are not just people at Princeton. The blogosphere is alive with fingers being pointed and “sadness” being expressed.

James the Presbyter

There is another way to approach this whole matter, needless to say. I’m not done complaining yet about the approaches I have described, but I would like to describe a better way before I finish up with my complaining. You can read about this in Acts 15. James, whom I am calling “the Presbyter,” on no better grounds than that he was a old man, finishes all the deliberations. Here is the passage I have in mind.

Acts 15: 13 When they had finished it was James who spoke. ‘My brothers,’ he said, ‘listen to me. 14 Simeon has described how God first arranged to enlist a people for his name out of the gentiles. 15 This is entirely in harmony with the words of the prophets, since the scriptures say: 16 After that I shall return and rebuild the fallen hut of David; I shall make good the gaps in it and restore it. 17 Then the rest of humanity, and of all the nations once called mine, will look for the Lord, says the Lord who made this 18 known so long ago. * 19 ‘My verdict is, then, that instead of making things more difficult for gentiles who turn to God, 20 we should send them a letter telling them merely to abstain from anything polluted by idols, from illicit marriages, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood.

I want to focus on verse 19. “Instead,” James says, “of making things more difficult for the gentiles [those gentiles who are turning to God], we should…”

The simplicity of this approach is amazing. We have begun to preach the gospel. Welidentity theology 3l beyond our initial expectations, many gentiles have responded positively. We could treat their interest as an occasion for “harassing them” [2]. We could see how sincere they are by putting obstacles in their way. We could cast aspersions on some other aspect of their way of life or their associations. But wait, James says, let’s not do that. They are turning to God. Let’s refuse to throw obstacles in their way.

Identity Politics and Identity Theology

I said that approach was simple. Of course, I didn’t say it was easy. It is not easy, particularly today, because to get to that simple starting place, you have to walk past a lot of other more attractive starting places. Many of these can be grouped together in an approach that Case Thorp, of Orlando, Florida, calls “identity theology.” He means that as an adaptation of the expression “identity politics,” so perhaps we should stop and take a look at that first.

If you think of national politics as the pursuit of the institutions and policies that will best govern the nation, identity politics is the polar opposite. Identity politics does not take “the national interest” as the goal, even for rhetorical purposes; “the goal” is the prominence of my group and its interests. “We,” in identity politics, always means “we Presbyterians” or “we feminists” or “we Evangelicals” or “we, the makers.” [3]

People who point to “identity politics” with alarm say that the pursuit of a separate self-enhancing goal by each group virtually precludes the common pursuit of our common interest. But, in fact, no common victory will achieve the goal of clarifying just who “we” are and how much better “we are” than “them;” a divisive, self-enhancing goal will always better for that.

By referring to “identity theology,” Rev. Thorp means to say that this kind of “it’s all about me” theology has the same effects on the church that “identity politics” has on the political system and in that I am sure he is right.

Christianity and…

identity theology 2The expression “identity theology” is new to me, but it is an idea I have seen in practice for a long time. Sometimes, when I get sloppy, I see it in my own practice so I am not pointing fingers as a mere spectator might. I ran across this idea first in C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, the premise of which is that Screwtape, a very senior devil, is giving advice to his pupil, Wormwood, about how to damn human souls. [4] This passage is from Letter 25.

The real trouble about the set your patient is living in is that it is merely Christian. They all have individual interests, of course, but the bond remains mere Christianity. What we want, if men become Christians at all, is to keep them in the state of mind I call ‘Christianity And’. You know—Christianity and the Crisis, Christianity and the New Psychology, Christianity and the New Order, Christianity and Faith Healing, Christianity and Psychical Research, Christianity and Vegetarianism, Christianity and Spelling Reform. If they must be Christians let them at least be Christians with a difference.

In “identity theology,” the difference in “Christians with a difference” has taken over.  That is why people who think of Christianity as an aid to personal piety or to sexual chastity or to richer romances or to liberating the toiling masses, are thinking of their faith as a tool. It is not “our commitment to a common tool” that has ever bound us together or that could ever bind us together.

With that in mind, I want to return to the perspective of the apostle James in Acts 15. James, I now see, is confronted with several varieties [5] of “Christianity and…” James’s ruling is aimed at koinonía—at “common-ness”—so setting the new gentile converts off from any obligation to their Hebrew brothers in Christ is not going to work. It is not “common.”  It is just Christianity and the Gentile Mission. Similarly, James is not going to allow Christianity and the Renewal of Judaism because it puts obstacles into the path of the new gentile brothers in Christ, so it, too, in not “common.”

identity theology 4

I am quite sure, although Luke doesn’t give us this, that James was tarred with “being insensitive to the glorious history of salvation through Torah.” The people doing the tarring were completely committed to what they were already doing and all they wanted was a chance to snipe at the people who had other commitments. I am sure James was tarred with being “oblivious to the rich harvest among the gentiles” by people who didn’t care all that much for the Torah and even less for the Temple.

There are, at Princeton, many issues at play and many factions are playing them. Every one of these—with a single exception—can be characterized, as I see it, as some form of “Christianity and…” [6] It is an elevation of my own private piece of the action to the central place, the place where “our action” and “God’s action.” should be. There is room for a great “commonness” at the center if, and only if, we agree not to harass those who are coming in good faith to participate in the event. This is not a proposal that child sacrifice be reinstituted. This is a question of who should be kept from the discussion on the basis of organizational memberships.

To each of these factions, James’s response is this. “We see what God is doing. He is inviting gentiles to join us. Let us not get caught sabotaging an action God is taking.” And if I could add a small but snarky codicil to James’s letter, this is what it would be. “I see that you are unhappy that my decision is “merely this” or “merely that.” I’ve got an idea. Let’s send them a letter that says that the cautions we want them to observe in honor of their Christian brothers are “merely these” and not any more.

[1] By Princeton I will be referring only to the Seminary, not to the University.
[2] The verb here is parenokleo, which may fairly be rendered “to harass.”
[3] I like that last one particularly because it distinguishes us from “them, the takers.”
[4] This means that one must always read Screwtape “upside down,” in a sense, inverting what is “good” and “bad.” I never had that much trouble with it, but the book appeared in serialized form in newspapers in England in the 1940’s and one man, thinking it was an advice column, wrote in to complain that the advice was so bad that it was virtually diabolical. He used that word: “diabolical.”
[5] Luke’s account actually gives us several varieties. We know there were more.
[6] The exception, lest I forget to be pellucidly clear, is the Seminary’s proposal that we refuse to harass those who are coming as guests and by invitation.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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