This weekend, Al Mohler entered the argument over “redeeming culture” by . . . drumroll . . . blaming both World Wars on postmillennialism. I would like to offer a brief response to the more muddled points in order to clarify the historical record, and note the real problems behind such horrors.
On his June 20, 2015 edition of “Ask Anything,” Mohler answered the question of “redeeming culture” with this:
Here’s the bottom line from the biblical perspective, and a part of this is linguistic. I don’t think there’s any New Testament justification for our attempt to redeem the culture. That’s a bit messianistic; and what I mean by that is, the Scripture doesn’t tell us that the culture is going to be redeemed. It tells us that there’s going to be a new heaven and a new earth, and it also tells us that Christians are to be actively engaged in the culture, and there’s no doubt about that. Not only do you have Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, you’ve got Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew telling us the greatest commandment and the one that is second to it: the greatest commandment being thou shalt love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind. And then Jesus said the second one is like to it: you shall love your neighbor as yourself. And that certainly has to mean that we have to be engaged in the culture of our neighbor, and that means we are to be salt and light, and that means the culture ought to be different because Christians are in the culture. But we don’t really have a biblical warrant for believing we’re going to be able to redeem any culture.
Then Mohler turned a corner into historical analysis, and that’s when things got out of hand:
One of the most dangerous moments in church history in terms of the church in Europe was the period in late nineteenth century when European Christians believed that’s exactly what they were being successful in doing: they were redeeming the culture. And that’s when you had the emergence of a very strong strain of what was called “postmillennialism,” in which, eschatologically, they actually believed they were realizing the kingdom—most especially in a kingdom like Germany (Wilhemine Germany) at the end of the nineteenth century. And yet that gave birth to the militaristic horror of what became Germany in not only the first World War but the second World War.
There is only a morsel of truth in this. The Wilhelmine regimes (just like many of the equally misguided progressive, “Christian America” proponents of late nineteenth century America as well) did have a view somewhat similar to what Mohler describes, but this is only half the story, and not the half that really matters.
First, strong postmillennialism did not “emerge” in the late nineteenth century. It emerged much earlier and it drove the Puritans who founded America in the 1600s as well as many of the missionary efforts that reached the whole world over subsequent decades. This postmillennial view actually manifests quite clearly in the Westminster Larger Catechism Question (and Answer) 191. That was 1647 in Puritan London—not 1880s Prussia. I would recommend that Mohler, and everyone, read Ian Murray, The Puritan Hope, to get the rest of the story.
True, Wilhelm et al may have remained “postmillennial” in outlook, but they had long since denuded the rest of the biblical message. The same thing happened in the U.S. post-1830s, when New England Puritans had gone largely Unitarian or otherwise secularist, and yet retained the postmillennial vision. It was a thoroughly secularized postmillennialism, and thus, it was not postmillennialism at all because it doesn’t envision any return of the Son of God, Jesus Christ.
Mohler also commits the Hal Lindsey fallacy against postmillennialism documented in Biblical Logic (pp. 209–210): that of assuming postmillennialism means that we bring in the kingdom by our own ability. Of this seemingly perennial fallacy, I wrote:
While some—perhaps many—liberal “Social Gospel” Christians believed this way, it hardly characterizes the position historically, and certainly does not form a necessary tenet of postmillennialism. As orthodox holders of the doctrine would argue, God triumphs in history by the power of His Holy Spirit—not human efforts. Orthodox postmillennialists no more believe in bringing about the Kingdom by their own works than they believe in salvation by their own works.
Not only did secularized millennialism overtake the nineteenth century, the rhetoric of dominion and the kingdom of God was still being employed by the Left as late as LBJ and the so-called “Great Society” as I have documented elsewhere. To his credit, Mohler notes that leftists misuse the concept of redeeming culture. But his total dismissal of the concept and his blaming of the World Wars on postmillennialism is not only historically inaccurate, it is profoundly abridged as a historical and theological record.
Thus, second, we should place the blame for that era and its resulting catastrophes where it really belongs: a failure in Christian social ethics. I have documented the real issues (actually instituted by Wilhelm’s predecessor, Otto von Bismarck) in Restoring America One County at a Time (see pp. 49–51, or here). Suffice it to say that the real issue was not postmillennialism, but the deceitful attempt by many civil leaders to install Socialism while posing as the avowed enemies of Socialism. And how did they accomplish such a social coup? Bismarck passed it under the nose of oblivious Christians by calling his program “practical Christianity.”
And how was Socialism passed off as “practical Christianity”? Ironically, it was by following the same undefined program of the great commandments Mohler outlines above as the reason to be engaged in politics: love your neighbor. As I note in God versus Socialism, even one of the historians among the “social Gospel” types openly admitted there was an ethical contradiction in their program based on this very concept: “This was nowhere more obvious than in the question of the use of force. Could the law of love become operative through socialism without imposing its will upon a minority [really a majority] that clung to private ownership?” (God versus Socialism, 221). Based on such considerations, the same historian concluded of that social-gospel generation: “From this discussion it is only too apparent that these leaders were very much the children of their age, drawing their ideology from the intellectual environment and rarely pausing to examine it or to follow basic assumptions to their logical conclusions.”
So what, really, was the problem? The civil leaders employed the language and vision of postmillennial Christianity, yet filled the chest with pagan ethics—Socialism. The said “love” when they meant “welfare at gunpoint.”
This ought to be an easy recognition for learned men like Mohler. Yet they continue to make the same argument: calling for “love your neighbor” without definition and without any clear expectations of what that should look like in society from a biblical perspective. This is the other piece of the ethics puzzle: while the bellicose leaders trampled society under the foot of Marx in the name of Christ, the pulpits either called for withdrawal into private piety, or endorsed the anti-biblical system of social ethics in the name of loving your neighbor. At best, they preached only “love your neighbor” undefined and left the details up to the leaders. Mohler is continuing this strain today.
Whatever you call it, don’t call it “postmillennialism,” for it was rather an abandonment of it. Marx himself reported on the Hague conference in 1872: “One day the worker will have to seize political supremacy to establish the new organization of labor; he will have to overthrow the old policy which supports the old institutions if he wants to escape the fate of the early Christians who, neglecting and despising politics, never saw their kingdom on earth” (see God versus Socialism, 52). Sounds to me like a total replacement of Christian postmillennialism by the late nineteenth century socialists. That some leaders actually did this in the name of Christianity is not the issue—except to the extent that Christian pulpits let them do it largely unopposed. The failure here is not with postmillennialism. The failure here is with Christians abandoning biblical postmillennialism and the pulpit’s failure to preach biblical social ethics.
The reality is that it was the failure of the church to uphold postmillennialism and theonomic ethics that resulted in the horrors Mohler blames on them. Nazi Germany prospered in an environment where amillennialism ruled and radical two kingdoms theology led preachers to hide and cower in the face of intimidation by the State. And as I argued when documenting these inglorious pastors, Hitler was quite aware of this weakness in which their theology placed them, and he openly exploited it—silencing the pulpit. (See also Inglorious Kingdoms.)
Third, the real driving force behind Mohler’s view is his eschatology. Throughout his answer, Mohler frequently acknowledges that Christians must be engaged in culture, and that such engagement should result in “a difference.” Yet as quickly as he acknowledges this, he adds the caveat that we should not expect much to come from doing so. We should engage, therefore, with minimal-to-no-expectation of God’s victory. We should engage, therefore, for at best a fleeting success, only to lose it. We should engage culture, therefore, with a vision of cultural defeat. After all, in the end, all human cultures will “pass away.”
But this misses the real issue argued by postmillennialism. That is, the “culture” advanced by the Kingdom of God (by His power, of course), is not merely a “human culture,” but a godly, Spirit-produced culture. It is a kingdom that will “fill the whole earth,” and that by definition “shall never be destroyed” (Dan. 2:35, 44).
And this gets to one more (final) real issue here. This debate is always initiated and advanced by our critics without definitions and largely divorced from scriptural views of the spread of God’s kingdom in earth. Show me where such a critic has defined “culture.” I have not seen it. Henry Van Til got it right: culture is nothing more than religion externalized. It is not a “thing”; it is the social expression of the dominant values, beliefs, confession, economy, etc., of a given society. Thus, to the extent that we speak of the people of any given society being redeemed by God, we should automatically expect a parallel “redemption” of that culture—for as Mohler argues, a society should show a difference to the extent that there are Christians in it (assuming, again, the pulpit is doing its full duty). I agree.
Thus, the only problem here is the expectation of the Christians as to whether such a change will actually take place in history to any substantial extent. And that is nothing more than the question of eschatology. It is precisely here where Mohler’s doctrine of cultural engagement is mugged by Mohler’s doctrine of cultural decline. But this same relationship of cultural manifestation also means that to the extent Scripture speaks of the spread of the kingdom, to that same extent it simultaneously speaks of the redemption of culture (to use that clumsy phrase).
Thus, Isaiah 2:2–4:
It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the LORD shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it, and many peoples shall come, and say: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.
It sure sounds to me like the advance of the Gospel ought to have profound social redemptive effect. And of course, verses like this could be multiplied (see Isa. 11:9; Hab. 2:14 for just a couple). In the end, Mohler can say there is “no biblical warrant” for speaking of redeeming culture, but the truth is that his own view of cultural engagement presupposes it. It’s just that his view of Christian social ethics and more especially his eschatological pessimism are not consistent with that presupposition.
In the end, however, it can easily be seen that Mohler’s claims about postmillennialism are historically inaccurate and that they are not representative of the position held by those in the long history of orthodox postmillennialism. Granted, there were some pseudo-Christians who used the language (just as there are secular doomsdayers who use the apolcalyptic language of premillennialism as well), but they had long since denuded their religion of biblical ethics and replaced it with various degrees of Marxist nonsense—and Marx himself openly proposed this. Once postmillennialism was out of the picture, leaders could easily run roughshod over the silent, irrelevant, and cowering pulpits—and that is the sad Christian legacy that sidelined itself and truly allowed the rise of Socialism, the Social Gospel, the welfare state, the warfare state, and yes, Hitler.
Pointing to a caricature of “postmillennialism,” therefore, does not help at all. It only serves to cover up the real, and tragic, failures of the church while certain leaders continue to perpetuate them today.