[For UPDATE scroll to bottom of letter:]
Dr. Joel McDurmon
President, American Vision, Inc.
Dr. Peter A. Lillback, President,
Board of Trustees,
Faculty, Staff, and Students, et al
Westminster Theological Seminary
Times seem to be so bad for the Christian mind and the Christian pulpit that when The Christian Post reports on your upcoming “Faith in the Public Square” conference, it has to finesse its audience and ease its way into the topic with a gentle “now don’t get upset” approach: “Religion and politics are taboo topics for some Americans, but. . . .”
When the mainstream Christian public apparently suffers from such sensitivity, I applaud you for broaching the very topic which seems to be the flashpoint. I’m sure you will understand how American Vision can relate to the difficulties of such a venture—having upheld this very cause as central, and fought the battles of opposition (from friend and foe alike) since around 1979—and accept our endorsement of such bravery in attempting to meet a dire need.
Believe me, then, when I say that I believe you have a very unique opportunity here, given the prominence of your institution as an intellectual leader among conservative theologians, as well as your unique theological heritage.
Reviewing your event’s page, however, left me discouraged for what has become of the legacy of an institution that, at one time, held in its own hands such potential to advance the message of God’s law in society.
After all, yours is the institution of J. Gresham Machen, who himself testified before Congress against a Department of Education, saying this was not the State’s job and the government should stay out of it. Yours is the institution of Cornelius Van Til, whose “spirit of Reconstruction” (as his top pupil Greg L. Bahnsen put it) saw clearly that to refuse the guiding hand of modernity in every area of our lives and our children’s lives would make us Christians “dangerous to the state.”
Was it not your Van Til who taught us all that there is no neutrality? None. Not in any area of life. Our worldview will be either theonomy or autonomy (God’s law or self-law) in every square inch and every second of the universe.
Was it not Van Til who taught us so clearly that “natural law” is a farce? Was it not Van Til who demonstrated, in Christianity in Conflict, that it was this very natural law tradition that has beset the Church from her earliest times as her intellectual leaders repeatedly diluted biblical worldview, mission, and law by unequally yoking them with the humanisms of Plato, Aristotle, Heraclitus, Stoicism, Kant, Darwin, Marx, modernism, etc., etc.?
Was it not Van Til who made us understand that all these humanisms are but variations of the humanism of the Serpent? And that compromises with them are compromises with the devil?
Yet, we look at your conference and see not only not a whiff of Van Til, but we see Westminster Seminary spotlighting a Thomist, natural law philosopher from Princeton.
Can you imagine Luther inviting Eck to be his keynote speaker? Calvin inviting Aquinas (eras notwithstanding)? Machen inviting Harry Emerson Fosdick?
Yet you are crossing the same lines as these men would have been. And why? It is not exactly clear.
It is disheartening enough to see compromise with pagan thought among ancient thinkers like Justin, Augustine, and Aquinas, but at least these had the excuse of working with fewer resources than anyone privileged with Van Til’s legacy. The same capitulation is absolutely heartbreaking to watch when done by the very institution to which Van Til bequeathed his inspired revolution.
Was the way not clear when your own one-time librarian, John Muether, spotted the issue in his biography of Van Til, acknowledging that Van Til’s Reconstructionist followers “deserved credit for carrying the torch for Van Til when others seemed less willing,” and that “few quarters in the church beyond the Reconstructionist camp unabashedly championed the Reformed faith as Van Til expressed it”?
Perhaps Muether’s acknowledgment was not merely a historical curiosity, but prophetic. Perhaps Dr. North was far more prescient that even he knew when he wrote of The Abandonment of Van Til’s Legacy at your institution. From the likes of this conference, no one would know that the most important theologian of the 20th century even once existed—not in name, not in doctrine, not in word, not in rumor, not in the slightest morsel of intellectual thought.
Instead, we see a great reversal: not just as it was before the contributions of Van Til, but all the way back to the Natural Law nonsense that allowed the “rotten wood” liberals to take over Princeton Seminary—the very reason Machen left and founded your institution to begin with.
What is this, then?
It is the dog returning to its vomit, and the sow returning to the mire (2 Pet. 2:22).
And just look at the rest of your program: here, at a conference dedicated to “Faith in the Public Square,” we have Kevin DeYoung, who recently demeaned emphases on social justice out of preference for some kind of limited four-walls-of-the-church Christianity. The same gentleman not so long ago embraced “two kingdoms” dualism as a way of preventing the advance of God’s law in society.
Likewise, the conference features Dr. Carl Trueman. Trueman’s relationship with First Things budded a couple years with a manifesto of defeat, entitled “A Church for Exiles,” in which he made it clear that he thought Christianity was defeated in the public square, that Christians should look to the church as a place to cower in shelter from further defeat to come, and that his Reformed tradition was uniquely suited for such purposes. Here we have an event which ought to hold forth biblical solutions and blueprints for social reform, and out of all the available speakers for such a cause, someone decided to have a champion of the White Flag as its anchor.
I wrote at the time to explain how men like B. B. Warfield, and fearless Westminster professors before Trueman, like Lorraine Boettner and J. Marcelus Kik, had a more biblical, and much stouter, view of things.
Considering WTS faculty brings up one of the saddest facts associated with this sad development. Even today, when Van Til’s legacy has all but disappeared, this program is totally unnecessary. You have among your faculty one of the finest minds available, who long ago published a thorough, Van Tillian review of biblical law and its application in society. That book, The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses contains more direction for “Faith in the Public Square” from a biblical perspective than the entire rest of your program, and their extended friends’ lists combined probably even knows exists. Yet where is Vern Poythress’s name on your program?
It is as absent as Van Til’s legacy.
I’ll offer some unsolicited advice. While there still remain a few weeks before this event, go ahead and make the tough call of canceling everything associated natural law, dualism, double-kingdom doublespeak, white-flag exile theology, and anything else close to any of this. Instead, reorganize the scheduled speakers to include a substantial teaching of biblical law for the public square, and consider using someone like Poythress to provide the substance.
I realize that in doing so, you probably won’t be able to sell $250/plate dinners at the Philadelphia Cricket Club, but for the sake of the name, “Westminster Theological Seminary,” the legacy of Van Til, and most of all, the high honor and very cause of Christ Himself, please consider the sacrifice.
With lineups like this current one, however, aligning yourselves as friends of mainstream conservatism despite the compromises involved, Westminster Seminary may succeed in making itself look like the next Liberty University. Will we next see Mormons or unrepentant adulterers on campus soliciting votes? Where else do the high-profile handshakes stop?
As I read Poythress’s book last year, upon writing The Bounds of Love: An Introduction to God’s Law of Liberty, I was struck with the question of why his clearly uncontroversial, orthodox, and Reformed views nevertheless have never been adopted, taught, or practiced by anyone I could see within any of today’s conservative Reformed churches or seminaries—for decades now.
Maybe you gentlemen could break this awful silence, and fill this awful void in our society with something besides the very poison that has slowly killed us so far. The short-term sacrifices will be well worth the health that follows. Else, when you say, “Faith in the Public Square,” your actions will render it forever unclear as to whether “the public square” is meant as the object or subject of your faith.
Dr. Joel McDurmon
UPDATE: Several people have asked me if there has been any response from WTS. Dr. Poythress contacted me to say that he was, in fact, invited to speak at this conference, but had to decline due to a previously scheduled mission. This being the case, I extent my hearty apologies to the addressees for assuming otherwise on this particular point.
Dr. Poythress further expressed that while he was honored to be singled out in my discussion above, he informs me that “there are other faculty here who care about Van Til’s views and their social, cultural, and political implications.” I am obviously thrilled to hear this, and would love to hear more from them. The fact that such a pool of Van Tillian social thinkers exists does, however, further call into question the current lineup for this scheduled conference.