Archives For Peter J. Leithart

Greg Forster serves as the program director at the Kern Family Foundation, where he directs the Oikonomia Network, a national learning community of evangelical seminaries that equips pastors with a theological understanding of faith, work, and economics, and is also the editor of Hang Together a group blog on religion, politics and national identity. He picks up and comments on the phenomenon noted by Peter Leithart in a couple of articles.

In the first, “The New Fight for Marriage,” he frames the contemporary struggle for Christians in articulating their view of marriage:

Most marriage advocates today build their main arguments around one of two major themes. The most common approach involves philosophical arguments growing out of the natural law tradition. Those who don’t follow this approach typically fall back on explicit appeals to Christianity, sometimes softened by references to “Judeo-Christian tradition.” And of course some use both themes.

I believe in both Christianity and also natural law philosophy. Both of them will always be critical components of the fight for marriage. In particular, we who call ourselves Christians must do all in obedience to Christ and for the love of his kingdom.

But those are not the places to start when making the case for marriage, and they should not form the center of our message. Natural law arguments, while true and important, can’t remedy the deepest and most powerful cultural changes undermining marriage. Those changes are non-rational and won’t respond to rational arguments. And “because it’s Christian” is not the right reason for the civil law to institutionalize marriage. In fact, it won’t even help convince people to value and reinforce marriage outside the realm of the law, since American culture doesn’t feel responsible to reproduce Christianity. Christians can be called to fight for marriage as their way of serving Christ without holding that Christianity is the reason law and culture should value marriage.

Forster notes that the “Post-Christendom Challenge” is that neither the argument from natural law nor the argument from Scripture are compelling any longer to most people who have imbibed the contemporary cultural mores. It is important to emphasize that Forster agrees with both arguments. He just does not believe they are convincing to most people. To many people today, using those arguments is heard as a foreign language, “alien terminology,” or plain old “gibberish.”  

Does this then lead to pessimism? Certainly not!

The turn to pessimism is wrong. Neither God’s sovereignty nor the failure of our current strategies is an excuse for fatalism. God is still at work in the world, and despair is a sin—it denies God’s providence.

The institutions of human civilization are God’s instruments. Our job is to play those instruments. If we’re not making the right music, we shouldn’t blame the instruments. We should figure out a better way to play. 

It is being faithful, trusting in God and resting in His sovereignty. Additionally, we ponder and pray about a more excellent way of defending and living the truth of God’s Word about man and woman, husband and wife.

Forster followed this with his attempt to articulate a better way:

We Need New Methods in the Fight for Marriage

As you read Forster’s recommended “better way,” here are a couple of questions:

  1. What do you think of his better way? Do you agree or disagree?
  2. Do you believe there is a better way? If so, what is it?

In yesterday’s post I included Peter Leithart’s assessment of our Christian defense of marriage using the Bible. As he pondered that further, he had some additional thoughts: “The World Can’t Hear Us on Marriage.”

Of this earlier post Leithart writes,

I pointed out that opposition to gay marriage faces a steep uphill struggle. Virtually all the cultural and political momentum is in the other direction. Arguments against gay marriage are theologically fraught, and Christians and Jews who try to mount biblically or theologically based arguments will find themselves ignored or denounced by secular gatekeepers precisely because they offer biblically and theologically based arguments. I concluded that “it will take nothing short of a cultural revolution for biblical arguments to be heard, much less to become persuasive.”

Some have found my diagnosis too gloomy, or worse, cowardly.

Leithart strongly affirms the biblical view of marriage. He is also convinced that the cultural mores have shifted such that most do not affirm a biblical understanding of marriage. This does not mean Christians retreat; it does not mean that Christians ought not to use biblical arguments in defending God’s view of marriage. But his caution is in expecting a sympathetic hearing to this message.

He concludes,

By all means, defend marriage, invoke the weight of tradition, make all the arguments you can invent with all the passion, compassion, and cunning you can muster. But we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking any of this readily touches the experience or intellectual habits of a majority.

The truth will out, of that I have no doubt. People do, mysteriously, get persuaded. Cultural revolutions happen. No one can defy creation forever. Beauty is the best persuasion, so Christians should above all aspire to form marriages and families that are living parables of the gospel. The Spirit wins. Between the present and that victory of the Spirit, we are in for what may be an extended period of dullness, when truth about sexuality and marriage will fall on deaf ears until the obvious is relearned. It’s not a hopeless place to be, or even a bad place. It puts us in the good company of Isaiah and Jeremiah, of Jesus and Paul.

This is one of the implications/entailments of living in a postChristian day. It does not mean biblical truth changes. But this new day does mean the way in which we communicate that truth and the way in which that truth is heard and responded to and the way the church understands and engages in its ministry changes.

How do you think about and process this?

Peter J. Leithart, senior (and founding) minister at Trinity Reformed Church, a CREC congregation, Senior Fellow of Theology and Literature as well as Dean of Graduate Studies, New Saint Andrews College, Moscow, Idaho, has written of how non-Christians hear biblical arguments against same-sex marriage: “Gay Marriage and Christian Imagination.

Leithart reflects on a debate on marriage, one defending the biblical view of marriage, Douglas Wilson, the other arguing against it, Andrew Sullivan.

I came away from a debate on gay marriage between Douglas Wilson and Andrew Sullivan deeply impressed with the difficulties that Christians have, and will continue to have, defending a biblical view of marriage to the American public. It will take nothing short of a cultural revolution for biblical arguments to be heard, much less to become persuasive.

Sullivan clearly has all the hurrah words on his side – love, happiness, equality. How can anyone stand in the way of true love that seeks lifelong commitment in marriage? Sullivan also has liberal order on his side. When Wilson answered a question by citing the Bible, Sullivan pounced. Wilson’s was a fundamentalist, theocratic argument. Sullivan defined democracy as a system that excludes appeals to religious authority from the foundations of public life. He was quick to add that he is a resolute foe of political correctness, but one wouldn’t have known it from his mercurial move from Wilson’s citation of the Bible to theocracy to the Taliban to warnings about violent suppression of dissent. Sullivan demanded that Wilson defend his position with secular, civil arguments, not theocratic ones, and in this demand Sullivan has the support of liberal polity.

Sullivan’s is a rigid standard for public discourse that leaves biblically-grounded Christians with little to say. The claim that legalizing gay marriage will make the legalization of polygamy easier, as Wilson repeatedly argued, is coherent, but doesn’t have much purchase. Nobody seems to be much worried about a polygamous future for America, and making polygamy the centerpiece of opposition to gay marriage looks too much like fear-mongering.

That leaves Christians with the option of making theologically rich, biblically founded arguments against gay marriage. But do we have the vocabulary ready to hand? And even if we do, does the vocabulary we have make any sense to the public at large?

In essence, Leithart has concerns about defending marriage based on the biblical truth, as most in the culture hear that defense as a foreign language. They have no category or framework to understand it. Moreover, as we learned earlier from DeYoung, Sullivan has all the cultural sympathies for his view against the biblical view of marriage.

Leithart concludes,

In the end, these dilemmas may not matter. Perhaps Christians are called to do no more than speak the truth without worrying about persuasiveness. Perhaps we have entered a phase in which God has closed ears, so that whatever we say sounds like so much gibberish. We can depend on the Spirit to give ears as He pleases.

Whatever the political needs of the moment, the longer-term response to gay marriage requires a renaissance of Christian imagination. Because the only arguments we have are theological ones, and only people whose imaginations are formed by Scripture will find them cogent.

A few additional questions:

  1. What do you think of Leithart’s concerns?
  2. With what do you agree? With what do you disagree?
  3. Is there a better, more faithful way to defend God’s teaching on marriage in our present cultural climate?

The History of Christianity

Greg Strand – March 4, 2013 Leave a comment

Robert Louis Wilken, professor of the history of Christianity emeritus at the University of Virginia, is a great historian who has written some excellent works focusing specifically on the early church. He now turns his attention to a larger, more comprehensive task, that of an overview of church history: The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity (New Haven: Yale, 2012). These sorts of works have to be selective, which is generally a strength and a weakness. In spite of this, good works like this, though hard to come by, are necessary. This is one of those “good works” that is actually a great work!

Peter J. Leithart, who serves on the pastoral staff of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow, Idaho, and senior fellow of theology and literature at New Saint Andrews College, recently reviewed Wilken’s book.

Leithart begins this way:

Historical surveys are typically marred by predictable blemishes. Some so generalize that the personalities and specific contours of historical life get smoothed over. Others are too particular, veering dangerously toward the genre of “list.”

Robert Wilken’s new book is remarkably free of these stains. Only at one or two points does he slip into listing, and he never overgeneralizes. By the end of the book we have not only read about Origen and Constantine, Nicea and Ambrose and Augustine, the spread of Islam and Justinian, Pope Nicholas and Boris the Khan of the Bulgars and Charlemagne. We have met them, taken tours of their buildings, frequently heard them in their own voices.

A few of the “distinctive contributions” Wilken makes, as emphasized by Leithart, are the following:

  • Christianity is not just about doctrine, though it is certainly not less, but that it is doctrine that is transformative, Christianity consists of a “culture-forming religion.”
  • The Roman Empire had been greatly influenced by Christianity even before Constantines’s conversion, and this was unique and unusual from what had occurred prior in history. Thereafter, kings were often the first to undergo a religious conversion which led to the expansion of the Church in Europe. In much writing of history today, there is an anti-Constantine sentiment. Wilken has a different take on this, which is refreshing in what has become for too many a given.
  • The role of Christian art and the influential public role it played is profound, particularly as it influenced the culture in distinctively Christian ways.
  • The expanse and influence of Christianity is global. Wilkin has moved beyond the provincial to make this work global, and he has done so adeptly.
  • Interacting with Islam makes this a contemporary work. But it also makes it a historical work, as Christianity and Islam is a major story in the second half of the first century of the Christian church, implications with which we still live today.

Here is Leithart’s conclusion:

The First Thousand Years is a substantial historical study, but Wilken assumes little prior knowledge. He includes the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and other documents familiar to most Christians. This makes this nearly blemishless book an ideal gift for a non-Christian, especially one whose view of the church is infected by the notion that “religion poisons everything.”

I would add that this is also a very good book for a Christian to read, either one who needs a refresher on the first thousand years of the Church, or one who needs to learn the history of Christianity for the first time.