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Imperial Christianity

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul
The Truth Network Radio
August 22, 2022 12:01 am

Imperial Christianity

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul

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August 22, 2022 12:01 am

The Puritans in New England were captivated by a vision of building a new world. But it wasn't long before they had to make hard decisions. Today, W. Robert Godfrey describes the challenges facing colonial Christians.

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Renewing Your Mind
R.C. Sproul
Renewing Your Mind
R.C. Sproul
Renewing Your Mind
R.C. Sproul
Renewing Your Mind
R.C. Sproul

When Christians settled in America, the New World, they had great plans for their new home. That vision then of finally being in a new world where you could do things right really captured these New England Puritans. We can get the church right, we'll be able to worship right, we'll be able to have the right doctrine, and we'll be able to have a political and social system that is right as well.

But it didn't quite work out as they had hoped. Today on Renewing Your Mind, we're introducing a new teaching series by Dr. W. Robert Godfrey. He'll take us back to those early days of the American experience. Reformed and Presbyterian Christians navigated some challenging controversies, and studying them will help us see how we can deal with the challenges we face. Well, welcome to a new study that we are undertaking together that is going to reflect on being Reformed in America. Now that's a big topic, and we're not going to say everything that could be said about being Reformed in America or look at the whole history of being Reformed in America. I want eventually, you may think it'll take us a little time to get there, I want eventually to be focusing particularly on Presbyterianism in America in the early 19th century. And you may be thinking, why would we do that?

Why would anybody be interested in reflecting on that? Well, I'm going to try to make the case when we get there as to why actually it's very helpful and very important. Presbyterians in America in the first half of the 19th century were living in a world of rapid transitions, and we live in a world of rapid transitions. And I think we'll find that as we study what people in the past have gone through in times of transition, how they've faced transition, where they've been successful in facing transition, where they haven't been successful in facing transition, we'll be helped in living in the world in which we find ourselves.

So that's the practical aim, if you will, of what we're going to try to do. But as we go into this, I want to acknowledge that part of what we're going to look at is how the Reformed community dealt with the broader world, how the Reformed community lived in a world, this will shock you, where everyone was not Reformed. There are actually people out there that are not Reformed, and Reformed people have to figure out how we live in a world that is not entirely Reformed. And as we approach that and think about it, the first thing we always have to keep in mind, I think, is that Christianity is not about a particular political, cultural, social agenda in the first place. Christianity is a religion about the relationship of human beings to God. And Christianity as a religion has been able to exist and indeed to flourish in every imaginable political and social situation. Christianity has survived in democracies, but it's also survived in dictatorships. Christianity has survived where there's been a lot of freedom, and it's survived and flourished where there's been no freedom at all.

It's been flourishing in places where it was supported generally by the government and by society, but it's flourished in places where it's been vigorously opposed by governments and society. So, Christianity does not require any particular political or social system to be Christianity. Now, that's not to say that Christianity doesn't have implications for politics or for social life or cultural life.

It does have implications, and it does have an impact where it is particularly successful. And we'll talk about that a little bit as we go along, too. But I think it's important to remember, particularly in times of transition, when things are changing, when established norms are shifting, that we don't have to despair about the survival of Christianity. Jesus will build his church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. That's promised.

That's guaranteed. And 2,000 years of church history show that that is true, and we're going to see that as we go along as well. But we want to focus not on the whole history of the church, not on all circumstances that Christianity has faced. We want to look at Reformed Christianity in America. And when we do that, what we recognize is that Reformed Christianity came to America in the 17th century, initially primarily by Puritan immigrants from England, although that was not the only Reformed influence.

There was a numerically smaller influx of Dutch Reformed people to New York and to New Jersey. But the dominant influence was English Puritans in New England, and they came with eager expectations that they really understood the gospel, they really understood the Bible, they really understood how the church and how society ought to work, and they believed that they would be able to establish in New England a city built on a hill, a light in the wilderness, the errand into the wilderness. They were going to do it right. They were going to get Christian church life, but also Christian civilization right. What they didn't know is that in the 17th century, they came to America at the beginning of the end of what we might call imperial Christianity in the West.

Now, what do I mean by that? From 325, so that's going back a long way. From 325 in the West, Christianity had been in one form or another supported by the government. When the Emperor Constantine was converted to Christianity, he began to favor Christianity.

He began to give Christianity special privileges in law, special privileges in taxation. In a variety of ways, Christianity began to be favored by governments in the West. And by the latter part of the 4th century, particularly under the Emperor Theodosius, Christianity is becoming the legal religion. Increasingly, Christianity is not just favored, but Christianity is being regarded as the only true religion. And increasingly, there are liabilities in law for not being a Christian. And so the union, the alliance of church and state begins to form what we could call imperial Christianity. Christianity that is supported by the government has a favored position and increasingly stands in opposition to non-Christian groups.

That reality went on for hundreds and hundreds of years. It shaped Christian consciousness. Christians lived in a world, most Christians, not all, but most Christians lived in a world where they expected to occupy a favored position, a supported position. And the church told the government it had an obligation to favor true religion and to oppose false religion.

And that dominated in the West down all the way into the 17th century. But by the 17th century, one essential thing had changed, namely that the church was no longer united as a single institution. With the coming of the Reformation in the 16th century, the church was divided into churches.

And that posed a dilemma for governments. What church do we support? What church is the true church?

What organizations calling themselves churches now have to be opposed because they're false churches? And this 16th and 17th century dilemma caused extreme difficulty for governments and increasingly for churches. It led to what was known in Europe in the 16th century to wars of religion, where factions of governments would fight other factions of government in the name of one church or another church.

And this tension, this liability was a huge problem. It was a problem that the Puritans who came to New England, you probably thought I'd already forgotten what we were talking about. It's the problem that the Puritans who came to New England themselves had very personally experienced. They had tried to change the Church of England to make it more Puritan.

They had largely been unsuccessful. And by the 1640s, that led to a civil war in England, where the king was backing the fairly traditional structure of the Church of England. And there were political forces opposing the king who wanted a more Puritan church. And so, there was civil war in England. And you remember that eventually the king was captured.

Charles I was put on trial and was executed as a tyrant. So, these political realities were very intense and very difficult. And the Puritans who came to New England, by and large, were particularly serious and committed Puritans who really wanted to change the Church of England. And so, they committed Puritans who really wanted to see a new world.

They not only came to the new world, but they wanted to create a new world. And they came still very much committed to what I've called Imperial Christianity. Let me read from the Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 23, on the civil magistrate. This is the original version. Those of you who may belong to churches that subscribe to the Westminster Confession of Faith almost certainly belong to a church that no longer holds to the original version. Did you know you're a bunch of revisionists?

I don't know whether you feel good about that or not. But the original version of the Westminster Confession stated this imperial vision of Christianity very clearly about the civil magistrate, the responsibility of the civil magistrate. We read in section 3 of chapter 23, the civil magistrate may not assume to himself the administration of the word and sacraments or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Yet he hath authority, and it is his duty, to take order that unity and peace be preserved in the church, that the truth of God be kept pure and entire, that all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed, all corruptions and abuses in worship and discipline prevented or reformed, and all ordinance of God duly settled, administered, administered, and observed. For the better affecting whereof, he hath power to call synods to be present at them, and to provide that whatsoever is transacted in them be according to the mind of God.

Now, that's pretty remarkable, isn't it? Think of the place you live. Think of your mayor or of your governor or of your president, and what would that mayor or governor or president do if he thought it was his responsibility to suppress heresy, to suppress false worship as a legal matter? There are not very many of us in America who would think that's an appropriate calling and responsibility and duty of the civil magistrate. But although in the seventeenth century there would well have been differences about which church ought to be favored and which church ought to be suppressed, almost everybody would have agreed with that statement.

That was the duty of the civil magistrate. Church and state were in an alliance, in a union, to promote true Christianity. And the Puritans who came to America still very much believed that was what they were setting out to do. And the Puritans that came to New England, most of them, established a church. We always talk about separation of church and state as one of the great principles of the American Constitution.

That's true. But the Constitution was not adopted until after people had been in North America as colonists for almost two centuries. And in the period before the adoption of the Constitution, certainly in the seventeenth century, most people here believed there ought to be an established church in the various colonies. In the more southern colonies, it was usually the Episcopal Church, the Anglican Church, but in the northern New England colonies, it was the Congregational Church. To be able to vote, you had to be a member of the Congregational Church.

That is to vote in a civil election. There was a religious requirement for civil involvement in politics. And those early Puritans thought that was exactly right. They would have said to you, you crazy revisionists, they would have said to you, what advantage can there possibly be in the government allowing false religion to flourish? What kind of sense does that make? It would be like encouraging the COVID virus.

Viruses have to be suppressed. And the state, as much as the church, has a responsibility to vaccinate you against false religion. And so this was a common attitude. It had been the common attitude for centuries and centuries and centuries, for well over a millennium of Western experience. And so those attitudes don't change overnight.

Those attitudes aren't even challenged in any very quick or immediate way. And that vision, then, of finally being in a new world where you could do things right, really captured these New England Puritans. We can get the church right. We'll be able to worship right. We'll be able to have the right doctrine.

And we'll be able to have a political and social system that is right as well. And it was great with great excitement then that they anticipated this and looked forward to this and labored to accomplish that. The trouble was that their ideal, as we stand back and look at their ideal, their ideal had really insoluble tensions within it. Because their ideal was the church should be composed as nearly as humanly possible of those who had been regenerated by the Spirit of God. So you had to be able to meet with the leadership of the church and explain to them how you had come to believe that you were regenerate, that you were a genuine Christian.

And only then could you be admitted to membership. That requirement led numbers of people in the society to wonder, am I really regenerate? To delay perhaps joining the church because they weren't absolutely sure in their own heart they were regenerate. And the leaderships of the Puritan churches in New England were somewhat divided on exactly how to determine if someone was regenerate, exactly what standards to hold up. One minister said, it's better that ten regenerate people be kept out of the church than that one unregenerate person be allowed in.

But another minister responded and said, no, it's much better to let ten unregenerate people into the church than keep one regenerate person out. So there were tensions in the leadership of the church itself about membership. But you see, if there is a growing number of people in society that have not joined the church because they're not certain about their regeneration, it means they also can't participate politically in the life of the colony because they're not a member of the church. Well, these Puritans were all infant baptizers, so they were not a member of the church. These Puritans were all infant baptizers, so there were some who said, well, if you're a baptized member of the church, you can be part of the political community.

But then as time went on, another problem arose. If you have baptized members of the church who are not yet full members of the church, according to standard Reformed teaching from the 16th century, you can't present your own children for baptism. Only members of the church can present their children for baptism. And if you haven't become a member of the church, can you present your children for baptism? Well, this led to a big discussion in 17th century New England.

What are we going to do? It's unthinkable to have a society of unbaptized people. That's a horror too great almost to manipulate. So, they came up in 1662 with what came to be known as the halfway covenant. And the halfway covenant said, if you're a baptized member of the church, and if you're living an outwardly godly life, even if you have not joined the church fully, you may present your children for baptism. So, baptized members could present children for baptism. This is a compromise.

And do you feel the tension? The whole point of this great experiment in the New World was we wouldn't have to compromise anymore. We'd be able to do it right. And yet, the very ideal had within it problems that ultimately couldn't be reconciled. Because you really can't have a society as a whole being run only by church members and sort of disqualifying everybody else in the society from involvement in the life of the community. So, the very ideal of this imperial Christianity brought to the New World, now going to have an established church, will do things just right, correctly integrate church and state, it wasn't working.

It wasn't working within the first couple of generations of being there. But it was not only internal tensions that were a problem, there were growing external problems that these colonies faced. The first great problem was in 1684, the King of England revoked the charter of Massachusetts as a colony. The charter that had said, you have to be a member of the church to participate in the life of politics in the colony. The King revoked that charter.

And when seven years later in 1691, he granted the new charter, the new charter said to be involved in politics, you have to own property. Had nothing to do with the church anymore, had nothing to do with religion anymore. And the staunch Puritans were distraught that the very foundation of what they had been trying to build was being undermined. But we're also seeing this erosion of the very vision of imperial Christianity as a way of living. The colonies were increasingly seeing themselves as not religious colonies, but as economic colonies.

And that was a shift. They also realized they were increasingly living in a world where not everyone was thinking in Christian terms. The 17th century, late 17th century was beginning to see the emergence of philosophies that were trying to unite society in some other way than by religion.

Because religion wasn't succeeding in uniting people any longer. And this is what came to be known in the 18th century, particularly as the enlightenment, looking for natural laws, looking for a common human experience as a basis for unity. And it would be this new reality that would lead eventually towards the end of the 18th century to the American revolution. The American revolution was sparked not so much really by Puritan and Christian principles as by enlightenment principles and a new vision of what a society ought to look like. So the reformed in America began in a position of great strength and influence. And as one historian has put it, at the time of the American revolution in 1776, 75% of the colonial population in all the colonies had been influenced by Puritan Christianity. If they were Christians, they were Christians of the Puritan character, generally speaking. And amongst non-Puritans in the colonies, if you looked at Genevan influence, and by this they're thinking about Dutch immigrants, German immigrants, probably 85 to 90% of the population in the colonies was under Genevan influence religiously. Now that's amazing to think at the time of the American revolution, that was the presence and the power and the influence of the reformed in America. But that didn't continue. And that's what we're going to take up next time. Why did things begin to shift? Why did that huge reformed influence begin to diminish?

And how was America changing from a vision of imperial established Christianity to something new? That's what we'll begin to look at next time. And we'll look forward to that tomorrow.

We hope you'll join us for that. The church of the 19th century and the church of today, both navigating a rapidly changing world, both in a divided culture with many Christians facing the mounting pressure to compromise their biblical convictions in the name of unity. We can learn from these early American Christians. Dr. W. D. Robert Godfrey is our teacher this week on Renewing Your Mind, as we feature his latest series, American Presbyterians and Revival. In 11 Messages, Dr. Godfrey shows us how Reformed and Presbyterian Christians navigated theological controversies, cultural tensions, and even civil war.

You can request the two DVDs when you give a donation of any amount at, or we'll be happy to help you when you call us at 1-800-435-4343. Ligonier Ministries' international outreach has grown dramatically just in the last couple of years. We've translated many of our resources in multiple languages, and if you are one of our ministry partners, please know that you have helped make that possible because of your commitment to pray for us and provide a recurring monthly donation. So, thank you. If you're not a partner, but recognize the importance of what we do, would you consider joining me and the thousands of others who are committed to reach even more people this year? Your monthly gift of $25 or more will impact lives around the world. So, please mention it while you're on the phone with us, and we will add you to this very special group of people. Well, when the church faces child abuse, as challenging times, it can respond well or poorly. Unfortunately, 19th century Puritans were oblivious to the winds of change that were blowing against them. I hope you'll join us tomorrow for Renewing Your Mind. I hope you'll join us tomorrow for Renewing Your Mind.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-03-07 13:32:18 / 2023-03-07 13:41:03 / 9

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