Have you ever run into someone tipsy with anger? The Romans used to say, “in vino, veritas,” but sometimes it’s anger, not alcohol, which lowers inhibitions. A little bump or shake, and the irritated person uncorks with something they’ve been dying to let go.
Consider David French’s recent exchange with Kevin DeYoung.
DeYoung wrote a mild criticism of evangelical criticism. Even valid jeremiads, suggests KDY, can descend into claims that “those people” hold their views because they are “those kind of people.” CS Lewis coined it “Bulverism,” where a critic stops showing why a view is wrong and turns to why the wrong kind of person holds the view. At some point, “[t]here is no persuasion,” of the target, “only pique and annoyance,” says DeYoung. He suggests the rhythms of church life are a more productive method of self-criticism, instead of “another critique of the church in your inbox on Sunday morning.”
DeYoung went out of his way to say that French’s concerns are valid. He criticized French’s abandonment of persuasion. There was room for French to agree that DeYoung’s concerns are valid but disagree that his methods were unhelpful.
But French responded with hostility. French said DeYoung was absurdly unfair and inaccurate, torching’ a ‘straw man’ characterization of French’s work.
So to avoid mischaracterization, what does French say is his driving thesis? In tweet four, he lays it out clearly: ‘White Evangelical theologies’ have a ‘disproportionate commitment’ to Republicans and ‘the culture of the South.’ DeYoung concedes that people can forsake theological principle under social pressure, and even that it is important to criticize those who do.
If everyone agrees the concern is possible, how does French say we should decide? How would we know if there’s a disproportionate commitment to something that isn’t religious principle? In tweets 2 and 3, French says white Evangelicals have “propositions” that “don’t flow naturally” from their theology. Their positions on ‘Trumpism, anti-masking, anti-vaccine and immigration restrictionism’ don’t flow from theological claims, but political or social claims.
So the issue is multidisciplinary: do the politics follow from the theology? You’d be forgiven in thinking there must be a multidisciplinary answer.
Yet French says few theologians have the chops to speak up. “Sadly, when I see pastors wade in on matters of law/policy, it is rare to see superior insight. And when I do it’s because of a degree of committed study that is highly unusual.”
So who can pass judgment? Lawyers and sociologists, perhaps. “Those of us who know law and policy on the other hand, know where ideas come from and transparently, obviously know that many (not all!) of the political positions that characterize white Evangelicals don’t have any meaningful Evangelical theological origin at all.”
David uses qualified immunity – a legal doctrine that limits when government officials can be personally sued for misconduct – as an example of this qualification gap. He says that Evangelicals support it disproportionately, which I question; when evangelicals talk to me about qualified immunity, they use terms that would make the Cato Institute smile. Evangelicals are eager to hold officials accountable for misconduct. But maybe these are just anecdotes; maybe evangelicals do support qualified immunity at radical levels. Do their political actions contradict their stated theology?
It’s revealing that French does not assert any violation of a theological rule. Rather, French says the theology practitioner has nothing to contribute to his point. “What’s the pastoral insight here as to why a judge-made doctrine that gutted part of the Klan acts should receive disproportionate Evangelical support?” The answer to the rhetorical question is supposed to be “none.” In a theo-political crisis, French says the meaningful insight comes from careful students of law and social science, not students of theology.
So how will the reader know that Evangelicals are pursuing politics at odds with their theology? When “those of us who know law and policy” say so. Those who disagree are (likely to be) people without committed study, people without superior insight, people who don’t know where their ideas even come from. In the end, French doubled down on the Bulverism; people who disagree with his take are often the wrong kind of people.
But let’s go beyond the Bulverism and note that French’s argument took a serious deconstructionist turn. He is no longer asking whether Evangelical theology accounts for political concepts but asking if theology submits to political conclusions.
Of course, French is not saying the Bible is untrue. But he is at the next layer of the authority question: if the words are true, whose theology says what they mean? Jonathan Edwards, slave owner? Paige Patterson, interrogator? Beth Moore, lector? Jemar Tisby, anti-racist? Rather than settle the argument, it’s easier to take a shortcut: “those of us who know law and policy” decide, because theology isn’t involved. But why would anyone think theo-political questions don’t have theo-political answers?
This demand that Evangelical theologies must submit to specialty viewpoints isn’t new. What came to be known as “theological liberalism” was never limited to saying the Bible was “untrue” or “errant.” Rather, the Mainline came to doubt their own ability to understand and apply Biblical truth. If the Bible’s words are indeterminate or silent, if all the evangelical creeds are held at bay as equally unsure, then there must be something else making the decision, often some claim about science, or sociology, or political theory. J. Gresham Machen described the problem of “equal uncertainty” about the creeds in his 1931 classic, “Christianity and Liberalism”:
“The objection involves an out-and-out skepticism. If all creeds are equally true, then since they are contradictory to one another, they are all equally false, or at least equally uncertain. We are indulging, therefore in a mere juggling with words. To say that all creeds are equally true, and that they are based upon experience, is merely to fall back upon that agnosticism which fifty years ago was regarded as the deadliest enemy of the church. The enemy has not really been changed into a friend merely because he has been received within the camp.”
In the (human) law, that kind of uncertainty produced “legal realism.” The realists didn’t deny the law was true, they rejected formalist accounts of the law. According to the realists, humans weren’t applying legal principles to facts, as they claim to do; the rules were indeterminate and open to a wide range of contradictory outcomes. Rather, you could understand the law by seeing facts and outcomes. To the realists, “[b]efore rules, were facts; in the beginning was not a Word, but a Doing. Behind decisions stand judges…as men they have human backgrounds. Beyond rules, again, lie effects.” 1
The effects and outcomes became the wrapper of truth around the vague, indeterminate words of the law.
And here lies the nub: to the textual realist, it is all too easy for the observable effects to become the analytical tools, the real universal principles. Lickety-split, the “true truth” is not the text, but observations and judgments about the outcomes. If our texts can’t compel the right outcomes, we must settle disagreements by resorting to theories that decide for us – the theories that “help us see effects of sin” where our doctrines do not.
Like the scholars raised in the Mainline a century ago, today’s Evangelical scholastics are shaken in their beliefs about Evangelical authority. It isn’t a repeat of Machen’s 1920s, but it rhymes. Some are grasping for truth beyond the reach of theology, where the Evangelical theological parochialisms are all the same.
And that’s old-fashioned theological liberalism.
Karl N. Llewellyn, Some Realism About Realism–Responding to Dean Pound, 44 HARV. L. REV. 1222, 1222 (1931). ↩