Consider this a follow-up to an essay I wrote last year leading up to Reformation Day (October 31) and entitled, “How Denying Christ’s Body And Blood Leads To Progressive Politics.”
The very notion that Christian debates over sacraments can have anything to do with modern politics sounds laughable, especially given these realities: (1) non-sacramental church bodies tend to comprise the religious right, (2) sacramental Roman Catholics have historically tended to be Democrats, (3) sacramental Protestant groups (e.g., the Episcopalians, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America) have often led the way toward extreme liberalism, and (4) Christian influence in general has been muted, so how could pedantry regarding Christian sacramental differences mean anything?
Yet the historical record stands: modern progressivism is a species of Christian heresy arising out of a specific Christian culture that had the same taproot as modern non-sacramental non-sacramental—yes, even evangelical—Christianity. To understand where we are, it’s important to look at how we got here.
What Is Christ, and What Is the Church?
The issue boils down to what Christ and his church are. The historic confession answered this question corporally. Jesus is God in flesh, and as St. John teaches in his gospel and letters, Christ’s incarnation is a “once done and forever continued” event. He’s still in the flesh.
As far as the church is concerned, if one were to ask, “Is Christ present in the church?” the answer would be, “Yes. Of course he is.” But here is where two paths historically part ways. Some conclude, “If Jesus is present in the church, it must be in the flesh—‘once done and forever continued,’ right?” This is the sacramental camp: Jesus is present sacramentally in the church, through sacraments like baptism and communion.
Others reject any idea that Christ remains present in the church corporally. They focus more on his spiritual presence, a spiritual presence that communicates internally, in cooperation with our intellect, wills, and emotions.
The problem with this latter position is its premise denies something explicitly written in St. John’s first letter. Using the perfect tense regarding Christ’s incarnation, John writes: “Every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God. And this is the spirit of the Antichrist, which you have heard was coming, and is now already in the world” (1 John 4:3).
St. John was speaking specifically of the Gnostics, who denied the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Because they denied the value of anything material, they could not embrace a material God, a God-in-flesh. Such a notion “boxed in” God, which in turn endowed power to those who controlled who could peek in the box—i.e., the clergy and their sacraments.
Rather, the Gnostics believed, God was something one’s “higher Self” could be in union with through gnosis outside any earthly parameters. No clergy or sacraments were needed (although a “leader” could facilitate the ascent journey in a guru role).
The key difference between the sacramental and non-sacramental positions is whether Christ and his church are seen in corporal, delineated, and defined forms. If so, his presence is distinct from me, an external gift with clearly formed parameters governed by God’s word. It is a true gift, because there is a corporally delineated form completely separated from me: giver, gift, and receiver are each defined. I am fully a passive receiver of divine gifts.
If not, his presence happens through purposely non-external, non-corporal, wholly internal means. The intellect, will, and emotions must be mustered to cooperate with this wholly spiritual, non-corporal process.
How Infant Baptism Fits In
This is why infant baptism is such a bellwether for how people understand Christ and his church, and the nature of Christ’s kingdom on earth. Let’s put it this way. Imagine a Grandma and her infant grandson. Now imagine situation one: Grandma has died before the infant grandson was born. If grandson is to have any “relationship” with Grandma, it will at best be an internal phenomenon, an act of the mind, will, and emotions. It will be memories based on stories. Of course, he’ll have no such experiences until his mind develops. But in the end, Grandma will be a phantasm generated by the stories and memories of others.
Now imagine situation two: Grandma lives and holds her infant grandson in her arms. Of these two situations, which one is a more real and intimate connection between Grandma and grandson? Obviously situation two. The same is true in the church. If Christ is present in the church—and he is—and Christ is in the flesh—which he is—then the church is truly the Body of Christ.
If so, then how can baptism, which is where we are incorporated into Christ, not be offered to infants, of whom Christ said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not forbid them”?
If a baby were brought onto Noah’s ark, would it have been saved? Of course it would have. Christ and his church are like the ark. It’s a corporate structure whose parameters are governed by the word of God. Those brought in through the doorway of the sacraments are in the ark. That is the faith, into which the infant grows, just as an infant on the ark would grow up learning what the ark is all about.
Certain groups throughout the history of the church could not tolerate this teaching, because they insisted on an understanding of faith that rested finally on the internal actions of the individual, which by necessity require an advanced age and mind. Such groups included the Gnostics, Messalians, Paulicians, Bogomils, Cathars, and the Free Spirit movement. In the Reformation era, this position was taken by the Anabaptists, Pietists, and Puritans, and over in America in the modern age among the revivalists and various evangelical church bodies.
The Hegelian Roots of Modern Progressivism
This focus on the mind, emotions, and will concerns us, because it gets to the heart of the matter. Church historian Perry Miller brilliantly observed how the non-sacramental tradition “liberated men from the treadmill of indulgences and penances, but cast them on the iron couch of introspection.” This tradition drew from self-absorbed, semi-mystical, Neoplatonic tendencies in the Middle Ages, which Martin Luther fought by placing the focus on externals like sacraments and doctrine. As he repeatedly taught, those who seek God outside of Christ and his externally ordained means will find the devil.
But it goes beyond individual salvation concerns. There’s a reason each of these movements, drawing from a medieval millenarian tradition, believed their internal transformation should alter society. Those who understand faith as an internal process—a gnosis requiring the mind, will, and emotions—have a certain perspective regarding the individual and his place in society. The Puritans are emblematic, as they attempted to found a “new” England based on their self-understanding as “new” Englishmen, purified by God.
Simply put, they believe a changed self must change society. Making society conform to the “New Law” is the urgent project of a truly sanctified self, but more importantly for our concerns, it must occur if the self is truly in cooperation with God’s Spirit. If one is in union with God—who himself is no longer clearly delineated and located (in the manner of Christ himself) at tangible external points, and can therefore leak into my soul—would not his actions be God’s actions of instituting his kingdom on earth?
The logical terminus of this thinking is G. F. Hegel, the father of progressivism whose divinizing of History gave us the whole “right side of history” nonsense. Hegel appealed to the Lutheran Reformation as a moment in which man’s consciousness jolted forward and laid the foundation for modern democracy.
If human consciousness in the Middle Ages required a clergy and church structure—with sacraments, dogmas, and whatnot—in order to communicate good things, Martin Luther’s Reformation signaled an end to that age and the coming of a new age of individualism. For Hegel, History was moving toward a time in which men would need no church to teach them charity and dignity; it would be writ in humans’ DNA.
Hegel’s focus on consciousness, and his (very wrong) assumption that Reformation theology heightened it, is rooted in his sympathies with Pietism, a perversion of Lutheran doctrine Hegel praised because it acknowledged “no objective truth and opposes itself to dogmas and the content of religion, while preserving an element of mediation, a connection with Christ, but this is a connection that is supposed to remain one of mere feeling and sensibility.”
Notice the connection to Christ based on “feeling and sensibility.” This is exactly the sort of Christ every progressive indirectly worships. It is a Christ distilled from his flesh and blood—a God leaking out of the forms of Christ’s name, body and blood, and Word—and reconstituted through actions of charity, justice, tolerance, and whatever else defines the progressive agenda. Hegel laid the foundation for the secular religion that progressivism and its government have become.
Progressivism in America
In “The Cross of Culture” (1970), Paul Kleppner analyzed the voting patterns of mid-nineteenth-century America. Of all the variables deciding what someone’s party allegiance would be, one stands out. It’s whether someone was from what he calls a “Pietistic” perspective or a “Ritualistic” one.
In his words, the Pietistic perspective “emphasizes a personal, vital, and fervent faith in a transcendental God.” Its central theme is right behavior. By nature more action-oriented, it emphasizes conversion, change of heart, personal piety, and informality in worship.
While believing the world is sinful, the pietistic perspective “does not accept that condition but concerns itself with converting people, with helping them to make the change from a life of sin to one of ‘being saved.’” Furthermore, for the Pietististic perspective, life is “a series of exciting opportunities to recreate the world for the greater glory of a personal knowable God.”
By contrast, the ritualistic perspective is more passive in nature, and stresses intellectual assent to formal doctrine and traditional confessions. It is ritualistic and “eschews emotionalism.” Its central theme is right belief. In politics: “It views the world as a sinful one, but one that has to be accepted as such, rather than as one to be molded into God’s kingdom on earth.” Kleppner adds, the holder of a ritualistic perspective “does not seek to reach out and change that world, for there is nothing that man may change.”
The Pietistic perspective tended toward Republicanism, whose driving crusades were abolitionism, women’s suffrage, and temperance. These movements arose out of the revivalism of the early nineteenth century and fed into the social gospel of the late nineteenth century.
As social gospel ideas fused with “Religion of Humanity” ideas coming out of Hegel’s legacy (via August Comte), we have progressivism, whose founding principles have no greater spokesman than the puritanical evangelical Herbert Croly. Exhibiting a perfect example of revivalism adapting to then-current progressive symbols, he writes, “Democracy must stand or fall on a platform of possible human perfectibility. . . . What a democratic nation must do is not to accept human nature as it is, but to move it in the direction of improvement.”
How would the nation move human nature toward improvement? In the fine tradition of Hegelian “consciousness-raising,” Croly comes up with education as the answer. State-sponsored education would catechize and bestow grace to “leaven the actual social substance.” Changed minds change societies.
Rethinking the ‘Boxed-in God’
It’s typical of evangelicals to claim that, in their worship especially but also in their theology, they don’t “box in” God. God’s just way more awesome and bigger than our little minds can frame. So don’t confine God to your rituals, sacraments, doctrines, Scriptures, or, um, the person of Jesus Christ?
This is the trajectory of evangelical thought, and it always has been. Today it’s the emergents who have remarkable sympathies for universalism and list John Lennon ballads among their “spiritual songs.” Yesterday it was the revivalists who gave way to progressivism. Before them it was Puritans who laid the foundation for New England transcendentalism—recall Harvard University was at first a Puritan “school of prophets” (some things never change). It’s why Pietism birthed Kant and Hegel. We only broached upon the story of Anabaptism and the millenarian movements going back to Joachim of Fiore.
But the fountainhead is the Gnostic belief that true faith is an internal process transcending forms, like sacraments, or like the flesh and blood Christ himself. Once God becomes “unboxed” from these forms, the line becomes fuzzy where God ends and I begin. When that happens, I begin to think I am God’s hand in history, that I can change the world.
Baptism of infants unravels that entire program, because it rests on the idea that faith is not about states of the mind, but about the external, corporal reality of Christ and his church. Precisely at the point where the mind is most undeveloped—infancy—our Lord sets that moment as the standard for faith: “Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter it.”
America remains a by and large Christian nation. Today on Reformation Day, it might be a good time for everyone to check his theology. Progressives hold to a historically heretical position of Christian Gnosticism—call it spiritualized atheism. They might want to consider the implications of this (read the full story here).
Meanwhile, evangelicals need to consider to what extent their anti-sacramental theology paved the way for progressivism, and do some self-reflection. It is, after all, what they do best. Sacramental church bodies might do well to think twice before chasing every latest evangelical or progressive trend like lost puppies, and recall their theological grounding.