A Phenomenology of Schism

Over the past couple weeks, I have been reveling in the glories of Richard Hooker’s Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, a text which my intellectual conscience has been nagging me to read for years, but which I have only now, following O’Donovan’s proddings, sat down to read through properly, from start to finish.  Among its innumerable virtues, the one that first strikes the reader is the remarkably irenic tone–in an age of violence and vitriol, pugnacious polemics, and taunting tracts, when even the soberest theologians routinely stooped to slanders and maledictions, Hooker stands as a paragon of patient, reasonable persuasion–aimed not at crushing the opposition, but at restoring peace and unity.  

This patient approach affords him time and clarity to to analyze his opponents with a penetrating insight that yields a remarkably perceptive psychological portrait of their schism, and of schismatics in general.  The portrait, while none too flattering, lays stress not upon their special depravity, but on the foibles common to humankind, which theological controversy tends to exacerbate: “Nature worketh in us all a love to our owne counsels.  The contradiction of others is a fanne to inflame that love.  Our love set on fire to maintaine that which once we have done, sharpneth the wit to dispute, to argue, and by all means to reason for it.”  

This explains the disputatious character of the Presbyterian leaders.  But how have they gained followers?  Here Hooker manifests a keen understanding of the timeless phenomenon of demagoguery:

“First in the hearing of the multitude, the faults especially of higher callings are ripped up with marvelous exceeding severity and sharpnes of reproofe; which being oftentimes done begetteth a good opinion of integritie, zeale and holines, to such constant reproovers of sinne, as by likelihood would never be so much offended at that which is evill, unlesse themselves were singularly good.  The next thinge hereunto is to impute all faults and corruptions wherewith the worlde aboundeth, unto the kind of Ecclesiastical governement established.  Wherein, as before by reproving faults, they purchased unto themselves with the multitude a name to be vertuous; so by finding out this kinde of cause they obtaine to be judged wise above others….”

“Having gotten thus much sway in the hearts of men, a third step is to propose their owne forme of Church government, as the only soveraigne remedy of all evils; and to adorne it with all the glorious titles that may be. And the nature, as of men that have sicke bodies, so likewise of the people in the crasednes of their mindes possest with dislike and discontentment at things present, is to imagine that any thing (the vertue whereof they heare commended) would helpe them; but that most, which they least have tryed….”

“After that the phancie of the common sort hath once throughlie apprehended the Spirit to be author of their perswasion concerning discipline, then is instilled into their hearts, that the same Spirit leading men into this opinion, doth thereby seale them to be God’s children, and that as the state of the times now standeth, the most speciall token to know them that are God’s own from others, is an earnest affection that waie.  This hath bred high tearmes of separation betweene such and the rest of the world, whereby the one sort are named The brethren, The godlie, and so forth, the other worldlings, timeservers, pleasers of men not of God, with such like.”

He goes on to offer some particularly penetrating observations on why women in particular are attracted to such a movement, ending with this amusing one: “finally, apter through a singular delight which they take in giving verie large and particular intelligence how all neere about them stand affected as concerning the same cause.”  “But be they women or be they men,” he goes on, “if once they have tasted of that cup, let any man of contrarie opinion open his mouth to perswade them, they close up their eares, his reasons they waigh not, all is answered with rehearsall of the words of John, ‘We are of God, he that knoweth God, heareth us,” as for the rest, yet are of the world, for this world’s pomp and vanitie it is that ye speake, and the world whose ye are heareth you.’”

 After comparing this mindset with that of some of the sects of Anabaptists, which fell rapidly from holiness to heresy, he concludes with the sobering admonition: 

“For my purpose herein is to show that when the minds of men are once erroniously perswaded that it is the will of God to have those things done which they phancie, their opinions are as thornes in their sides never suffering them to take rest till they have brought their speculations into practise: the lets and impediments of which practise their restless desire and studie to remoove leadeth them every day forth by the hand into other more dangerous opinions, sometimes quite and cleane contrarie to their first pretended meanings: so as what will grow out of such errors as go masked under the cloke of divine authority, impossible it is that ever the wit of man should imagine, till time have brought foorth the fruits of them.”

Still Machen’s Warrior Children?

My friend Davey Henreckson pointed me to a recent blog series in which Carl Trueman examines, with rather more balance and perceptiveness than is typical in such discussions, the anatomy of denominational slides into liberalism.  Conservatives often like to paint such backslidings as the result of some dark conspiracy or a full-on war against the gospel by wicked and recalcitrant liberals, but Trueman suggests it ain’t necessarily so: 


“the underlying story I am trying to tell is that sometimes (oftentimes?) churches go liberal without any initial intention of so doing.   Indeed, I believe a functionalist, rather than an intentionalist, account will often provide a more adequate explanation of why a denomination loses the plot: the cumulative force of a set of often disparate circumstances and actions leads to a sudden collapse in orthodoxy, with the conscious intention of going liberal perhaps only emerging comparatively late in the process.”

In particular, he suggests, such shifts often owe as much to well-meaning moderates and schismatic conservatives as they do to self-conscious liberals.  The former, for “laudable reasons of desiring the peace and unity of the church, and of reading the left as charitably as possible” allow significant changes (like women’s ordination) but attempt to craft a compromise for the benefit of the right.  The compromise, however, rarely works, because many of the conservatives decides that the innovation marks an apostasy and decides to up and leave, leaving the moderates as the new right wing.  The center of gravity accordingly shifts left, and so it isn’t long at all before, after a couple more rounds of this, the denomination is thoroughly liberal-dominated.  

The moral of this story, Trueman suggests, is that perhaps conservatives should think twice before leaving an embattled denomination.  Instead of leaving to keep their consciences unstained, they must “understand that they too must shoulder responsibility for future ecclesiastical trajectories, not only of the church to which they are thinking of going, but also of that which they are leaving….Some times churches go liberal because the men of principle and backbone bail out too early.”  This is a point that I’ve often argued, although I might want to say that conservatives should think not merely twice, but at least thrice, before leaving a denomination.  Also, the article of course raises the question, for me at least, of whether compromise measures are always a bad idea.  Liberals are brothers and sisters in Christ too, and often well-intentioned ones, and sometimes, indeed, ones with some very good points to make.  Sometimes the points being raised are ones that require long and careful dialogue, rather than hasty lines in the sand, and meanwhile, we may have to stomach certain compromises that make no one entirely happy but which maintain the bonds of communion with all those brothers and sisters who share our desire to follow Christ, while we try and hash out what that will mean.  I say “may” because I’m not sure…but I’m not prepared to take for granted, as Trueman still seems to, that the moderates are always wrong to propose their big-tent compromises.  

Nonetheless, the article is well-worth reading, and I must say that it’s quite remarkable and encouraging to hear something this irenic coming from a Westminster Seminary professor.  Where are Machen’s warrior children now?