Friday, November 20, 2009

Presbyterians & The Manhattan Declaration

In other news, a bunch of people signed a piece of paper this morning called the Manhattan Declaration. It is a conservative Christian manifesto saying in essence that the signers won't cooperate with any laws supportive of gay marriage or abortion. Read Halden's piece I posted earlier for something I agree with. Read the Layman if you want to know why this declaration is good and pure and holy.

At least three Presbyterians were among the signers: Carmen Fowler (editor of the Layman), Dr. John H. Huffman Jr. (of St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in California), and Rev. Tim Keller (of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York). I don't know any of these individuals personally and so I will assume them to be people of impeccable character and virtue. This is not a comment about them as individuals.

I am curious, however, about how their theology interacts with their ideology. Most Presbyterians I have known who wade in conservative waters have been absolutely insistent about the primacy of a particular method of reading scripture in making moral judgments or constructing sound theology. They would find statements like the following to be highly problematic:
"We set forth this declaration in light of the truth that is grounded in Holy Scripture, in natural human reason (which is itself, in our view, the gift of a beneficent God), and in the very nature of the human person."
Setting scripture alongside reason and nature as means of knowing the truth about God's will seems to be a primary objection of Presbyterian conservatives I know to almost anything a progressive says or does. Read this article about Achtemeier on the Layman to see what I mean. Using feelings, experience, reason or observations from nature to arrive at the truth is inherently suspect from their perspective. So I wonder if the Presbyterians who signed the declaration, or those currently applauding it around my denomination, have considered the theology of this document closely.

I really do wonder, because the more I read it (I've been through the whole text 5 times now), the more convinced I am that there is almost no theology to be had here. Certainly not a sound Biblical grounding.

In their discussion of "Life" where is the biblical notion that to be gained it must be given away? Where is their commentary on war, militarism, poverty, prisons, or injustice? Can one even read the Bible in reference to "Life" and not touch on these matters?

In their discussion of "Marriage" why don't they even so much as mention the volumes that Jesus and Paul had to say on the subject? They once again commit the mistake of making marriage the foundational institution and thus subverting the place of the church.

And what on Earth does "Freedom of Religion" have to do with anything? Do they have such a stunted ecclesiology mired in the bankrupt ideology of christendom that they must receive their license to be religious from the state? Did they really say they refuse to render unto Caesar what belongs to God and then miss the irony in their own statement? Point me to that which doesn't belong to God.

There isn't anything to this declaration from a theological perspective at all. So what could be so attractive about it to conservatives in my denomination? I have a hunch that it isn't the theology. It's the ideology. I suspect they would agree with any document that was anti-gay marriage and anti-abortion regardless of the theology, exegesis, or community behind it. Because at the end of the day their theological commitments aren't as deep as they claim, but their ideological commitments are deeper than even they know.


Anonymous said...

I am perplexed that this stunt is getting any coverage at all. These men(!) are all well known opponents of both same-sex marriage and abortion - along with 1/3 to 1/2 to whatever of the general population. I heard it on Fox News and knew right away that this was a non-event.

You're right about the theology, though. Shame. But as iMonk said, theology nowadays is whatever we come up with to justify what we were going to do anyway.

Doug Hagler said...

I wonder if that is a new thing about theology, or just something we have the insight to realize? That is, that theology is used to justify the things we were going to do anyway. I don't think that's all it is, but I can definitely see that motivation in the theology of any given age...

Alan said...

Don't criticize! This is one of those great things that people can sign onto thinking they've actually accomplished something by doing so. I'm more than happy to have the radical right spending its time signing and publicizing meaningless "declarations" like this.

But Carmen Fowler thinks Scripture and reason are co-equal? Didn't she just get done suggesting that people tie a millstone around Mark Achetemeier's neck for not even going nearly that far?

What a hypocrite.

John Shuck said...

Good work, friars. I am not a Calvinist, but dang, the logic behavior of these people convince me that there might be a T in TULIP.

Nick.Larson said...

While I agree with your overall assertion here Aric (in my quick scanning I didn't percieve much serious theology). But isn't ideology also theology? I thought theology was around the study of God? This certainly is the profession of a god, it just doesn't happen to be the one I particularly profess faith in.

but hey what do I know, I'm only the fool...

Aric Clark said...


I think this goes back to our basic disagreement - you think everything is theology, and I think if everything is theology then nothing is meaningfully theological. :P

I mean, sure their ideology has theological implications and someone doing theology could draw them out, but that isn't the same thing as saying that this document is a theological statement.

Nick.Larson said...

While I do agree this does move towards our basic disagreement I actually think it should fall within the realm of what you call theology. I think there is also an important distinction between calling something theology and calling it theological. Theological for me is a broader def'n).

But actually, I fear that your unwilling to think of these statement which uses the major sources of theology like reason (although not your logic), experience (although not your experience), tradition (although not your favorite part of our collective past), and scripture (although again not your reading of it) as theology will ultimately lead to narrowing your views.

My fundamental assertion here is around the dangers of espousing a particular theological vantage point as superior by discounting the other as non-theology. This is a major weapon of the conservative branches of Christendom, I just don't want you to dig your own trench.

Aric Clark said...

Warning duly noted. You will keep me open-minded whether I like it or not. :D

Still. It's junk. Even if its theology. It's junky theology.

Jodie said...


I applaud your patience in demonstrating the absurdity of this piece of paper.

I dismiss it as just one more attempt of right wing ideologs to gain religious endorsement of their dependency on oppression. Theology in their hands is merely a tool.

Recently they have gone back to reflexive double speak. They use the allusion to NAZI Germany because they ARE the allusion to NAZI Germany. They go there first to prevent their opponents from going there because it's their weak underbelly.

We must ever remain vigilant against the real monster that lies under its surface. It may be junk, but people buy junk all the time.

reborn1995 said...

i hope that link works. anyway it's john macarthur's comments on refusing to sign the declaration. you might disagree with his stance. but could it be that he has identified the reason why the declaration is so bereft of theology?