Understanding Conservative Christianity, Part 1

In The Nick of TimeGenuinely conservative Christianity is hard to find. Discovering people who understand Christian conservatism is even harder. Many Christians think that they are conservatives when, in fact, they are committed to alternative liberalisms in significant aspects of their thought and practice. Most likely the reason for this phenomenon is that most people do not realize that liberalism comes in more than one form.

Most of the mainline denominations capitulated to some variety of theological modernism decades ago. Modernist theology is, of course, completely incompatible with conservative Christianity. Theological modernism, however, is not the only religious form in which liberal progressivism manifests itself. Since at least the days of Charles Grandison Finney, American Christianity has witnessed the steady encroachment of an obnoxious methodological liberalism.

Incidentally, these essays will assume that we need conservative Christianity. I do not intend to defend that assumption. Rather, I hope to explain, at least in general terms, what I think a genuinely conservative Christianity looks like. Once you know what it is, my reasons for favoring it should become obvious.

Over the next several essays, I am going to attempt to describe conservative Christianity. I hope to deal with one aspect of conservative Christianity in each essay. Since each essay must be brief, my descriptions will be sketches and not detailed portraits. What I hope to do, however, is to articulate the most important features that characterize conservative Christians.

Let me preface my summary of those features with one general observation. A conservative is supposed to be conserving something. To be a conservative is necessarily to be oriented toward the past, for by definition, we do not invent the patrimony that we are trying to conserve. Even more importantly, however, to be a conservative is also to be oriented toward the future. We conserve in order that we may bequeath. Thus, a conservative is constantly aware both of his predecessors and of his successors. It is precisely because he feels the weight of the future that he is reluctant to squander his patrimony in a binge of putative and entirely present-minded effectiveness.

One finds no shortage of persons within American Christianity who claim to be conservative. American Christianity features a “conservative evangelical” movement, a Conservative Baptist Association, a phenomenon called the “religious right,” and the remnants of a fundamentalist movement that has prided itself on being the conservative alternative to liberal Christianity. As I examine these movements, however, I find myself asking one question: What have they conserved? With rare exceptions, they have managed to conserve only a bare statement of core beliefs, a diminutive creed that could be printed on one side of an index card.

If we were to compare the supposedly conservative elements of American Christianity with the Christianity that dominated America as recently as two centuries ago, we would find small resemblance. Today’s conservative evangelicals or fundamentalists would feel hopelessly estranged in the churches of 1809—and exponentially more estranged in the churches of half-a-century earlier. Yet the Christians of 1808 would hardly have felt estranged in the Puritan churches of 1609. To be sure, they might have disagreed with some aspects of Puritan worship and polity, but they would have understood even the things that they rejected. Most twentieth-century Christians, however, would be utterly bewildered in the churches of the early nineteenth century.

Some will object that the sense of estrangement stems only from the cultural shifts that have occurred over the past two hundred years. I admit that those cultural shifts are significant, and indeed they are a part of the problem. But this objection really concedes the entire point. It amounts to an acknowledgement that conservative Christianity has become impossible. It provides a putative rationale for not conserving more of our Christian heritage, but to the extent that this rationale is compelling, it underlines the inconsistency of those who claim to be conservative Christians while attempting to make the argument.

Our estrangement from the past ought to give us some clue as to how much has been lost. The situation, however, is actually worse. Even if our obligation were merely to preserve a shrunken creed, then American Christianity has succeeded only marginally. Hardly anything on the index card has escaped redefinition by contemporary evangelicals. Such matters as the truthfulness of Scripture, the nature of God, the definition of justification, and the content of the gospel are up for grabs. We have failed to conserve a correct understanding of the most vital doctrines, even within our own evangelical community.

If, however, we are supposed to preserve more than a shrunken orthodoxy, then the situation is dire indeed. Outside of our doctrinal outline, very little is left of the Christian heritage that was bequeathed by the generation of the Great Awakening. The very categories in which that generation expressed itself have been lost to us. Their forms of worship and expressions of piety would seem like unwelcome intrusions into our own practices. Their prayers are too complicated, their hymns too difficult, their discipline too rigorous. If we were supposed to conserve more than a smattering of those things, then our failure is obvious.

At the least, such observations should lead us to wonder what a genuinely conservative Christianity would look like. My purpose in the coming essays is to answer that question. I believe that conservative Christianity can be summarized in eight necessary elements. You may judge for yourselves how widely these elements are shared among contemporary American Christians—especially among those who consider themselves to be conservative.

My purpose in these essays is not to stir up a debate. Rather, I shall be writing about some of the things that I love most. What I wish I could do is to write about them in such a way that a reader could glimpse the beauty that has captured my affections. At that task I shall almost certainly fail. What I can do, however, is to point to these things and, with perhaps too much urgency, say— “Look!” I hope that you will do just that. I am not after an argument here; indeed, I am not arguing for conservative Christianity at all. Instead, I am simply trying to show what it is. Perhaps one or two will find it as beautiful as I do.

The Divine Wooer
Phineas Fletcher (1582-1650)

Me, Lord? Canst Thou misspend
One word, misplace one look on me?
Call’st me Thy love, Thy friend?
Can this poor soul the object be
Of these love-glances, those life-kindling eyes?
What? I the centre of Thy arms’ embraces?
Of all Thy labour I the prize?
Love never mocks, truth never lies.
Oh, how I quake! Hope fear, fear hope displaces.
I would but cannot hope: such wondrous love amazes.

See, I am black as night,
See, I am darkness: dark as hell.
Lord, Thou more fair than light:
Heaven’s sun Thy shadow. Can suns dwell
With shades? ‘twixt light and darkness what commerce?
‘True, thou art darkness, I thy light: My ray
Thy mists and hellish fogs shall pierce.
With Me, black soul, with Me converse.
I make the foul December flowery May:
Turn thou thy night to Me, I’ll turn thy night to day.’

See, Lord, see I am dead,
Tombed in myself, myself my grave:
A drudge, so born, so bred—
Myself even to myself a slave.
Thou, Freedom, Life; can Life and Liberty
Love bondage, death? ‘Thy freedom I, I tied
To loose thy bonds: be bound to Me.
My yoke shall ease, My bonds shall free.
Dead soul, thy spring of life My dying side:
There die, with Me to live: to live in thee I died.’

Kevin BauderThis essay is by Dr. Kevin T. Bauder, president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). Not every professor, student, or alumnus of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
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