[This is a talk I gave at the 2023 CREC Council meeting in Moscow, Idaho.]
Virgil asked me to talk about the growth of CrossPolitic and the Canon App, particularly in the COVID moment – how God has stirred up a great hunger for the truth and the enormous opportunity we have in the CREC to deliver the truth – there is a great market for truth.
So, since the goal is to charge the CREC to continue embracing the calling to be dealers of truth, I want to talk about the nature of truth and the necessity of continuing to hone a hermeneutic of truth, an exegesis of truth. If the CREC is to continue to become a great haven for truth-seekers, we, as its leaders, must be enthusiastic and committed truth-miners, truth-hunters. And this means that it is not enough for us to merely touch on some truths here and there. It is not enough for us camp out on our favorite truths or perhaps simply the types or symbols of truth. It is not enough for our congregations to have warm and positive associations with what is true. No, we must determine to serve up truth in its pure form. We must have the truth, particularly the entire truth of the entire word of God, and no sentimental substitutes.
The Ethics of Elfland
In G.K. Chesterton’s great work Orthodoxy, he sets up a striking contrast in the chapter on the Ethics of Elfland. He says that his fundamental philosophy of life he learned in the nursery, and he learned it through fairytales. And what he came to see is that the fairytales are entirely reasonable things. He says, “Fairyland is nothing but the sunny country of common sense” (Orthodoxy, 44). He writes: “It might be stated this way. There are certain sequences or developments (cases of one thing following another), which are, in the true sense of the word, reasonable. They are, in the true sense of the word, necessary… For instance, if the Ugly Sisters are older than Cinderella, it is (in an iron and awful sense) necessary that Cinderella is younger than the ugly sisters. There is no getting out of it… If Jack is the son of a miller, a miller is the father of Jack… that is true rationalism and fairyland is full of it.”
But Chesterton contrasts that fixed foundation of the real world of fairyland with the events that transpire in this real world of fairyland. He writes: “There is an enormous difference between the test of fairyland; which is the test of imagination. You cannot imagine two and one not making three. But you can easily imagine trees not growing fruit; you can imagine them growing golden candlesticks or tigers hanging on by the tail.” Chesterton says, “We have always in our fairy tales kept this sharp distinction between the science of mental relations, in which there really are laws, and the science of physical facts, in which there are no laws, but only weird repetitions. We believe in bodily miracles, but not in mental impossibilities.”
Chesterton calls these rationalistic scientists, who try to force the necessity of reason and logic into every area, sentimentalists. “He is a sentimentalist in this essential sense, that he is soaked and swept away by mere associations.” Chesterton: “As ideas, the egg and the chicken are further off from each than the bear and the prince; for no egg in itself suggests chicken, whereas some princes do suggest bears.”
The sentimentalist “has so often seen birds fly and lay eggs that he feels as if there must be some dreamy tender connection between the two ideas, whereas there is none… A sentimentalist might shed tears at the smell of apple-blossom, because by a dark association of his own, it reminded him of his boyhood. So the materialist professor (though he conceals his tears) is yet a sentimentalist, because, by a dark association of his own, the apple-blossoms remind him of apples.” Chesterton argues that instead of relegating these patterns to iron-clad laws of impersonal nature, we ought to see them as the personal habits of a youthful God, a God who never grows weary, but tells the sun to come up every morning, saying: do it again, do it again, bewitched by the Word that upholds all things: “A tree grows fruit because it is a magic tree. Water runs downhill because it is bewitched. The sun shines because it is bewitched.” Chesterton celebrates this wonder, and notes that it has a particular quality of praise. Let us call this a hermeneutic of wonder and praise versus a hermeneutic of scientific sentimentalism.
Now Chesterton is insisting on something very important with which we agree, but we do need to be careful here and make some additional distinctions because some of the threats to the truth have changed from his day to ours. For example, if we merely stop with the test of imagination, can you not imagine a woman turning into a man? Can you not imagine a pregnant man? What’s the difference? The difference is truth. The difference is the authority of God and His spoken word. We completely agree that this world is God’s personal spoken word, His song, His poem, upheld by the Word of His power. And water runs downhill because that is the true word that God has spoken, and on occasion when it doesn’t, when the water piles up in enormous mountains so that God’s people can pass over on dry ground, that is true because that is the Word that God is speaking. But we must not get it backwards. The test of imagination helps us recognize God’s creativity and praise His wonderful wisdom, bursting the narrow minds of sentimentalists, but it is not a freewheeling license to manhandle God’s truth.
So when someone asks: do you believe in interpretive maximalism, we should say, yes, if you mean getting every drop of truth from Scripture, scraping the barrel of creation for every scrap of truth. Yes, absolutely. But no, if you mean mere sentimental associations, if you mean: this reminds me of that. A bunch of people associate face masks with doctors and science and health and safety, and so despite all the scientific evidence to the contrary, millions in mass psychosis formations covered their faces with a bald-faced lie. Why? Because it reminded them of something healthy and safe. It reminded them of truth. As for the rest of us, we associated masks with thugs and outlaws and the oppression of Islamic burkas. But mere association is sentimentalism. It descends into subjectivism and relativism, because what you associate with something may not be what I associate with something. And to the point, it may not be true.
Exegetical Truth vs. Sentimental Hermeneutics
2020 was an historic year on many fronts: first, the COVID panic resulting in unprecedented government shut-downs, two weeks to flatten the curve turning into months and in some places, even years. Suddenly, there was talk of essential services and social distancing, and churches were ordered closed along with small businesses, while pot shops and abortion clinics and casinos were often allowed to remain open. Then came the mask mandates and eventually the warp-speed development of so-called vaccines and strong-arm tactics and mandates to participate in mass human trials.
Arguably, to put the best spin on so much of what happened, the driving force for much of it was fear: fear of death, fear of being the cause of death, fear of suffering, fear of mishandling crisis, fear of responsibility, fear of rejection, fear of being cancelled and hated by others, fear of a poor witness, fear of any and all risk. What drove so much of our response to COVID was the tyranny of a sentiment, tyranny of feelings, emotions, associations. Sentimentalism is not merely relativistic, it is ultimately tyrannical, coercive, and violent.
Then came George Floyd’s death in the midst of the shutdowns: churches were not meeting, social distancing was all the rage, and then suddenly there were “mostly peaceful” protests in the streets, church-like rallies, and marches. While many faithful churches remained open or quickly re-opened as the hypocrisy became clear, John MacArthur’s church was perhaps the most prominent. Initially complying with shutdown orders, the elders of Grace Community Church reversed course several weeks later and famously announced that they would resume in-person services in defiance of California orders, racking up fines and violations and vitriol.
Some in the Reformed orbit strongly cautioned against MacArthur’s decision, one of the more prominent warnings coming from Jonathan Leeman of 9Marks, and this coming shortly after his participation in a BLM-themed march and rally in Washington DC. Again, giving Leeman the benefit of the doubt, I would argue that the best gloss on this inconsistency would be certain sentiments. Feelings of compassion, sympathy, and pain seemed to trump the feelings of fear or insecurity regarding COVID or the fear or uncertainty of standing up to civil magistrates.
But many noticed. Feelings and sentiment are terrible at making careful distinctions. We naturally have stronger feelings for certain people, certain causes, certain issues; we have certain associations (good or bad) because of our stories, our experiences, but this is exactly what makes feelings and sentiment terrible judges. How do you measure feelings and sentiments? And they are particularly terrible judges because they demand justice, compassion, sympathy, action only until they don’t. But that is no objective standard. It’s a fickle muddle.
In some cases, this means that marching in a rally, giving an offering, masking up, going on a missions trip, or putting a sticker on your computer gives enough positive vibes to take away that guilt, but in many cases, nothing can take away that guilt, and so struggle sessions and study committees must continuously dissect feelings in a black hole of introspection and accusation. One time on CrossPolitic, we asked Dr. Sean Lucas of RTS how we might know when our repentance for racism was complete. And he said, white Christians need to just keep asking black Americans for forgiveness until they tell us it’s enough. When the feelings of the aggrieved are satiated, it will be enough. But like the grave and the barren womb, they never say, it is enough. Dr. Lucas seemed to be suggesting a hermeneutics of sentimentality rather than a hermeneutics of truth and wonder and praise.
Let me give you one more example: Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin sold 3,000 copies on its first day of publication, and by the end of its first year (1852), had sold 300,000 copies. Within a few years, 1.5 million copies were in Britain alone, and by the end of the 19th century, it was considered the best-selling novel of the century, trailing only the Bible in popularity and sales. The wife and daughter of pastors, Stowe professed sincere faith in Christ, and her novel is loaded with Scriptural imagery, quotations, and symbolism. Uncle Tom clearly pictures a Christ-like endurance, sacrifice, and courage. Cassy, the broken and embittered maid of Simon Legree, comes to picture an image of Christian femininity, a virtuous and cunning woman, perhaps even a type of the new Eve, the Bride of Christ overcoming darkness. Is this a case of biblical symbolism and typology driving the truth of God into the heart of the world?
Well, no, the book was best-selling sentimental propaganda. Stowe wrote: “There is one thing that every individual can do – they can see to it that they feel right. An atmosphere of sympathetic influence encircles every human being; and the man or woman who feels strongly, healthily, and justly on the great interests of humanity, is a constant benefactor to the human race” (UTC, XLV, emphasis hers).
What was the central most fundamental thing Stowe wanted? For every human being to “feel right.” Why? Because an “atmosphere of sympathetic influence encircles every human being.” Not truth. Not biblical justice. No, that would have complicated everything: all those pesky verses about how slavery was to be conducted, slaves and masters were to honor and treat one another, not to mention the book of Philemon. Just feel right and you will be a constant benefactor to the human race, and 600,000 American lives later, maybe we should have reconsidered that claim. Despite all the Scriptural references and symbolism and allusions, it turns out that the ultimate authority for Stowe was a humanistic sentimentalism piled high with emotions associated with the Bible, but not the straight, pure truth of God’s Word.
Moscow & the Market for Truth
It was during the 2020 moment and what followed that CrossPolitic and the Canon Plus App and New St. Andrews College and many of our related ministries blew up. CrossPolitic hosted the first Fight Laugh Feast Conference just south of Nashville, TN in October 2020, perhaps the only conference of its kind with around a thousand people in an indoor soccer arena without a mask in sight. For many, it was the first time they had any taste of normalcy in months. It was completely legal, but police were called and stopped by to make sure we knew what we were doing was… completely legal. But I believe the real relief was the refreshing truth.
We’ve heard countless testimonies of folks during lockdown finding Pastor Wilson’s blog, Canon Plus, WhatHaveYou, CrossPolitic, and many of your youtube and podcast sermons, and piles of people getting CREC red-pilled. Of course, the vast majority of our CREC churches remained open or re-opened very quickly after the madness seemed abundantly clear, and Presiding Minister Virgil Hurt led the way releasing public statements on the essential nature of Lord’s Day Worship, the limited jurisdiction of civil magistrates, the economic impact on American businesses, and the Christian doctrine of liberty of conscience and the right of families to make their own personal healthcare decisions before God.
Most of our churches have grown significantly since 2020, some you were birthed during 2020 or since then, as a direct reaction to the COVID insanity. And the thing they have been drawn to is the truth. What we have found is that there is a significant market for truth.
So this is the point I want to leave you with: in this cultural moment of madness and chaos, everyone is hocking their wares. Everyone is selling something. Fundamentally, there is truth and lies, but we know that there is also plenty of room for propaganda and counterfeiting and all manner of debasing the value of truth. And there’s a particularly insidious strain of debasing the truth that Christians are susceptible to, and it is the debasing of sentimentality.
It is not enough to associate with the truth. It is not enough to describe biblical symbols and types in detail and then associate them with Biblical themes and truths. Our job is not to build with mere faithful sentiment, or biblical feelings or symbols or associations because ultimately, those can all be manipulated. Our job is to build with the precious metals of truth, knowledge, understanding, and wisdom. Of course, we have many God-given symbols and signs and types, but there should be a massive difference in our mind between what scripture reminds us of, and what God has actually said and intended to communicate and reveal. Do the actual exegesis, beginning with letting Scripture interpret Scripture, but do the hard work of exegeting the truth, not your feelings not your associations. Machen described what he saw in his day as the tendency to disparage the intellectual aspect of religious life, what he called an “indolent impressionism” particularly in biblical studies, a great reluctance to define terms, to memorize and master facts, and simply preach and teach them.
And the stakes are really high: when truth is watered down this will ultimately result in a reduction of wonder and from there a muting of praise. We are a communion of churches that have made a stand on the centrality of worship, the essential nature of face to face, in-person covenant renewal worship. But this is because God has spoken, and we know the truth. We do not worship according to our own whims, according to so-called pious and holy associations or sentiments. We worship according to Scripture. We worship in Spirit and in truth.
We really are living in a remarkable moment in history. God has significantly lowered the bar for success. Stay open, require no medical mandates, and tell the truth. Preach the whole truth, teach all of Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation. It is the truth, the facts, the knowledge, the understanding of what God has actually said – it is that which is refreshing. It is that our countries are starving for. Imagine a dry and barren land filled with water fountains, where the people are cursed with a complete rejection of water fountains. They are slowly dehydrating to death, but all they have to do is press a button and cool, clean water will come flowing out. We live in that world. A world starving for truth. We have the truth. It is our job to give it to them.