Archive for November, 2008

Rain (from www.eontarionow.com)It struck me recently that the formation of new Christian communities is like the formation of rain in two ways.  First, a droplet cannot form without a microscopic bit of dust in the atmosphere.  Water molecules adhere to and form around them.  So with new parishes.  There must be a center, a nucleus, for disconnected sinners to adhere and to gather around.  That nucleus is the true community-generating word of salvation.  Where it is preached, God gathers His people.  And since that word lives and dwells within us, those most likely to gather around us are those closest to us.  That means our neighborhoods – yours and mine – can be future parish communities.  As God re-forms these communities, people could be walking to church once again.

But there is also another analogy.  “Theorists and experimentalists understand this progression, but they cannot agree on how long it takes. ‘When you estimate the typical time you need to grow from micron- to millimeter-sized droplets, it would take maybe ten or fifteen hours,’ says Gregory Falkovich of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. ‘And empirically people noticed that often rain starts long before this–say in half an hour'” (http://focus.aps.org/story/v7/st14).  So with the re-emergence of Christian communities.  It is a phenomenon shrouded in mystery.  And we may not realize that they are re-emerging until the droplets suddenly form in conversions.

Jesus taught a parable on a similar analogy in Mark 4:26-29.  The Kingdom of God is at work today, renewing and re-forming true communities.  Let us tirelessly work for conversions and for new Christian communities, believing the One who calls those things that are not as though they were (Rom. 4:17).

Read Full Post »

From flickr.comThomas Chalmers has been widely acclaimed for his views and particularly his applications of social concern. And within the current Reformed world, he is pointed to as an example for modern day ‘mercy ministries.’ Consequently, I’d like in this final commentary on Cheyne’s The Practical and the Pious to turn to the principles of Christian benevolence that Thomas Chalmers advocated – principles that the contributors to this collection of essays have helped me grasp a bit better.

(1) The priority of spiritual benevolence

First, I think Mary Furgol was the most helpful in bringing to the fore the evangelical cast of Chalmers the philanthropist. She demonstrates that Chalmers’ view of social concern meant that one should redress the spiritual needs of the poor ultimately. That is the priority. And so she cites Chalmers, “The main impulse of his [the Christian’s] benevolence, lies in furnishing the poor with the means of enjoying the bread of life which came down from heaven, and in introducing them to the knowledge of these Scriptures which are the power of God unto salvation to every one who believeth” (121).

Chalmers felt obliged to deal with the issues of the body because this was the only effective way to deal with the issues of the soul. And so Furgol observes,

His often clinical approach to poverty and its relief must be seen in the light of his growing conviction that the most important thing was to safeguard the eternal welfare of men’s souls. Having realized that he would not be free to concentrate on this until he had dealt with the problem of poor relief and its interference with a minister’s valuable time, as well as its detrimental effects on the morals and the Christian education of the people, he therefore turned to the task of evolving a specific plan to combat the evil. The main purpose behind the plan, however, was still the religious one of bringing the Good News to the poor, and it is vital to understand this when examining his later solution of the problem of poor relief and assessing its impact and success (128).

I wonder, in this connection, if Chalmers is so neglected in the present day precisely because he was too evangelical for the sociologists and too sociological for the evangelicals. It is a delicate balance to retain an evangelical priority in ministry and yet cultivate a meaningful, active humanitarianism.

At the same time, some within the Reformed world hold Chalmers up as an example for mercy ministries.  Yet some seem to coordinate ‘word’ with ‘deed,’ shifting the center of gravity from the preaching of the cross to a middle position.  From my reading, I don’t think Chalmers would have gone there.

That being said, perhaps the ‘mercy ministry’ movement in Reformed Christianity is only seeking to correct the excessive other-worldliness of 20th century fundamentalism that retreated from social action, scared silly by the Social Gospel. That is laudable. I only hope that the pendulum is not rushing past the golden mean.

(2) The focus on locality

If you have read this blog with any frequency, you will certainly recognize the following theme resurfacing here – locality. As any realtors worth their salt (if there are any left) will tell you, the three things that make a property desirable are: location, location and … location. Well, Chalmers never wearied of beating this same drum as well. Locality is vital to the enterprise of Christian benevolence.

For Chalmers, this simply meant that those who would bring the Gospel in word and deed to the poor must to be brought into regular contact with them. Locally. If they do not live in the area, they must regularly visit the area. But even prior to this, that area must first be defined and then assigned to certain benefactors. Without definition, there is no clear locus for intelligent compassion. The vastness of the problem will be daunting without a manageable, delineated territory. But once the areas are defined and parceled up, they must be allocated. An unassigned locality is just an abstraction. Its plight will have no real pull. But once it is assigned – or adopted, if you will – then the spiritually and economically privileged will have a tie to it, a workable plot of their own to cultivate. The rich and poor will be brought together in the locality of the poor, and the results should be evident in time. Multiply this thousands of times over across a nation, and you have Chalmers’ model for dealing with poverty. It is a grassroots solution.

McCaffrey comments on this, as well as on the influence of Chalmers’ locality principle:

Chalmers’ insistence on the need to reform the individual first in the locality, as the means to reforming society in general, continued to be remarkably vibrant in its appeal in both Britain and the United States. In both countries he found a ready audience in those reformers who sought the good society and who were increasingly chary of leaving its realization to the chance workings of unrestrained lasseiz-faire capitalism on the one hand or too extensive a state-imposed regulation on the other (53).

As I reflect on it, there is no question that the locality principle, bringing the benefactors into regular contact with the beneficiaries, goes against the grain of the urban situation. Cities are notorious for the evil of anonymity. Sin likes darkness; it retreats from community especially if community is viewed as an old socio-religious ball and chain that holds people accountable. Now, that is not to suggest that people always migrate to cities for sin. (Though I don’t think that 1 in 3 San Franciscans are gay because their gene pool is different.) Frequently, there are economic pressures that call individuals from field to factory. That is the way it was in Industrial Age Scotland; that is the way it is in 21st century China. But the reality is that cities not only afford more economic opportunity: they also facilitate sin. Sin loves options and hates the Sartre stare.

That’s not the only reason why the locality principle doesn’t easily fit with the urban context. There is also the socio-economic stratification of cities. Today, we call this ‘white flight.’ I’m not sure all of that is bad. People want to raise their children in peace and safety. Many who live in the slums aspire to get out. But it is a reality – almost a law. Distance between the privileged and the underprivileged just happens. Government has tried to change that, as with busing; but it never sticks. I would suggest that North American inner cities have become a kind of de facto social waste confinement area. We retreat from the problem and thus the Welfare State cannot but step in. Otherwise, there will be social unrest.

Yet, while the locality principle is like the syrup of ipecac to the city’s culture, it is medicine that must be swallowed. The spiritually and outwardly privileged must be brought into contact with the spiritually and outwardly underprivileged. And it won’t happen by some government program. It must happen through an army of volunteers. Volunteers who will bridge the geographic divide into needy localities.

Incidentally, the old scheme of parish visitation was built on the locality principle. One cannot care some someone that he doesn’t see, with whom he does not come into contact. And that visitation must be regular if it is to be meaningful.

(3) Voluntary relief

For Chalmers, the cure of ‘pauperism’ – the 19th century term for dependency on the state – lies in a voluntary program. He firmly believed that involuntary schemes (state programs) are doomed to failure for four reasons, according to Checkland:

First, people become systematically trained to expect relief as a right, thereby destroying the connection which nature has established between economy and independence and between improvidence and want. Second, neighbours and kindred of the poor lose their private sympathies and abstain from providing relief. Third, as the number of poor increases they will be less comfortably relieved, since the allowance per pauper tends to decrease. Fourth, an artificial system tends to be wasteful, both in terms of increased expenditure on paupers caused by their demands for relief as a legal right and by the increase in the number of individuals needed to administer relief. It was Chalmers’ belief that every extension of the poor’s fund is followed by a more than proportional increase of pauperism, and he contended that there should be no compulsory assessment, no certainty on the part of the poor that they would obtain relief, and no possibility of the numbers in receipt of relief being infinitely augmented (131).

And Hilton supplements this evaluation of Chalmers’ thought here, explaining, “State poor laws and organized charity transformed beneficence from a thing of ‘love’ and ‘gratulation’ to a subject of resentment on the part of the rich, dependence on the part of the poor, and ‘angry litigation’ between the two” (146). Leaving the old voluntary model is a recipe for class wars.

(4) Education

Next, education is absolutely vital. Writes Checkland, “He believed that education was the fundamental need of the lower orders, transcending in importance and, indeed, canceling out the need for most poor relief” (131). Since the Reformation under John Knox, education had been of paramount importance in Scotland. It was no different for Chalmers. Education furnishes the key for the self-improvement of the poor. Time and money are better spent in providing this form of benevolence.

This is why Chalmers was such an advocate of ‘Sabbath’ or ‘Sunday Schools.’ In their origin, they were not Bible classes for the young of middle-class churches as they are today. They were the only forms of education that many poor people had at all in those days. Sunday Schools were very much agencies of benevolence.

(5) Intelligent benevolence

Which leads us to the distribution of monetary benevolence. Obviously, education is a long-term investment, and some people require immediate help. Chalmers’ response was to lay down certain guidelines, which he both followed and instilled within his diaconate at St. John’s.

Furgol enumerates these guidelines in a survey of his diary entries:

These entries reveal how Chalmers was striving to put into practice his convictions that people should be encouraged to be as independent as possible, that if relief were given it should be minimal, and that is must at all costs be made obvious that no regular official relief system could be automatically depended on in the event of a simple plea for help. Moreover, a letter written to William Johnson of Lathisk at this time reveals two more aspects of his ideas being put into practice: that friends and relatives should be called upon to respond in a spirit of Christian charity, and that any relief given should only be in cases of extreme and deserving want (124).

Dare we call this ‘compassionate conservatism?’

On this basis, some have strongly criticized Chalmers for idealizing a cold, clinical brand of philanthropy. Cheyne writes in his introduction that the strongest criticism that has been made was “a strange heartlessness [that] underlay the treatment of poverty worked out by Chalmers and his supporters” (20). Nor was Chalmers without his critics during his own lifetime. William Pulteney Alison opposed Chalmers’ dogged adherence to strict voluntary relief. He even critiqued the St. John’s model as dealing harshly with the poor under the guise of Christian stewardship. And so Checkland quotes Alison, “The grand object kept in view by almost every parish is the possibility of evading the duty of relieving the poor” (133). Ouch!

Now, it is hard for me to evaluate the degree of truthfulness in these criticisms. Was there a knee-jerk reaction to open-handed benevolence in extreme fears of giving to the ‘undeserving?’ Did they err on the side of thrift and not on the side of liberality? I wouldn’t be surprised if it was the case. And if so, was there some degree of discontinuity between the proverbial Scottish benevolence before Chalmers and that of Chalmers’ more business-like social experiments? And was it called for, given the great demographic shifts from the rural areas to bustling cities?

Concluding thoughts

Having been reared in evangelicalism, I often heard that the concern for our nation’s poor is the responsibility of the Church. The Welfare State exists because we won’t feed the poor. And prior to my own study of Chalmers, I was under the impression that the St. John’s experiment – what little I knew of it – was proof that Chalmers thought it was. But now I’m not so sure.

The following is a thesis that needs confirmation, so I put if forth tentatively. But certain things seem to be emerging as I read him for myself.

I think Chalmers thought that it was the concern of the state to make sure that all its citizens were cared for, physically and spiritually. Those in government are fathers. Citizens are children. The state ought to seek out a Church and finance it for the spiritual instruction of its people, much as a wealthy aristocrat would hire a tutor for his son [see my essay on Chalmers and establishments].

Being a believer in liberal economics, the best way to care for the people, generally speaking, is to avoid interference in the marketplace. But what of the poor, the victims of the unfeeling free market? The state has a duty to care for them as well. Only, this is not to be done by legal assessments (i.e., legislated ‘wealth reallocation’). It should be left voluntary, on the lines of the old Scottish model.

But the state should support the poor by supporting the Church of the poor – the establishment, which is first of all the spiritual instructor of the people. By subsidizing a religious establishment, lives are changed. Drunkards are sobered, prostitutes are made chaste, thieves go to work, and spendthrifts turn frugal. That is how the state may and ought to care for the poor, Chalmers contends.

But further, the state ought to aid the poor by providing for universal education. The spiritual education of the established Kirk is the first and most important prong of that agenda. But the second is not far behind. Education is the key to self-improvement, and consequently, the improvement of the nation. ‘Give a man a fish, and you have fed him for a day: teach a man to fish, and you have fed him for a lifetime.’

Yet, Chalmers wasn’t blind to the fact that the state has to do more for the poor than providing spiritual and secular education. The state cannot say, ‘be ye warmed and filled,’ yet do nothing immediately for the hungry. It should not leave the poor altogether to the whim of, well, whoever. Rather, it should take an active role in encouraging and facilitating neighborly benevolence, particularly the benevolence of the wealthy.

This is best and most efficiently done through the mechanism of the established Kirk. The Kirk, after all, operates territorially and already competently cares for the poor of its own number. The Kirk performs this care best because it operates on the soberest principles. “If a man will not work, let him not eat.” The Kirk already has assumed the spiritual care, the cura animarum, of the people, and the state only acknowledges that reality, honoring it in a pecuniary way. She also cares for the body of the unchurched throughout its parishes since love comprehends the whole man, body as well as soul. Why not, then, outsource ‘welfare’ to her? If I am not mistaken, that is exactly how Chalmers sought municipal cooperation in the St. John’s experiment of Glasgow.

If this is Chalmers’ view of the role of the Church and the care of the poor, then he obviously thinks it is a responsibility of the Church when and only when the state explicitly contracts with her. It happens when she enters into a partnership with the state as a religious establishment. Before that, the state does not recognize the Church. She is not chosen to care for the souls of a nation’s citizens or their bodies, for that matter. She has no special obligation to the poor, other than the law of love to one’s neighbor.

If I am right on my assessment of Chalmers, and if Chalmers is right (and, surprise of surprises, I lean that direction), then we as an organized Church have no special responsibility for the poor. We have no formal authorization, because the state wishes to retain management of this beast directly.

Yet, I am hardly suggesting that the Church has no responsibility for the nation’s poor, or that Chalmers thought that unestablished Churches may wash their hands of this great civic duty.

Generally speaking, I wonder if it is not so much the obligation of the Church qua Church to care for the nation’s poor as it is the duty of the nation, which comprises also the Church. The care for the poor is our duty not as the Church, but as citizens. And, of course, our Christian principles all the more compel us to our neighborly duties. It is not the Church’s problem per se. But it is the Christian citizens’ problem, collectively with the rest of the nation.

This is a collective problem. We as Christians are called to “seek the peace of the city” where He has placed us in our earthly exile, and to “pray unto the LORD for it: for in the peace thereof shall [we] have peace” (Jer. 29:7). We are Christians first, yes. But we are also citizens of an earthly order. I am a citizen of Rhode Island. Our prison system has swelled to an overflow. Our unemployment rate is the highest of any state in the nation. This is not someone else’s problem. This is my problem, because I am a citizen of Rhode Island. It is not the Church’s problem, directly. Yet it is the Church’s problem, insofar as the Church in secular matters holds it citizenship on earth.

Very practically, I think that what we have before us is an opportunity for volunteers. The state will not ask us to educate its people in the truths of Christianity. Nor will it ask us to care for their bodies (except on April 14). Yet it presently will not interfere with us if we choose to volunteer.

That we volunteer to care for souls is just another way of describing evangelism. But volunteering for social improvement beyond the community of faith can be sticky. The ministry of the Church should not “leave the word of God, and serve tables” (Acts 6:2). And while we must “do good unto all men,” we are “especially” to do so for “the household of faith” (Gal. 6:10). Let us not forget that one great apologetic argument for the authenticity of our faith is the love that Christians have for each other (Jn. 13:35).

Yet to some degree and in a very tangible way there must be concern for our neighbor. He has a body, and not just a soul. So let us follow Chalmers as he followed our Lord, “who went about doing good” (Acts 10:38).

Read Full Post »

Bust of Thomas ChalmersThe Practical and the Pious – 2
Chalmers the Manager: Lessons in Christian Leadership

In the first part of my review of A. C. Cheyne’s collected essays, The Practical and the Pious: Essays on Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847), we observed the way in which Thomas Chalmers was great Christian bridge builder in his day. He sought to connect the teaching of Scripture and the best traditions of the Christian past to the then-present issues. He sought to obey the Kingdom mandate to the best of his abilities and leaves us to follow the path he pioneered for His and our Lord.

In this second installment, I would like to turn to another theme that emerged for me as I read these essays. Chalmers, in addition to being – or at least striving to be – a bridge builder, was a great administrator. Our ‘practical pietist’ was a churchman, and as a churchman he managed – impressively.

First, Chalmers was a great administrator because he was a man of vision. As a manager, one must have a clear, well-defined purpose. Otherwise, both the manager and the managed will be directionless. And if you aim at nothing, you are sure to hit it, as they say.

His great ambition was the ‘Christian good of Scotland.’ The land must be Christianized.  Everything else was subordinate to this – even the established Kirk. Sefton quotes Chalmers,

I have no veneration for the Church of Scotland merely quasi an Establishment, but I have the utmost veneration for it quasi an instrument of Christian good; and I do think, that with the means and resources of an Establishment she can do more, and does more, for the religious interests of Scotland than is done by the activity of all the Dissenters put together. I think it a high object to uphold the Church of Scotland, but only because of its subserviency to the still higher object of upholding the Christianity of our land (169).

Chalmers inspired others with this vision of a Scotland thoroughly leavened with the Gospel.

But he wasn’t a great administrator because he had vision. One can be a visionary and yet very impractical. Chalmers embodied both vision and practicality – a potent combination. Everything Chalmers said and did was really a strategy to reach the great end of Christianizing Scotland.

The locality principle that he tirelessly advocated was but a strategy, a means to an end. This principle, as I have explained elsewhere, is that the church should spearhead evangelistic efforts geographically, focusing on defined territories with regular district visitations. Only through habitual cultivation of these areas by ‘territorial ministers’ would true Christian communities reemerge in the new urban context; only through this method – wrought in the aggregate – would the land be permeated with the Gospel.

The Church Extension campaign of the 1830s was yet another strategy. The Church of Scotland, in order to Christianize the burgeoning, unchurched population of the major cities, desperately needed to finance new church buildings and ministers. Chalmers took over the convenorship of the committee and, through his fundraising efforts, was able to witness the erection of more than 200 new church buildings. And all for the Christianizing of Scotland.

Interestingly, this strategy was complementary of the territorial principle. Sefton writes, “The enterprise was concerned not only with the building of new churches but also with the vicinity for whose good the new church was intended. The object was to provide a church near enough and with seat rents low enough to benefit the families by whom it was surrounded” (169, emphasis mine). Chalmers made sure that the program was efficient by making it conform to the territorial principle. The strategies were synergistic. Not a territory without a meeting place, or a meeting place without a territory.

Church establishments comprised another prong of Chalmers’ strategy. We’ve already seen in the quote above that he only viewed them as efficient instruments for the promotion of Christian good. They exist to facilitate territorial church extension (see my essay on Chalmers on establishments). Since the days of Constantine, the goal of establishments is “not to extend Christianity into ulterior spaces but thoroughly to fill up the space that had been already occupied” (168). Specifically, then, an establishment is a “universal home mission.” That is, it is a structure that exists for the further Christianization of a land where the Gospel has already gained a footing. It is phase 2 in the mission program. It is what the army does after taking Normandy.

These profound quotes further nuance my concept of establishments and the territorial principle. The latter is always a strategy that the church can and should employ. The Gospel has always come to districts and territories, and it always comes to put the standard up for Jesus, who speaks for every land, saying, ‘Mine!’ Yet, the principle is applied with lesser openness and focus during times of persecution and more breadth when the church hasn’t taken firm footing in a region.

One cannot implement the parish principle in Muslim countries, with a territorial minister going door to door as M’Cheyne in Dundee or Bonar in Finnieston. Yet, cells of believers can and do still influence their communities. True, they cannot be as open and must even pay for their successes with their blood. Omaha Beach was taken, yet at a high price. But it is worth it. And the territorial principle can be applied when missionaries are first introducing the Gospel into a region; only, the strategy is usually to work more broadly without narrowed reference to fixed districts until nuclei of converts develop. Churches are then formed, which become centers for saturating communities.

And establishments, as I am beginning to see, are a strategic step in the typical process of Christianization. Christianization begins before establishments arise and continue after they are formed. Paul preaches the Gospel throughout the Empire until at last the movement overtakes the Emperor – several generations later. But at the time of Constantine, while Christianity was on the rise, there was much work yet to be done. And so the magistrates became promoters and patrons of the true Gospel. They became, in the words of Isaiah “nursing fathers” and “nursing mothers” (Isa. 49:23). We in the United States are not at the establishment stage, yet thankfully, we are not at the persecution stage. We can therefore apply the territorial principle more consistently and with greater focus, since Christianity is settled. But Congress does not yet subsidize us. Yet.

Chalmers was also a great manager because he was cognizant of realities on the ground as he developed strategies. We’ve essentially addressed that in the previous essay. But a further point is in order. One cannot help but observe the very language of ‘experiment’ that Chalmers used for the efforts that he undertook and advocated. He believed that there were certain tried and true principles that could be effectively implemented when thoughtfully applied in new contexts. Furgol points out that Chalmers, before commencing the St. John’s experiment, conducted an “extensive analysis of the mechanics of poverty and its relief” before implementing his scheme (127). He became well versed in the realities of things before applying principles. Now, perhaps Chalmers read more success into his experiments than others would allow. But the point is that strategies are timeless principles manifested in particular situations.

In addition to being a visionary and a practical, strategy-making and executing worker, Chalmers was a great manager of human resources. Perhaps what Chalmers did best was preach. Hands down, many might say. But his ability to recruit, delegate, train, supervise, and inspire people – that is, to manage them – must come in a close second.

Successful people know how to surround themselves with other successful people and to use their unique gifts. So with Chalmers. Says Maciver, “Part of his flair lay in an ability to recruit able and dedicated aides” (93). And “organization was not to be haphazard” either (89). People work best in structures. Concrete plans were drawn up for the Church Extension campaign, significantly mirroring the organizational model of the Bible Societies. Perhaps the world-wisdom of his business and industrialist friends also rubbed off on him.

From the inner circle and within the preconceived structures, Chalmers led the people. Average, yet not unimportant members of the Kirk throughout the land were sought out and used. In the Church Extension campaign, He “emphasized the local factor, the legacy of his poor relief experiment, again and again, and was anxious to devolve local organization ever downwards” (89).

Referring to the St. John’s experiment early on in Chalmers’ career, Cheyne points out how vital the non-ordained ‘ministry’ was to the success of Christian home mission:

The scheme was more than just a successful exercise in the delegation of duties and the deepening of Christian fellowship. It also pioneered what would now be called the training of the laity; for the congregation of St. John’s learned to regard itself as being less an assemblage of hearers than a body of workers, its mission to the parish planned and directed by the clergy but managed and carried through by a subordinate band of elders, deacons, Sunday and day school teachers, and others – the NCOs, as it were, of a Christian army (17).

So from beginning to end, Chalmers was interested in a popular Kirk, a Kirk of the people. I cannot help but ask here, to what degree was Chalmers paving way for the heightened lay activity so characteristic of the late 19th and 20th centuries? Though an old school establishmentarian with a high view of the ordained ministry, did Chalmers further the increased democratization of the Church?

Chalmers also artfully and efficiently managed his peer relationships. He courted MPs, made alliances in the business world, and strove to cooperate with clergyman outside the established Church. Equals were not a threat to him, but a resource. And in the interests of Christianization, collaboration – not competition – was the rule.

On this point, I can’t help but answer for Chalmers as I read the following criticism made by Dr. John Lee, a contemporary of his within the Kirk. He thought that the Church Extension campaign, built on the territorial principle, turned a blind eye to harsh realities. Chalmers could not transpose the model of the rural Anstruther parish into Edinburgh, precisely because the slums of Edinburgh were nothing but a “perpetual fluctuation of inhabitants on whom no impression could be made” (91). In other words, you visit them once, and they’re gone forever the next week. Those with any experience in the inner city will see that some things don’t change.

But I would suggest that the comity principle here comes to the aid of the territorial. By applying the territorial principle throughout the land, a resident leaves one parish only to land in another. Even if the individual leaves no notice of his move to another district, in Chalmers’ ideal he will probably come under the influence of another Christian minister in his regular visitations. And, true, even if this ideal ‘parish patchwork’ didn’t exist in a land, still the seed sown shall not return void! A territorial minister is always sowing seed. Sometimes that seed takes flight and lands somewhere else, only to yield fruit that the faithful minister never sees.

Chalmers, as a shrewd steward, also made friends with the mammon of unrighteousness. He was so successful in his fundraising efforts for Church Extension, that the Free Church inherited a well-oiled machine at its exodus from the establishment. But it was not enough to raise money. It had to be managed wisely. This is especially clear in his poor relief model. Only the worthy poor were to receive benevolence. Consequently, the office of deacon was resurrected in the St. John’s experiment to distribute the hard-earned money of those who wished to show intelligent charity.

Then there was his concern for time management. When he came to the Tron in Glasgow, he devolved as many clerical responsibilities in the civic arena to laymen. According to Furgol, this was an instance of Chalmers’ adherence to Adam Smith’s principle of the division [specialization?] of labor. She quotes Chalmers who wrote at the time,

I know of instances where a clergyman has been called from the country to town for his talent at preaching; and when he got there, they so be-laboured him with the drudgery of their institutions, that they smothered and extinguished the very talent for which they had adopted him. The purity and independence of the clerical office are not sufficiently respected in great towns. . . . He comes among them a clergyman, and they make a mere churchwarden of him. . . . It shall be my unceasing endeavor to get all the work shifted upon the laymen (126).

This also reveals that while Chalmers was a believer in churchmen following managerial principles, yet he remained firmly convinced that ministers ought not to contaminate their spiritual office by the mundane.

The last thing I’d like to mention in the example of Chalmers as a model Church manager is his habitual re-investment of resources into bigger projects on bigger and broader scales. Maciver observes:

It is likely that Chalmers saw the ‘principle of locality’, enshrined in his widely-publicised St. John’s parish scheme of the previous decade, being given new life through a national Extension project that sought to combine local effort with the aid of a central fund raised by subscription to help poorer or weaker parishes. The ultimate stimulus would be provided by state grants in the form of an annual endowment of the ministers’ stipends in the new missionary and territorial churches (88).

The Extension campaign brought out to their fullest extent Chalmers’ gifts of inspired leadership and sheer organizing ability. . . Possibly he had absorbed lessons from the problems of his social experiment in Glasgow, for he stressed now the necessity of organizing local efforts on a national scale, explaining to his lieutenant, William Collins, the publisher, that ‘what I particularly wish is to combine a wise general superintendence on the one hand with an entire and intense local feeling in each separate town and district for its own local necessities on the other’ (89).

Retool and re-deploy! He could not stop until the vision had been realized. First, St. John’s, then Church Extension. And even after the Disruption, he would not leave off. So began the West Port experiment.

My only regret with Maciver’s essay “Chalmers as a ‘Manager’ of the Church” is that he only treated his management on the national ecclesiastical level – on the ‘macro’ and not the ‘micro.’ A parallel survey of the St. John’s and West Port experiments with his management of the Church Extension campaign would have been even more fascinating.

With this survey behind us, there are some good lessons to be learned for Christians of all types. But I think that there are special lessons here for modern-day pastors.

First, while pastors should not view themselves as religious CEOs, yet Reformed pastors are in the people business. And in that business, we simply have to manage. We must possess and instill vision. We must set concrete goals. We must devise faithful means to achieve them. We must husband, cultivate, and utilize our people. And we must, in prayerful dependence on the Spirit, wait for the harvest.

Our Lord will one day come and demand an account of us. How we have managed the resources, and particularly the human resources, that He has entrusted to us? Will He judge us wise and faithful stewards? Or, literally in the Greek, ‘economists’ (oikonomoi)? Will we return His own with interest, five or tenfold? Or will we, under the name of being ‘faithful’ return His solitary coin? While we must not accede to the consumer-driven culture, we ought not to abandon wholesale the ‘business model’ in the church. To do so is grave infidelity and will not go unpunished. “Cast ye the unprofitable [or, ‘useless’] servant into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 25:26).

As an aside, I find it profoundly interesting that Chalmers attacks those who would subject the witness of the Church to the free trade doctrine; and yet he was an expert administrator whose example would inspire seasoned entrepreneurs. He promoted a managed, central economy in terms the witness of the Gospel: he was a believer in state-subsidized establishments. But he ran the St. John’s and West Port experiments like one would run a successful business, and reported these success stories to provoke a holy emulation and, yes, a holy competition! Selah.

Second, our ‘practical pietist’ appreciated the sanctity of fundraising. Perhaps we in the Reformed community today have been so negatively affected by Pentecostal health and wealth charlatans that we have thrown the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. Chalmers imitated the Apostle Paul who went from church to church, taking up collections (1 Cor. 16:1-3) and even preaching a rich, biblical theology of benevolence (2 Cor. 8 & 9) to rally the cause. And just like the apostle, Chalmers did this, not to line his wallet or that of his ministerial colleagues, but he did it in the interests of the poor (Gal. 2:10).

Third, Chalmers was a high churchman. (Not a high-church man, but a high churchman.) Chalmers believed that Christ had established the visible Church not only as an organism, but also as an organization. It has, since the institution of Christ in the days of His flesh, been the great vehicle of Christian good throughout the world. In a day when ‘institutional religion’ is disparaged, we need to rediscover the glory of being in this great organization, which is very much visible.

Fourth, Chalmers’ example, in point of fact cautions ministers not to get too managerial. He delegated and devolved responsibilities to free him to focus on the spiritual duties of the ministry. While he was a profoundly efficient manager, yet he was no believer in the ‘minister-CEO,’ to use an anachronism. Chalmers was a preacher first and foremost. Crowds thronged to hear him, from aristocrats and MPs to the common people. William Wilberforce even climbed through a window to hear Chalmers preach in a packed hall. Preaching is the great business of a minister. It remains the greatest means for changing men, for changing culture. That was Chalmers’ conviction.

And even if Chalmers himself was not his whole career a full-time pastor – the responsibilities of his theological professorships and denominational leadership occupied the bulk of his professional life – yet what he inculcated in students and ministers was a very high standard of pastoral self-consciousness. After preaching in the pulpit, the man of God must descend to work among the people.  M’Cheyne, the Bonars, and many other students of his devoted hours upon hours during the week to house-to-house visitation, most of which was specifically evangelistic. This is hardly the picture of a pastor-CEO behind his desk reviewing balance sheets and organizing programs.

In sum, I think Chalmers patterns three basic ideals. First, we must keep the managerial element of the pastoral office in view and not let it fall by the way in a retreat from the pastor-CEO idolatry of today. Second, we must cultivate that managerial dimension of our pastoral office to the best of our abilities. To give our Lord less is to subject Him to a great dishonor. But third, we must keep the managerial element in biblical proportion with the other, indeed the prime elements. “It is not reason that we should leave the word of God, and serve tables. . . but we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:2, 4).

[Go to Part 3]

Read Full Post »

The Practical and the Pious – 1
Chalmers the Bridge Builder: Lessons in Translating the Faith

Forth Road BridgeMargot Butt, in her essay entitled “The Chalmers Papers” includes an insightful quote from the daughter of Thomas Chalmers most like him in personality. Grace Chalmers wrote concerning herself, “I’ve always been a kind of outlier between the practical and the pious. I have a liking for both. I can’t get people with both about me so either I have the pious that look down on practicality as a secular thing, or the practical that nauseate the piety” (189). It is obviously from this quote that A. C. Cheyne’s compilation The Practical and the Pious: Essays on Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847) draws its name.

And rightly so. Thomas Chalmers was eminently pious, himself kindling many a ‘bright and shining light’ in the 19th century Scottish Kirk. Giants such as Robert Murray M’Cheyne, Alexander Duff, and Andrew Bonar owed a tribute of the greatest respect to him. And at the same time, he was eminently practical. An organizer, a campaigner, a delegator, and a plain, roll-up-your-sleeves doer. Yes, his head was in the clouds; but his hands and feet were quite busy here on the earth.

As I take a step back, having read and processed these fascinating scholarly articles gathered from the Chalmers Bicentenary Conference (1980), three striking features of this great ‘practical pietist’ come into sharper focus for me. In the first of three parts, I’d like to talk about Thomas Chalmers as – to use the metaphor of John McCaffrey – a bridge builder.

First, the idea itself. It’s not very easy to chop and hack up history into nice, convenient segments. We use dates and events to define when once era has begun and another has ended. Yet, it is rather arbitrary. But even if it is arbitrary, we all acknowledge that times change, and we categorize history according to periods. Chalmers stood in a transitional time. Things were rapidly changing: in philosophy, in politics, in religion, and in society. He had a foot in the older age, and one in the new. He began His life in rural Fife, so much a picture the old order, and ended it working in the slums of Edinburgh, the underbelly of the new.

Change is unpleasant. And yet to survive, we must change. Adapt or die! That’s not Darwinism; that’s life.

Chalmers did – or attempted to do – what all must do to survive. And more to the point for us as the Church, he led the Church of his day to adapt and thrive. Not to cut loose from the past, or to change what is unalterably the sum and substance of Christianity. No, Chalmers wasn’t a radical wrecking ball. He was a conservative through and through. But he was not insensitive to the winds of change, and he insisted that the ‘auld Kirk’ must build a bridge from its past to the present. And from there, into the future.

Christianity is not a static fixity. Now, don’t get me wrong. We believe that the central truths of Scripture are timeless and unchanging. But Christianity is more than the timeless body of truths, contained in Sacred Scripture and expressed in well-chiseled creeds. It involves always an adaptation, an application of the timeless truth to the present context. Otherwise, Christianity becomes freeze-dried. It becomes de-incarnated, and so ceases to be true Christianity.

We must build bridges from the text and its timeless truths to our own situation, which is not exactly the way things were when the apostles and prophets first spoke. Yes, sin remains sin in essence today as then. But the uniqueness, the particularity of the sin requires a particularization of God’s Word. The particularity of our personal, family, and social tragedies require a application of God’s superabounding grace.

The same holds true for the history of the Church. We must also learn how the Church in past ages applied that truth in their day for our instruction. Now, we must not go back into the annals of our forefathers and simply transport what they said and did, part for part. This is the idolatry of romanticism – like Israel worshipping the bronze serpent. Our forbearers sought to apply the timeless text to their own day (often hitting the mark, but sometimes missing it). Our day calls not for blind reproduction, but for a modification of what they said and did . . . when they were right. Not because the Word of God is a wax nose, nor because their applications were biblically illegitimate then. But because Christ will have a comprehensive dominion over every particularity of this fallen world, not just those of certain times and places.

This is what Chalmers was – a bridge-builder for Christianity. He was quite self-conscious about it. McCaffrey writes,

… there was his feeling that he stood at the crossing of two worlds, that it was his duty to make his contemporaries aware of the changing nature of their society and readier to accept change in such a way that the human values he himself prized so highly would be preserved intact in an increasingly uncertain world. He saw himself as a bridge-builder. He sensed from a quite early date that his life and actions had to be validated by a wider set of values than the merely contemporary. He took initiatives in public life not from a sense of his own importance (indeed, in his private journal he often deprecated the fame which contemporaries ascribed to him), but because he consistently struggled with all his failing to be true to himself. His analysis of a contemporary issue could, thus, often fail to be sufficiently flexible but this inflexibility came precisely because he approached each different issue, amidst the cares of a busy life, honestly with the weapons he had to hand in his own intellectual powers and his own reading. In a changing world he had only his own judgment and faith to steer by (33).

In what areas, then, did Chalmers act as a bridge-builder for Christianity?

First, he was a bridge builder in the core discipline of the Church – theology. Roxborogh quotes Chalmers, “Although the subject matter of theology is unalterably fixed . . . is there not a constant necessity for accommodating both the vindication . . . and the illustration of this subject matter to the ever-varying spirit and philosophy of the times? . . . In theology, as well as in the other sciences, there is indefinite room for novelties both of thought and expression” (175). Chalmers, the man of his times that he was, approached the study of theology inductively.

In order to appreciate the motivation here, one must realize that Chalmers was a missionary at heart. Theology must not be a discipline chained in the ivory tower. It must be articulated to the modern mind to fulfill the Gospel mandate. How do we translate the timeless Gospel?

Roxborogh notes that, for example, some of Chalmers’ conservative associates, such as William Cunningham, balked at his willingness to call unregenerate men ‘good.’ But he explains, “Cunningham was mainly concerned about the danger of compromising orthodox Calvinism; Chalmers about the necessity of communicating the Gospel. He did not believe he could do this if he ignored people’s own use of language and their best aspirations” (176-77). It is not as though Chalmers was unconcerned about dotting his i’s and crossing his t’s; rather, he wanted to make sure that people could read and understand the i’s and t’s!

Naturally, then, Chalmers was a bridge builder in various intellectual disciplines. In short, he was an apologist for his generation. Already a keen student of mathematics, Chalmers turned his naturalist interests heavenward and composed the popular Astronomical Discourses. The University of St. Andrews then hired him in 1823 to fill the chair of Professor of Moral Philosophy. Later, as Professor of Theology at Edinburgh, Chalmers left this legacy to the ministry of the Kirk. Interestingly, Roxborogh notes that at the end of his career, Chalmers insisted that the New College enable its divinity students critically to engage in the issues of modern science (176).

But without doubt, he sought to bring one discipline in particular under the aegis of Christian truth. At St. Andrews, he turned to “the most voguish of all the new sciences, political economy,” says Boyd Hilton. “The Christian reconciliation of economics became the ‘favourite child of his intellect’, despite the dangers of ‘secular contamination’ involved in such an ‘earthly’ field of inquiry” (141). Chalmers’ major contributions in this field were Commercial discourses (1820), The Christian and civic economy of large towns (1821-6), On political economy in connexion with the moral state and moral prospects of society (1832), and the Bridgewater Treatise of 1833.

Given our present economic crisis in the United States, Hilton’s essay “Chalmers as Political Economist” is especially illuminating. Chalmers, says Hilton, reconciled the profit motive with Christianity. Self-interest, the axiomatic source of common weal in Adam Smith’s universe, may in fact receive God’s imprimatur. He simply posited a natural rate of economic growth. Men, however, must not transgress that natural rate by greed, and so indulge in excessively risky ventures. In brief, there is legitimate enterprise and there is speculation. And God judges speculation in the form of economic crises. God is the one who ‘pops the bubbles.’

In Chalmers’ view, fears of possible economic crises have two God-ordained positive effects on society. First, they serve as a dissuasive of excess. The inevitable “intervals of bankruptcy and alarm” in free markets “were not altogether a matter for dismay . . . for though Chalmers never says so explicitly, he seems to have regarded the threat of bankruptcy (with its harsh concomitant, imprisonment for debt) as a sort of positive check, commensurate with pestilences, working to force businessmen into moderation, to deter them from economic temptation, so that by subduing the sins of the flesh-pots they might find spiritual redemption” (148). Second, the crises have a certain purgative effect. “Impending crises were an essential part of God’s providential plan for regenerating and redeeming individual sinners and hence society as a whole” (145). Very naturally, then, Chalmers was an anti-interventionist like Adam Smith, albeit for evangelical reasons. He “held it essential that government should not thwart the dispensations of Providence by trying to prevent or alleviate business failure, any more than they should dole out alms to the poor” (148). Let God’s rod reclaim the transgressor!

Hilton rejects Chalmers’ distinction between legitimate business and speculation as “absurd” (147). “In practice the only way to decide whether a particular item of business was legitimate was by its outcome; like rebellion, it might be presumed to have had God’s blessing only if it succeeded” (147). To borrow our theme, Hilton thinks that Chalmers’ bridge just isn’t bridging. I would take strong exception to this. At the risk of sounding too much like an old Scotsman, I would say that Chalmers’ view is just plain common sense. Everyone acknowledges a distinction between legitimate, natural desire and greed. We have two distinct terms here, and the one is by definition the illegitimate excess of the former. Moderation means something, even if it isn’t always easy to ascertain.

But regardless, Chalmers’ old school, evangelical turn on Political Economy did not retain whatever popularity it enjoyed. The bridge was built, but increasingly it fell into disuse. By the end of Chalmers’ life, poor law reform was in full swing, dooming the old Scottish system of voluntary, parish-based charity in favor of ‘legally assessed’ – government mandated and funded – social welfare. And shortly after his life, limited liability legislation was passed into law, which “effectively emasculated the retributive mechanism of business failure” (153).

Hilton’s take on the failure of Chalmers’ outlook politically is that there was something deeper in his economic theory that was hostile to the prevailing mood of the age. It was his evangelical Calvinism:

Writers like Chalmers and Thomas Nolan who believed in the fever of speculation as a vital part of the economy of redemption were also men who held to a literal interpretation of the doctrines of Atonement, Eternal Punishment, Vicarious Sacrifice, Substitutionary Punishment, and the like. Defenders of this Evangelical scheme of salvation invariably adopted the Calvinist terminology of likening sin to a debt which was owed to God; God would have to exact his recompense in return but – by analogy with Christ’s atonement – did not care who precisely repaid the debt so long as it was repaid by someone (152).

It is not surprising, then, says Hilton, “when, in the middle decades of the century, fashionable theologians abandoned the doctrine of a literal and endless hell-fire, they too were opting out of the capitalist-spiritual system adumbrated by Chalmers; they were, in fact, limiting the liability of sin” (153). Hmm. Are today’s big government bailouts a direct consequence of a retreat from historic evangelical theology?

Closely allied to this bridge-building effort was Chalmers’ writings and activity in philanthropy or ‘social work.’ The ‘Christian good of Scotland’ was the great, burning desire of his heart. He believed that Christianity should pervade every facet of society and should be realized in acts of charity towards those who are in need. He was distraught to witness the dreadful physical, moral, and especially spiritual conditions of his countrymen, holed up like rats in the tenements of Industrial Age slums. And so when he accepted the call to Tron Church, Glasgow, moving from the quaint rural parish of Kilmany, he was determined to build a bridge. Thus, the ‘St. John’s experiment,’ in which he heroically retooled and re-implemented the parish model first for evangelization and second for diaconal work.

Having emerged from the experiment with (reportedly) great results, all eyes were on St. John’s. Here was living proof that by close, regular, personal interaction of the deacons with the poor of Glasgow, that the old system of voluntary benevolence could work in the new situation. The system appeared to be quite efficient on paper – the cost-benefit analysis blew the government plan out of the water. So why not implement this on a large scale within Scotland? Let the territorial churches take over the task of managing the poor without legal assessment, he argued.

Others in his day, however, roundly criticized Chalmers’ ‘bridge building’ here as unrealistic. Checkland informs us of William Pulteney Alison, a contemporary of Chalmers and a notable physician who also worked with the poor. Alison thought that Chalmers was out of touch with the new and complex order of society by advocating the St. John’s model for national care for the poor. Checkland quotes Alison, “In a complex state of society . . . there is no other way in which the lower ranks can be permanently preserved from an extremity of suffering” than by legal assessment (133). Chalmers rejoined with his famous On the Sufficiency of the Parochial System without a Poor Rate, for the right management of the poor (1841). But the future of poor relief, says Checkland, lay with Alison.

And rightly so, he suggests. “Chalmers took no real account of the fact, palpable to Alison and others, that good workmen were at the mercy of the booms and slumps of the trade cycle. Chalmers neither knew nor understood the evils of unemployment; it is hard to understand how he, living in Glasgow between 1815-1822, could have failed to appreciate so obvious a phenomenon. Chalmers was in effect helpless, locked into Malthusian theory and neo-classical economics. According to his interpretation, if any concession were made the whole fabric would disintegrate” (137).

Thankfully, his essay is not a total kibosh. Some things hadn’t changed and still ought to be recognized and applied. So Checkland concedes,

Chalmers did comprehend important truths about society. He insisted on the importance of the family as the basic social unit, a source of psychic support for its members. He urged that the neighborhood or ‘locality’ should become a focus for community activity; for social coherence to be effective it was necessary to work in terms of units that were manageable and which could command loyalty. He revived John Knox’s ideas of the deacons acting as concerned ‘social workers’; by so doing he was emphasizing the need for a social bond between classes, expressed in commitment. By stressing the need for the gathering of information, together with sustained contact, he presaged the need for professionalism in social work. Though these ideas were in a sense anticipated by Knox, they were of continuing value (137).

Maybe the bridge needs an overhaul, we might say; but there is a decent connection.

Friedhelm Voges, in his essay “Chalmers’ Thinking Habits: Some Lessons from His Theology,” also joins in the critique of his social program. He does acknowledge that Chalmers, “moved by a genuine Christian love especially for the common people” was “looking to restore the Christian Scotland of old [and] wanted to raise the working classes at least in a moral sense” (157). But Chalmers was subject to limitations, he says. “How did Chalmers come, for instance, to regard the assimilation of a town to a country parish as possible – even after his experiment had had to be discontinued” (157)?

He suggests that his limitations lay in certain failures of his theological and philosophical system. Voges, for example, asks how Chalmers could remain so optimistic about his social experiments when he so strongly affirmed total depravity? Shouldn’t Chalmers have been more skeptical about a plan run for sinners by sinners? And shouldn’t Chalmers have distrusted his own senses and sympathies more, rather than blindly following them under the justification of common sense?

His defense of the old Scottish poor laws as applicable in the new context reflects Chalmers’ conviction in the naturalness of God’s inviolable order in the world. By instituting the system of legal assessments, the English have traversed, to quote Chalmers, “the processes of a better mechanism instituted by the wisdom of God” (162). That ‘better mechanism’ is the old, voluntary system embodied in old, rural and parochial Scotland. But Voges argues that there is a serious defect here, in a system that brushes systemic human failure under the carpet.

Last, Voges points out another crack in Chalmers’ bridge. Obviously, Chalmers’ concern for evidence in scientific experiment strongly conditioned the St. John’s ‘experiment,’ both its trial and the publication of its results. As we have seen, Chalmers approached theology inductively, like a scientist; and that carried over to his foray in the (emerging) social sciences. But it is, says, Voges, problematic to approach sociology with the same confidence as a natural scientist. “Being used to the scientific approach, Chalmers probably fell for this temptation quite easily. His readiness to propose easy solutions for social problems, particularly poor relief, may well have its root here” (163).

But like Checkland, Voges leaves a little room for praise. While Chalmers was unduly optimistic and saw things as too easily explained and fixed, yet he writes, “there is also a strength in this approach: where Chalmers moved into immediate action, a greater realist might well have hesitated” (165).

Closely related to the area of philanthropy or social work is the area of evangelism. Here, Chalmers endorsed the same, tried and true vehicles for improving man’s inward condition as he did their outward. He didn’t give up on the old territorial principle and religious establishments, but sought that they should be reapplied in the new contexts.

It must be underscored that when Chalmers advocated the territorial principle, he was doing it to improve the outward condition of the poor in a secondary way. But, as Mary Furgol helpfully observes, this was not his primary reason. “The main purpose behind the plan, however, was still the religious one of bringing the Good News to the poor, and it is vital to understand this when examining his later solution of the problem of poor relief and assessing its impact and success” (128). The St. John’s and West Port experiments are usually – even by evangelicals who write about Chalmers – regarded primarily as philanthropic success stories. If they were successes in this regard, however, it was not this that Chalmers was after primarily. Chalmers was after the good of the soul, then the good of the body. In that order. Territorialism worked for both purposes.

Chalmers’ leadership in the Church Extension campaign of the 1830s, according to Maciver, was a way to implement his evangelistic territorialism of St. John’s on a national level. “He gained national fame through the vehemence with which he urged his vision of reinvigorated ecclesiastical Establishments altered to meet the changing state of 19th-century society” (31).

The evangelistic bridge builder that he was, Chalmers acknowledged the realities of the shifting political and socio-economic scene. Traditionally, it was the landed aristocracy that would be solicited to endow ventures such as the building of new churches. But in the Church Extension campaign, he came to rely heavily on the financial support of the rising middle-class, the merchants and industrialists. Though an establishmentarian, he was clearly not at all coy about employing ‘voluntaristic principles’ (fundraising), and so drawing the scorn of the Dissenters. He even became a de facto Voluntary himself at the Disruption, when the Church of Scotland would not budge on the patronage question. The Free Church later benefited from Chalmers’ experience that he obtained in leading the Church Extension campaign, and charted a course for a profoundly successful new denomination. Through all these vicissitudes, Chalmers remained what he always was; but given changing circumstances, he adapted.

It is interesting to note, in passing, how very practical Chalmers was when it came to issues of Church organization. Roxborogh writes,

For Chalmers the organization of the Church, like the organisation of theology, was subservient to the task of proclaiming the Gospel. On reading a sermon which argued that the Church was free in different times and circumstances to alter its government, worship, and discipline, since its ‘institutions stand not on the strength of statute, but in that of their fitness to fulfill the great objects of her mission’, Chalmers felt moved to write to the author agreeing that it was ‘competent on mere human discretion to decide on questions of ecclesiastical regulations and polity’ (180).

I cannot help but wonder, however, how well this mentality went over with his conservative colleagues. Surely this outlook does not represent standard jus divinum Presbyterianism.

McCaffrey further illumines Chalmers’ evangelistic, bridge-building priorities within the Church organization. Bridges must be built to the common man, and to that end, certain things were prominent in his thinking. “Whether the question concerned pluralities, veto, or church extension, one idea was common to all and in publicizing he made his reputation. Two things were essential to it: character and locality. The quality of the population would be assured by an effective teaching Church. The appointment of ministers to parishes and popular assent to these appointments had to be reconciled to ensure orderly progress. The common man and his attitudes were the key” (43).

Having examined a few areas in which Chalmers sought to bridge the gap of Christian truth – biblically and historically – to the contemporary age, it will be helpful reemphasize why.

Why was Chalmers a bridge builder? Roxborogh is most helpful on this point. Again, it was because he was interested in ‘Christianization.’ He longed for the gracious dominion of Christ to find expression in every age, among every people, in every facet and dimension of human life, from the private individual to the structures and institutions of civilization. For Chalmers, Christianity ought to be applied to the whole of society. “Every part and every function of a commonwealth should be leavened with Christianity” (181). Christ must rule in the natural sciences, in mathematics, in economics, and in social issues of the day, especially welfare. “The kingdoms of the earth,” says Chalmers, “may become the kingdom of God and his Christ with the external framework of these present governments . . . . There must therefore be a way in which Christianity can accommodate itself to this framework – a mode by which it can animate all the parts and all the members of it” (181).

There can be no doubt that Chalmers was a bridge-builder and why he was one. But was he effective?

Part of the answer depends on our values. In her essay, Mary Furgol emphasizes the fact that Chalmers sought to convert first and clothe second. The greater question, then, is whether Chalmers’ preaching and pastoring was effective in the conversion of the poor and whether his influence on other ministers and missionaries brought in a gleaning worthy of their calling. I think the question about Chalmers’ ultimate success is similar to asking, was Jesus successful? Well, it depends on what index you’re using. By the measurements of the Jewish religious establishment, he was a resounding failure. “He saved others; himself he cannot save” (Matt. 24:42). But to his followers, and in the judgment of many successive generations, the verdict is far otherwise. The servant must be content to be as his Master and to endure the critique of those who judge with a human judgment.

Further, much depends on whether one presumes that bridge building is a good thing to begin with in the first place. There are two alternatives to biblical bridge building. There is retreatism and isolationism on the one hand and syncretistic absorption in the culture on the other. It’s not always easy to define either extreme, I admit. But if you’re a retreatist, building your bunker and waiting for the sweet by and by to come, Chalmers is not your guy. And if you’re such a progressive that the Christian tradition of the past has nothing to say (norma normata), much less the antiquated rule of our faith, the infallible Scriptures (norma normans), then you might as well not be a Christian. To be a Christian means building bridges – not failing to build them, either because you are unwilling to embark from your shore or because you are prepared to bid adieux to it once and for all.

But the question is fair – and one that Chalmers would ask of himself anyway! Assuming that we share Chalmers’ values as well as the Christian ideal of bridge building, the results are mixed. Let’s face it. No one is perfect. Certainly Chalmers didn’t think that he was. Perhaps the lion share of criticisms above is fair.

Yet, his successes must not be underrated. Chalmers has left his indelible imprint upon Reformed and evangelical Christendom in Scotland and beyond – not to mention the field of Sociology, Christian or otherwise.

I would suggest that too few followed Chalmers at the pivotal point of the mid-19th century when the old order was passing. In terms of evangelism, Dissenters wanted to abandon establishments and the territorial model of Christianizing a land. These structures were viewed as outdated and invalid. There was too quick an embrace of a lasseiz faire model of Christianity and a rejection of the ‘planned economy’ of the older order. In terms of poor relief, it seems that the pendulum swung away from the localized, voluntary plan of old, rural Scotland, without resting at a golden mean that might have involved a cooperation between central government and territorial church-based poor relief. But now we have the Welfare State, and Chalmers’ plan remains an interesting historical footnote.

In these and other areas, I fear that too few tried to build bridges. But perhaps Chalmers can inspire us to understand and appreciate the old better and seek to implement in the present day the timeless essence of what made it good – without selling our soul to the culture. A delicate balance indeed. Sort of like being a practical pietist.

[Go to part 2]

Read Full Post »

Anstruther Parish ChurchIn the modern day, old orders are forced to give way to new ones.  This is the inevitable process of capitalism.  In 1942, Joseph Schumpeter coined a phrase for this, that apparently became a buzzword in the dot-com boom of the 1990s.  He called it “creative destruction.”  It is a “process of industrial mutation that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one” (http://www.investopedia.com/terms/c/creativedestruction.asp).

As I was reading further in Greenspan’s Age of Turbulence, he illustrated the opposite of this principle on a holiday with his wife in Venice.  “Venice, I realized, is the antithesis of creative destruction. It exists to conserve and appreciate the past, not create a future. But that, I realized, is exactly the point. The city caters to a deep human need for stability and permanence as well as beauty and romance. Venice’s popularity represents one pole of a conflict in human nature: the struggle between the desire to increase material well-being and the desire to ward off change and its attendant stress” (181).

There we have it again.  A deep human need for the once-familiar and once-enjoyed ‘rootedness.’  We wish we could have it again, and enjoy what once was – true community.  “Sometimes you want to go / where everybody knows your name, / and they’re always glad you came.”  

The Anstruther of Thomas Chalmers’ childhood was his Venice.  It hadn’t changed in his memory, and it would never change in that sense.  Only, Chalmers wasn’t going to let Anstruther remain locked up in the past or remain only as a quaint tourist attraction for future generations.  He fully realized that the idyllic parish community of his childhood would never remain exactly the same; yet he sought to transplant its essential features to the slums of St. John’s in Glasgow and the West Port in Edinburgh.  That is, I think, part of the genius of Chalmers.  In an age of change, he didn’t pay homage to creative destruction.  He reckoned with its reality, yes – perhaps successfully, perhaps not so successfully.  But the past was worth preserving; or better, the past was worth reimplementing.

Read Full Post »

“By 2006, nearly 69 percent of households owned their own home, up from 64 percent in 1994 and 44 percent in 1940.  The gains were especially dramatic among Hispanics and blacks, as increasing affluence as well as government encouragement of subprime mortgage programs enabled many members of minority groups to become first-time home buyers.  This expansion of ownership gave more people a stake in the future of our country and boded well for the cohesion of the nation, I thought.  Home ownership resonates deeply today as it did a century ago.  Even in a digital age, brick and mortar (or plywood and Sheetrock) are what stabilize us and make us feel at home” (Alan Greenspan, Age of Turbulence, p. 230).

Notwithstanding the subprime debacle that has thrown Wall Street into a tailspin since this quote, Greenspan’s last observation struck me.   The preconditions for community in the historic sense are vanishing in our day with advancements in travel, technology, and communications.  As we are annexed into the Global Village, we become the neighbors of all and none at once.  But we will never shake our longing for rootedness.  And as social beings, we want to be rooted together.  So as long as we have houses and as long as we have neighbors, we have the raw materials for the old community to be revived.  What is needed is the Spirit of God to breathe into these dead bones and constitute true communities again. 

But God’s Spirit is at work today, and He is rebuilding true community.  It can be found in the Visible Church, consisting of those who profess the Christian gospel and their children.  Yes, we bear the imprint of our culture.  More often than not, we no longer live in geographic community.  We have drifted far from that ideal that we discover in the ancient church of Jerusalem, “And all that believed were together . . . and they continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart . . .” (Acts 2:44, 46).  But though we must travel by car, call by phone, or communicate by e-mail, God’s people have discovered that God has preserved and is remaking community in a day when it seems past repair.  There is still a “togetherness,” a “one accordness” in our congregations. 

And yet I for one haven’t given up on hoping for the reemergence true, Christian communities on a large scale.  I hope to see the kind of communities that prevailed in Scotland, the Netherlands, and New England.   Communities leavened with the Gospel – people walking to church once again.  Neighbors enjoying brotherly fellowship, older matrons giving a helping hand to harried young mothers, baptized children playing together in front of their own houses.  Those same children growing up, falling in love, marrying, and ushering in third and fourth generation to the church of their childhood.  Ministers working in tandem for the Christianization of cities, regions, and states, not resting until the lump of the nation has been filled.

I hold out that hope because, as Greenspan has said, people still want to put their roots down.  And they still want to live in community.  And even more importantly, God is still at work, preserving and building true community up.  If He is building true community, and that community is constantly seeking to enfold the alienated (Eph. 2:12), then the neighborhoods in which our people live can easily be future parishes in the old fashioned sense.  Within our church communities, there are still ‘brick and mortar’ houses.  And these can – they must! – become beachheads from which our church communities expand and realize themselves. 

Greenspan is right.  Community is not dead.  But more to the point, God has said it – and He is at work!

“Thus saith the LORD; I am returned unto Zion, and will dwell in the midst of Jerusalem: and Jersualem shall be called a city of truth; and the mountain of the LORD of hohsts the holy mountain.  Thus saith the LORD of hosts; there shall yet old  men and old women dwell in teh streets of Jerusalem, and every man with his staff in his hand for very age.  And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in the streets thereof” (Zech. 8:3-5).

Read Full Post »