But remember that you breathe a poisoned atmosphere, if you lose the lively impression of Divine Truth , if you fall in skepticism or even inner coldness you will lose more than you gain from the German Professors and Libraries.” – Archibald Alexander, in a letter to Charles Hodge, 1827
Rev. Jonathan David Faulkner
From 1827-1829 a Princeton Professor by the name of Charles Hodge studied at Halle in Germany. He was there to continue his advance degree and to better expand on his theological knowledge. At the same time, in the southern part of Germany, the theological school of Tubingen a professor named David Strauss and his co-hort David Bauer were developing what we know today as “Critical Theology” or the “Historical Critical Method.” As David Schaff notes in his biography of his faither: “It was a time of great upheaval at Tubingen where many students began to doubt and fall away from the faith. My father (the Church Historian Philip Schaff) found the opposite to be true, it strengthened his faith.” As John T. Ford notes in his essay on Schaff: “The young Schaff had great respect for Dr. Bauer, even though they had sharp disagreements.” The development of Critical Theory is what prompted Alexander to warn his young protégé about what he called “The threat of the German Theology.” He was concerned with the rationalistic strain that he found in Strauss’s The Life of Jesus which caused the great turmoil at Tubingen David Schaff described above. For Alexander, German Theology was to be rejected altogether.
Yet, while Hodge was in Germany a new minted Professor named John Williamson Nevin taught for him at Princeton. Upon Hodge’s return he departed for Alleghany Seminary where he read a tract entitled: What is Church History by the Philip Schaff who was at Tubingen as a student while the upheaval was happening. Upon reading this tract Nevin decided to learn German so he could read the German Theologians. This influence moved him from the “Common Sense Realism” of the Scottish Presbyterian School to the German Romanic, Idealism school of thought, one that would put him at odds with the very man he taught for while he was avoiding the German Theology in Germany, Charles Hodge. Nevin would later invite the newly minted Professor of Theology Philip Schaff to Mercersburg Seminary in Mercersburg PA (modern day Lancaster Seminary). Together, heavily influenced by the Church Father’s and Pre-Reformation reformers like John Hus they would develop what is known as The Mercersburg Theology. Schaff’s first American Sermon, The Principle of Protestantism unintentionally became the first shots fired in an internecine conflict between Hodge, Schaff and Nevin as Hodge took on “the threat of the German theology” on American soil that would last until Mercersburg closed in 1864 due to the advancing Confederate Army and ensuing battle of Gettysburg.
I have outlined the details of the Mercersburg Theology in many other places, and have written at length on the debate in my Master’s Thesis which can be found here. The debate largely stems from differing views of the nature of the Church. Hodge and the Common Sense Theologians tended to take a post-Augustinian view, emphasizing a difference between a visible and invisible church, the visible church containing the wheat and the tears and the invisible church being the true, sanctified saints. Mercersburg, on the other hand, saw the Church as having organic, visible unity on Earth and Heaven that should not be violated, they saw “the sect system” justified by Hodge and others as a violation of 1 Corinthians 1-3 and the High Priestly Prayer in John 17. In his response to The Principal of Protestantism Hodge even calls the theology: “Strange and foreign.” It seems that he took his mentor’s words to heart. Mercersburg’s ideas were to be rejected because they did not line up with the common sense theology of the greater theological atmosphere of Post-Colonial America. Whether it was Alexander’s intent, he instilled a fear of the German Theology, in general, not merely the Critical Method of Strauss, but the entire system. The same system, by the way, that also produced the High Church Prussian Movement which influenced Schaff’s sacramentology during his time in Berlin. In short, not all was evil that came out of Germany, in fact, we study history the way we do today because of the influence of the education Philip Schaff received in Germany. Because of Alexander’s warning and Hodge’s fear when he encountered the same theology he had learned while taking classes from August Neander (who Schaff would later take classes from 10 years later) he called it: “strange and foreign.”
I know it seems odd to call one of the greatest thinkers of the 19th century ignorant of something, but I truly believe that he was ignorant of both what the theological system he was writing against and in that ignorance, fearful and fearful because he had been told to be afraid and skeptical of it. He took the good and the bad and threw it out and that caused him to reject thinking of a man who witnesses firsthand the damage done by Strauss and whose faith had been strengthened and not destroyed.
And that brings me to Critical Race Theory.
I know that by writing this I will be labeled as a Marxist or a liberal or whatever boogeyman you want me to be. But if you get past those three words above, perhaps we can have a discussion about why I think what is happening right now with CRT is the exact same phenomenon as what I have laid out above. Archibald Alexanders informs his protégé that the German Theology is a threat and so he treats it as a threat, except on a much larger scale. As I and others have noted, fear is a powerful motivator and the modus operandi for American Christianity has been to disciple adherents into a Gospel of Fear rather than into the Gospel of Jesus. We do this by labeling something “Evil” or “A worldview” and we do this without ever engaging actual scholars on the topics we are telling people to be afraid of. Or, we use these topics as strawmen arguments to distract from real, internal threats to organic unity.
That is what has been happening with CRT in circles like those of Owen Strachen who just spoke at a conference concerning the topic of “Wokeness and the Gospel.” In his addresses he labeled what he calls “wokeness” which includes apparent adherence to CRT as the biggest threat to the Gospel we have ever seen. He insists that “wokeness” is a worldview, as is CRT, and it will do serious damage to the Church. But he never gives a definition of CRT outside of derogatory pejoratives. He does not engage with actual CRT Scholars like Richard Delgado and Jean Stefanick and instead mislabels biblically orthodox scholars as proponents of CRT. At best, after reading Critical Race Theory: An Introduction I cannot find any support for this as a worldview, instead, it is best defined as a social legal theory that is rooted in the idea that The Civil Rights Movement did not complete its goal.
Further, Strachan and even United States Senators are making claims that CRT is being taught in schools; “teaching your kids to hate each other based on skin color.” As Charlie Sykes from the Bulwark points out in his “Morning Shots” newsletter from The Bulwark, it is the same playbook used in the last decade about Sharia Law. Despite the lack of evidence that anyone, anywhere was pushing Sharia Law on anyone state legislatures passed all kinds of Anti-Sharia laws. The same is happening with CRT. Pew reported: Legislators in at least 15 states have introduced measures this session that would prohibit the teaching of critical race theory or related topics in publicly funded schools…despite no evidence that it is being taught in any public school.” But as Sykes points out: The Data isn’t the point, outrage is.” As long as we can label something as “other” we do not have engage it, we can also invent magical boogeymen. As one twitter user pointed out: “Critical Race Theory is an upper level class for a law degree and you expect me to believe it is being taught to kindergartners?” But again, the point here is not the engagement with ideas, but the outrage and book sales that being “anti-woke” or “Anti-CRT” can generate. It is a grift, and it is totally unserious. At least we cannot accuse Alexander of not being serious, he had a genuine concern about something that he should have been genuinely concerned about, but to be skeptical of everything that came out of Germany, he and Hodge both should have been more cautious about that.
This is where the difference lies, it is not about a genuine concern for a genuine problem, in fact, these men are doing this while more serious and real issues are tearing the Church to shreds. Why listen to victims of sexual abuse in the SBC when CRT is crouching at your door. Prophetic voices calling out the Christian Nationalism idolatry running wild in our churches need to be silent and fight against the real threat, CRT. There are of course, a number of logical fallacies at play here, the most prevalent being the Strawman of “whataboutism.” It is an incredibly dishonest way of addressing any thought. Archibald Alexander had read Strauss’s book and saw a legitimate threat in what he was teaching, as did the young Schaff. With all the bad faith arguments surrounding CRT, it makes me wonder if these men have read any scholarship at all (as I said above). If this were about a legitimate threat there would be evidence that the claims were true and with CRT there is not evidence that the claims being made. But again, the point is outrage, book sales and so on. All of this is incredibly dishonest, the people making the claims know that fear is a powerful and relevant tool to get the masses to do as they say. It is actually a form of Nihilism tied to pragmatism, that is, they do not believe in anything unless it serves their purposes, this is a dangerous way to live.
Now, this does not apply to everyone, and I normally try to paint others in as charitable light as possible, but there is a sense that “owning the libs” is more important, in Christians Circles as much as it is in Secular political circles. If you actually take apart the debates piece by piece there is no substance to it, it is mere performance and it lacks actual evidence to back it up. These men are, whether intentionally or unintentionally, bearing false witness about people or ideas that they know nothing about and have not taken the time to understand. That is just the reality as it is presenting itself and it is both frustrating and sad.
You have to understand as well that all of this is one giant Straw Man argument, an argument designed to distract from a bigger problem or one that is loosely based on the issue being asked about. It is rooted in a deeply unserious “Whataboutism.” For example, you mention Christian Nationalism or supporting Sexual Abuse and Assault victims in the church and someone says: “That’s nice but what about CRT?” We do not get to actually address a Heresy or a sin against other image bearers because we have this big bad threat of CRT which is not actually a big bad threat. Or, we can’t address sexual assault in the church because this leader plagiarized some of his sermons. (Okay, he did, but in this case it was being used as a smear campaign and a straw man argument).
What all of this will do is bring down judgment on those who are bearing false witness and attacking brothers and sisters. I sincerely hope that people like Strachan repent of this, or realized that they are being deceived and repent of their part In the deception. Lest they come face to face with God and hear: “I was a sexual abuse survivor and you did not help me, depart from me into eternal damnation.”
May God have mercy on our souls.