While your hot dogs are grilling and you wait for the fireworks…
There is much talk about “replacement theology” in the church today, as I am exploring in this summer’s blog series on Christian Zionism, concerning how national Israel relates to the Christian church. However, as the Fourth of July is nearly upon us, I wanted to briefly tackle a more pressing kind of “replacement theology” that dangerously threatens Christianity today. There is a disturbing trend among some Christians, who, in a sense, see the American nation as somehow “replacing” either the church or national Israel, or possibly both, within the plan and providence of God.
Popular Christian author and public intellectual, Eric Metaxas, has written a new book based on a saying attributed to Benjamin Franklin at the 1787 Constitutional Convention. When asked, “Well, Doctor, what have we got? A Republic or a Monarchy?,” the elder statesman replied, “A Republic, if you can keep it.” Metaxas’ If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty, is a spirited defense of American exceptionalism, the idea that the American nation has a special, unique and even divine calling in world history.
Now, let me first say that I highly recommend Eric Metaxas to you as an astute public thinker. His Socrates in the City interviews with other thinkers are very helpful and stimulating. He has written one of my favorite biographies of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. But when I read two reviews of Metaxas’ latest book, first by Wheaton College historian Robert Tracy McKenzie, and the second by the Masters College historian, Gregg L. Frazer,1 a question was raised in my mind.
In If You Can Keep It, Metaxas’ reviewers note that the author makes a number of historical errors that hamper his otherwise noble thesis. One of the most egregious errors concerns a common misreading of Massachusetts Bay governor John Winthrop’s 1630 sermon, “A Model of Christian Charity.” Metaxas misreads the famous line by Winthrop, that “we shall be as a city on a hill,” to be a reference to the American nation for all time. However, the original context of Winthrop’s sermon is concerning the witness of Winthrop’s particular Christian community, going back to the teaching of Matthew 5:14. In other words, Winthrop is teaching about the church, not about America as a nation.
Think about it: By replacing the church as the “city on a hill” with the American nation, does this not radically change the message of Matthew 5:14?
Furthermore, Metaxas proclaims that Founding Father, John Adams, was a “theologically orthodox Christian.” However, an observant reader in colonial American history will know that Adams rejected a number of core tenets of orthodox Christian faith, such as the deity of Christ, the atoning work of Christ for salvation, and the belief in the Triune nature of God.2 Adams also preferred the Hindu Shastra as the best source for “orthodox” theology.
Think about it: Does remaking the great patriot, John Adams, into an honorary evangelical Christian really help Metaxas’ case? Does not this mishandling of historical data, at the very least, confuse the reader?
So, while I am very sympathetic to Metaxas’ call to virtue and the role of Christian values in public life, his reworking of some details of American history raises this disturbing question: Is Eric Metaxas promoting a kind of “replacement theology,” whereby the American nation replaces either the church or national Israel in the message of the Bible? For starters, read those two book reviews, previously linked above, read Winthrop’s sermon, or even allow Eric Metaxas to make his own case. Examine the evidence, think about it as you enjoy your hotdogs and the fireworks this weekend, and then come to your own conclusion.
1. The Masters College is affiliated with the ministry of Southern California pastor and teacher, John MacArthur.↩
2. Concerning Adam’s views on the Trinity, popular evangelical speaker and writer, David Barton, has also made the same error on numerous occasions, suggesting that Unitarians prior to 1839, like John Adams, actually believed in the Trinity. Really??? Is not the whole point why Unitarians have historically called themselves “Unitarian” is because they reject the Trinity?↩