Who is Sufficient for These Things? Of Sinners, Theologians, and the Question of Cancelation
In a turn of events that should surprise no one at all, my recent reflections on Barth and theological consecration was met with mixed reactions. A whole two minutes passed before “what about Martin Luther King Jr.?” and “what about Edwards?” began to fill my timeline. These questions are, in my estimation, entirely fair game. If they reveal anything clearly, it is that our great big Christian family is just as complicated and weird as our biological families.
We should be deeply suspicious of simple answers. The two equally tempting, and equally wrong responses are to adopt, on the one hand, a Cartesian dualism that separates mind from matter and concludes that the life of a thinker has no bearing whatever on the ideas he espouses, and, on the other hand, a spirit of self-righteous chronological snobbery that conveniently cancels figures willy nilly on account of every generational blind spot except the one we have (for which future self-righteous chronological snobs will cancel us, no doubt). Prudence is not so reductionistic. The character of a thinker matters deeply, and here, east of Eden, we are all weighed down with the burden of fallen reason. So, how are we to adjudicate when a theologian’s sin calls the designation of “theologian” into question? Because there are no easy answers to such questions, any answer is liable to be met with less than tender sympathy. But I think it was G.K. Chesterton who said, “I believe in getting into hot water—it keeps one clean.” In the spirit of cleanliness, then, I shall attempt at some additional clarity.
When scrutinized under this standard, someone like Karl Barth, on account of his persistent high-handed adultery, cannot be considered a good theologian. Since theologians are intended as Christ’s gift of teachers to his church (Eph 4:11), a theologian who should have been excommunicated—had his sins been exposed—cannot in any way be considered a good theologian. The additional point of this thought experiment with Barth was to consider how his high-handed habitual and unrepented sin negatively impacted his theology. In light of the central claim regarding the relationship between personal piety and good theological contemplation, we have to conclude that the question is not if his sin obscured his theological vision of God, but rather how and to what extent.So, how are we to adjudicate when a theologian’s sin calls the designation of “theologian” into question? Click To Tweet
Before applying this thesis to a few other figures, I should be clear on what I am not saying with this thesis or my previous article. I am not saying that Barth should be “canceled” or “blacklisted,” as if reading his work ought to be outlawed. Being widely read is generally good if you can manage it. Nor am I saying that Barth has no good insights from time to time. God is generous with his common grace, and some of the choicest gems of human wisdom have come from the most surprising of places. So, the question is not whether Barth should be read—his influence is indisputable, so understanding certain strands of modern theology positively demands a careful reading of Barth. Nor is the question whether Barth has anything good to say—I have personally benefited from some of his insights. The question is whether we can consider Barth a good theologian as a whole. I maintain that the answer to that question is a swift and clear “no,” not only because his moral shortcomings disqualify him from such a designation, but because those disqualifications compromised his theological contemplations.
Comparable examples would be the likes of Paul Tillich or Martin Luther King Jr. Each of the men hid secret lives of sexual deviancy, to one degree or another, living in unrepentant and knowingly deceiving those around them. Can we recognize powerful insights in them? Certainly. But can we consider Tillich a faithful theologian or King a faithful pastor? Are either of them exemplary Christian men? Certainly not. They were not godly.
Barth, Tillich, and King are, I believe, relatively easy cases. But how might other figures fair whose sin was not so flagrantly willful or conscious?
Edwards the Slaveowner
Consider the case of Jonathan Edwards. Edwards owned perhaps seven slaves in his life. He may very well have gone to the auction block and purchased them himself. We who have been enriched by Edwards’s theological insights should not minimize or dismiss the gravity of this situation: he purchased human beings as if they were his property—human beings, we must emphasize, that were victims of the crime God explicitly condemns in Exodus 21:16. This means that Edwards’s actions directly perpetuated a chattel slavery system that was predicated on man-stealing, which means that he was himself complicit in the act.Prudence is not so reductionistic. The character of a thinker matters deeply, and here, east of Eden, we are all weighed down with the burden of fallen reason. Click To Tweet
Granted, Edwards did explicitly condemn the trans-Atlantic slave trade. But it is not at all clear to me that this fact improves the specs of his case. Why did he not imagine that his act of purchasing slaves—and defending the rights of others to do so—fed the very beast he criticized? We might be tempted to suggest that perhaps he was trying to redeem a broken system by improving the lives of those who had already been mistreated. After all, the slaves he owned were no doubt treated far better than many other slaves of his day (with some even being baptized into full membership of his church—a practice unique even in Edwards’s time). But if this were his motivation for purchasing slaves, if he had purely benevolent intentions, why would he not then simply emancipate those slaves (as Charles Spurgeon did with Thomas Johnson) rather than keeping them as his “property” until his death? The unfortunate conclusion is that Edwards most likely lived an awful contradiction: he knew the trans-Atlantic slave trade was evil, but he perpetuated it nonetheless. His conscience objected to race-based man-stealing, but, inconsistently, not to purchasing those stolen people. Edwards, of course, may reject this line of reasoning, and there seems to be some indication that he thought carefully through this line of argumentation and concluded that owning and purchasing slaves was not, in and of itself, a perpetuation of the slave trade . But again, I simply think Edwards was wrong here, and in that sense, suffered a kind of blindness.
Now, the question is not whether Edwards is exempt from the principle stated above; he is not. Edwards gets no pass. In fact, he himself would insist on not receiving a pass on standards for godliness. So, yes, his sin did impact his theological contemplations. The question is how and to what extent. And the answer to those questions depends, in part, on how high-handed his sin was, and how much his sin was committed in (culpable) ignorance.
Sins of Ignorance and Sins Against Conscience
Why should that matter? Where do I get the idea that sins committed in ignorance are of a different order than sins committed “with a high hand?” Believe it or not, the distinction is not a brazen attempt on my part to use unequal weights and measures so as to justify going easier on Edwards. No, the distinction is one we get from the Scriptures themselves. As far back as Numbers 15:22-29, we see God acknowledging the category of sins committed in ignorance by prescribing their own sacrifice. The important thing we learn from this passage is that sins committed in ignorance are still sins, and therefore still require the blood of atoning sacrifice. They come ultimately from a heart and mind that have been marked by the fall, and therefore still require atonement, confession, and repentance.God is generous with his common grace, and some of the choicest gems of human wisdom have come from the most surprising of places. Click To Tweet
But in this same passage, immediately following instructions regarding unintentional sins, Numbers 15:30-31 goes on to make a distinction: “But the person who does anything with a high hand, whether he is native or a sojourner, reviles the LORD, and that person shall be cut off from among his people. Because he has despised the word of the LORD and has broken his commandment, that person shall be utterly cut off; his iniquity shall be on him.” The prescribed treatment for sins committed “with a high hand” are notably harsher than those committed “unintentionally.”
Why is this the case? And why is it just? We might get an answer by considering a related biblical principle: sins committed against conscience. We see this principle laid out in 1 Corinthians 8:1-13 and Romans 14:13-23. According to Paul, a person can be objectively wrong about what he thinks constitutes as a sin (i.e., thinking that a particular kind of meat is unclean and would be sinful to eat even though, strictly speaking, God doesn’t care), and still be sinning by violating such an extra-biblical “precept.” If a person thinks that God has drawn a line in the sand, saying, “Do not cross here,” that person sins by crossing the line, even if God has not in fact drawn the line. A sin against conscience is still sin, even if the conscience is bound in such a way that God does not intend. Why? Because the violation against conscience reveals a heart that is willing to transgress God’s law, even if, objectively speaking, it hasn’t. It reveals a high hand. “But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Rom 14:23). And this principle helps us make sense of why God apparently weighs sins of ignorance and sins of high-handedness differently. While the former are still sins, they are not sins that proceed from a conscience desire to disobey—they reveal a heart that is marked by the fall and prone to corruption, but not necessarily outright rebellion. The latter are sins committed with eyes wide open, with a conscious disregard for God’s law.
Returning to Edwards, we should therefore remember that every generation has its blind spots—we are no exception. By all historical accounts, Edwards was a man of his time in this regard: he failed to recognize the sinfulness of his complicity in an intrinsically sinful system.We should also recognize that cultural and generational blind spots, though not omnipotent or impossible to resist, are incredibly strong. Click To Tweet
Why am I assuming that someone like Edwards committed his sin in ignorance, while someone like Barth or King didn’t? Consider the contrast of their behavior. Barth and King, on the one hand, hid their misconduct because they knew it to be sinful, while Edwards, on the other hand, made no bones about his slave ownership, not because he was so brazen in his rebellion that he didn’t care, but because he was so blind to his own sin that it didn’t even occur to him to “cover up.” Was there a generational blind spot regarding the culpable connection between ownership of stolen people and the stealing itself? It appears so, in light of Edwards’s public defense of the former and condemnation of the latter. The fact that no one, to my knowledge, called him out for the inconsistency (not, of course, for his want of motivated critics—Edwards had no shortage there!) suggests that by and large, no one really saw an inconsistency worth calling out. On the other hand, was there a generational blind spot regarding the sinfulness of infidelity to which Barth or King were subject? Their secrecy suggests not.
We have every reason to believe that Edwards read his role as a slaveowner against the backdrop of Paul’s instructions to masters in Ephesians 6:9. In this, Edwards misread his situation. His role was not to be an Ephesians 6:9 master to his slaves because Ephesians 6:9 did not envision chattel slavery. His opportunity for slave ownership was only even possible on account of grave divine law-breaking (although, Grego-Roman slavery was no walk in the park either—race-based chattel slavery and Greco-Roman slavery are not the same. Perhaps we could say that if they are apples and oranges, they are somewhat comparable as rotten apples and rotten oranges).
Further, his misapprehension of his situation was a culpable one. We should expect for Edwards to have known better, and I am confident that he would agree (Edwards doesn’t strike me as the kind of guy who would whine, blame-shift, or plead ignorance). He recognized that the slave trade depended on man-stealing and still didn’t seem to grasp the degree of his culpability in this institution. Nevertheless, we should also recognize that cultural and generational blind spots, though not omnipotent or impossible to resist, are incredibly strong, and future generations will certainly have a thing or two to say about something we all affirm or fail to condemn that likely isn’t on any of our radars. We should therefore tread with humility.
Habitual Virtue and Vice
Not only should we consider the presence or absence of sin, even repeated sin, we should also consider the posture toward virtue or vice when considering our theologians. This is because the things that we practice shape the kind of people we are. The cultivation of virtue involves the practice of habits that make their practitioners increasingly conform to the good (God’s holiness), while the cultivation of vice involves the practice of habits that make their practitioners increasingly deform from the good.The cultivation of virtue involves the practice of habits that make their practitioners increasingly conform to the good (God’s holiness). Click To Tweet
It may be tempting for us to identify one sin, or one kind of sin, and draw conclusions from there. But that is insufficient for judging the integrity of a theologian. We need more information. We must consider the kind of posture their souls kept on account of their habits. Habitual vice sears the conscience and conditions a person not only to tolerate unrepentant sin in their life, but also to justify that sin through perverse moral and theological reasoning. Habitual vice bends the soul’s posture. In consideration of a figure like Edwards, it seems to me that any honest reading of his life should render the judgment that he sought, with abnormal regularity, to cultivate virtue. He strained, imperfectly and (even grossly) inconsistently, to keep his soul upright in the sight of God.
Again, this does not minimize the sinfulness of his involvement in the slave trade, which no doubt did malform his soul’s posture and theology as a whole. But this does not, in my judgment, completely invalidate his integrity as a theologian—as, say, high-handed, hidden, unrepentant, serial infidelity would, which would constitute as a thorough soulish cultivation of vice. This could be true of any habitual cultivation of vice: unrepentant high-handed outbursts of anger, manipulation, lying, slander, gossip, etc. Serial infidelity isn’t the only way to bend one’s soul, and seldom—if ever—is it not accompanied by a whole host of other vicious habits.
The Complicated Nature of a Figure’s Contribution
When all is said and done, everything I have written here must also be considered in the light of mysterious providence.
Martin Luther ended an illustrious career with antisemitic rantings, the vileness of which would not be rivaled by another until they would be picked up and weaponized by the Nazis. And yet, he’s the spark that God sovereignly used to start the hot, holy flames of the Reformation that would burn through 16th century Europe and continue on today.In his providence, God gives us exactly the kind of family history befitting pilgrims who are not yet in the promised land: a massive tangle of contradictions and complications requiring precision and prudence in judgment. Click To Tweet
Karl Barth boldly resisted the Nazis and criticized the worst expressions of liberal theology in the 20th century and was yet a compromised adulterer who emotionally tortured his wife and justified his actions theologically.
Jonathan Edwards spoke eloquently about Charity and Its Fruits and was used mightily by God in the spiritual revivals of the Great Awakening, and yet he was complicit in one of the ugliest institutions in American history.
Martin Luther King Jr. was a courageous man who suffered incredible injustice at the hands of the Police and the FBI, and was eventually murdered for his courage—a man whose piercing insights into the human condition, resourced by biblical anthropology and a cultural acceptance of Christianity, changed the hearts of countless Americans on the matter of race. And yet, this same man was habitually unfaithful to his wife and was an academic fraud.
In his providence, God gives us exactly the kind of family history befitting pilgrims who are not yet in the promised land: a massive tangle of contradictions and complications requiring precision and prudence in judgment. There are no easy outs. We can honor men like Luther, the antisemite, and King, the adulterer, for what God saw fit to produce through their courage, but we should not lionize them and present them as paragons of virtue and godly pastoral leadership. They were not. We can learn from Barth when, by God’s common grace, he stumbles upon an insight that harmonizes with Scripture and sound theology, but we must not imagine that he was anything resembling a godly theologian. We can learn from Edwards to love the God who captivated his imagination and affections, but we must not absolve him of his sinful act of purchasing slaves.The past is our inheritance—a gift from God. We should not get in the habit of refusing wisdom when he offers it. Click To Tweet
Whatever we do, we must not follow the world’s lead in “canceling the past.” Such a tendency is chronologically snobbish and grossly irresponsible. The past is our inheritance—a gift from God. We should not get in the habit of refusing wisdom when he offers it. As usual, C.S. Lewis has made this point much better than I could, so I should really let him speak. Here’s how he frames the value of refusing to jettison the past in his essay, “On Reading Old Books”:
Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period… The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.
With Scripture as our norma normans, calibrating our consciences, we should use equal weights and measures. Taking all things into consideration, we should render our best judgments on figures of the past according to the standard of Scripture (and not the fickle standards of popular opinion), and conclude with a humble prayer: “Lord, keep me.”
 I’m grateful to a brief Twitter conversation with Michael J. Lynch who pointed this out to me, which gave me a chance to sharpen up some misleading language in an earlier draft of this piece.