Wayne Grudem, Thomas Aquinas, and Cultural Blindness

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The evangelical world was caught off balance yesterday by a Wayne Grudem’s endorsement of Donald Trump. Actually, what the theologian posted on Townhall  goes beyond a simple endorsement, as he makes the argument that, not only is it morally correct to vote for Trump, but that it would be sinful for a Christian to vote for anyone other than Trump (even a conservative third-party candidate).

Wayne Grudem is a giant of theological intellect, and a much-respected and much-beloved member of the evangelical community. His magnum opus, Systematic Theology, is one of the definitive works of Western Christianity in the 20th Century. He has been name-dropped in lyrics by Christian rappers like Braille and Lecrae. I, like many Christians, am grateful to Dr. Grudem for his work.

But this article is really, really, dumb. A brilliant man used go-go-gadget arms to reach for Biblical interpretations and applications while making breathtaking leaps of ignorance and inconsistency. While some Christians have accepted his words as the sound work of a solid logician, many in the evangelical community are shocked and disappointed. I won’t bother to walk through everything that is wrong with what he writes – if you can’t recognize it on your own then I don’t think I’ll be able to help you see it, at least not in one go.

However, Grudem is not the first brilliant theologian with an authoritative tome to his name to have written something really, really dumb.

Just yesterday I was reading Elizabeth Johnson’s She Who Is, and she refers to a quote from the 13th Century theologian Thomas Aquinas, in which he claims that it is a failure of man when his seed leads to the creation of a female:

“Only as regards nature in the individual is the female something defective and misbegotten. For the active power in the seed of the male tends to produce something like itself, perfect in masculinity; but the procreation of a female is the result either of the debility of the active power, of some unsuitability of the material, or some change effected by external influences, like the south wind, for example, which is damp, as we are told by Aristotle.”

Another genius, with the epic albeit incomplete Summa Theologica to his name, basically said that a man’s sexual performance determines whether or not he creates another man or disappoints nature with another female.

Clearly, that is really, really dumb.

But Thomas Aquinas, despite being nicknamed the “Dumb Ox” by his classmates, was not dumb at all. And Wayne Grudem, as he has time and again demonstrated, is not a dumb man either. It would also be irresponsible to claim that either of them are bad men – indeed, those who know Dr. Grudem would say that he has only the best intentions.

And therein lies the danger of making this about Dr. Grudem. This is the urgent matter at hand: while not excusing his ignorance, Dr. Grudem is a product of the Christian culture from which he comes, one that has chased after the wind and missed the billionaire Leviathan coming straight for them.

We do not throw out Thomas Aquinas because of this one quote largely because this sort of view is not particularly unique among thinkers of the 13th Century. Rather than indicate something about Aquinas, what this really reveals is something about that culture. Sexism was so bad at that time that a genius could think dumb things like the above quote – and it is for this reason that Johnson uses this quote to highlight the need for feminist theology. Again, it doesn’t excuse Aquinas for his view, but it is much more a condemnation of the culture than it is of that one man. Christianity and slavery have a similar relationship. For example, Jonathan Edwards owned slaves. That’s not about Edwards as much as it is about the evil slave-owning culture he lived in (and again, it doesn’t excuse Edwards).

Wayne Grudem’s argument reveals a strain of Christianity that is saturated with conservative principles, not the Gospel. Grudem dismisses all facets of liberalism, and asserts a desire for Christian cultural dominance and comfort. This is not written like a theologian who has decided it is time to get involved in politics – it sounds more like something Sean Hannity would write after Googling a few passages of scripture.

Now, if someone believes that Hillary Clinton must be defeated at all costs solely on the grounds of overturning Roe v. Wade, and if they think that overturning that decision will somehow end all abortions, and if the thought of the unborn being killed far outweighs any other moral issue, then I can’t really tell that person that they are wrong to feel that way. It’s an issue I wrestle with, as it is of great importance to me, too. So I get it – abortion is, for some people, the only issue that matters at all, and if that’s the case, I guess I understand why that person would vote for Trump.

But that isn’t what Dr. Grudem does. Rather, he writes a comprehensive list of reasons that make Trump a good candidate and Hillary a bad one, and each and every time it is on the basis of conservative far-right politics. Dr. Grudem is so committed to his ideology that he misses, ignores, or excuses all of Trump’s faults, editorializing a demagogue into a “good candidate with flaws.”

It’s not just that he’s saying that a vote for Hillary is a sinful choice – it’s that he saying that to vote for anyone besides Trump, to conscientiously object, and vote for, say, Gary Johnson or Ben Sasse or anyone else would be sinful.

The temptation is to make this about Grudem, and while it affects the way I see him, it should reveal much more to us about Christianity in America. What does it say about what American Christianity teaches and what it practices when one of the most influential minds since the Puritans can write something like this?

I believe it indicates that large portions of white evangelicalism in America are still plagued by racism, sexism, and ethnocentrism. They are still led astray by nationalism, militarism, and a need to be culturally dominant and secure. There is cowardice. There is ignorance. And there is an overwhelming anti-liberal sentiment. I’m sure many of you have felt that last one personally.

The Democratic National Convention made a tour-de-force case for their party and their candidate as the option for love, patriotism, and democracy, following up the bumbling and flailing efforts of the circus in Cleveland. I’m not saying that Hillary and the Democrats are really all about the things that were promoted at that convention, and it’s not like every Republican loves the idea of the authoritarian state which Trump envisions. But it’s remarkably tone deaf to denounce the comprehensive evils of liberalism after those two conventions.

But tone deaf is what much of American Christianity is, and we need to be aware of this and the way it affects our religion and our politics. This tone-deafness leads Eric Metaxas, the man who wrote a big book about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, to say that Hillary, not Trump, is like Hitler. C’mon man – you wrote the book!

It is important to be aware of our religious blindspots. Rather than trying to isolate particular cases as problematic, it’s important to see failures as the norm.

All this is to say, it’s not Dr. Grudem’s opinion that alarms me, so much as it is the culture that has shaped his brilliant mind.

Forth now, and fear no darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria

– Peter

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5 thoughts on “Wayne Grudem, Thomas Aquinas, and Cultural Blindness

  1. I’m currently contemplating the why of this. It’s with regard to the second table in the linked article below. Is Grudem one of the reasons why?

    About that moral decline (2011-2016).
    White evangelical Protestants #1.
    White evangelical Protestants are less concerned about the personal indiscretions of elected officials than those without any religious affiliation?

    http://www.prri.org/research/prri-brookings-october-19-2016-presidential-election-horserace-clinton-trump/

  2. Culture is always a representation of what a group accepts and believes – and to a large degree, Grudem and those who think as he does are responsible for making the culture – they contribute to it’s existence through their works like: Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth, Evangelical Feminism – A New Path to Liberalism?, Biblical Foundations for Manhood and Womanhood, ESV Bible, Pastoral Leadership for Manhood and Womanhood, etc. And culture just eats them up and demands more – as if it were a never-ending thanks-giving feast. Grudem is a captain or a first mate on the sinking ship that he helped build from the ground up. Whereas Aquinas was a product of his time, Grudem is at odds with the increasing egalitarian culture that exists outside of his conservative sub-culture which was partially shaped by his brilliant mind.

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