Empowered Witness: A Review

Empowered Witness: Politics, Culture, and the Spiritual Mission of the Church by Alan D. Strange. Crossway, 2024. Paperback. 168 pp. $17.99.

Talk about Christianity and politics is decidedly muddled. People are unclear about where the line is to be drawn between the church and the state. There is disagreement about the possibility and desirability of Christian political activism. Even the positing of a Christian political theory is seen by some as a threat to the purity of the faith. Still others assert that Christian politics is not an optional extra.

What Christians generally, and reformed Christians in particular, need is some clarity about first principles. This is particularly true with regard how we understand the role of the church in the world. Enter Alan Strange and his book on the spirituality of the church. Strange’s book, Empowered Witness, seeks to do one thing: illuminate the role of the church in the temporal world. The book comes against the background of heightened politicization of churches in the United States.

American flag liturgies and pro-Trump sermons seem to be in Strange’s sights. But in the Reformed world, these dangers are not as apparent. Rather it is the Christian nationalists, the Constantinians, and those suggesting that Christians reassert themselves in the political arena, that Strange might have in view. At least, that’s how it may feel to those on the New Christian Right. But matters are rather different upon reading Empowered Witness.

The focus of the book is the early- and mid-nineteenth century debates around the the church speaking about, and acting in light of, political matters. The protagonist is Charles Hodge (1797–1878), the headline act of Old Princeton and influential leader in the PCUSA. Strange tells the story of Hodge’s interaction with the issues facing his denomination during the era of chattel slavery, the Civil War, and the rapproachement between the Old School and New School Presbyterians.

Hodge is posited over-against James Henley Thornwell and Stuart Robinson, who argued that, due to the church’s spiritual mission, it could not even speak on the topic of slavery, let alone presidential elections. On the other hand, Strange draws a further contrast between Hodge and the advocates of the Gardiner Spring Resolution of the 1861 General Assembly, which decided on behalf the church’s members to back the Union rather than the Confederacy. Strange argues that Hodge rejected both of these more extreme positions. He was a “quintessential moderate,” and “developed a doctrine of the spirituality of the church that was supple and practical.”

What is this doctrine? At first, the spirituality of the church sounds suspicious to those of us who are convinced that Christians need to take an interest in political and social life, and that the institutional church has a public role. The doctrine of the spirituality of the church is all about defining this role, and for Hodge, his doctrine was “developed out of his overall doctrine of the church.” The basic assumption of Hodge is that the church is a spiritual institution with a spiritual mission, “gathered by the Spirit and given expression in the visible institutional church.”

This is all well and good so far. Things become more complicated once Strange begins unpacking Hodge’s response to particular events in the life of the PCUSA. Strange asserts that, for Hodge, the spirituality of the church reflected the reality that the church was “a body gathered by the Holy Spirit, over against other societal institutions that are biological (the family) or civil (the state).”

He also states that the spirituality of the church implies that the church’s mission is spiritual–it aims to change souls rather than transform society. Here, Strange calls on Abraham Kuyper’s distinction between the institutional church and organic church. “While it is the mission of the church as institute to evangelize and disciple all her members,” writes Strange, “it is not the mission of the church as institute to incarnate the Christian faith in all of life.” The church as institute preaches the gospel and administers the sacraments, whilst the church as organism sees the faithful living “the whole of their lives from the standpoint of obedience.”

All of this worked itself out in Hodge’s rejection of particularistic political pronouncements from PCUSA the General Assembly, whilst also rejecting the flaccid, quietistic approach taken by Thornwell and Robinson. Hodge’s response to the possibility of the reunification of the Old School and New School churches was also shaped by the spirituality of the church. The New School accommodated ministers who denied the imputation of Adam’s sin, affirmed governmental theories of the atonement, and were sub-Calvinist in their general system of doctrine. According to Strange, Hodge rejected the notion that the doctrinal differences that separated the two Schools were of little import precisely because they bore on the spiritual essence of the church.

There is little objectionable in the historical analysis, and the basic doctrine as outlined by Strange is salutary. The church is, indeed, a spiritual body with a mission that is focused on spiritual matters. In Strange’s words, the church is “to gather and perfect the saints by the means of grace empowered by the Holy Spirit.” The church qua church is not focused on the “purely political,” for these matters are rightly in the purview of other institutions. However, as Strange helpfully argues, the church also expresses itself in good works, which are a response to the ministry of the gospel.

The question for readers interested in gaining more clarity on the issues Empowered Witness proposes to address–politics, culture, and the relationship of the church to these–is this: will Strange’s book help? Can Strange’s analysis of Hodge’s doctrine help us gain a more enlightened understanding of the relationship of the spiritual and temporal in today’s confused world?

The answer is, unfortunately, no. This is not because Strange’s book is uninteresting or unhelpful. That would be an unfair conclusion to draw. Strange offers real insight into historical discussions around the institutional church’s role in speaking about political and cultural matters. The intramural Presbyterian debates that Hodge participated in are of real interest, and Strange’s analysis of these is useful. The fundamental weakness of Strange’s book is the lack of clarity around the definition of “the church.”

On one page, Strange clearly refers to the institutional church, the embodied, bricks-and-mortar church expressed in local assemblies and denominations. On another page, Strange refers to the church as though it is Christians in the world doing good works. Then, elsewhere, the church is the “invisible church,” the whole body of the elect who are members of the kingdom of Christ. What does Strange mean when he talks about “the church”? The answer to this crucial question is unclear.

Until that question is answered, readers will be unable to judge his theological thesis with any intelligence or insight. Presumably, being an Orthodox Presbyterian minister, Strange would hold to the definition of Westminster Confession 25.1 and 25.2, which states that the church is both “invisible” and also “visible” in a general, universal sense. And it is to “this catholic visible church” that “Christ has given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God.” (WCF 25.3) The institutional church flows out from the visible church and particularizes itself in different contexts (WCF 25.4).

The question remains–which church is Strange referring to in Empewed Witness? The “church” shape-shifts depending on the aspect he takes in his argument, meaning there is no clarity about what this “church” is permitted to do given its spiritual mission. Strange concedes, quite readily and positively, that Christians scattered in the world and working in their vocations are “to live the whole of their lives as Christians.” He does not preclude Christians acting in the world for good, working to love their neighbour. Further, he states on the final pages that if the church carried out her spiritual mission well, we ought to see the fruit of “good works, love for God, and love our fellow man.”

But who is doing the loving and the good works? Which church? Some deploy the spirituality of the church to depoliticize the whole of the Christian life. We apparently don’t take sides in politics because the church is spiritual and you, Christian, are part of the church. To be clear, Strange never makes this argument. But because he never succeeds in clearly defining the church whose mission is spiritual, he never makes much of an argument at all. Empowered Witness represented an opportunity to clarify the differences between the spiritual, gospel-focused mission of the institutional church and the worldly, works-based mission of the visible church scattered throughout the world. Strange muddles these, and leaves us none the wiser.

Simon Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Quadrant Magazine. He is also a Research Fellow at the University of Queensland and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Danube Institute in Budapest.


Related Articles


Other Articles by

Join our Community
Subscribe to receive access to our members-only articles as well as 4 annual print publications.
Share This