On July 19th, Dr. Gregory Thompson and Pastor Duke Kwon published a response to a book review they had received from Dr. Kevin DeYoung. DeYoung’s review had been released over two months earlier, and Thompson and Kwon’s response came close to ten thousand words (about 40% longer than DeYoung’s review). Their response was heated, to say the least, as they charged DeYoung with a sort of white supremacy, even calling his review “grotesque.” Three days later, they put out a second response, adding even more of their thoughts to the mix. This all had the total effect of shifting interested parties’ attention away from the initial book and towards “the discourse.” See for example Jake Meador’s recent overview at Mere Orthodoxy. Meador argues that DeYoung had given Thompson and Kwon the perfect opportunity to have a theological debate, which they squandered. More still, the way they chose to respond to DeYoung also took the focus off their book and put it rather on the more familiar but depressing grounds of “critical race theory.” Rather than discussing the actual political potential for reparations, the focus is now squarely on “white supremacy” as an ideological paradigm.
Indeed, Thompson and Kwon make the charge of white supremacy central to their response to DeYoung. Importantly, they do not level this charge on the personal level. They are not accusing DeYoung of having personal bias or animosity against non-white people. This is clear from their essay: “Do we believe that Reverend DeYoung, in his personal beliefs and public ministry, is in any way sympathetic to the convictions of white supremacy? We do not” (emphasis in the original). But they do believe that DeYoung “performs” white supremacy. They make this charge in at least four places:
…while he does not argue for white supremacy, he nevertheless performs its most basic impulses.
…DeYoung is simply performing the methodological habits of his ecclesial tradition.
…DeYoung’s choice to relativize white guilt and to prioritize white forgiveness consummates his performance of white supremacy by embodying its essence.
…In this regard, while they disavow racism, they nonetheless perform and perpetuate its most elemental instincts. And in so doing, they provide moral sanctuary for others to do the same.
Thompson and Kwon argue that this “white supremacy” is found in the methodology that DeYoung uses, and they even state that this methodology is that of the larger American Reformed and Evangelical tradition to which DeYoung is heir. Were this an argument about a history of bias or of personal policies, behaviors, and attitudes, the claim would be understandable. After all, much of White Evangelical Christianity has a bad track record on race relations. But what’s interesting here is that Thompson and Kwon are not talking about behaviors or activity but rather theological methodology. They argue, “Reverend DeYoung is both heir to and practitioner of a mode of theological reasoning that, in both past and present, has been a crucial factor in sheltering and sustaining the cultural project of white supremacy.” So, the problem is the “mode of theological reasoning” which props up and perpetuates the larger “cultural project of white supremacy.”
Three Aspects of Whiteness
What is this mode of theological reasoning? Thompson and Kwon give three “tendencies” that describe the “white” theological method. These three tendencies are excessive: 1) spiritualizing, 2) individualizing, and 3) “forensic” tendencies. This is the whiteness to which DeYoung is subservient, the methodology which keeps him performing white supremacisms, try as he might to do otherwise.
Now, viewed from within the North American Reformed landscape, Kevin DeYoung is not known as an especially extreme spiritualizer or individualizer. He comes from a traditional Dutch Reformed background and has argued in the past that Christians should have large families as a better way to fight the culture war. This is not the typical Baptist pietism that one might expect. But what about a “forensic tendency”? Presumably Thompson and Kwon are not suggesting that a strong focus on the forensic nature of justification is itself a problem, else they would find themselves in conflict with the PCA’s own doctrinal standards, as well as the entire Protestant Reformation. Rather, they mean a reluctance by Christians to focus on sanctification or moral theory. But again, this is an odd charge to level against DeYoung, a member of the “Gospel Reformation Network,” a group in the PCA founded to emphasize the need for sanctification over and against a recently popular form of antinomianism. In other words, it’s not at all obvious that DeYoung is theologically “white” by the measurement of Thompson and Kwon’s three tendencies.
But for the sake of argument, let’s grant that DeYoung is white. I mean, you can imagine it right?
This got me thinking. Are all Reformed theologians “white”? That’s the impression that one sometimes gets from modern polemical rhetoric. But I don’t think it’s true at all. Using Thompson and Kwon’s three cases of excessive tendencies, I can think of many “non-white” Reformed theologians.
Who Isn’t White
Michael Walzer once argued that the Puritans were some of the first “radical” political thinkers, hoping to take their theological commitments and transform society on a political level. Thompson and Kwon themselves quote from the Westminster Larger Catechism and Richard Baxter, and so presumably both of those sources are also free from whiteness. The Covenanters, known for both their political radicalism and their staunch opposition to slavery, should also be cleared of “white theology.” That’s not a bad start for Presbyterian history.
But some more recent theologians also come to mind at this point. Surely everyone would agree that Douglas Wilson has staked out a ministry opposing the tendency to spiritualize the faith, an over focusing on individual salvation, and the habit of reducing every question to a matter of forensic justification. With his “objective covenant,” community takeover strategy, and “theonomy light” approach to Christian social thinking, he comes nowhere close to the white theology opposed by Thompson and Kwon. While Wilson does have something of a libertarian streak, this is inconsistently applied and not at all obviously connected to his theology. After all, he can also argue for obscenity codes and even the government’s right to enforce a quarantine on people who refuse vaccination.
But there’s one more obvious candidate who does not use white theological methodology, at least the one outlined by Thompson and Kwon. That would be Rousas J. Rushdoony. Rushdoony is known as the father of Christian Reconstruction, and he was a bitter critic of evangelicals who spiritualized Christianity or used an appeal to individual salvation or justification by faith alone to avoid questions of law. In fact, Rushdoony was so “not white,” that he could argue for reparations. Rushdoony argued that reparations were an immutable aspect of God’s moral law, without which forgiveness was impossible. In his Institutes of Biblical Law, Rushdoony writes:
A particular sin or sins can be forgiven; sin as a principle, original sin, cannot be forgiven: it must be eradicated. The saving work of Jesus Christ involved a new creation, (“if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation,” II Cor. 5:17 BV), restitution, the perfect keeping of the law as our federal head, and forgiveness of the partiucalr sins of His people.
Forgiveness and restitution are inseparable. We are to forgive our brother, i.e., a fellow believer sevenfold times (Luke 17:4), but this forgiveness always requires repentance and restitution. There are two aspects to forgiveness, the religious or God-ward aspect, and then the social and criminal aspect. Sin always is an offense against God, and therefore there must always be a theological aspect to every sin, i.e., some kind of settlement or judgment of man for his violation of God’s order. But sin also involves other men, or the earth, and particular sins have particular requirements of restitution. (Institutes pgs. 458-459)
Rushdoony goes on to say that Christians who oppose this interconnectivity of forgiveness and restitution are guilty of heresy:
Many modern theologians and Christians insist on an unconditional forgiveness for all men, irrespective of repentance and restitution. Such a position is simply a subsidy to and an acceptance of evil as evil. It is antinomianism. (pg. 463)
Ok, then. Rushdoony isn’t very white. But what’s my point here?
In highlighting the oddity of accusing Kevin DeYoung of White Supremacy by use of a standard that would not convict Douglas Wilson or Rousas J. Rushdoony (two theologians associated with the far right and who have also been accused of obstructing racial reconciliation; indeed, Rushdoony was an explicit opponent of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s), I’m doing more than just a funny “gotcha.” I’m showing the inadequacy of Thompson and Kwon’s paradigm for analysis. After all, they are attempting to locate a methodology which accounts for a certain Christian support of an endemic American cultural problem. But their paradigm appears to have some pretty big holes in it.
Idealism Strikes Again
As Thomas Kuhn taught us, paradigms which gradually accumulate more and more “exceptions” must eventually be discarded as inefficient or inaccurate. If, after casting your net, you have to explain that all of those creatures swimming through the holes aren’t really fish, you’ve got a problem. In the case of Thompson and Kwon, their net claims to have caught DeYoung but it let some more obvious candidates swim free.
This exercise also shows us that there is another methodology causing problems here. What we see is that “whiteness critiques” are themselves sorts of idealists exercises. They focus on supposed ideas which account for and even cause behavior patterns. Now, in their essay, Kwon and Thompson claim to be focusing on “structure” rather than “idealist accounts,” even going so far as to criticize DeYoung’s allusion to the Declaration of Independence as “idealist fantasy.” They indicate that they dislike idealist approaches to this question. And yet when they discuss white methodology, it is entirely idealist. They don’t talk about concrete structures affecting DeYoung but rather ideas which supposedly account for habits of thinking and prioritization. Instead of talking about material factors or social campaigns, they criticize DeYoung for his emphasis.
Indeed, by putting such a heavy focus on this idealist notion of “white supremacy”– ideas which can be found in some white theologians but not others– Thompson and Kwon themselves marginalize the relevant material factors related to reparations in American history. Whereas we could discuss the loss of profits or the damaged assets from various redlining instances, race-based rioting, or even government corruption and discrimination related to the G.I. Bill– all practical matters which could be adjudicated in law courts– we are instead now talking about pre-volitional psychological dispositions and supposed nefarious instincts. This is precisely the wrong kind of conversation to have and it has already derailed the conversation.
Lay Down Your Social Sciences
The current usage of “white supremacy” is pretty obviously a scholarly fad. Frankly it already feels dated. Left-wing scholars have criticized it for some time as being an appendage of neo-liberalism. But this style of discourse also reminds me of two exchanges in C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength. William Hingest, known as “Bill the Blizzard” is a true expert in the physical sciences but a fierce critic of the social sciences. One gets the feeling that he speaks for Lewis. In an argument with a young and upcoming sociologist, Hingest says this, “There are no sciences like Sociology… I happen to believe that you can’t study men: you can only get to know them, which is quite a different thing.” A few chapters later, a very different character, the leader of the secret police, has this to say to the sociologist, “There’s no distinction in the long run between police work and sociology. You and I’ve got to work hand in hand.”
The point here is not that “all sociology is bad.” In fact, Lewis offers plenty of sociology, even in That Hideous Strength. But the use of sociology as if it were a science, and especially the pairing of it with coercive powers is bad, very bad. It turns a conversation into a confrontation. It turns the clergy into cops. And in this case, the police work wasn’t even very good.
Perhaps DeYoung’s book review wasn’t the best. Jake Meador didn’t think so. But it was at least a real attempt at conversation that could have been responded to in kind. Instead, it was met with a rhetorically-coercive conversation stopper. He was taken to jail when the occasion still called for “getting to know one another.”
I have learned a lot over the past few years about race relations, American history, and how to respect fellow Christians from different backgrounds. But I haven’t learned it from all the online rhetorical car crashes. Instead, I’ve learned it from listening to truly interesting voices over a long period of time and getting to know people from different walks of life. This isn’t necessarily a genius idea I’m offering here, but it’s what’s worked for me. And the current discourse isn’t working. Too many fish are swimming through the nets, and it seems like we are starting to like each other less instead of more.
Maybe there’s another way.