Beware the Baptist Nationalists

Logic, law, and liberty of conscience

A recent post from Andrew Walker at 9 Marks bills itself as “A Baptist Engagement with ‘The Case for Christian Nationalism.’” Thankfully the title is not “The Baptist Engagement with ‘The Case for Christian Nationalism,’” for, as much as I may agree with some of Walker’s misgivings about the Christian Nationalist project, some of his objections are unsatisfying. In his article, Walker focuses on engaging popular Presbyterian political philosopher Stephen Wolfe’s book rather than reviewing it per se, which is a step in the right direction, since putting the principles behind the book into practice is what that book is all about. This essay is an attempt to engage Walker’s engagement, if you will, as a less-than-satisfying response to Wolfe due to its lack of clarity concerning logic and its special pleading.

One of Walker’s main arguments against Wolfe’s book is that “It is more logical than biblical.” Walker describes the aforementioned complaint as the “fatal flaw of this book.” One hopes Walker might write clearly as to what he means, define his terms, apply them consistently, and point out why there is a problem, since he believes his statement refutes the entire work. Unfortunately, I don’t think Walker achieves this.

When Walker writes that the book “is more logical than biblical,” what does he mean? Walker might mean that the book follows rational rules of inference, because following rules of inference just is what it means for something to be “logical.” Here, Walker would use the word “logical” in an objective sense. Walker is not saying that Wolfe attempts to follow rules of inference but fails to actually do so. Walker is not, in other words, claiming Wolfe is illogical. No, Walker says the exact opposite. Walker concedes Wolfe is logical – that is, following rational rules of inference in his argumentation – and Walker, for whatever reason, finds this objectionable. Very well, but then the burden is on Walker to provide alternative rules of inference; his own logic. Otherwise, we may safely ignore everything Walker has to say. Starting a review off by rejecting laws of logic is quite the complicated way of conceding everything to an interlocutor.

Walker corroborates the aforementioned interpretation of his statement when he takes a swipe at logic as a whole. Walker claims, “As a matter of pure argumentation, it’s not hard to make logical syllogisms.” Note that Walker is not addressing Wolfe’s particular use of logic here. Again, Walker does not charge Wolfe with being illogical. Rather, Walker pressed back on logic as such, or the rules of inference themselves, if explicit statements from Scripture cannot be found to support a logical claim. The subtext here is that since it is “not hard” to “make logical syllogisms,” the logic of Wolfe’s arguments is not something we must really give all that much careful attention to (and Walker never does). Unfortunately, Walker seems incapable of offering a sound syllogism as an illustration of his claim.

Walker writes,

For example:

  • Four legged animals can run in the Kentucky Derby.
  • Unicorns have four legs.
  • Unicorns can run in the Kentucky Derby.

The problem is that while this argument is sound, unicorns do not exist.

Even if this argument is sound (and it is not, as we will see in a moment), why would it be a problem that unicorns do not exist? The real problem with this argument is that the first premise is false. The first premise is false because it is not the case that “Four legged animals can run in the Kentucky Derby.” An animal must be, for example, a horse that is at least three years old. And if we qualify the first premise to read, “Some four legged animals can run in the Kentucky Derby,” then the conclusion does not deductively follow. By definition, an argument is sound when it is valid and has all true premises. Walker’s weird unicorn argument is not sound, because the first premise is false. Walker also conflates the concept of a unicorn with its existence. Whether or not there are existent members of the class ‘unicorn’ is irrelevant to the validity or soundness of the argument in question.

Maybe Walker intends to say Wolfe uses logical argumentation in his book more than he uses biblical references. That interpretation of Walker’s words here would certainly make more sense, given that Wolfe explicitly states, up front, that his book is a work of political philosophy, and not of political theology, the latter of which would no doubt include more proof texts from Scripture. If so, Walker is not rejecting logic as a whole, which would be a relief. Perhaps Walker is simply saying Wolfe should rely a little less on logic, and a little more on the Bible. The trouble with interpreting Walker in this way is that he describes the logical approach as a “fatal flaw.” Using extra biblical reasoning, argumentation, and logic is not a “fatal flaw” at all, but a transcendental necessity. If extra biblical argumentation (whether philosophical, scientific, mathematical, or the like) is inherently objectionable along the lines of constituting a “fatal flaw,” then we can safely ignore everything Walker has to say, since all of what he has to say either depends upon such aforementioned methods, or else it is literal nonsense. Either way, Walker runs into self-performative inconsistency in the most worrisome way.

Unfortunately, there is no shortage of strange comments about logic in Walker’s post. For example, Walker complains, “If you accept his logic, Wolfe’s book will seem very convincing.” Well, yes. Typically if someone ‘accepts’ logic (objective rules of inference) and reasoning (Wolfe’s “logic”) that satisfies those laws, then one finds the conclusions of said reasoning to be convincing. In fact, if one believes in objective rules of inference, and concedes that someone has presented an argument which follows them, then one must, upon pain of irrationality, accept the conclusion. One wonders whether Walker tells on himself here, readily granting that Wolfe’s case is a logical one, but willfully rejecting logic itself rather than admitting he finds Wolfe’s case convincing (emotionally troubling for him though it may be!).

To be fair, Walker attempts to clarify his earlier words when he writes, 

I am not pitting the Bible against reason. I am pitting Wolfe’s application of reason against what I consider the Bible’s own exegetical and redemptive reasoning. Overlaying a logical heuristic at the expense of prima facie readings of Scripture is not a methodology that one can accept within a redemptive-historical hermeneutic.

So what Walker really means is that “Wolfe’s application of reason” is wrong. That is, Walker actually does believe Wolfe’s case is illogical. Given such a shift, Walker’s earlier exercise in logic is utterly bizarre. If Walker finds Wolfe’s case illogical, why not come right out and say so? Why take us down this road of trying to prove unicorns can race in the Kentucky Derby in an effort to discredit logic? Recall that Walker does not say anything along the lines of, ‘Wolfe’s book is illogical.’ Walker does not say that the book is, ‘illogical and unbiblical.’ No, Walker writes, “therein is the fatal flaw of this book: It is more logical [emphasis mine] than biblical.” Is Walker claiming that Wolfe’s case is logical, but unbiblical? How can something be logical (by which Walker means “sound”) but unbiblical? Not extra biblical, mind you, but unbiblical? This dizzying discussion of logic is not the only red-herring in Walker’s piece, but it is the only one I will address here.

Moving on, Walker attempts to formalize Wolfe’s argument as follows,

Wolfe’s argument goes something like this (he states something similar himself on p. 183):

  • Government has a duty to promote true religion.
  • Christianity is true religion.
  • Therefore, government has a duty to promote Christianity.

The internal logic of this syllogism works. It’s rational.

For whatever reason, Walker remains fixated on terms like “logic” and “syllogism” and “rational,” as though his disagreement with Wolfe is caused by deep divides over the use of these first principles. (Walker also modifies the terminology Wolfe uses for this syllogism in his book, and I do not know why.) Walker claims the syllogism “works” and is “rational,” but what we must ask is whether or not the argument is valid, and then whether or not its premises are true, in which case the argument would also be sound, and the conclusion would follow. When Walker says, “The internal logic of this syllogism works. It’s rational.” he is not actually telling us anything. (Nor are we able to discern this syllogism’s relation to his unicorn proof.)

After claiming Wolfe’s argument “works” and is “rational” (whatever those mean in Walker’s vocabulary) he writes, “But that’s different from making an exegetical case for the argument or demonstrating that it fits with Scripture’s own covenantal developments.” Well yes, exegesis is different from various types of extra biblical argument, but why is that a problem? Walker complains that Wolfe’s argumentation frustrates him, but this tells us more about Walker’s disinclination to engage Wolfe’s logical argumentation than the particulars of Wolfe’s project. In any event, complaining that a book is too logical is an odd flex, to be sure.

The categories we are after here are deductively “valid” or “invalid.” The syllogism is deductively valid, and hence, as Walker notes, “rational” in that sense. That only leaves the question of whether or not the premises are true or false. If a deductive argument is valid and its premises are true, then the argument itself is sound. So let us consider this argument above. 

Walker writes, “To go back to the original syllogism, Wolfe may assert that ‘the government has the duty to promote true religion,’ but he never argues that point from the Bible from any clear command. It’s just assumed.” However, Wolfe need not argue the point from a clear command of Scripture, if he offers arguments from other sources. Walker is wrong in limiting Wolfe to Scripturalism, which is the view that our epistemology consists only in what we can know from special revelation in Scripture, without regard to other sources of human knowledge, such as general revelation in creation. Wolfe claims he provides eight arguments in his book to establish the first premise of his syllogism which Walker never touches. In response to Walker, Ben Crenshaw has provided an explicit exegetical argument to support the premise in question. For my part, I will offer a reason to affirm the first premise based on Walker’s own words.

Walker writes, “I don’t see how the principles within his volume are not a total repudiation of Article XVII of the Baptist Faith and Message.” This observation is a big deal for Walker, who no doubt perceives the BFM2000 as representative of true religion. Here are his tenets, which we will call ‘BFM’ (while it is a stretch to say these points come from the BFM, they are nevertheless granted for the sake of argument):

  • The church does not rely on direct support from the state to accomplish its mission;
  • No religion deserves formal legal favoritism over another religion;
  • The state is not competent as an arbiter of doctrine or making ecclesiastical appointments;
  • The church and state should not be hostile to one another, but neither should the church be formally established;
  • Religious liberty is for the good of all, equally;
  • Participation in society is not premised on correct theological belief;
  • Citizens cannot be punished for believing and acting upon a false religion.

Walker claims Wolfe “draws the opposite conclusion” on all BFM. Call this total contradiction “Wolfe’s Faith & Message 2022,” or ‘WFM.’ Now WFM, at least according to Walker, has the following tenets:

  • The church looks to the state to suppress heresy;
  • Christianity is given official favor by the state;
  • Church and state are formally united;
  • The state takes active interest in cultivating and protecting Christian doctrine;
  • Religious toleration is extended only so far as the religion in question does not disturb sound order;
  • Non-Christians are subject to a form of second-class dhimmitude;
  • Heretics and non-believers could potentially be executed.

Again, BFM is just what Walker believes, and WFM will stand in for what Wolfe believes, at least according to Walker. Moreover, Walker either doubts or denies the first premise of Wolfe’s syllogism, that “Government has a duty to promote true religion.” As of right now, Walker believes that government has no duty to promote true religion. Walker thus commits himself to the following:

If government has no duty to promote true religion, then government has the prerogative to promote WFM.

It is false that government has the prerogative to promote WFM.

Therefore, it is false that government has no duty to promote true religion.

This conclusion, it would seem, establishes Wolfe’s first premise, at least as the argument is presented by Walker. Walker cannot respond, of course, that he agrees the government has the prerogative to promote WFM, because WFM is the antithesis of BFM, and would contradict Walker’s own religious view of church and state, which is why we are here in the first place.

By the way, something like what is described in the syllogism above is actually happening now in the United States of America, but not in relation to WFM. Rather, the government does not believe it has a duty to promote true religion. Indeed, many Christians do not even believe the government has a duty to promote true religion. Thus, the government takes advantage of its supposed prerogative to promote false religion, and Christians just go along with it. Walker gets this backwards when he writes:

So much of Wolfe’s volume is a hypothesis in search of a praxis. What practically results are Prince Joe Biden’s Catholicism calling for abortion and Princess Nancy Pelosi adjudicating ecclesiastical appointments. Such absurdity is what Wolfe’s book legitimizes, even if he would be appalled at the character of their Christianity. Wolfe would object by insisting that the abuse of the principle does not lead to the principle’s negation. But inside of the logic of his system, there is absolutely no principled reason this could not be the case. After all, there is no further authority to ensure the state’s authority is used for Wolfe’s Christianity rather than Biden’s or Putin’s or anyone else’s, never mind some other religion.

Walker seems to confuse the issues. These scenarios are not the practical result of Wolfe’s thesis, as true religion would condemn the call for abortion (even when the child is under a certain age, and even when the murder happened solely at the hands of the would-be mother). These scenarios are, however, the practical result of the government’s prerogative to promote whatever it wants, religiously speaking, under Walker’s system.

One final route Walker might take to get around the syllogism above would be to note WFM already includes the premise that government has the duty to promote true religion. As such, WFM is precluded by “government has no duty to promote true religion.” However, Walker and Wolfe mean something different here by “true religion,” namely, BFM versus WFM. Walker also writes, “Now, in fairness to Wolfe, he admits that the arguments of his book more naturally align with a pedobaptist ecclesiology. That has to do with the willingness to label entities such as nations ‘Christian’ without that necessarily meaning regenerate. 

Thus, from the start, there is a major adjectival distinction to note.” He continues, “Baptists, on the other hand, insist upon ‘Christian’ as meaning that which is regenerate or authorized to carry out a mission that includes regeneration. By that definition, earthly government is neither regenerate nor can be truly ‘Christian.’” While it is questionable whether or not Baptists are limited to defining “Christian” the way Walker does here, one notes that his definition excludes paedobaptist churches from the label. Thus whatever else Walker might consider WFM to be, he cannot consider it to be true religion, whether in whole or in part, since true religion, according to Wolfe, is Christian.

Walker often writes as though those outside his BFM retain some sort of obligation to his very specific understanding of natural law and religious liberty, an understanding which many Americans will not share, much less obey. This constitutes special pleading. For example, Walker suggests Genesis 8 and 9 might describe that redemptive-historical moment where the government’s calling is realized. Presumably, Walker offers this as a postlapsarian consideration over against Wolfe’s reliance upon the events of Genesis 1 and 2 to inform his political philosophy. But Genesis 8 and 9 appeal to true religion (the image of God) in order to condemn murder and even to prescribe a punishment for it! 

Elsewhere Walker writes, “Where the Baptist confession envisions a civil arrangement where the church and state are kept conceptually, institutionally, and functionally distinct, Wolfe presents a contrary vision.” Walker’s use of “envisions” here is a euphemism for ‘believes it is the government’s duty to maintain.’ Should the government promote the church/state relation contained in the BFM2000 as Walker understands it? Should Christians work toward that earthly end? If not, then I would submit the BFM2000 is a fairly useless document as pertains to this discussion. Alternatively, if one suggests that everyone must bow down to the Baptists in the free-church tradition when it comes to political philosophy, one promotes a narrow Baptist Nationalism which expels the bulk of all other denominations in Christian history from the public square. Maybe we are not speaking of horsewhipping or drowning the anti-Baptist dissenters, but we most certainly are saying they may not practice their Christian religion – or better, denominationalism – as pertains to the public square, especially if it is something along the lines of the establishmentarian vision the most famous Reformers proposed and practiced. Is it really Walker’s contention, along with others we might call Baptist Nationalists, that any sort of Christian exclusivism in the law of the land is genuinely worse than those evils it would exclude? If not, then Baptists have some work to do, and Wolfe’s book surely has something to offer. If so, then Baptist Nationalists are willing to tolerate any of the many world religions or cults in charge of our political processes, just so long as that religion is not Christian, and that sect is not, say, Anglican, Presbyterian, or Reformed. Beware the Baptist Nationalists!

*Image Credit: Unsplash

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Chris Bolt

Chris Bolt Chris Bolt is a pastor, professor, and author. He lives in Tennessee with his wife and four children.