Tag Archives: Edmund Burke

We Must Reform in Order to Conserve: Part 2

by Matthew Pinson

I am—we all are—under a great temptation to discard the Great Tradition of the Christian Church, and our own heritage of Free Will Baptist faith and practice, replacing it with the latest flavor of the month from the non-denominational movement, again, hoping that something will work, something will stick. We are desperate.

But Scripture and the saints and martyrs of our Christian past call us to go back and retrieve scriptural faith and practice that has been eclipsed—to be reformers, not revolutionaries, to put into practice Burke’s maxim that “we must reform in order to conserve.” Only in this way can we know that we have something that will last, that will work, not just in the short run, but in the long run. Only in this way can we have a deposit of truth and life that we can pass down unscathed to our children and their children and their children’s children.

We must resist the temptation to lose our nerve, to be intimidated by a challenging culture, and throw arbitrary extra-biblical attempted solutions at the predicament in which we find ourselves—when we have no idea whether these solutions will work or what their unintended consequences will be. Instead, we must rely on those “permanent things” that we know will conserve the church and its faith and practice and allow us to pass on what we have received to future generations.

So, finally, let me pass on to the readers of this blog the quotation from Scruton’s Conservatism that brought these thoughts fresh to my mind. In the context of his discussion of Edmund Burke’s defense of the “reform” of the American Revolution and his distaste for the “revolution” of the French Revolution, Scruton says:

“Burke rejected the liberal idea of the social contract, as a deal agreed among living people. Society, he argued, does not contain the living only; it is an association between the dead, the living, and the unborn. Its binding principle is not contract but something more akin to trusteeship. It is a shared inheritance for the sake of which we learn to circumscribe our demands, to see our own place in things as part of a continuous chain of giving and receiving, and to recognize that the good things we inherit are not ours to spoil but ours to safeguard for our dependents. There is a line of obligation that connects us to those who gave us what we have; and our concern for the future is an extension of that line. We take the future of our community into account not by fictitious cost-benefit calculations, but more concretely, by seeing ourselves as inheriting benefits and passing them on. Concern for future generations is a non-specific outgrowth of gratitude. It does not calculate, because it shouldn’t and can’t.”{1}

Our temptation as low-church evangelicals, in our intimidation by the cultural change all around us, is to agree with principles like these in the political and social and moral realms, but not to carry this same conservative—conservationist—impulse into our religious and church lives. I think we have a lot to learn from thinkers like Edmund Burke and his modern interpreters like Scruton. At least it gives us food for thought.

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[1] Scruton, Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition (New York: All Points, 2018), 45.

We Must Reform in Order to Conserve

by Matthew Pinson

I have been reading—and thoroughly enjoying—the new book Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition by Roger Scruton. Scruton is the best-known conservative intellectual in Great Britain. A philosopher by training, he has written more than forty books on issues as diverse as politics and the environment and art and music. He gave an excellent presentation of the latter two subjects in his BBC documentary, Beauty.

Conservatism is largely about the principles of cultural and political conservatism that emerged from seminal thinkers like Edmund Burke. But theological conservatives can learn a lot from it. In reading Scruton’s section on Burke, I came across a great passage that summarizes a key principle of conservatism and Christianity that I strive to pass on to my students in my courses at Welch, and it’s about continuity with the consensus of scripturally based tradition that has been bequeathed to us.

Edmund Burke is famous for his quip that “we must reform in order to conserve.” He believed that, in political and cultural life, revolution is dangerous, because it rips people from the organic inheritance that they received from their fathers and mothers. That was the problem he saw in the French Revolution, which he despised, but not in the American Revolution, which he defended.

So, Scruton explains, Burke saw the American founders as going back to the ancient rights and liberties of free Englishmen. “The U.S. Constitution was designed to guarantee to the people what they had once enjoyed,” he says. “It was the residue of an already established practice rather than a recipe for a new order of things.” This is like the Protestant Reformers, who I explain to my students were not revolutionaries but were recovering an ancient tradition that had been eclipsed by the Roman Catholic Church in the Middle Ages.

I explain to my students that sometimes we conservative Protestants are tempted to be intimidated by our difficult cultural circumstances, in which Christianity is being treated with hostility by the cultural elites and by many in the neighborhoods where our own churches minister. I am tempted—we all are tempted—to be revolutionaries, to try arbitrarily first one thing and then another that has never been tried before, hoping that maybe something will stick, something will do the trick. We hope we’ll stumble onto that cultural silver bullet that will open the floodgates for people, finally, to overcome their cultural objections to the faith and pour into the church.

The Reformers and the great missions pioneers and our early evangelical and Baptist and Free Will Baptist forebears did not choose the way of revolution. Instead, they chose reform. They knew the church needed renewal, freshness. But they sought what Timothy George and others call “renewal through retrieval,” reforming the church by recovering precious truths of faith and of practice that have been lost or at least eclipsed in the recent past.

This gets back to G. K. Chesterton’s idea of “the democracy of the dead,” to C. S. Lewis’s counsel not to be guilty of “chronological snobbery,” but instead to “let the clean sea breeze of the centuries blow through our minds.” It means that we are a part of something much, much greater than ourselves and our current, passing moment. We are continuing and conserving the faith and practice of that “great cloud of witnesses” that has gone before us, so that we will have something worth passing down to those who come after us.

This is what the Christian tradition has called the “communion of saints.” It’s something that transcends the present age which is passing away with its lusts. It spans centuries and generations and classes educational levels and races. It’s a communion we risk getting out of touch with if we have a revolution and discard the Christian tradition of faith (what we believe) and practice (what we do).