Act Two, Scene Three: How Soon They Forget

In his serialized review of VanDrunen’s Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms, Nelson Kloosterman finishes his inspection of the chapter on Calvin with the line, “Remember the Puritans.”

This is a curious appeal because Kloosterman’s memory may not be as good as his review of VanDrunen is long. His major objection to 2k appears to be that its advocates do not insist that Scripture is necessary for prescribing the duties of the civil magistrate. To VanDrunen’s point that Calvin did not believe civil government should be ruled solely by Scripture, Kloosterman finds an opening to insist that the Bible does inform at least part of the magistrates duties.

On the one hand, Kloosterman asks:

. . . if God’s natural law, embodied in OT Mosaic law, prohibits public blasphemy, and if this natural law ought to underlie civil enactments, then why should Dr. VanDrunen so vigorously oppose appeals to God’s requirements amid public policy discussions about moral issues covered by the Decalogue?

That would seem to mean that the civil magistrate is bound to uphold both tables of the law since Kloosterman is not only concerned about violations of the seventh commandment in the instance of gay marriage but also about instances of blasphemy covered in the third commandment.

Kloosterman also goes on to quote, as he is wont to do, from the Canons of Dort which give him the green light to insist that special revelation must be the lens through which to read general revelation (though he never seems to consider that this reading of Dort would prohibit all non-Christians from using natural law, whether as fathers or magistrates, since without regeneration they cannot properly interpret natural law). This is what Dort says:

There is, to be sure, a certain light of nature remaining in man after the fall, by virtue of which he retains some notions about God, natural things, and the difference between what is moral and immoral, and demonstrates a certain eagerness for virtue and for good outward behavior. But this light of nature is far from enabling man to come to a saving knowledge of God and conversion to him—so far, in fact, that man does not use it rightly even in matters of nature and society. Instead, in various ways he completely distorts this light, whatever its precise character, and suppresses it in unrighteousness. In doing so he renders himself without excuse before God” (III/IV.4, italics added).

Since Kloosterman italicizes those portions which correctly portray the limitations of natural man using natural law, he would seem to be saying that without Scripture, no one can interpret general revelation correctly. In fact, he said this in his interviews on Christ and culture at Reformed Forum.

But on the other hand comes Kloosterman’s selective memory, perhaps a function of having to venture beyond Queen Wilhelmina’s mints and wooden shoes. To VanDrunen’s point that Calvin did not use the Bible solely for civil matters, Kloosterman writes:

“Calvin did not believe,” we are told, “that the civil kingdom can be governed solely or primarily by the teaching of Scripture.” But who does believe that? Some of us insist that the civil kingdom (public society) should be governed in part by the teaching of Scripture, in connection, say, with issues like homosexual marriage and abortion, and even debasing monetary currency. But who among us has ever claimed that “the civil kingdom can be governed solely or primarily by the teaching of Scripture”?

Actually, as already mentioned, Kloosterman did claim that the Bible is the basis for civil government and its laws (and his invocation of Dort is further testimony to this point; how else to read the deficiency of natural revelation apart from the lens of Scripture?). But the curious aspect of Kloosterman’s concession that the Bible does not govern all of public life comes when he mentions those areas where the Bible should govern the civil magistrate – gay marriage and abortion.

What about blasphemy, mentioned in the previous quotation? And what about both tables of the law? Does the magistrate follow only the second table but get a pass on the first? Does this mean that the civil polity should tolerate blasphemy and idolatry, but not murder and stealing? If so, then how does this view follow biblical teaching or even show the usefulness of the Decalogue in civil government? Is Kloosterman really a closet advocate of 2k?

If he remembers the Puritans, he is. Because those English Protestants who fled the old country to establish a city on Beacon Hill were not at all reluctant to let the whole Decalogue (and even parts of the Pentateuch) inform their civil laws. To assist Dr. K’s memory, he might want to consider the following (only the first ten out of fifteen capital offenses) from The Laws and Liberties of Massachusetts (1647):

1. If any man after legal conviction shall have or worship any other God, but the lord god: he shall be put to death. Exod. 22. 20. Deut. 13.6. & 10. Deut. 17. 2. 6.

2. If any man or woman be a witch, that is, hath or consulteth with a familiar spirit, they shall be put to death. Exod. 22. 18. Levit. 20. 27. Deut. 18. 10. 11.

3. If any person within this Jurisdiction whether Christian or Pagan shall wittingly and willingly presume to blaspheme the holy Name of God, Father, Son or Holy-Ghost, with direct, expresse, presumptuous, or highhanded blasphemy, either by wilfull or obstinate denying the true God, or his Creation, or Government of the world: or shall curse God in like manner, or reproach the holy religion of God as if it were but a politick device to keep ignorant men in awe; or shal utter any other kinde of Blasphemy of the like nature & degree they shall be put to death. Levit. 24. 15. 16.

4. If any person shall commit any wilfull murther, which is Man slaughter, committed upon premeditate malice, hatred, or crueltie not in a mans necessary and just defence, nor by meer casualty against his will, he shall be put to death. Exod. 21. 12. 13. Numb. 35. 31.

5. If any person slayeth another suddenly in his anger, or cruelty of passion, he shall be put to death. Levit. 24. 17. Numb. 35. 20. 21.

6. If any person shall slay another through guile, either by poysoning, or other such devilish practice, he shall be put to death. Exod. 21. 14.

7. If any man or woman shall lye with any beast, or bruit creature, by carnall copulation; they shall surely be put to death: and the beast shall be slain, & buried, and not eaten. Lev. 20. 15. 16.

8. If any man lyeth with man-kinde as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed abomination, they both shal surely be put to death: unles the one partie were forced (or be under fourteen years of age in which case he shall be seveerly punished) Levit. 20. 13.

9. If any person commit adulterie with a married or espoused wife; the Adulterer & Adulteresse shall surely be put to death. Lev. 20. 19. & 18. 20 Deu. 22. 23. 27.

10. If any man stealeth a man, or Man-kinde, he shall surely be put to death Exodus 21. 16.

I wonder if this is the system of law that Dr. K. would have the readers of Christian Renewal remember. Since he seems to shy away from putting people to death for adultery, Kloosterman would appear to be much closer to VanDrunen than he is either to Calvin or the Puritans whose notions of a Christian society perhaps only contemporary theonomists have the stomach to swallow.

In which case, what seems to motivate Dr. K.’s objections to 2k is pining for the sort of American society when liberal Protestants were running things and setting the standards for public life. Ramesh Ponnuru gave a useful description of the virtues of that wonderful time in American life in his essay, “Secularism and Its Discontents” (National Review, Dec. 2004) He wonders what would happen if religious conservatives actually achieved legislative success in the U.S. Their wish-list includes prohibiting abortion, restricting pornography, restraining experimentation on human embryos, and banning gay marriage. Some might like to have more prayer in public schools, and those who don’t home school would prefer that the public school teachers giving tips on condoms. But Ponnuru thinks this is hardly a return to John Winthrop’s Boston or John Calvin’s Geneva:

My point . . . is to note that introducing nearly every one of these policies – and all of the most conservative ones – would merely turn the clock back to the late 1950s. That may be a very bad idea, but the America of the 1950s was not a theocracy.

Likewise, Kloosterman’s critique of 2k is hardly a return to Massachusetts of 1647, Amsterdam of 1595, or to Zurich of 1550. If he could remember the Puritans, he might actually see how much in common he has with his Dutch-American nemesis, the lovely, the talented, David VanDrunen.


4 thoughts on “Act Two, Scene Three: How Soon They Forget

  1. I thought I was virtually the only one reading the early colonial law codes! I didn’t realize until now, Dr. Hart, that you are not only reading them but telling Dr. Kloosterman that he should be, too.

    Let’s be clear: as Reformed Christians, we need to come to terms with the fact that our heritage includes death penalties not only for murder but also for blasphemy and gross sexual sins. In my own case, considering my theological position, I have to deal with the Salem Witch Trials. (That case is actually easier to deal with than the broader issue — it’s not hard to show that even if one affirms the death penalty for witches, the trials weren’t conducted with even rudimentary levels of justice for those accused, an accusation made by conservative Calvinists even in the days of the Puritans.)

    The easiest response to the Puritan position on death penalties for things other than murder is simply to point out that the Puritans were not being innovative in saying that blasphemy and gross sexual immorality are capital crimes. What would have been shocking in New England would have been if the Puritans **DIDN’T** affirm the near-universal position of virtually every Christian communion in the 1600s.

    It should be obvious to all that apart from a formally covenanted Christian society, we have no grounds to execute anyone for blasphemy. That’s a red herring. We cannot charge, try, and convict someone for things that were not crimes when they were committed; our Constitution’s bar on ex post facto laws has a valid biblical basis. A resident of Puritan New England knew what was forbidden by law and if he persisted in doing it, that was his own fault. That simply is not the case in modern America with regard to blasphemy.

    I happen to believe that aggravated rape can and should merit the death penalty, and the same could be said of other gross sexual sins. The state of Louisiana tried to pass such a law a few years ago. The United States Supreme Court struck it down, and an underlying factor was the long history of Southern courts executing black men following convictions for raping white women — convictions that all too often were under questionable circumstances. For now, at least, that means the possibility of death penalties for anything other than meting out death to someone else, or theoretically for treason against the state, has been ruled out by SCOTUS.

    Some people would argue that the primary reason for the death penalty is murder and the SCOTUS position is not inherently bad. I don’t like the SCOTUS decision but I can live with it. The Supreme Court has not called evil good or called good evil; rather, it has decided that cetain categories of evil are still evil, but not worthy of the supreme penalty.

    What seems clear is that Dr. Hart is trying to force Dr. Kloosterman into a position of absurdity. We need to respond to that, and we can’t do it by denying our heritage.

    There is a Reformed argument for applying the death penalty to crimes other than taking someone else’s life. In an ideal world, perhaps we could do something to implement the death penalties for other things which God says are worthy of death. However, the Puritans themselves were practical politicians, as shown by their constant negotiations within Parliament in Old England and between the colonies and the old country, and they did not implement all the death penalties allowed by Scripture. Neither must we — and without first having a sufficient Christian consensus to amend the Constitution, which will not realistically happen anytime in our lifetimes or the foreseeable future, neither should we.

    Ex post facto laws are just as bad from a biblical perspective as they are from a secular perspective.


  2. Thanks for reminding us of Ponnuru’s article, which followed on the heels of the 2004 re-election of President Bush.

    As Ponnuru noted, evangelicals of Kloosterman’s ilk are probably more interested in restoring the social consensus of the 1950s than in ushering in a theocracy. But that seems to present us with something of a dilemma. The social consensus of the 1950s largely rested on a social gospel whose message had little room for the incarnate Son of God who bore the Father’s wrath for the sin of His elect and then rose in victory over death. So, the crumbling of the WASP establishment left space for orthodoxy to grow. Of course, it’s left space for secularism to grow too.

    In that sense, Kloosterman & Co. display something of a love-hate relationship with the older WASP establishment. They embrace the social order that flowed from that semi-hierarchical culture, yet reject the legitimacy of those who sat as that society’s Brahmins. Evangelicals, it seems, are only interested in restoring WASP culture insofar as they get to be the WASPs. In fact, some evangelicals have expended great efforts to convince themselves that they are somehow the rightful legacy-bearers of those who founded and shaped our nation. But WASP culture worked because the culture at large believed, at least to a degree, that the WASP establishment merited the quiet power it exercised. Our culture is not about to convey such deference to the likes of the Religious Right. Nor is it about to convey such deference to the so-called secularists. Without a Brahmin class, it’s pretty unlikely that we can restore WASP culture.

    But isn’t that a boon for Christian orthodoxy? The downfall of the WASP establishment has opened up a wider space for us to live out our calling as a pilgrim people. We should rejoice in that. Our home, after all, is in heaven, not in Eisenhower’s America.


  3. Bob,

    You nailed it again. Few may have noticed but the # 1 rated show in America last week among adults 18-49 was a Spanish-speaking Telenovela entitled Soy Tu Deuña. So the church, at least in the Southwest, can wring their hands in fear at the fact that America is changing and WASPS have much less influence in this country than ever before, or they can embrace by God’s providence the new mission field He is bringing to our doorstep. Maybe instead of conferences about taking back America for God we could teach our people some Spanish, or at least some understanding of Latino culture?


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