What if Christianity Itself is Secular?

Then we wouldn’t have difficult answers like this. We wouldn’t hear that the next pope needs to make secularism the centerpiece of his agenda, and we wouldn’t fault Islam for failing to distinguish between religious and secular authority. Instead, we would fault Christians for similarly failing to own up to the secular nature of the period between the advents of Christ, also known as saeculum (or age), when the old kingdom of God’s people is no longer the political arrangement and the new Jerusalem has yet to come, the one where Christians are pilgrims and strangers, and where the don’t identify the kingdom of grace with the monarch’s kingdom.

Why doesn’t anyone read not C.S. but Bernard Lewis?

Secularism in the modern political meaning – the idea that religion and political authority, church and state are different, and can or should be separated – is, in a profound sense, Christian. Its origins may be traced in the teaching of Christ, confirmed by the experience of the first Christians; its later development was shaped and, in a sense, imposed by the subsequent history of Christendom. The persecutions endured by the early church made it clear that a separation between the two was possible; the persecutions inflicted by later churches persuaded many Christians that such a separation was necessary.

The older religions of mankind were all related to – were in a sense a part of – authority, whether of the tribe, the city, or the king. The cult provided a visible symbol of group identity and loyalty; the faith provided sanction for the ruler and his laws. Something of this pre-Christian function of religion survives, or reappears, in Christendom, where from time to time priests exercised temporal power, and kings claimed divine right even over the church. But these were aberrations from Christian norms, seen and reciprocally denounced as such by royal and clerical spokesmen. The authoritative Christian text on these matters is the famous passage in Matthew 22:21, in which Christ is quoted as saying, “render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” Commentators have differed as to the precise meaning and intention of this phrase, but for most of Christian history it has been understood as authorizing the separate coexistence of two authorities, the one charged with matters of religion, the other with what we would nowadays call politics.

In this, the practice of Christianity was in marked contrast with both its precursors and its competitors. In imperial Rome Caesar was God, reasserting a doctrine that goes back to the god-kings of remote antiquity. Among the Jews, for whose beliefs Josephus coined the term “theocracy,” God was Caesar. For the Muslims, too, God was the supreme sovereign, and the caliph was his vice-gerent, “his shadow on earth.” Only in Christendom did God and Caesar coexist in the state, albeit with considerable development, variety, and sometimes conflict in the relations between them. (What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response, 2002, 96-97)

31 thoughts on “What if Christianity Itself is Secular?

  1. if you put your question as a syllogism, you get odd results.

    P1: if Christianity were secular we would not have state of affairs X, Y, & Z
    P2: We have state of affairs X, Y, and Z.

    conclusion, Christianity is not secular.


  2. Paul,

    Which form of syllogism do you take yours to be? I am at a loss. Maybe you can explain it.

    Didn’t you say this?

    If p (Christianity is secular), then not-q (state of affairs X, Y, and Z).
    but q (we do have state of affairs X, Y, and Z)
    therefore not p (Christianity is secular).

    It’s not modus ponens, not modus tollens, it’s also neither of the common ‘sibling’ fallacies, denying the antecedent or affirming the consequent.

    Put in other words:

    If I am married, then I am not a bachelor.
    But I am a bachelor.
    Therefore I am not married.

    Doesn’t this only work if p and q are mutually exclusive states, like married and bachelor?

    How does it work for Christian and secular?

    Here’s a better example:

    If Paris is in France (p), then London is not in England (q)
    But London is in England (q).
    Therefore Paris is not in France (not p).


    This seems pretty absurd.


  3. I didn’t read Bernard Lewis, but I similarly learned from my dispensational church in the 1980s that we should place a stark difference between the sacred and the secular because Jesus told his enemies to render unto Caesar what was Caesar’s, and unto God what was God’s. Obviously, I was told, this puts Caesar’s things and God’s things in entirely different categories.

    Providentially, I never believed that explanation. I could never understand how it squared with Christ’s total demands over my life.

    Also in contrast to this, I love the article in the TDNT on euaggelion. If anything like this is true, than Christ was the greatest threat Caesar ever had. That would seem to leave no room for “secularism.”


  4. “The cult provided a visible symbol of group identity and loyalty.”

    Why else did the Magisterial Reformers want the magistrate to put to death those who would not christen infants?

    The Constantinian identitification of biological family with “the promise of the covenant” remains, even when the magistrate now has a different cult (free dumb), and even where it is denied that God uses water instrumentally in regeneration.


  5. Jeff,

    Isn’t this post arguing that there is a distinctly Christian political theory?

    Sorry, I just couldn’t copy the emoticon, as I am constitutionally adverse to their use. But to your kindly jab, I see where you are going with this. I can’t speak for Darryl here, but I think what he argues for is broader in scope than a political theory (e.g. progressivism, classical liberalism, paleo-conservatism, socialism, et. al.). Of course what he speaks of concerns politics as it is an important component of the secular present age, but it’s broader application pertains to much more than politics, but to the whole of life in a passing world. Maybe, because politics comes up so much in 2k discussions it might be taken to be a Christian theory of politics, but it broadly speaks to all sorts of human institutions that are 1) God-ordained, 2) good, 3) tainted by the realities of human depravity, and 4) are passing realities that will not endure (at minimum in their current forms/modes) in the age to come.

    Rather than 2k being a political theory, it is, in itself a theory that is accommodative of various political theories, without demanding that the political theory be either self-consciously biblical, or even Christian. It would seem that the only uniting ethical component of 2k is Natural Law, but even NL is sufficiently flexible that it could be utilized in a variety of political arrangements (and has been historically).


  6. Jed: Rather than 2k being a political theory, it is, in itself a theory that is accommodative of various political theories, without demanding that the political theory be either self-consciously biblical, or even Christian.

    DGH: For the temporal realm, Christianity is indifferent.

    Actually, it’s stronger than that, right? A variety of political theories can be accommodated — but not theonomy or theocracy or its atheistic counterparts under Mao or Stalin, all of which are held to be unbiblical.

    Not that I’m complaining, mind, but I wanted to be clear.


  7. Jeff, fair point. But I’d add that 2kers could live under a theocracy because there is no authority except that which is set up by God. Theos at least speak as if civil authorities that don’t rule per the Bible don’t deserve obedience and submission.


  8. Any political theory can be “accomodated” by Christians. “Accomodation” may mean us not living very long in some cases, however. This notion gets at the heart of what it means to be 2K.


  9. Zrim: But I’d add that 2kers could live under a theocracy because there is no authority except that which is set up by God.

    “could live”, but would not be obedient in matters of cult, yes?


  10. Jeff, just as in a secular state, if the theocracy demanded anything that was in direct contradiction to godliness in cult or culture then obey God rather than men (i.e. it’s always about obedience, not disobedience).


  11. Jeff, like Zrim says, 2k could accommodate theocracy. Wouldn’t we all want to live in Calvin’s Geneva? As for Mao and Stalin, Zrim would say we have no right to resist.


  12. Under a Mao or Stalin I would hope that I would continue to worship, albeit more privately. If asked if I was a Christian, I would hope that I would say “yes” and accept the consequences.


  13. What’s the verdict on fleeing? Seems the Scots tried to get out of bloody Mary’s way. It’s one thing to refuse to recant with the ax already being lined up, what about the wisdom of retreating to fight another day?


  14. Well, I wasn’t really asking whether one could *live* under a theocrat, but whether 2k rejects theonomy and/or theocracy as legitimate political theories (as it seems to do).


  15. See?

    Why are Christians free to sit down at table with pagans and to eat food offered to idols? Because it is a common or a secular meal. It is not a religious meal. It is not being presented as a sacred meal. When the condition (εἴ) changes, however, the nature of the meal changes. The pagans are still pagans. The food is essentially unchanged but when one’s pagan hosts invoke the pagan deities over the meal—the phrase “this has been offered in sacrifice almost certainly implies more than a mere recognition that the butcher offered it to the gods. The Christian already knows this fact—then it is no longer a common meal. At that point the Christian must declare his religious loyalties. We are participants in Christ. We are united to Christ. We may no union with demons or idols. Christ instituted one sacred meal: the Lord’s Supper and we may participate in no other sacred meal.

    Paul implicitly distinguishes between the sacred and the secular. Without this distinction, his moral instruction to the Corinthians makes no sense. After all, he has already declared that we are free to eat food offered to idols and that the idols are nothing and the pagan gods are nothing. What matters is the nature of the meal. Is it a secular meal or a sacred meal?


  16. Is ordination itself a sacrament? Does God ordain the men who change the regular bread of this age into sacramental bread? Or do other men do the ordaining, so that ordaining itself is not a sacrament?

    Garcia, “Christ and the Spirit”, in Resurrection and Eschatology,( ed Tipton and Waddington, p 426) –“For Lutherans, both believer and unbeliever partake of the substance of Christ but with differing outcomes, one to life but the other to judgment.The matter disputed is whether unbelievers receive the substance of Christ without his Spirit. Lutherans say that if Christ is truly present He is present independent of the communicant’s faith or unbelief.

    David Scaer—“Sacramental integrity would have given us the courage to resist this Reformed intrusion and to insist that the font remain exactly where it was, peace or no peace. Luther defined the church by baptism.”

    Click to access scaerdlutherbaptism.pdf


  17. John Frame– A feature of the historia salutis method is that it sees salvation less in individual terms, more in corporate terms. The covenants are made through mediators with their families.

    Gilbert Meilaender, Hearts Set to Obey—“The problem with terminological solutions is that they are likely to leave untouched the inability of dialectical Lutheranism to speak of the law as the law of that one God who simply is gracious. That is, they do not address the incipient Marcionism that turns the distinction between law and gospel into a division within God’s own being and thereby makes the normative will of God of purely passing significance. ”

    Meilaender–“In practice, this dualism is tempted to treat the content of the moral life as a purely secular matter. So long, then, as the surrounding culture does the work of carrying and transmitting Christian wisdom about how to live— thereby enabling the church to hide from herself the fact that she no longer has any moral guidance to offer. It is only when the culture no longer seems reliable as a transmitter of Christian virtue that we suddenly realize the church has lost the ability to shape lives.”



  18. I disagree with Meilander’s move. I believe that we can and must keep the law-gospel distinction but without agreeing that the law is “natural or secular law”. Not even non-Christians are exempt from the law of Christ. This is NOT to say that non-Christians (or Christians) have the ability to keep Christ’s law, but that this inability does not change human responsibility to Christ as Creator and Lawgiver (no mere exegete clarifying misunderstanding of Moses). But there is no solution for our guilt before Christ’s law except in the gospel of Christ’s death as having satisfied Christ’s law.

    If we still want a synergism in which we help Christ by doing our best (what grace has put in us) and then “letting God” do the rest, then as yet there is no evidence that God has done ANYTHING gracious for us.

    Charles Hodge– “The law kills but the spirit (i.e. the gospel) gives life. This II Corinthians 3 passage and the following context present two important questions. First, in what sense does the law kill? And second, How is it that the apostle attributes to the Mosaic system this purely legal character, when he elsewhere so plainly teaches that the gospel was witnessed or taught both in the law and the prophets? The answer furnished by the Scriptures is plain. The law demands perfect obedience. It says, “Do this and live,” Rom. 10:5; Gal. 3:12, and “Cursed is every one who CONTINUES not in ALL things written in the book of the law to do them,” Gal. 3:10. As no man renders this perfect obedience, the law condemns him. It pronounces on him the sentence of death. …( An Exposition of the Second Epistle to the Corinthians , p 56.)

    Meilaender, describing the formulations he is rejecting— “We accept— perhaps, in subtle ways, we even delight in— our condition as simultaneously saint and sinner. The only righteousness of concern to the Christian is extrinsic, the righteousness of Christ. Hence, the Lutheran understanding of righteousness is relational (rather than being a quality that inheres in a person). Grace is in no sense a power that enables us to become ‘more and more’ what God wills we should be. Rather, grace is pardon that announces God’s acceptance of the sinner, That grace having been announced, there is no more to be said— other than to say it ‘again and again.’ That is, any serious struggle to grow in righteousness, to obey God’s commands more fully, will be understood as sin, since it may direct one’s attention inward in a self-preoccupied way, rather than outward to the extrinsic righteousness of Christ. From such self-perfecting tendencies one must simply flee and Christians make no progress in righteousness. They simply return time and again to the word that announces pardon, a word that invites and elicits faith. They continually reclaim their starting point.

    Meilaender continuing to describe the law-gospel distinction—“There can be no room here for ethical reflection. There is room for preaching, but perhaps not for catechesis. It is hard to know exactly how one who lived solely within this framework of thought could raise children or pass on the church’s way of life. According to this dialectical framework, THE CHURCH MUST STRICTLY SEPARATE FAITH FROM LIFE.”

    mcmark–I am not going to get into the question about if “third use of the law” for Christians is too domesticated and so “first use of law for everybody, Christian or not.

    My concern is that teaching gospel as penal satisfaction of law does not entail not preaching law.
    My concern is that Lutherans by denying election in the atonement deny Christ’s death as penal satisfaction of law.

    And preaching law does not entail preaching ‘some other law more manageable for everybody” than the law of Christ.

    Click to access Cman_123_3_Gatiss.pdf


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