2K as Rodney Dangerfield

I have to give credit to Jamie Smith for rattling the neo-Calvinist cage with a review of James Skillen’s recent book on Christians and politics. I agree with Jamie when he wonders out loud, can you believe we have another book about Christianity in the public square? Jamie’s liturgical side might also welcome a book on the sacraments, but he and I would likely diverge when he would want (I suppose) to talk about the sacraments in broad as opposed to my narrow (and vinegary) terms. Even so, I was glad to see Jamie mix it up with neo-Calvinists who need to get out more:

. . . what follows from all of this [Skillen’s book] feels either truistic or simply a theological rationale for a particular form of American constitutionalism—as if a “biblical” understanding of justice naturally entails the American project. “The question for Christians,” Skillen summarizes, “is this: How should we engage politically, guided by the vision of Christ’s kingdom that has not yet been revealed in its fullness?” That’s a pretty big, vague question. The answer seems at once predictable, tired, and hollow: “In the political arena, therefore, we should work for the kind of political communities in which those who fill offices of government act as public servants to uphold public justice for the common good, willingly accepting their equality with all citizens under the law.” Fair enough: but is anybody really going to disagree with that? If not, then we’re on the terrain of truism. The Good of Politics tends to do this: offer theological rationales for things you had already assumed were a good idea.

Jonathan Chaplin was someone whom Smith woke from his principled-pluralism slumbers:

Smith quotes Skillen’s summary of the political pay-off from such a vision of justice as that “we should work for the kind of political communities in which those who fill offices of government act as public servants to uphold public justice for the common good, willingly accepting their equality with all citizens under the law.” Yet he casually dismisses this vision as “predictable, tired, and hollow.” In doing so, however, he reveals less about the limits of Skillen’s accounts and more about his own failure to grasp just how globally distinctive this conception of politics really is, what an enormous achievement it has proven to be historically, and how radical and transformative it would be if American Christians actually took it seriously in their political thinking and acting. It is lazily dismissive to suggest that what Skillen’s vision amounts to is a “pretty standard liberal democratic game”—little more than “liberal proceduralism.”

I myself am fairly comfortable with a procedural republic — unfortunately, we are now a procedural empire (and we all know what empires yield — the not so good tyrant). But it seems to me that Smith has a point. If we want something a little more high octane at the Christian political theology pump, basically rolling out Christian arguments for liberal democracy isn’t going to rev the engine of anyone who walks on the antithesis wild side.

What is curious about both Chaplin and Smith’s pieces is that 2 kingdom theology isn’t even a serious option (as one way of making peace with a procedural republic or divine-right monarch or demented emperor). The working assumption of neo-Calvinists is that the spirituality of the church is not even worthy of attention. According to Smith:

On Skillen’s account, all of our political errors stem from “believing that Christ’s kingdom is spiritual, or not of this world, or only ecclesiastical, or only future.” In other words, the demons to be exorcised are dualism and clericalism: an anti-creational, a-cultural piety that cares only about heaven and/or a misguided desire to have the church rule the state. He sees this growing out of misguided beliefs. Specifically: “It is the combination of the belief that government was given because of sin and the belief that life on earth exists in negative tension with heaven that has lead to the development of almost every approach Christians have taken to government and politics.” Every approach except—you guessed it—Skillen’s (who, it should be noted, conveniently avoids the fact that John Calvin and Abraham Kuyper also saw government as a postlapsarian institution, necessary only because of the Fall).

If you identify dualism and clericalism as the threats, then your solution is going to be engagement and sphere sovereignty. In other words, if you think the problem is that Christians either don’t care about politics or want the church to run the state, then your “introduction” is going to emphasize the good of politics (and creaturely, cultural life more generally) in a way that is distinctly anti-clerical, persistently downplaying the church. And Skillen delivers, once again exhibiting the problem with the Kuyperian fixations on sphere-boundary policing. Bent on what he calls “de-ecclesiasticization,” the significance of the sacramental body of Christ is once again effectively marginalized. This standard Kuyperian trope de-politicizes the church (hence his rejection of Hauerwas’s emphasis on the church as polis) in a way that is not only wrong-headed but also mis-directed. This emphasis might be correct if there were hordes of people around looking to “establish” a particular religion or denomination as the official state religion. But is that really our problem now? Hardly.

Well, if you’re worried about the kind of generic prayer before townhall meetings that sounds Laodecian, you may actually be worried about the establishment of religion-and-I-don’t-care-what-kind-it-is.

But who says that dualism and clericalism are the threats that need to be subdued? I understand that Kuyper did. But did Jesus? Did Augustine? Was Kuyper the third Adam? Which is not to say that dualism and clericalism are the best ways of describing either the spirituality of the church or an Augustinian political theology (which says basically that because of the fall all of this talk of human flourishing is pagan). But have Skillen, Chaplin, or Smith considered the upside of dualism and clericalism? Which is to ask, have they not ever noticed that history is littered with instances that suggest Christian engagement or transformationalism is the real danger. (Sphere sovereignty seems to me a keeper, but one that actually constrains neo-Calvinists since they keep blurring the lines and taking every square inch captive.)

Just consider the religious voices that supported World War I. Here I will repeat quotations from a previous post:

The Bishop of London in 1915 said:

kill Germans — do kill them; not for the sake of killing, but to save the world, to kill the good as well as the bad, to kill the young as well as the old, to kill those who have shown kindness to our wounded as well as those fiends. . . . As I have said a thousand times, I look upon it as a war for purity, I look upon everyone who died in it as a martyr.

The Bishop of Carlisle added:

But in this war there move and work spirits deeper, stronger, more revolutionary than any or all of these — spirits of good and evil, powers of heaven and principalities of hell, invisible spirits of goodness and wickedness of which men are the instruments and the world the visible prize. . . . This present war is essentially a spiritual war; a war waged on earth but sustained on either side by invisible powers.

Not to be outdone, Protestant clergy from Harry Emerson Fosdick to Billy Sunday signed a statement that urged the U.S. in 1916 to enter the war. Here is how their faith-based argument went:

The just God, who withheld not his own Son from the cross, would not look with favor upon a people who put their fear of pain and death, their dread of suffering and loss, their concern for comfort and ease above the holy claims of righteousness and justice, and freedom and mercy and truth. Much as we mourn the bloodshed [of war], we lament even more than supineness of spirit, that indifference to spiritual values which would let mere physical safety take precedence of loyalty to truth and duty. The memory of all the saints and martyrs cries out against such backsliding of mankind. Sad is our lot if we have forgotten how to die for a holy cause.

. . . the question of all questions for our immediate consideration is this: shall the ancient Christian inheritance of loyalty to great and divine ideals be replaced by considerations of mere expediency?

Or how about the religious rationale that informed the Cold War, at least if William Inboden’s book, Religion and American Foreign Policy, is reliable. He describes the “Truman Doctrine” this way:

In a 1951 address at Washington’s famed New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, Truman preached a virtual sermon on America’s role in the world. He elaborated on the vexing relationship between the divine will, armed strength, American goodness, and communist evil. “We are under divine orders — not only to refrain from doing evil, but also to do good and to make this world a better place in which to live. . . . At the present time our nation is engaged in a great effort to maintain justice and peace in the world. An essential feature of this effort is our program to build up the defenses of our country. There has never been a greater cause. . . . We are defending the religious principles upon which our Nation and our whole way of life are founded. . . . The international Communist movement is based on a fierce and terrible fanaticism. It denies the existence of God and, wherever it can, it stamps out the worship of God . . . Our faith shows us the way to create a society where man can find his greatest happiness under God. Surely we can follow that faith with the same devotion and determination that Communists give to their godless creed.” The Cold War, in other words, had erupted not merely between two nations with contrary economic and political systems, but between two different religions. . . . Two ideologies and two systems asserted their rival claims to reality, neither one willing — or even able, if they would be true to themselves — to shrink from their confessions of truth. (114)

When you start entering the public square with religion, it becomes hard not to divide the world in antithetical ways. Truman was no Calvinist but weren’t neo-Calvinists, ever since 1789, habitually dividing the political world between the forces of good and those of — in the Church Lady’s voice — Say-TEN!

Do we really want a Christian political theology if it is going to keep baptizing the particular interests of nation-states as if those interests are those of Christ and his kingdom? Neo-Calvinists seem so intent on fixing today’s problems that they don’t seem to be capable of being sobered by the historical record of fixers who also rejected clericalism and dualism all the while collapsing the kingdom of God into the U.S.A., Germany, the UK — you name the pretty good nation.

But without 2k as an interlocutor, Smith may driven to look for sterner Christian engagement:

I wonder if. . . we don’t actually need a more robust embrace of “ideology” in this respect—a more forthright and unapologetic Christian politics that, in the name of the common Good and the good of politics, reconsiders Christendom for the missional project it was. That is the sort of question that reading Oliver O’Donovan and Peter Leithart has left me with. But it is a question that a reader of Skillen’s book could never understand.

Will Smith take the theonomic plunge and confirm what 2kers have always suspected about neo-Calvinism — it’s just one step from theonomy but marching lock step with the Federal Visionaries who pine for Christendom and Christian emperors.

45 thoughts on “2K as Rodney Dangerfield

  1. Some smartass on Twitter provoked Smith to ask:

    James K.A. Smith ‏@james_ka_smith
    @ChortlesWeakly @oldlife Heh. Serious question: Has any 2Ker seriously engaged O’Donovan’s *Desire of the Nations*? If so, haven’t seen it.

    I can’t answer that.


  2. I only wish that Stanley was more of an enemy of the O’Donovan project. But instead Hauerwas praises the pretentious ambitions of Leithart and O’Donovan.

    Oliver O’Donovan. The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology, 215-17.

    Here I must define an affectionate parting of the ways with my friend Stanley Hauerwas, whose insights into the imprisoning constraints of modern cliche have done so much to free us to envisage the church as a social presence. His attack on Christendom, which he often denominates as ‘Constantinianism’, seems to be founded on the premise: Christendom is constituted by the improper acquisition of worldly power by the church. ‘By taking up Rome’s project’, he tells us in a flagship article (‘Why there is No Salvation Outside the Church’…) ‘Christians were attempting to further the kingdom through the power of this world.’

    No historical justification is offered for this claim, and I am afraid I think it simply wrong. That is not what Christians were attempting to do. Their own account of what happened was that those who held power became subject to the rule of Christ. Of course, clear-sighted individuals could see the temptations this situation posed. Criticism of worldly churchmanship did not begin with the dawn of modernity. But they did not think this danger a reason to refuse the triumph Christ had won among the nations.

    O Donovan continues—“The subjection of the angelic powers of government to the rule of Christ is one aspect of justification, the fruit of Christ’s triumph over death and hell. Christians who believed in Christendom believed that they could discern this in world-historical developments. Yet they knew they could not count on it as a permanent right. So Augustine knew that the thesis he had to contest in his contemporaries’ celebration of the Christian epoch was not that the empire had been converted to Christ, which was true, but that there would never be another persecution of Christians, which nobody could be sure of .

    This triumph of Christ among the nations Hauerwas is not prepared to see. His Christianity is marked by a kind of return to the catacombs. This is not ‘sectarian’; I have the greatest sympathy with his scornful repudiation of that epithet. For was it not the catholic church that sheltered in the catacombs and which Augustine thought might be called on at any moment to return to them?

    The categories of ‘church’ and ‘sect’ to which this epithet appeals are a dishonest device, theologically speaking, to suggest that catholics may always, as a matter of their own decision, be respectable – as though martyrdom were a temperamental disposition or an ecclesiastical policy rather than a vocation thrust upon us terrifyingly from on high! Few modern theologians have been so conscientious in recalling the witness of the martyrs as has Hauerwas. His natural allegiance in the patristic age is not with Augustine’s City of God but with Origen’s Exhortation to Martyrdom. ‘Genuine politics’, he tells us in the same article, ‘is about the art of dying’.

    And yet–an observation offered in the spirit of his own remark that ‘you can’t learn to lay brick without learning to talk right’ (p. 101)–Hauerwas does not talk about martyrdom in the way the master-builders did. ‘The martyrs could go to their deaths confident that the story to which their killers were trying to subject them was not the true story of their death . . . “You can kill us’”, he imagines them saying, “‘but you cannot determine the meaning of our death!” (p. 38). Is there not something missing here, something essential to the practice of dying constituted as a political and churchly, not simply as a philosophical, act? Where is the confidence in the resurrection?

    mark: Interesting how folks use the category of “resurrection” to factor in our works as a means to the not-yet aspect of justification (think both Gaffin and Piper) and also use the category of “resurrection” to force us to feel obligated to get together as “one church” in order to move history in the right direction (think Leithart and the Carson coalition).


  3. When did O’Donovan become the threshold for escaping Rodney Dangerfield territory? I’m still licking my wounds from all those American Protestants who were trying to usher in the kingdom by doing away with the secular-sacred dichotomy.


  4. Not that many years after the review below, Stanley gave a positive review to Leithart’s Constantine book.

    Stanley Hauerwas and James Fodor. “Remaining in Babylon: Oliver O’Donovan’s Defense of Christendom.” Studies in Christian Ethics 11, no. 2 (August 1, 1998)

    “Suffice it to say that when all is said and done we believe O’Donovan thinks he knows more about how the story comes out than we think can be justified — thus our sense of the necessary eschatological reservation, ‘not yet’. Put colloquially, we believe that Scripture is best read as an aid for the church to ‘muddle through’ rather than an architectonic for rule.”

    “Our differences with O’Donovan in this respect are simple but we believe profound. Whereas O’Donovan seeks correlation with Israel, we look for analogies. Put differently, O’Donovan reads back from the loss of Christendom to the Scriptures to justify the need for the latter. We think he should read forward from Scripture, helping us see the loss of Christendom as God’s positive disciplining of the church in order that we might better understand how our habitation in Babylonia should proceed.”

    “In short, we think that God has placed Christians in a position where we might learn from the Jews if only this one thing: namely, that God’s people live and survive by their wits, not by being recognized or accorded official status by those who would claim to rule……. May it be that O’Donovan is, after all, more at home in the world of Augustine than in the world of the late twentieth-century, a world which lives not only with the ineradicable memory of the Holocaust but very much in its shadow? If Christians are to learn who we are by attending to Israel, we will do so just to the extent that we discover again, as the Jews have done for centuries, how to live … without ruling.

    We believe that however much Christendom may have at certain times and in certain places represented the church’s faithful and unfaithful witness, that day is now behind us. Wilderness, not rule, is where we presently dwell as Christians. As we know from Jesus’ own temptations, wilderness means learning how to live under conditions of great testing. It means living a life that continually calls for the deployment of the ‘survival skills’ of witness and mission and prayer.

    “For those who think they are in control, who are convinced that they are called to rule, these skills cannot help but atrophy. O’Donovan’s readings of Scripture afford great aid in the development of such skills, but in the end we believe that he offers more than we should want. It is our conviction that God is again teaching the church that, like the Jews, our first task is to learn to wait upon the Lord and by so waiting to become better and more faithful readers of Scripture.”

    mark: I keep wondering if the next book for dgh after his Romanism project is about the politics of religious jews in the American empire. Yes, I know that everything’s been already done….


  5. Oliver O’Donovan. The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology, p 217

    In the Christian era there is no neutral performance on the part of rulers; either they accommodate to the energy of the divine mission, or they hurl themselves into defiance. The church’s knowledge that its mission could be assisted by the Roman empire did not begin with the conversion of Constantine; nor was the early church unwilling to recognize a measure of ‘anonymous Christianity’ in such quarters

    OO–Beyond that, however, there may be a conscious facilitation, based on the recognition of the church and acknowledgment of its mission. (We are not necessarily speaking here of legal ‘establishment’, a vague term at best, though this has sometimes been the way in which recognition was given.) Recognition implies some respect on the part of the rulers for the church’s leaders, and a willingness to listen to them as they explain the church’s tasks and seek assistance. But it by no means implies giving bishops whatever they would like.

    OO–One of the advantages of‘deep Christendom’, in which rulers could be counted on to have a lay Christian understanding, was that the state could be informed by other means about the church’s mission and its needs. It was a mistake, however, to speak of the ruler’s duty to ‘defend’ the church, or ‘reinforce church discipline’. These conceptions were among the false steps of Christendom, which helped to create ambiguity about the church’s identity.

    OO– Post-exilic Israel could look to the powers that ruled her land for defence, however unhappily, because she still awaited Yhwh’s intervention. But the church does not await his intervention, but knows that that intervention has already come. Its security is guaranteed by the ascended Christ and needs no further underwriting.

    OO–The most truly Christian state understands itself most thoroughly as ‘secular’. It makes the confession of Christ’s victory and accepts the relegation of its own authority. It echoes the words of John the Baptist: ‘He must increase, I must decrease’ (John 3:30). Like the Baptist, it has a place on the threshold of the Kingdom, not within it. The only corresponding service that the church can render to this authority of the passing world is to help it make that act of self-denying recognition.

    OO– The church seeks the ‘conversion of the state, provided that we use that term analogously. In relation to the state its sense is different from that in which it can be used of individuals and societies. Not only individuals, but families, tribes and nations may repent and believe the Gospel. Whether families, tribes and nations have an eternal destiny we may debate (though Israel has one – is that not enough?); but there is no difficulty in saying that they belong within the church.

    OO–The ruler may belong within the church, too, but not qua ruler. The essential element in the conversion of the ruling power is the change in its self-understanding and its manner of government to suit the dawning age of Christ’s own rule. The church has to instruct the state in the ways of the humble state.

    Carl Truman gives the antidote, by way of SK—One does not have to be in a megachurch to see the temptation to sit back and just belong through the formalities of public worship and the vicarious belief of the church as body. But if you take a man and put him on a desert island, or in a place where nobody believes the same things, what will happen to his faith? Will it survive? Was it more than a mere public performance or a function of belonging to a particular community? Stripped of its context, it will stand naked, and appear as it really is.

    Carl Truman– To put it in a way of which Luther would have approved, only the one who has truly come to the point of despair in himself as an individual can then truly come to faith in the savior; for he cannot have another to believe on his behalf… One must first believe as an individual before one can belong to the community.


  6. DGH misunderstands my question. My point is that O’Donovan’s historical account of Christendom–and implicit constructive proposal (which is NOT a nostalgic return to the Holy Roman Empire)–is something that 2Kers must address. And I haven’t seen it yet.

    As for 2K getting respect: it’s Skillen who is dismissive. He treats it only briefly in the book, and his criticism couldn’t possibly persuade anyone who really understands 2K. I hope I’m already on record as taking 2K seriously, even if I ultimately disagree.


  7. James is “The Gary & Henrietta Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology and Worldview.”

    This begs the question of what unapplied Reformed Theology looks like.

    When I go to church, hear the Word preached, partake of the sacraments, and study the Confessions is that a means to some other end or an end in itself?

    How do I use what I do on Sunday to form a “worldview” and to what extent is that a valid enterprise? Who guides me in that worldview formation and what other interests might they have than the advance of the gospel and my own sanctification?


  8. JKAS “implicit constructive proposal (which is NOT a nostalgic return to the Holy Roman Empire)–is something that 2Kers must address. And I haven’t seen it yet.”

    Sometimes these academic cat fights (sorry, DGH) can be the best free show in town, but rather than 2Ker’s, how about encouraging Hindu’s, Jews, Muslims, atheists and agnostics to engage with O’Donovan and see if they see anything other than nostalgia for a romantized Christendom past?


  9. McMark, I’d like to see the neo-Calvinists distinguish OO from any form of sacral kingship well documented in the likes of Francis Oakley or Peter Heather’s recent book on the resurrection of the Roman Empire. I don’t see how you can make those claims without also looking at the historical record of abysmal failure in the name of Christ. But I guess history doesn’t count.


  10. Jamie, the 2k proposal you have. You just don’t like it. It’s let the church be the church and let Christians live out their callings. That’s what the New Testament says. It doesn’t talk about human flourishing this side of glory. Otherworldly, I know.

    As for Christendom, how do we get all the good with all the bad (Crusades, burning heretics, papal monarchy)? I don’t see how O’O’s implicit proposal is any kind of starter. It strikes me, as someone licensed to do history, as highly nostalgic. But I get it. The peeps want inspiration and with neo-Calvinism they shall have it (in Mencken’s words, good and hard).


  11. I read JKAS differently as well, i.e. critical of Skillen’s blithe dismissal of 2k thought and not as even a partial endorsement. As for the missional nature of what Constantine was up to, the Christian leaders of the 4th century had little choice in the matter. All of them eventually accommodated themselves to the political reality that protection for the church meant doing business with the govt., even Augustine in the coge intrare controversy with the Donatists. I don’t think we should be surprised that a church under pressure succumbs to the temptation to reneg on its otherworldly principles and play nice with the existing magistrates (very often lives of many innocents were, so to speak, at stake). A lot of what looks like Christian thinkers of that era taking the status quo as perennially normative I would chalk up to rhetorical excess and opportunism (http://tinyurl.com/moxajad). Amazingly, another strand survived, that of Pope of Gelasius and Augustine in his better moments (of which there were many).


  12. David’s right: I’m actually trying to stage an honest, sympathetic engagement (more to come in appropriate scholarly venues). But the sorts of replies here aren’t very encouraging on that front (though also not entirely surprising). If you think the only sort of respectful engagement is one that eventually comes over to your side…well, enjoy your disappointment, Elijah.

    I’ll just note: no one has answered my question yet. I want to make sure I haven’t missed it, so: can anyone point me to a scholarly engagement with O’Donovan’s argument from a 2K perspective? That is, I’m looking for a serious engagement with O’D, not one that has already decided in advance what he says and why it’s wrong.


  13. As much as I dispise Jamie’s Smith’s arrogant “Letters to an Young Calvinist” for its attempt to appropriate the label for his own narrow version of Calvinism, I must agree with Smith that no Reformed (or Lutheran) 2 k advocate that I know has come to terms with O’ Donovan.

    David Van Drunnen is not very good even in writing about Augustine, and I don’t see anybody at Westminster California or elsewhere interacting with the dangerous proposals of O-Donovan and John Milbank, even though Leithart’s work seems to me only a less careful version of their projects (see Leithart’s latest on Gratitude).

    Maybe Matthew Tuininga, but I haven’t seen it yet.


    When Smith reports that the “standard Kuyperian trope de-politicizes the church (hence his rejection of Hauerwas’s emphasis on the church as polis)”, I must add–as does also the standard 2k trope. Of course that does not mean that I agree with Hauerwas (or Smith) about the need to be anti-Zwinglian in order to appreciate the body politics of Christian ecclesia.


  14. Jamie, but it’s not like 2k is in a bubble — as if VanDruen and Clark are only writing about Horton and Hart. What about R.A. Markus? What about Sarah Palin? Have you written on them?

    There’s a lot more to political theology than O’Donovan.

    Plus, you haven’t answered the important historical question about Christendom. How is it possibly relevant to our situation post WWII or post 9/11? Yes, you might find some good reflection, but do you want to translate that into today’s situation? 2k gets accused for not taking Christianity beyond the church parking lot. How does O’Donovan speak to nuclear bombs on Japan, the CIA, or political Islam? Haven’t you simply framed the question in ways to your advantage? Or, have you had to answer any hard questions in the world of civil religion, Christian nationalism, or American imperialism? Do you want simply to turn back the clock to 1903 Netherlands or 1956 Ontario?

    I did ask. Your non-response could be viewed as not entirely surprising.


  15. mcmark, what do you say to the point that all 2kers that write prominently are bishops in the body politic of Christ? I know, the OPC and the URC come up way short in the ambitious world of neo-Calvinism. But what are the neo-Calvinists doing for their Christian polis — the CRC?


  16. This begs the question of what unapplied Reformed Theology looks like.

    Um, “raises the question” maybe… Question-begging is a logical fallacy that is always bad to do. Raising questions is fine.


  17. James K.A. Smith
    Posted May 15, 2014 at 11:58 am | Permalink
    David’s right: I’m actually trying to stage an honest, sympathetic engagement (more to come in appropriate scholarly venues). But the sorts of replies here aren’t very encouraging on that front (though also not entirely surprising).

    Hm. That’s what they all say.


  18. Huh, it’s as if no one heard you offer dualism and vocation, particularly in the light of the history of christian engagement, as being more promising. History and all it’s actors have just lacked the ‘right stuff’ and the ‘right elixir’. Gene optimization, there’s the hope.


  19. Darryl, it’s not a matter of pulling down our pants and seeing who has the bigger bibliography. (Only guys read this thing, right? So I can get away with that?) I’m not just asking if you’ve read a favorite of mine. I’m asking about O’Donovan because:

    (1) The 2K critique and project includes a particular take on the relationship between the order of creation and redemption. As a chastened, (merely-)quasi-Kuyperian, I’m actually sympathetic to some of the 2K critique, but I also think there are problems. And O’Donovan, in both Resurrection & Moral Order and Desire of the Nations gets at these issues in a way that I think 2Kers are irresponsible not to address. There are a host of other political theologians I think you’re most welcome to ignore; I just don’t think you can press the model you are without having taken account of O’Donovan. In the same way, I don’t think I can responsibly articulate a “Reformed public theology” today without taking serious account of the 2K option–which I’m doing (and which Skillen didn’t do).

    (2) You and others throw around the epithet of “Christendom” in a way that I find hard to identify with the meaning of the term as unpacked by O’Donovan (which is why I’m not answering your vague, sweeping questions). In fact, the ills you attribute to “Christendom” sound more like what O’Donovan describes as “Antichrist.” So there’s some serious equivocation going on here, and I think it’s due, at least in part, to the failure of 2Kers to actually read O’Donovan seriously.

    You might not realize it, but I’m actually trying to help. I think the 2K account gets more cred if it goes through O’Donovan.


  20. “Modernity” is not one unified big idea. Neither is “Liberalism”. That is we have more than one kind of “Christendom”.

    Oliver O’Donovan. The Desire of the Nations, p 194- “Even our refusal of Christendom has been learned from Christendom. Its insights and errors have fashioned, sometimes by repetition and sometimes by reaction, the insights and errors which comprise the platitudes of our own era.
    Christendom offers a reading of those political concepts with which Scripture furnishes us, and a reading of ourselves and of our situation from a point of observation outside ourselves but not too far outside.”

    OO– “Either of these readings we are free to question or to doubt; but for neither of them can we find a ready substitute. The more the political character of Israel’s hope engages us, the more we need to know how IT HAS ACTUALLY SHAPED the government of nations. The more the problem of our own modernity engages us, the more we need to see modernity against its background.”

    bishop Carol Truman—“The `end of Christendom’ should not fool us into thinking that a form of Christendom does not still exist. Anywhere where Christianity has become a formality, there is Christendom; anywhere where the belief of the group substitutes for the belief of the individual, there is Christendom…”

    John Howard Yoder The Priestly Kingdom: Social Ethics as Gospel,. In his essay “Constantinian Sources of Western Social Ethics.”, my teacher described the various stages of assuming every infant and citizen of the nation-state as being also a member of “the covenant” and of “the kingdom of God”

    “In our own century yet another step is taken. The government may actually oppose Christianity as value system and as institution… Yet even under this reversal , Christians remain patriotic. Their objection to the disadvantages or even persecution they suffer takes the form of claiming that their faith does not make them disloyal to the nation. In international and ecumenical contacts their national loyalty is professed, and the view of world affairs held in their homeland is shared…”

    It’s a very interesting essay. John Howard Yoder thought of this last stage as….neo-neo-neo-Constantinianism…


  21. I’m sure this argument has it’s own unique vocabulary and nomenclature within ‘political theology’ but for the christian, the touchstone still remains the uniqueness and exclusivity of the cult even within a shared ‘common’ culture. The point at which we ascribe to the culture that which is reserved for the cult, we’ve blurred the line and illicitly and illegitimately engaged the culture. Our thinking it’s a ‘good idea’ or even possible doesn’t therefore extend the charter of God(covenant community) to an ‘unchosen’, ‘unprivileged’ people.


  22. Jamie,

    First off, I think your request that a 2k interaction w/ O.O. is reasonable, and hopefully someone in our camp can take that on. I just ordered DotN to better familiarize myself w/ his arguments.

    But, on a practical level, I think that Christendom is a thing of the past, and I doubt the current sociopolitical trends will cycle back to it. So it is valuable as autopsy, but not so much as a polemic on the current state of affairs. I do see 2k as something that has far more flexibility on Christ/culture issues simply because it isn’t pushing for a distinctly Christian form of governance, whereas Christendom lacks such flexibility inasmuch as it either exists or it doesn’t. So, assuming I am not out in left field here, I am curious as to why you think 2k must mount a defense against Christendom, or OO’s apology thereof in order to be validated as an ethical system.


  23. Jamie, I appreciate the help and perhaps I need to look at OO again, though I am not sure you or he is actually grappling with Scripture (sorry to sound so much a Bible-thumper) where the New Testament is hardly the basis for a cultural project.

    At the same time, the point isn’t to play gotcha with authors. The point is to ask why OO is so important. Who made him bishop? Isn’t that somewhat personal? And so why discredit 2k on the basis of an authority that someone doesn’t recognize as authoritative? Or what if historians read texts and approach the past in a very different way from theologians and philosophers (who aren’t licensed to do history)? I mean, the religious significance of politics is everywhere in the past. You can’t find a king or prince who isn’t invoking some kind of sacral kingship. That OO finds a Christian version or values a distinctly Christian reading of a political order is hardly earth shattering.


  24. “I mean, the religious significance of politics is everywhere in the past. You can’t find a king or prince who isn’t invoking some kind of sacral kingship. That OO finds a Christian version or values a distinctly Christian reading of a political order is hardly earth shattering.”

    D.G., please kindly reduce this to less than 144 characters. Twitter finds this too long and too brainy.


  25. OK, I guess we’re done, because I’ve already answered your questions and told you why O’Donovan needs to be read. And to suggest that O’Donovan doesn’t grapple with Scripture–a laughable suggestion–confirms for me you haven’t read him. That’s fine. It just means 2Kers are avoiding confrontation with a stream of political theology that directly challenges both their “history” and their theology.


  26. Jamie, is this what it’s like to be in your classroom? I didn’t say OO didn’t deal with Scripture. My point was about neo-Calvinism. But I also would like to know if OO addresses the New Testament pattern of Christians-in-exile as the model for Christian engagement with politics. How church fathers, medieval theologians, or Calvinists applied Scripture to their settings is not the same as actually thinking through being on the margins of a hostile empire and encouraging people to live as if that’s the normal Christian life.

    Where did you invent this idea of intellectual trump? If you play OO the hand’s won? At Old Life trump should be Machen. Did I go Machen on you?


  27. O’Donovan is an ordained priest of the Church of England. I would say that he reads the Bible by means of Old Testament Israel.. For all the rhetoric of “things have changed since the resurrection”, Except for being more liberal, O”Donovan is not that much different from a Rushdoony theonomist in thinking of Jesus Christ as a mere exegete instead of our lawgiver and crucified law-giver. Stan’s comment on Resurrection and Moral Order (IVP 1986)— “too much order, not enough cross and resurrection”.

    To paraphrase Jamie Smith’s “Letters to Young Calvinists” and thus rehearse the old cliches of “liberalism”, let me say that O Donovan is so fixated on the one ( powerful) majority culture that he has a truncated, myopic, arcane, and inordinate rejection of the doctrine of legal imputation as it is found in the Bible and in the Reformed confessions.

    Perhaps O Donovan needs to “smooth out” and become mature (like Jamie Smith has), and thus pick his battles so he’s not at war against those of us who still happen to teach imputation (not only the legal solidarity in the guilt of Adam, not only freedom from the Mosaic economy, but also the freedom from any legal guilt by means of being counted dead in Christ’s death)



  28. “OK, I guess we’re done, because I’ve already answered your questions and told you why O’Donovan needs to be read.”

    That was impressive.


  29. Henceforth any new contributors will be required to send a photo of themselves proving they have an adequate supply of Depend Adult Diapers before being allowed to engage.


  30. Hmmm…..in this internet classroom, the host’s comments are hard to follow when they contradict each other.

    First Hart says (see Posted May 16, 2014 at 2:48 am): “I need to look at OO again, though I am not sure…he is actually grappling with Scripture (sorry to sound so much a Bible-thumper”.) Then Hart says (see Posted May 16, 2014 at 9:14 am): “I didn’t say OO didn’t deal with Scripture.”

    To clear this up, can someone find out what Machen’s view of OO’s grappling, or dealing with, Scripture really is (or isn’t)?


  31. Ask-Machen, how is “I am not sure he is actually grappling with Scripture” the non-A of “I didn’t say OO doesn’t deal with Scripture.” Not the “I’m not sure.” But thanks for your insight.


  32. I am late to this, but here is why the historical study of Christendom is relevant. It provides a (predictable) example of what happens when one combines a religion of grace with the politics of force; i.e. when one develops a “Christian” political theory. It was not for nothing that Jesus told Peter to put the sword away when it came to the cause of grace (being not of the world), and yet allowing the disciples to keep two swords among the 11 for self-defense (since they were still in the world).

    This is obvious, but what happens is that when Christianity does succeed in a culture and thus gains political influence, men who love power more than grace use it for their own ends. And Christians themselves become corrupt by this power. It is only the most optimistic of post-millenialists who think that somehow this dynamic will differ in the future. Is sanctification going to increase in quality as well as quantity? Or how shall we resist the lures of power in the future? Did the use of torture in the name of Christ just pop out of nowhere?

    And even when the Church supports relatively benign political ends — say, working for the betterment of public schools — such ends almost always involve tax policy. And how is tax policy enforced? With the sword. Thus, to ally the Church with any political cause — no matter how well intentioned — is to ally herself with violence. Leave justice to the magistrate, and let us be about grace and mercy; an oasis of hope and a dim picture of heaven in this dark, sad world.


  33. “allowing the disciples to keep two swords among the 11 for self-defense (since they were still in the world).” is

    1. itself a political statement and an alignment with a political cause.

    2. ignoring the context of the “two swords”. Were two swords indeed sufficient for “self-defense”? Is that what Jesus Christ meant when He said “enough”? Was Peter supposed to use a sword to slice off ears only in order to defend Himself and not to defend His friend? Is it a ‘vile thing” not to kill your enemies for the sake of showing your wife that you are both male and sovereign?

    I am not advocating that we go back to the Augustinian conception of “the two swords” as endorsed by the Magisterial Reformers. But it is only one more kind of Constantinianism to say that the example of Jesus is not relevant when it comes to our self-defense in this age and in this world. The Lord Jesus Himself lived in this age and in this world. His example is not the gospel but it is the Law.

    I Peter 2: 21 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you follow in his steps. 22 He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. 23 When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. 24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we, having died to sin, live to righteousness.



  34. Mark,

    That is an interesting take. “It is sufficient” = stop talking to me about this? Maybe. Either way, we are just arguing about *how* pacifist Christians are to be. I don’t see self-defense as a political position, per se, since it is not a matter of public policy, but personal ethics. I also don’t believe we ought to defend ourselves physically in most instances either. Just trying to make sense of the fact that Jesus tells them to buy a sword, and allows for them to have 2 swords among the 11 men, and that was enough. All those other items he lists are literal, but the sword is not? (Luke 22:35-38) Not sure that is accurate exegesis, but I will certainly think on it.

    It’s not my fault that gun advocates look for any excuse to justify their love for weapons. I even knew one pastor who put a photo of his latest sidearm on his personal blog. What the. And I certainly don’t think we should have portraits of Generals (ahem, Stonewall Jackson and Lee) anywhere in our church buildings. So, if folks use this verse to justify the glorifying of violence, it is not my intent to join them in that.

    BTW, how do you have time to read all that you do? You are a quote machine maniac. Impressive.


  35. “It is only the most optimistic of post-millenialists who think that somehow this dynamic will differ in the future.”

    No, others with low wattage between the ears may think likewise.

    You keep goofing this site up with way too much common sense. You need more quotes from dead Dutch guys that talk about how we should be running things.


  36. Chris, I have no reason to deny that the disciples had some literal swords. Peter did slice off the servant’s ear. The question concerns the significance of them having the swords, and what did Jesus Christ think about their purpose.

    At any rate, we are agreed that in “this dark sad world” we saints need to focus on the gospel, and not become one more piece in the “politics of identity”. Either we are saints or we are not saints. We are not more or less saints.

    Chris Hutchinson: “how shall we resist the lures of power in the future? Did the use of torture in the name of Christ just pop out of nowhere? ,,,,How is tax policy enforced? With the sword. Thus, to ally the Church with any political cause — no matter how well intentioned — is to ally herself with violence. Leave justice to the magistrate, and let us be about grace and mercy; an oasis of hope and a dim picture of heaven in this dark, sad world.”


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