Can Your Two Kingdom Theology Do This?

Remember when anti-2kers put the “R” before 2k to assert that two-kingdom theology is radical? A recent Twitter thread keeps that complaint alive:

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The odd thing is the way critics will leap to connect dots between ideas and events (like the shooting in Poway that involved an OPC church member) and never read the sources closest to the congregation and its pastor. Here is a paragraph from the book on covenant theology that the pastor of that OPC congregation wrote:

The doctrine of the new covenant guards us against triumphalism. The new covenant shows us that the kingdom of God is no longer identified with any geopolitical nation on earth. This is particularly critical to grasp in American culture, where there is a tendency to confuse the kingdom of God with the United States. Americas, however, is not in covenant with God as a nation. It had no representative on Mount Sinai. The only nation in covenant with God is God’s new global nation, that is, his new covenant church. “But you are a chosen race,” says the apostle Peter, “a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet 2:9). In the new covenant, the church is no longer limited to the physical descendants of Abraham but is made up of all the nations of the earth, people of every race, color, and language. While the old covenant was an era of driving the nations out of God’s holy land, the new covenant is an era of believers living side by side with unbelievers in patience and love. Today is the day of salvation, not judgment. God’s judgment is delayed until his return. (148)

That is not radical. It is moderate in the sense that it compels Christians to recognize that they live this side of glory in societies with non-Christians. It also reduces expectations for the Christian or moral capacities of a nation and its government. It is precisely an understanding of covenant theology and the gospel that contra Jemar Tisby and Timothy Cho is fundamentally at odds with white nationalism. There is nothing nationalist about it.

But the critics who for years have wailed and nashed teeth over 2k’s capitulation to secular society and “neutral” government are precisely those who wanted a nation with a Christian identity. Even those people who protest the United States’ long history of racism, want the nation to become Christian in the way it oversees and regulates race relations. Believe it or not, that understanding of church and state does not make a lot of room for non-Christians.

But 2k is radical. I get it.

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If You Think 2k is Dangerous, Imagine 1k

John Fea is upset with Jerry Falwell the younger for adopting a 2k position to defend his support for Donald Trump. Here is what Falwell said:

It’s such a distortion of the teachings of Jesus to say that what he taught us to do personally — to love our neighbors as ourselves, help the poor — can somehow be imputed on a nation. Jesus never told Caesar how to run Rome. He went out of his way to say that’s the earthly kingdom, I’m about the heavenly kingdom and I’m here to teach you how to treat others, how to help others, but when it comes to serving your country, you render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s. It’s a distortion of the teaching of Christ to say Jesus taught love and forgiveness and therefore the United States as a nation should be loving and forgiving, and just hand over everything we have to every other part of the world. That’s not what Jesus taught. You almost have to believe that this is a theocracy to think that way, to think that public policy should be dictated by the teachings of Jesus.

I am not sure I trust Mr. Falwell to capture all the intricacies of 2k political theology, but his rendering here seems quite sensible. You can have a theocracy of the Old Testament or a theocracy of the Sermon on the Mount. Modern sentimentality inclines more people to favor implementing New Testament laws than Israel’s political and civil codes (ouch!). But either way, if you require the government and rulers to conform to the Bible, you are a theonomist. Mind you, conducting war’s in God’s name or abolishing the sale of alcohol are not items you want on your resume if you are a government-should-conform-to-Christianity advocate, which John Fea is every time he uses the Bible, not the Constitution, against Trump.

So why is Falwell’s view dangerous? Fea explains:

Luther’s Two Kingdom belief, as I understand it, is more nuanced and complex than what Falwell Jr. makes it out to be. (I am happy to be corrected here by Lutheran theologians). In fact, I don’t think Luther would have recognized Falwell Jr.’s political theology.

That really doesn’t explain why Falwell is dangerous.

Turn’s out, what’s dangerous is a 2k person who won’t condemn Trump and that’s why John looks for help from a Lutheran who explains that 2k allows you fret about presidents like Trump:

Lutherans must avoid the mistake of the Reformation leaders who failed to cry out against the sins of monarchs. We must exhort all “sword-bearers,” that is, all agents of the state and public servants, from schoolteachers to the president, to live up to the demands of their vocations. Our Lutheran forefathers failed in this task; all the more reason Lutherans today must not.

Conservatives who fear that President Trump may be more like the decadent Belshazzar, feasting while the kingdom falls, than like the liberating Cyrus must pray that Lutherans remember the Two Kingdoms Doctrine. How we discharge the duties of citizenship—whether by accepting the creeping authoritarianism of the last two decades, or by raising our voices on behalf of the laws and democratic norms of our country—is a question of moral conscience, suitable for confession, and demanding repentance if we err.

Even if Lutherans call down God’s wrath on Trump, though, it’s still a judgment call, a question of moral conscience. It does not permit the kind of condemnation that John cites approvingly from Ruth Graham:

At one point, reporter Joe Heim asked Falwell whether there is anything Trump could do that would endanger his support from Falwell and other evangelical leaders. He answered, simply, “No.” His explanation was a textbook piece of circular reasoning: Trump wants what’s best for the country, therefore anything he does is good for the country. There’s something almost sad about seeing this kind of idolatry articulated so clearly. In a kind of backhanded insult to his supporters, Trump himself once said that he could “stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody” without losing his base. It’s rare to see a prominent supporter essentially admit that this was true.

A reporter for a secular magazine used the I-word? Idolatry? Why that’s a biblical idea, even in the Old Testament, the same portion of Scripture that calls for the execution idolaters.

Why John Fea doesn’t find the use of that word dangerous, I do not know (though again Trump explains a lot). Falwell’s point is that we should not expect the United States to conform to the rules for church members. Among the errors that churches try to avoid (I wish they did it more) are idolatry and blasphemy. But in the United States, thanks to political liberalism, errors like blasphemy and idolatry have rights, or people who worship false gods receive protection from the government to do so.

Once upon a time, Americans thought dangerous governments that required one form of worship and denied rights to people of other faiths. To see Falwell, son of a man who regularly blurred the kingdoms, recognize that the church has different norms from the state is not dangerous but a breakthrough.

Evangelicals Have Been At This Longer than Woke Millennials

Eric Weinstein, of Intellectual Dark Web fame (Bret’s brother), recently tweeted how novel the ideas and language of social justice warriors are:

But for evangelicals, “social concern” has been around for almost forty-five years:

The Lausanne Congress, sponsored by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, drew 2,700 peopple from around the globe — at the time the largest-ever gathering of evangelical Christian leaders.  The Assembled believers — ministers and lay people, racially diverse, the vast majority of them men — would be part of a singular moment in postwar evangelicalism.

Like all of the major presenters, [Rene] Padilla had pre-circulated a paper, a rather scholarly treatise on the centrality of repentance to Christian ethics. The audience was not surprise, then, to hear Padilla lecture his fellow participants at Lausanne on the sins of the evangelical church, and on its failure — their own failure  — to take seriously Jesus’s call to social action. What was remarkable was the controlled fury emanating from the stage. Padilla challenged the room to remember that Jesus had demanded that his followers confront the “darkness of the world”  But evangelicals, he pronounced, had focused so long on individual sin that they had forgotten that darkness included materialism, racism, class division, political abuses, and, quoting Reinhold Niebuhr, “collective egoism.” (Melani McAlister, The Kingdom of God Has No Borders, 85)

Of course, one way of looking at this is that evangelicals have been ever consistent in their call for social justice or social concern.

Another is that this is something that regularly repeats itself among Christians who want to immanentize the eschaton because they believe the gospel is not really relevant if it prepares someone for not the present but eternity.

And yet, if this social concern regularly repeats itself, from Walter Rauschenbusch to Rachel Held Evans, why has it accomplished so little (especially now that it has support from mainstream journalists, elite universities, and at least one of the major political parties — not to mention Silicon Valley)?

Jewish Americans and Thanksgiving

While some are wondering how to include native Americans in this day’s preparations and festivities, David Swartz reminded readers that Southerners were not so comfortable with a holiday rooted in New England’s heritage:

In his book The First Thanksgiving, he writes, “White southerners associated the holiday with New England, and that made it suspect in their eyes.” If he’s right, sectional rivalry explains why these old articles from Kentucky seem so strange and ahistorical, as if Thanksgiving comes out of nowhere. Southern narratives eliminated Pilgrims from the holiday’s history because they were from the North.

Indeed, northerners often encouraged the association of their region with antislavery. In the decades leading up to the Civil War, politicians endorsed the abolition of slavery in their Thanksgiving proclamations. Antislavery societies sometimes took up collections at Thanksgiving services. Abolitionists from New England connected the “Pilgrim Spirit” to John Brown’s raid in Virginia.

One frustrated writer in Richmond, Virginia, complained that “it is a common notion of New England, that it is the hub of the whole creation, the axis of the entire universe, and that when it thanks God that it is not as other men, everybody else is doing the same. . . . What a race these sycophants are!”

When I think of Americans who are ambivalent about Thanksgiving, my thoughts run to Jewish Americans. Barry Levenson captured the awkwardness in Avalon:

Then Christopher Guest ran into trouble with making a movie called “Home for Purim” that needed to be rebranded as “Home Thanksgiving.”  Why?  Because marketing a Jewish holiday movie is impossible:

Leave it Woody Allen to be the Jewish-American most comfortable with the Yankee holiday in “Hannah and Her Sisters”:

Forget football. See a Jewish-American movie about Thanksgiving.

Selective 2k

Readers may remember an exchange between John Fea and me about religion and politics from last summer. In the course of that exchange, Fea quoted favorably from President Obama’s welcome to Pope Francis:

You call on all of us, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, to put the “least of these” at the center of our concern. You remind us that in the eyes of God our measure as individuals, and as societies, is not determined by wealth or power or station or celebrity, but by how well we hew to Scripture’s call to lift up the poor and the marginalized, to stand up for justice and against inequality, and to ensure that every human being is able to live in dignity – because we are all made in the image of God.

You remind us that “the Lord’s most powerful message” is mercy. That means welcoming the stranger with empathy and a truly open heart – from the refugee who flees war torn lands, to the immigrant who leaves home in search of a better life. It means showing compassion and love for the marginalized and the outcast, those who have suffered, and those who seek redemption.

This is a blatant effort to use Christianity for political ends. Because Fea found it agreeable to his own understanding of government, he wrote that if such views made him a Christian nationalist, “then call me a Christian nationalist.”

But when Mike Horton wrote critically about the hobby horse of Fea, the so-called “court evangelicals,” Fea liked the kind of 2k that had originally led me to call him a Christian nationalist. According to Horton:

Liberal and conservative, Catholic and Protestant, have courted political power and happily allowed themselves to be used by it. This always happens when the church confuses the kingdom of Christ with the kingdoms of this present age. Jesus came not to jump-start the theocracy in Israel, much less to be the founding father of any other nation. Even during his ministry, two disciples—James and John—wanted to call down judgment on a village that rejected their message, but “Jesus turned to them and rebuked them” (Luke 9:54–55). He is not a mascot for a voting bloc but the savior of the world. He came to forgive sins and bring everlasting life, to die and rise again so that through faith in him we too can share in his new creation.

Sorry, but President Obama was confusing the kingdom of Christ with the United States when he welcomed the pope. John Fea apparently suffers from the same confusion when approving Obama and then approving Horton.

It’s hard keeping selectivity straight.

Protestant Nationalism

With all the attacks on and outrage over white nationalism and white theology, a historical perspective on the origins of nationalism might be instructive. This is from Philip S. Gorski’s The Disciplinary Revolution: Calvinism and the Rise of the State in Early Modern Europe (2003):

Confessionalization contributed to the development of Western nationalism in at least two ways: (1) by bringing cultural and political boundaries into closer alignment with one another; and (2) by supplying a discourse through which national distinctiveness could be articulated — and at least partly reconciled with Christian universalism. Like most agrarian societies, medieval Europe possessed an elite, high culture (literate and Latinate) that spanned political boundaries and a crazy quilt of popular cultures (oral and vernacular) that were confined to particular regions. Insofar as confessionalization stimulated the development of mass vernacular cultures that were neither local nor fully European, it helped to create the cultural homogeneities that nationalism would later mythologize and extol. . . . Of course, students of the subject have long argued that nationalism is a secular ideology that first emerges during the French Revolution. But recent work by early modernists has show this view to be untenable. However one defines it — qua movements, discourse, or category — nationalism can be found in the early modern period. While there were secular forms of nationalist discourse, grounded in narratives of cultural and political distinctiveness, the most common type of nationalist discourse in the early modern period was a religious one, which drew on the Exodus story, and on the notion of chosenness more generally. (163)

A Wrestling Match Over the Resurrection

Chris Gehrz thinks a belief in the resurrection will produce activist evangelicals (maybe even social justice types):

What would happen if evangelicals let the reality of the resurrection penetrate into our hearts and give us the vitality and power of Christ’s victory over death?

First, it would cause us to value life all the more. Yet many “pro-life” evangelicals seem to care little when their preferred presidential administration closes this country to those seeking refuge from war and gang violence. Or when it ignores the deaths of thousands of Americans in Puerto Rico. Or when it leaves unaddressed (or worsens) problems with health care, drug abuse, poverty, and climate change that threaten the lives of millions.

Second, a living orthodoxy of resurrection would leave us evangelicals more hopeful and less fearful. Instead, as I observed in our book, “The same people who argue most strenuously for the historicity of the resurrection can seem the least likely to live as if Jesus Christ has actually conquered the grave.”

The resurrection as the basis for social policy and legislation — I have not seen that one before. But Gehrz thinks this corresponds with what Paul says in 1 Cor 15:58: “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”

That is not the way I typically think about the resurrection, especially after what Paul writes just before that verse:

… flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. 51 Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, 52 in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. 53 For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. 54 When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:

“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
55 “O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?”

Instead of turning Christians into transformationalistizationers of culture, the reality of death and the hope of the resurrection would seem to teach believers that this world is inconsequential to the world to come, that as Paul writes elsewhere, “to live is Christ, to die is gain.” We may not labor in vain. But we die and we receive glory, and that puts the affairs of this life in a different perspective, as it seemed to for Paul:

16 So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. 17 For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, 18 as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Cor 4)

Gerhz even seems to agree with this when he writes, “a lived belief in literal resurrection should lessen our fear of both literal and metaphorical death.” If true, then it would less our fears of inequality and injustice since Christians will have a life to come.

But by trying to appropriate the resurrection for social justice, Gehrz seems to be guilty of what Paul warned against:

20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

Christian teaching on salvation transcends the politics and economics, which likely explains why Paul had so little to say about the social injustice of the Roman Empire. Christianity is an otherworldly faith because Christians await the resurrection of the dead when Christ returns.

Does this mean Christians should eschew politics of only vote for Republicans? Probably not on politics, it’s a free church when it comes to the ballot box. Which is to say that Christians have all sorts of material for sorting out the social and political problems that come with a fallen world.

We don’t need to baptize them in the miracles of redemption.

Where Taking a Knee and Taking a Life Differ

Reporters and academics appealing to the Bible – have we gone back to Christian America? To see arguments over the Bible’s meaning that implicitly accept its authority is mildly amusing if only because the whole endeavor is so patently selective. Do reporters ever write stories about the Fourth Commandment and Christians playing in the NFL? They might if it turned out the chaplains running devotionals for football teams were part of President Trump’s team of religious advisers.

Anyway, the recent kerfuffle over Romans 13, political authority, and immigrants was another window into the weird world of Donald Trump. At Slate, Ruth Graham wrote about Jeff Session’s invocation of Romans 13 to explain law enforcement — as in, “I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained the government for his purposes.” Of course, she threw in for bad measure opposition to the American founding (from John MacArthur), defense of slavery, and submission to Hitler as further examples of Romans 13 interpretation. She does not consider that pitchers batting in the National League, submitting tax forms by April 15, or using physicians licensed by the state as other instances of honoring civil government and the rule of law.

Still, the stunner in the piece was the idea that martyrdom only made sense if Christians refused to honor and obey the law:

Romans 13 goes on to command the early church to “Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.” Arbo pointed out the importance of the clause about giving what is owed, which allows for the possibility that some authorities are not owed honor and respect. “If Sessions’ interpretation of Romans 13 were followed, it would render martyrdom meaningless,” he said. “If the Christian were always in every instance to honor the authority’s command then as a result there would never be an instance of dying for allegiance to Jesus Christ.”

I understand that part of what makes martyrdom possible is refusing to obey the law. A Christian may not disobey God to submit to Caesar, though the rationale for disobedience may not be as straightforward as the civil disobedient thing.

Still, the kicker is that martyrdom also makes no sense unless the state has the authority to execute those who disobey and uses it. You may refuse to bow before the emperor’s statue and the authorities decide not to prosecute you. If the United States required standing for the National Anthem, Colin Kaepernick would have been guilty of breaking the law. But for him to become a martyr, the state needs to use its bearing-the-sword authority to execute law breakers. Also required is that Kaepernick submit to death, another way that someone may honor the state and submit to law. Defiance does not simply make someone a martyr. Running away from executioners . . . . well, you get the point.

So as much as the administration’s opponents might like to think that this government is dishonorable, they need to see that only if the executive branch has legitimate power and uses it will those who defy it become martyrs.

When You Ignore the Context

You have lose your outrage over evangelical hypocrisy.

John Fea argues that Damon Linker nails it when the latter writes:

No informed evangelical today seriously hopes for a reversal of same-sex marriage. (Even in the unlikely event that the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision affirming a right to same-sex marriage were overturned, public opinion would by this point strongly support legalizing the institution through democratic means.) What they do hope for is protection from persecution for their religiously based views of sexual morality. That can be done most effectively by the appointment of judges who are friendly to religious freedom and the reining in of the power of executive branch bureaucracies to apply anti-discrimination law to every corner of American life. The Trump administration has been doing a lot of both. And evangelicals are understandably elated about it.

Those who loathe and fear the religious right should keep all of this in mind when they mock evangelicals for their cynical political maneuvering. The willingness of evangelicals to embrace Trump is a function not of their strength but of their weakness. It may not look that way from the outside, with an increasingly Trumpified Republican Party exercising so much control in Washington and in state houses around the country. Yet evangelicals are right to recognize that people like them have by now long since decisively lost the culture and the political support of the bulk of the American electorate.

The moral majority has shrunk to become a moral minority surrounded by a sea of secularism. For all the talk of the president serving as God’s instrument in the 2016 election, most evangelicals understand very well that he’s an emissary from the wider secular world. But that makes his willingness to serve as their strong man and protector all the more remarkable — and all the more an occasion for gratitude and loyalty.

But Linker’s point is not simply that evangelicals support Trump out of fear and weakness, thus adding to the woe of being hypocrites. His point is that evangelicals the alternative to Trump as even worse:

Like the residents of an urban neighborhood who gladly pay a local mob boss a share of their earnings in return for safety and security, evangelicals have made a transactional calculation. In return for obsequious, gushing, unconditional support, Trump will serve as their protector, surpassing all prior Republican presidents in his willingness to advance a religious right agenda for which he personally feels nothing but indifference.

The character of this arrangement shows just how much the situation for evangelicals has changed since the administration of their previous presidential champion, George W. Bush.

Bush spoke frequently and convincingly about his faith, and he backed it up by advocating for the passage of a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage and working to get anti-same-sex-marriage referendums on the ballots of numerous states in the run-up to the 2004 presidential election. Trump, by contrast, expressed explicit support for LGBTQ rights in his acceptance speech at the 2016 Republican convention.

Meanwhile, in the intervening eight years, a Democratic president and just about every member of his party shifted from opposing gay marriage to supporting it while denouncing the remaining holdouts as bigots. Then, in the blink of an eye, progressives immediately began waging the next battle in the anti-discrimination wars: a defense of the rights of the transgendered, including an insistence that all public discussion and debate of the issue begin by affirming the absolute malleability of gender, a position radically incompatible with historic Christianity’s teachings on sexual morality.

This is the context in which the evangelical embrace of Trump needs to be understood.

John left that out of his post. He also leaves this context out of his apparent loathing for the so-called “court” evangelicals. His categories for evaluating Trump and evangelicals are chiefly moral. He leaves out the context of politics.

Normal for a fundamentalist or evangelical, odd for a historian.

Do Muslims and Jews Have This Problem?

In the mood of the season, I found a Youtu.be video with Frank Sinatra’s rendition of Hark, The Herald Angels Sing.

Maybe yours doesn’t but my mind boggled (again). Frank Sinatra, the singer alluded to in The Godfather, with real ties to the Rat Pack, and no model of family mores, is singing Charles Wesley (one of the original Methodists’ better verses). Again, the mind boggles.

This is how familiar Christmas is for Americans (and people in the West more generally). Not only did Sinatra sing Wesley. But producers in the recording industry believed that Frank singing a batch of Christmas songs would be a revenue enhancer. And these entertainment geniuses decided not only to include some of the secular and corny songs, like Jingle Bells, but also the sorts of material that Anglican cathedral choirs include in Lessons and Carols services.

Is your mind boggling yet?

Do Muslims have songs to sing about the birth of Muhammad? Do Jews sing about the birth of Abraham? One way to tell is to live in a Muslim or Jewish society during the holy days? How much religious music seeps out into the larger commercial world?

I don’t know (and am willing to learn from readers).

But one of the things that makes Christmas great (in all senses of the word) is that recording celebrities have put out so many albums and cds devoted to the birth of Jesus.

For the New Schoolers out there who like to chalk such cultural expressions up to the church’s (which one?) transformatalistizational powers, the pervasiveness of Christmas cheer is a sign of the longing that many people have the good news that the nativity narratives begin. Yes, we need more Christ and less Frank in Christmas, but for Americans to devote the better part of six weeks every year to the celebration of Christmas is an indication of Christianity’s abiding appeal.

For Old Schoolers, though, the relentless persistence of Christmas in all its schmaltz and devotion is an indication of how little discomfort Christians feel about making their own holiday an affair for Muslims, Jews, and secularists to enjoy or endure. Imagine thinking that Frank Sinatra’s Christmas albums would sell in Istanbul.

At the same time, Old Schoolers who know the history of the church calendar should not blame Roman Catholics for the ubiquity of Christmas sales and music. Protestants in the United States did not observe Christmas (minus some Episcopalians and Lutherans) until the late nineteenth century when department store entrepreneurs like New School Presbyterian, John Wanamaker, connected the dots between God’s gift to man in sending his son, and the gifts that Americans could give to friends and family to participate in that incarnational spirit.

Protestants made the world safe for Frank Sinatra singing Wesley, not the bishops.