Who's Radical Now?

After lots of push back (at least from some readers) on gay marriage and resistance to it (the Summer of SSM), an attempt to reset the 2k thermostat might be in order.

Once again, a common objection to 2k is that if you don’t oppose same sex marriage or support Kim Davis “the way I do,” then you must really favor same sex marriage and the imprisonment of Kim Davis. It’s the same old problem that J. Gresham Machen faced because he opposed Prohibition. Taking issue with legislation or those who support it is not the same thing as favoring what the legislation opposes. Just because you object to Prohibition (Kim Davis) does not mean you favor drunkenness (political tyranny). The nooks and crannies of politics and legislation don’t allow for such simple calculations. But that doesn’t stop some attorneys from being simplistic (oh the inspirational qualities of Kuyperianism to hyperventilate away complicated matters).

But beyond this besetting problem of Americans (looking beyond the cause to the tactics of pursuing the cause), another obstacle that 2k faces is the charge of cowardice. For some Christians, apparently, serving the Lord and pursuing holiness is insufficient if it is not also creating problems for the wider society. In other words, if Christians try to make accommodations with the new legislative and marital landscape, for instance, they are not being faithful to their Lord. Only if they stand out like a sore thumb can they be counted among the true, the faithful, the holiest.

What needs to be observed about this inclusion of obnoxiousness to the fruit of the Spirit is that it is not the practice we see among some of the heroes of Reformed Protestantism. Did J. Gresham Machen try to be a pain in the neck for the ruling authorities, such as when he objected to the proposed Federal Department of Education? No. He testified before Congress, showed respect and deference in his testimony, and tried to figure out ways for Christians to pass on the faith even in the midst of legal challenges (which is why he supported private Christian schools)?

Or how about Abraham Kuyper? For all of his emphasis on the antithesis and his opposition to political liberalism (read secularization), Kuyper figured out a way to accommodate the diversity of Dutch society such that Calvinists would be able to maintain their faith and associational life even while accepting the presence of Roman Catholics and secular liberals as part of Dutch nation.

The way that previous Reformed leaders have tried to get along in their society — rather than taking the Amish or Islamist option — suggests that the real radicals today are not 2kers but the anti-2kers (RA2K). It is indeed radical to oppose the social and political order. Sometimes it may be necessary. But to make it a badge of Christian faithfulness is not only historically unprecedented but anti-biblical. Peter and Paul preached submission to and honor for the emperor, and Paul said Christians should pray for peace and quiet so they could live out their lives faithfully. But if 2kers employ arguments designed to secure such social stability, we are traitors and deny our Lord.

Funny thing is, we are actually in the majority of Americans:

62 percent of those polled support jailing people for contempt of court; only 15 percent said they opposed it

Of Republicans polled, 64 percent said they supported jailing people for contempt of court

Strong majorities in every demographic category (except for African-Americans) supported jailing people for contempt of court The region where support for jailing them was strongest? The South, Kim Davis’s home region

An overall majority of people (53 percent) believe religious liberty is under threat in America. Four out of five Republicans believe that, and 55 percent of Independents do. The only demographics that didn’t believe that? Democrats, those making over $100K per year, and those living in the Midwest (though in the Midwestern case, it was a plurality).

A slight overall majority (52 percent) believes that elected officials should not be given a religious exemption from doing their job, though the numbers break down along partisan and regional lines. Republicans alone among the political orientations are divided equally.

Majorities in all regions except the South believe elected officials should be required do their jobs regardless of their conscience — and in the
South, the “do your job” faction polled a 47 percent plurality, versus 38 percent of Southerners who believe in the conscience deferment, and 16 percent who aren’t sure.

An overall majority said Kim Davis, in particular, ought to have gone to jail for contempt of court. Interestingly, Republicans, who answered generically that someone in Davis’s position should go to jail, were evenly split when Davis’s name came up.

Big majorities across every demographic category say that Kim Davis ought to resign as a matter of principle. It’s not even close. Only 22 percent of people say she should keep her job and remain defiant

Those numbers may suggest salt that has lost its savor. I actually think it indicates which Christians are on their meds. But it hardly makes us radical.

Hi, I'm A Christian So I Can Be Trusted

Well, that’s actually a complicated assertion since the holders of 2k do not appear to be trustworthy people from the perspective of 2k’s critics. Let me explain.

A repeated contention against 2k is that it relies too much on general revelation or the light of nature. Not only is general revelation apparently insufficient for unbelievers who suppress the truth in unrighteousness. But supposedly the only way to interpret general revelation is through the lens of special revelation. In response to the assertion that Christ rules the kingdom of the world by the work of his Spirit through general revelation and common law, 2k critics objected as follows:

Are we to understand from this that Christ only rules the Church directly, by his Spirit and Word? And that He rules everything that is non-church (or the whole of culture itself) through an undefined work of His Spirit in general revelation and through the consciences of the unenlightened people of Romans 2:15? Is this the second kingdom of light? Incredible. . . .

To imply that a Biblically undefined work of the Spirit, and the enlightened consciences of the unconverted referred to in Romans 2:15 can “restraint eveil in those outside the church” . . . is a “stretch” unknown to the Reformers and to us. Therein lies the core problem of NL2KL. (Letter to the editor, Christian Renewal, Jan. 12, 2011, pp. 6-7.)

(NL2KL refers to natural law and two kingdoms of light, and implies that to hold to two as opposed to one kingdom of light is incredible.)

Like so much in the neo-Calvinist and theonomic schemes, this looks good on the screen and appears to make sense. But it’s a lousy philosophy for living in a world where we have neighbors who not only suppress the truth of general revelation but also can’t begin to fathom the teachings of Scripture apart from the work of the Holy Spirit. I mean, the critics of 2k don’t really intend to suggest, do they, that my unbelieving neighbor can open her curtains and see the glory of God and perceive some elementary principles of justice only if I give her a Bible and she begins to read it? Don’t 2k critics believe that a proper understanding of Scripture can only come from the work of regeneration? In which case, my neighbor will never see God’s glory until she believes.

In which case, the anti-2k complaint against the sufficiency of general revelation goes much deeper than a point about the relationship between the two books of revelation. That deeper level is that unregenerate people cannot be trusted. They don’t have the Bible or the Spirit and so cannot see the truths and order God has revealed in creation or their consciences.

One implication of this at the level of everyday life is how Christians can summon up enough trust to venture on to the roads and highways with unbelievers? Will the unregenerate or biblically illiterate see the signs and obey traffic laws? Do Christians go to the public library and expect to find the books placed on the shelves incorrectly because of a disbelieving shelver? How could unbelievers ever pull off such quotidian conduct without interpreting general revelation first through the lens of Scripture? And how could they do this apart from saving faith?

At the upper ranges of human existence – those having to do with justice – could Christians ever allow for non-saved police, judges, legislators, governors, or presidents? In fact, doesn’t this way of understanding the relationship between general and special revelation force 2k critics to require a religious test for holding public office? In which case, do 2k critics ever vote for non-Protestant politicians? And do they inquire of Protestant candidates if they have really been saved? Gilbert Tennent wanted accounts of conversion experience from prospective pastors. Now we want them from political candidates?

Well, actually, at one time in U.S. history we wanted some sign of regeneration for citizens to be able to enter into the simplest aspects of life as a citizen – and this is another one of those implications the 2k critics don’t seem to consider. In a very good book on church-state relations in nineteenth-century America, The Second Disestablishment, Stephen K. Green reminds readers of the barriers to the judicial system posed by distrust of non-believers:

. . . for a witness, juror, or declarant to be competent to testify or undertake a legal obligation, he had to assert a belief not only in God but also in the accountability of his soul after death for swearing falsely. The rule was far-reaching, extending beyond the competency of judicial witnesses to include all forms of oath taking, including will execution and office holding. In contrast to the federal Constitution’s ban on religious tests, all of the original thirteen state constitutions had imposed or retained various religious requirements for public office holding and civic participation that included oath taking. The oath requirement was viewed, according to one advocate, as a “means of divine appointment for securing faithfulness in official station.” Because of these requirements, religious nonconformists could not aspire to public office, enter into many legal agreements, bequeath property, or file suit and testify to enforce their legal rights. . . . nonconformists were barred from testifying as witnesses or serving as jurors. Many of the important attributes fo citizenship were thus closed to non-Christians. (p. 178)

So in an ideal world, where the magistrate did not tolerate blasphemy or idolatry, not only would non-Christians be prevented from worshiping but also from participating in public life. Is this the kind of society that anti-2kers want? This would, of course, be heaven, but haven’t 2k critics heard of the dangers of immanentizing the eschaton?

And just to make my complication complete, how do 2k critics deal with those who hold the 2k position? Some of the reception that 2k receives is great distrust. In fact, the distrust heaped upon 2kers seems to exceed that held against politicians in the Democratic Party. One explanation could be that 2kers don’t begin political and cultural reflections with appeals to the Bible. But another could be that 2kers are actually unregenerate.

I don’t mean this as a joke. It is a serious matter. And the reverse is just as serious. If I am regenerate, then the 2k position disproves the anti-2k argument because 2k shows that regeneration does not require beginning and ending reflection on the natural order with Scripture. If regenerate people can appeal to general revelation instead of the Bible for understanding some matters of morality and social relations, then how can 2kers be untrustworthy? Obviously, the anti-2k position is that 2kers should not appeal to general revelation without starting with special revelation? But if 2kers are regenerate and therefore, from the anti-2k perspective, trustworthy, they why the distrust? Shouldn’t regeneration make 2kers trustworthy?

The easy answer to that riddle is to say 2kers are not regenerate. And that may explain the Gilbert Tennent-like histrionics that so often greet 2k.