Against Religious Liberty, for the Freedom of the Church

Yuval Levin, arguably the most Burkean of commentators in conservative circles these days, recognizes what many who oppose modern secularism fail to see — namely, that a defense of religious liberty for persons actually increases the power of the state. He is evoking an older case for mediating institutions, like families, schools, community organizations, and churches. These institutions should retain authority over members and government should not seek to overthrow the powers of “lesser authorities.” In the case of Christianity, faith is corporate not individual. But when government does intervene for the sake of a person’s freedom — a son against his parents, a church member against her church officers — the government gains more authority (less for the lesser authorities) by liberating the individual. In effect, libertarianism and big government go hand in hand.

Here’s how Levin describes the dangers of protecting the liberties of religious persons over against the freedoms of religious communities:

The legal arena is where the case for religious liberty seems most straightforward and securely rooted. The First Amendment to the Constitution declares that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” These sixteen glorious words make for a sword, a shield, and a banner for today’s beleaguered believers. They seem to safeguard the right of every American to live by his convictions. But let us consider what they really demand, and on what grounds.

Our first instinct in the legal battles spawned by the progressive excesses of the last few years is to reach for the free exercise clause, which after all exists to protect religious people’s ability to live out their faiths in practice. It is easy to see why that seems like the right tool: Free exercise jurisprudence has frequently involved the crafting of prudential exemptions and accommodations—precisely the carving out of ­spaces—that could allow religious believers to act on their convictions even in the face of contrary public sentiments or (up to a point) public laws. In their present circumstances, many religious traditionalists would surely benefit from such prudence and protection.

But the logic of free exercise is, at the same time, highly individualistic, while the problems traditionalists now confront are frequently communal or (in the deepest sense) corporate problems.

What Levin proposes instead is for conservatives to defend the freedoms of association that come to communities of believers:

This means we need to see that we are defending more than religious liberty: We are defending the very idea that our government exists to protect the space in which various institutions of civil society do the work that enables Americans to thrive, and we are defending the proposition that this work involves moral formation and not just liberation from constraint. That is an entire conception of the meaning of a free society that goes well beyond toleration and freedom of religion. It is ultimately about the proper shape and structure of American life.

Making that clear—to ourselves and to others—will require an emphasis not just on the principles involved (be they religious liberty or subsidiarity or the freedom of association), but also on the actual lives of our actual, concrete communities. It will require that we turn more of our attention homeward, away from raging national controversies and toward the everyday lives of our living moral communities—toward family, school, and congregation; toward civic ­priorities and local commitments; toward neighbors in need and friends in crisis. It will require us to see that we need to build more than protective walls; we need to build strong, thriving, attractive ­communities.

The way I (mmmeeeEEEE) interpret this is to say that the baker who does not want to bake and decorate a wedding cake (why not an inferior one?) for a gay couple should not base her appeal on her own conscience but the teaching of her church. As a Free Methodist, not as Susan Eddy, she objects to being forced by civil rights legislation to bake a cake for a gay couple.

The downsides of this: first, what if the Free Methodists haven’t taken a stand on gay weddings? Second, what happens when Susan Eddy disagrees with the teachings of her church? Will she come around and submit?


Every Member Ministry Means No Christian Soldiers

Only a few neo-Confederates and Covenanters may disagree, but most Reformed Protestants assume that men ordained to the ministry of the word may not serve in capacities that involve the use of the physical sword (police, military, and even civil magistrate). The logic goes something like this:

Civil magistrates may not assume to themselves the administration of the Word and sacraments; or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven; or, in the least, interfere in matters of faith. (Confession of Faith, 23.3)

One could well suppose that if magistrates (who hold the civil sword) can’t have the keys of the kingdom, those who do have the power of the keys shall not assume the power of the civil magistrate. That fits with what the Form of Government says about ecclesiastical power:

All church power is wholly moral or spiritual. No church officers or judicatories possess any civil jurisdiction; they may not inflict any civil penalties nor may they seek the aid of the civil power in the exercise of their jurisdiction further than may be necessary for civil protection and security.(3.4)

So imagine what happens to this delicate balance between civil and ecclesiastical power when all of a sudden every Christian is a minister. How could we ever allow a minister to fight in a war, to operate under the authority of the Department of Defense, to bring criminals to justice?

Pope Francis may have the solution — to turn Christianity into a pacifist religion by opposing capital punishment and abandoning just war theory.

If Christians may not serve as soldiers or as executioners, then we need to revise assertions like this:

Public life is not just about politics but all the areas of human activity — thefamily, the workplace, shops and restaurants, leisure and the arts. It is the specific role of lay people to sanctify each and every environment of the world.

Sometimes “every” and “all” make you wish for dualism.

Not Papal but 2k Supremacy

I have to chuckle whenever I hear 2k critics assert that 2kers are silencing the church such as R C Sproul Jr. has (thanks to Erik C.):

At their worst, however, R2K theology can silence the prophetic voice of the church. While many R2K advocates would be comfortable with individual Christians speaking to the great moral issues of our day, the church is forbidden to do so. When the state punishes a landlord for refusing to rent to fornicators, the church cannot speak. When the state engages in empire building, waging unjust wars across the globe, the church cannot speak. Worst of all, when the state uses its God-given sword to protect those who murder the unborn, the church cannot speak.

What RC fails to mention is what the church is called to say. That is always the question that critics of 2k skirt with haste on their way to placing the doctrines and commandments of men ahead of God’s word.

But if he really fears being silenced, he should see how the young left does it. In point of fact, most 2kers are simply asking for the rank and file to have a listen while critics are using different tactics.

Cutting Off His Hair to Spite his Head

If Jason Stellman is correct in his latest post, then people like himself could not have converted to Roman Catholicism prior to a full-blown theory of papal supremacy (which depending on the historian may not have happened until 1200). His minimalist account of apostolicity leads him to this:

What, then, needs to have occurred in antiquity for the bare historical claim of apostolic succession to be established?

My suggestion is rather minimal: all that needs to have taken place is that from the time of St. Peter until the papacy of Francis, there has always been a leader of the Roman church with full ministerial powers. It doesn’t matter if he used the title of “Pope,” it doesn’t matter if he had a full understanding of the extent of his own authority, and it doesn’t matter if he worked closely with, or more independently from, the other ecclesiastical leaders within his region.

But a leader of the Roman church with ministerial powers would not give you Jason and the Callers since their conversion narratives rest upon their own awareness of a supreme, infallible ecclesiastical authority, fully visible to the whole world, who can decide between what is true and false. Now Stellman proposes an ecclesiastical deism of his own — a time when the Bishop of Rome hypothetically had no awareness of his authority or scope of power. Jason should be thanking the Lord he lives now in the light of a fully developed theory of papal supremacy. Without it, he would not have known of the pope’s wonder working authority.

Stellman makes another curious point, one that fits nicely with his rather gnostic like approach to history — that is, theory completely independent of historical circumstances. He claims that no historical evidence can possibly undermine this theory of papal authority:

And what set of historical circumstances need to have transpired to delegitimize apostolic succession?

Given what I suggest above, such an invalidation would only have occurred if, say, a bishop of Rome died and not only was there no immediately chosen successor, but even the validly ordained body of men with the authority to appoint one decided, for some unknown reason, not to. And after this gap in the line of succession had lasted long enough for all the Church’s bishops to die, some self-appointed man came along who successfully re-established the entire Christian Church by illicitly assuming authority he did not have, and then passing that pseudo-authority along to others (whose heirs are all the current Catholic bishops today) in what turned out to be perhaps the most elaborate hoax ever foisted upon the people of this planet, one that somehow escaped the notice of any historian then or since, as well as duped both the people of its own generation as well as billions of others since.

If Jason actually read church and European history, he might have come across this rather messy time of the Avignon Papacy when the Vatican faced a crisis of such proportions that Europeans began to wonder about the popes’ claims to apostolic succession. As Carl Trueman argued, simply reasserting the papacy’s authority in the light of Protestant diversity does nothing to clear the historical record or make the papacy any more a solution than it was at the time of its greatest power:

Yes, it is true that Protestant interpretive diversity is an empirical fact; but when it comes to selectivity in historical reading as a means of creating a false impression of stability, Roman Catholic approaches to the Papacy provide some excellent examples of such fallacious method. The ability to ignore or simply dismiss as irrelevant the empirical facts of papal history is quite an impressive feat of historical and theological selectivity. Thus, as all sides need to face empirical facts and the challenges they raise, here are a few we might want to consider, along with what seem to me (as a Protestant outsider) to be the usual Roman Catholic responses:

Empirical fact: The Papacy as an authoritative institution was not there in the early centuries.
Never mind. Put together a doctrine of development whereby Christians – or at least some of them, those of whom we choose to approve in retrospect on the grounds we agree with what they say – eventually come to see the Pope as uniquely authoritative.

Empirical fact: The Papacy was corrupt in the later Middle Ages, building its power and status on political antics, forged documents and other similar scams.
Ignore it, excuse it as a momentary aberration and perhaps, if pressed, even offer a quick apology. Then move swiftly on to assure everyone it is all sorted out now and start talking about John Paul II or Benedict XVI. Whatever you do, there is no need to allow this fact to have any significance for how one understands the theory of papal power in the abstract or in the present.

Empirical fact: The Papacy was in such a mess at the beginning of the fifteenth century that it needed a council to decide who of the multiple claimants to Peter’s seat was the legitimate pope.
Again, this was merely a momentary aberration but it has no significance for the understanding of papal authority. After all, it was so long ago and so far away.

Empirical fact: The church failed (once again) to put its administrative, pastoral, moral and doctrinal house in order at the Fifth Lateran Council at the start of the sixteenth century.
Forget it. Emphasise instead the vibrant piety of the late medieval church and then blame the ungodly Protestants for their inexplicable protests and thus for the collapse of the medieval social, political and theological structure of Europe.

Perhaps it is somewhat aggressive to pose these points in such a blunt form. Again, I intend no disrespect but am simply responding with the same forthrightness with which certain writers speak of Protestantism. The problem here is that the context for the Reformation – the failure of the papal system to reform itself, a failure in itself lethal to notions of papal power and authority – seems to have been forgotten in all of the recent aggressive attacks on scriptural perspicuity. These are all empirical facts and they are all routinely excused, dismissed or simply ignored by Roman Catholic writers. Perspicuity was not the original problem; it was intended as the answer. One can believe it to be an incorrect, incoherent, inadequate answer; but then one must come up with something better – not simply act as if shouting the original problem louder will make everything all right. Such an approach to history and theology is what I call the Emerald City protocol: when defending the great and powerful Oz, one must simply pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.

I know Bryan Cross will counter (Jason doesn’t respond to tough questions these days) by saying this isn’t an argument. It is simply hand waving and doesn’t have the philosophical panache his encounter with the papacy possesses. But the hand waving actually comes almost exclusively from Jason and the Callers. They wave good-bye to history, not to mention good sense, and expect folks to ignore what happened.

Postscript: Nestorian alert! Jason even has the audacity (which seems to go with the papal turf among the Jason and the Callers) to liken the development of papal theory to Christ’s own developing self-awareness as the Son of God:

Insisting upon the criterion that unless a bishop of Rome wrote a treatise outlining a fully-developed doctrine of the papacy then therefore the papacy is a corruption, is to insist upon something that the Church does not even demand. Such an expectation is as silly as saying that unless Jesus of Nazareth could have given a Christologically erudite account of his own divine identity and mission when he was four, then therefore his subsequent claims were late, and thence illegitimate, developments. No, if Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, then there’s no reason why the same could not be true of his mystical Body and its own self-awareness.

Old Life New Year Revelries

Celebrating New Year’s Day is always mixed with sobriety (talk about paradoxes) thanks to January 1 being the anniversary of J. Gresham Machen’s death (1937). He died of pneumonia at 7:30 Central Standard Time in a Roman Catholic hospital in Bismarck, North Dakota.

To honor the man, here is an excerpt from his defense of his vote against a motion before the Presbytery of New Brunswick to support Prohibition (which by the way bears on this matter of the Bible speaking to all of life and the flip side of Christian liberty):

In the first place, no one has a greater horror of the evils of drunkenness than I or a greater detestation of any corrupt traffic which has sought to make profit out of this terrible sin. It is clearly the duty of the church to combat this evil.

With regard to the exact form, however, in which the poser of civil government is to be used in this battle, there may be difference of opinion. Zeal for temperance, for example, would hardly justify an order that all drunkards should be summarily butchered. The end in that case would not justify the means. Some men hold that the Eighteenth Amendment and the Volstead Act are not a wise method of dealing with the problem of intemperance, and that indeed those measures, in the effort to commplish moral good, are really causing moral harm. I am not expressing any opinion on this question now, and did not do so by my vote in the Presbytery of New Brunswick. But I do maintain that those who hold the view that I have just mentioned have a perfect right to their opinion, so far as the law of our church is concerned, and should not be coerced in any way by ecclesiastical authority. The church as a right to exercise discipline where authority for condemnation of an act can be found in Scripture, but it has no such right in other cases. And certainly Scripture authority cannot be found in the particular matter of the Eighteenth Amendment and the Volstead Act . . .

In making of itself, moreover, in so many instances primarily an agency of law enforcement, and thus engaging in the duties of the police, the church, I am constrained to think, is in danger of losing sight of its proper function, which is that of bringing to bear upon human souls the sweet and gracious influences of the gospel. Important indeed are the functions of the police, and members of the church, in their capacity as citizens, should aid by every proper means within their power in securing the discharge of those functions. But the duty of the church in its corporate capacity is of quite a different nature. (“Statement on the Eighteenth Amendment,” J. Gresham Machen: Selected Shorter Writings, 394-95).

Does the United States Need a Spanish Inquisition?

The folks at Called to Communion generally avoid the culture wars and that is to their credit, though their apolitical posture is hardly characteristic of Roman Catholics in the United States these days. Two of the significant GOP presidential hopefuls were Roman Catholics — Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum. And now another is on the Republican ticket, Paul Ryan for vice president (though whether Ryan is a “good catholic” depends on how your understand the church’s social teaching).

Other bloggers are not so circumspect about the United States and its increasing barbarism. Fr. C. John McCloskey III, writes at the Catholic Thing. He recently argued that if the United States is going to be a Christian nation it needs Roman Catholicism because Protestantism has run out of gas:

With the passage of time, homegrown American Protestant sects sprang up so profusely that they now can be counted in the thousands. Despite this variety, almost all shared a biblical moral philosophy not far removed from Catholics. The loosening of divorce laws and the propagation of the birth control pill in the Sixties, however, precipitated further retreat mere decades later by mainstream and traditional Protestant denominations on other moral fronts, including abortion, homosexual activity, and most recently same-sex marriage.

The primary reason is the lack of dogmatic authority in Protestantism and the reliance on the principle of private judgment. Leaving people to rely on only their opinions or feelings as moral guide is not enough to sustain a country that was once Christian and now is increasingly pagan.

What is the solution? Can American become Christian again? In my judgment, mainstream Protestantism is in an irreversible freefall. Don’t count on any great religious revivals. America needs witness, not enthusiasm. The United States will either become predominantly Catholic in numbers, faith, and morals or perish under the weight of its unbridled hedonism and corruption.

Notice the theme of Protestant diversity and subjectivity versus Roman Catholic unity and objectivity that Called to Communion paradigmatists also stress.

Protestants certainly deserve their share of blame for what has happened to moral conventions in the United States. The mainline churches have been particularly negligent on sexual ethics and marriage, not to mention the atonement.

But the analysis here which reflects a common trait of conservative intellectuals — to attribute rotten cultural fruit to bad religious seed — misses the elephant in the room, namely, government. Churches may promote or tolerate all sorts of moral goofiness but the state can still pass and enforce laws that proscribe conduct. The abolition of plural marriage in Utah is one example. At the same time, churches do not have the power and never have had it to enforce temporally or civilly their teachings or codes of conduct.

In the sixteenth century when Roman Catholics wanted to rid the Low Countries of Protestantism they depended on Phillip II and the Duke of Alba (Margaret of Parma wasn’t too shabby either) to implement the church’s ban on heretics. In fact, Rome’s mechanisms of inquisition generally relied up civil authorities to enforce the temporal penalties for heresy.

So if Fr. McCloskey wants a Christian United States he is going to need more than Roman Catholic priests, religious orders, and parishioners. He is also going to need a strong state. Nowhere has Christianity (or Islam for that matter) become the cohesive glue of a society or country without a government that enforces religious teaching and practice.

In which case, the real problem with the United States is the freedom granted in the Constitution. We cannot have religious uniformity and have the political framework established in the nation’s system of government.

Meanwhile, if national order requires an iron fist, would not the same go for ecclesiastical order? I have made the point before, but it may bear repeating. If the structures of Roman Catholicism yield the kind of uniformity and solidarity that Protestantism does not, then why is liberalism a problem for Roman Catholics in the United States? Churches may depend on the state to enforce their norms in the general society, but churches do have the power to enforce their teachings and rules within the household of faith.

Again, Rome suffers from this problem no more than Protestants do. Without a civil pope to call the shots, churches have to make do with the spiritual powers they have, limited though they are. And yet, if Christians — Roman Catholic and Protestant — are longing for the political equivalent of the papacy to restore decency in the United States, do they still qualify as political conservatives who — think Constitution — are supposed to be wary of the centralization of power in one person?

Last I checked, it is still 2012, some 236 years after the Declaration of Independence. The American Revolution has many faults, and one of them may very well be no provisions to check dangerous religious and philosophical views. At the same time, the order that the revolutionaries established granted freedoms that protect Protestants and Roman Catholics to worship, teach, and blog. Those freedoms were not readily available in places like the Netherlands at the end of the sixteenth century. It may just be (all about) me, but I think I’d rather live now under Obama than then under Phillip II.

Two-Kingdom Tuesday: A 2K Pietist (and Dutch to boot!)

Wilhelmus a Brakel was a seventeenth-century Dutch Reformed pastor, and a leader in the so-called Second Reformation of the Dutch churches. At one blog dedicated to Brakel this development in Dutch Protestantism receives the following description:

By this term, Nadere Reformatie, we mean a movement in the 17th century which was a reaction against dead orthodoxy and [the] secularization of Christianity in the Church of the Reformation and which insisted on the practise of faith. This may also be called a special form of Pietism, because the central idea is the “praxis pietatis.” The origin of the pietistic trend lies in England and the father of Puritan Pietism [who] was William Perkins. Via Willem Teellinck and Guilielmus Amesius a direct influence on a kindred movement in Holland ensued. To this movement belong the Teellincks, Voetius, Van Lodenstein, Saldenus, the two Brakels, and especially also Witsius. This movement is not meant as a correction of the Reformation but as the consequence of it. The background of the conspicuous preciseness is the desire to serve God fully according to His will.

In sum, Dutch pietism was an effort fuse the personal piety of experiemental Calvinism with the rigor of the original Reformed movement.

Old Lifers are not known for relishing pietism, as a current discussion points out. And yet, even Dutch Reformed pietists, like Brakel, had enough sense to recognize the insights of post-Constantinian 2 kingdom theology. I hope the Baylys are listening.

The following comes from Brakel’s A Christian’s Reasonable Service, Book 2, chapter 29. (Props go out to our other mid-western correspondent):

Does the civil government have any authority at all with regard to the church? If yes, what does or does this not consist of?

We wish to preface our answer to this question by stating that first, all members of the clergy—ministers, elders, and deacons—are subject to the civil government as individuals , and thus are in one and the same category as other people. I repeat, as individuals. This is not true, however, as far as their ecclesiastical
standing is concerned, for as such, they are subject to consistories, Classes, and Synods, and thus are subject to the only King of the church, Jesus Christ.

Secondly, if members of the clergy conduct themselves contrary to civil laws pertaining to all citizens, they, just as other citizens, may and must be punished according to the magnitude of their crime.

Thirdly, since members of the clergy are not servants of the civil government, but as individuals are in the same category as all other citizens, they have the same right to legal defense. Therefore, in the event of an indictment, legal procedures must be initiated against them the same as against other citizens.

Fourthly, members of the clergy and the entire congregation, each in their own position, are obligated to honor and obey the civil government conscientiously—with heart and in deeds. They are to do so not by way of compulsion, but in an affectionate manner, out of love for God, whose supremacy and majesty are reflected in the office of civil government. No one is released from the duty of rendering honor and obedience simply because he is a member of the clergy or of the church. This is true even if the civil government is either pagan, Islamic, heretical or Christian, good or evil, godly or ungodly, compassionate or severe. It is the duty of elders to stir everyone up to render such honor and obedience. “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers” (Rom. 13:1)

What Biblicists Miss about the Bible

(or why we need creeds)

W. G. T. Shedd stood courageously by Benjamin Warfield’s side in opposing revisions to the Westminster Standards. Shedd explains below why appealing to the Bible or to being biblical is unpersuasive. It also suggests that the individual with his Bible does not have the status (i.e. power) of God’s ordinance (WCF 31.2) that the assemblies and synods that produce creeds do. As good Presbyterians, we should always recognize that creedal formation takes place by committee. The same goes for revision.

Of course Scripture is the only infallible rule of faith. But this particular way of appealing to Scripture is specious and fallacious. In the first place, it assumes that Calvinism is not Scriptural, an assumption which the Presbyterian Church has never granted. . . . Secondly, this kind of appeal to Scripture is only an appeal to Scripture as the reviser understands it. Scripture properly means the interpretation of Scripture; that is, the contents of Scripture as reached by human investigation and exegesis. Creeds, like commentaries, are Scripture studied and explained, and not the mere abstract and unexplained book as it lies on the counter of the Bible House. The infallible Word of God is expounded by the fallible mind of man, and hence the variety of expositions embodied in the denominational creeds. But every interpreter claims to have understood the Scriptures correctly, and, consequently, claims that his creed is Scriptural, and if so, that it is the infallible truth of God. The Arminian appeals to the Articles of Wesley as the rule of faith, because he believes them to be the true explanation of the inspired Bible. . . .

The Calvinist appeals to the creeds of Heidelberg, Dort, and Westminster as the rule of faith, because he regards them as the accurate exegesis of the revealed Word of God. By the Bible these parties, as well as all others who appeal to the Bible, mean their understanding of the Bible. There is no such thing as that abstract Scripture to which the revisionist of whom we are speaking appeals; that is, Scripture apart from any and all interpretation of it. When, therefore, the advocate of revision demands that the Westminster Confession be conformed to Scripture , he means conformation to Scripture as he and those like him read and explain it. It is impossible to make abstract Scripture the rule of faith for either an individual or a denomination. No Christian body has ever subscribed to the Bible merely as a printed book. A person who should write his name on the blank leaf of the Bible and say that his doctrinal belief was between the covers, would convey no definite information as to his creed. (Shedd, Calvinism: Pure and Mixed, pp. 145-46)