The Healthy Influence of Meredith Kline

His Vossian eschatology and two-kingdom outlook gave some of us room to avoid this:

Have you heard of the Benedict Option? If not, you will soon.

It’s the name of a deeply pessimistic cultural project that’s capturing the imaginations of social conservatives as they come to terms with the realization that the hopes and assumptions that animated the religious right over the past 35-odd years have been dashed by the sweeping triumph of the movement for same-sex marriage.

From the start, the religious right has been marked by two qualities: optimism and a faith in majoritarianism. The qualities are connected. Think back to Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority. The name conveyed its ideology: A majority of Americans are morally and religiously conservative. To the extent that the nation’s politics and culture don’t reflect that, it’s because they have been co-opted by a secular liberal minority that has placed itself in control of such elite institutions as the media, Hollywood, the universities, the judiciary, and the federal bureaucracy. The proper response is to take back these institutions using democratic means, primarily elections.

In other words, play by the rules of the democratic game, and social conservatives will eventually triumph.

This sounded like a fantasy at first, since the movement began among evangelical Protestants, who never made up more than about 25 percent of the population, and whose style of worship and belief was profoundly off-putting to non-evangelical Christians, let alone to more secular Americans. But ecumenical and inter-religious efforts throughout the 1980s and early 1990s helped to forge an alliance among conservative believers in many faith traditions: evangelicals, but also Catholics, Mormons, Jews, and Muslims. This made talk of majorities at least plausible, and seemed to vindicate the optimism, too.

Is this the thanks Kline gets? Anyone who steers you clear of the transformationalism/sky-is-falling outlook that afflicts various sectors of modern neo- and New Calvinism, a perspective that Kline’s reading of the Bible contravenes, deserves an extra helping of gratitude (if that’s not a dirty word for the Lutheran challenged).

Not Everyone Uses the Plural

Hold on to your seat. David VanDrunen responds to Ryan McIlhenny’s response to VanDrunen’s response to McIlhenny’s response to two kingdoms:

What is most important to me is that the Reformed community reaffirm the basic distinction between God’s two kingdoms—his common providential rule and his special redemptive rule—whether or not one agrees with all the ways I personally apply this distinction in exploring the Christianity-and-culture issues. This distinction is biblical and has very deep roots in the Reformed tradition. I would deem it a great blessing from God were the Reformed community as a whole to re-embrace it, and I see my efforts to defend the distinction as something I can do to serve the Reformed churches I love. The thing is, I struggle to think of any contemporary figure I have read or spoken to who either calls himself a neo-Calvinist or is commonly identified by others as a neo-Calvinist who does not speak of God’s kingdom in the singular. Possibly my own experience is just quirky, but ever since I began thinking seriously about this I have understood a one-kingdom view to be of the essence of what “neo-Calvinism” is. Thus I do not consider myself a neo-Calvinist. To me, the thought of a “two kingdoms neo-Calvinist” is like the thought of a “libertarian socialist.” It’s paradoxical, even contradictory.

And, of course, what makes the difference between the singular and plural of Kingdom important is how we live in this age (saeculum), a time between the advents of Christ, when believers live side-by-side with unbelievers. If kingdom is singular, what place do non-believers have in civil society? Do they have equal rights under the law, or do we put them in ghettos or treat them as dhimmi? And if Kingdom is singular, do believers learn from non-Christian philosophers, historians, and bio-chemists? Or do we bar non-Christians from universities?

Believe it or not, putting non-Christians in ghettos, treating them as dhimma, and denying them admittance to universities were all responses to making God’s kingdom singular.

Where Do Unbelievers Go for a Trial?

One of the other themes of the Twenty-Seven Propositions describing two-kingdom theology is the notion that the Bible is binding on all people:

7. Scripture is not given as a common moral standard that provides ethical imperatives to all people regardless of their religious standing.

The Reformed confessions testify that the moral imperatives of Scripture are binding on all men everywhere.

This does make the world safe for theonomy and for theocracy, since another common assertion of 2k critics is that special revelation must interpret general revelation, which implies that only those whose souls have been regenerated by the Holy Spirit may interpret general revelation, because only those with the eyes of faith can interpret Scripture aright, the necessary lens for interpreting the light of nature.

Aside from the covenantal implications of Scripture which make havoc of this critique of 2k, Scripture itself confounds this criticism. For if Paul were writing to the Corinthians with this anti-2k outlook, he could never write the following:

When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints? Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, then, matters pertaining to this life! So if you have such cases, why do you lay them before those who have no standing in the church? I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to settle a dispute between the brothers, but brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers? To have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded? But you yourselves wrong and defraud—even your own brothers! Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? (1 Corinthians 6:1-9 ESV)

Notice that this is an imperative that according to the anti-2k outlook applies to all people (even though Paul is writing directly to the saints at Corinth). If Paul believed that Scripture was given for believers and unbelievers alike, then his admonition here would be to tell unbelievers to take their cases to ecclesiastical courts. And if unbelievers take their cases to those who rule outside the church, they are guilty of sinning. Talk about being damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

But Calvin doesn’t fall for this folly.

. . . if any one has a controversy with a brother, it ought to be decided before godly judges, and that it ought not to be before those that are ungodly. If the reason is asked, I have already said, that it is because disgrace is brought upon the gospel, and the name of Christ is held up as it were to the scoffings of the ungodly. For the ungodly, at the instigation of Satan, are always eagerly on the watch for opportunities of finding occasion of calumny against the doctrine of godliness. Now believers, when they make them parties in their disputes, seem as though they did on set purpose furnish them with a handle for reviling. A second reason may be added — that we treat our brethren disdainfully, when we of our own accord subject them to the decisions of unbelievers.

In other words, Calvin, who ministered in a town very much unlike Corinth, where the rulers of Geneva were members of the church, still recognizes that these words Paul apply to Genevan Christians, that is, that they should not look for justice with fellow Christians but should bear each other’s burdens patiently and endure slights and offenses.

I acknowledge, then, that a Christian man is altogether prohibited from revenge, so that he must not exercise it, either by himself, or by means of the magistrate, nor even desire it. If, therefore, a Christian man wishes to prosecute his rights at law, so as not to offend God, he must, above all things, take heed that he does not bring into court any desire of revenge, any corrupt affection of the mind, or anger, or, in fine, any other poison. In this matter love will be the best regulator.

This is moral instruction, in other words, that applies to Christians not to unbelievers. Christians are capable, by the work of the Spirit, of not seeking revenge. Paul concedes that unbelievers are not.

What is also interesting to observe is that Calvin does not believe that Paul is invalidating the rule of ungodly magistrates, as if it were wrong to take certain civil matters to the courts, or as if the ungodliness of rulers invalidates their rule:

Paul does not here condemn those who from necessity have a cause before unbelieving judges, as when a person is summoned to a court; but those who, of their own accord, bring their brethren into this situation, and harass them, as it were, through means of unbelievers, while it is in their power to employ another remedy. It is wrong, therefore, to institute of one’s own accord a law-suit against brethren before unbelieving judges. If, on the other hand, you are summoned to a court, there is no harm in appearing there and maintaining your cause.

Calvin also goes on to distinguish in ways that would send neo-Calvinists, in the worlds of Ralph Kramden, “bang, zoom, to the moon” between the public matters before magistrates and private matters of Christians.

We must always keep in view what causes he is treating of; for public trials are beyond our province, and ought not to be transferred to our disposal; but as to private matters it is allowable to determine without the cognizance of the magistrate. As, then, we do not detract in any degree from the authority of the magistrate by having recourse to arbitration, it is not without good reason that the Apostle enjoins it upon Christians to refrain from resorting to profane, that is, unbelieving judges.

So if anti-2kers want to argue that biblical morality applies to all human beings, they may want to take up their case with the apostle Paul. Or they could reconceive their claims with the same scrupulosity they apply to 2k advocates.

What Bible Are Neo-Calvinists Reading?

Is this the tone or posture that characterizes those Reformed Protestants who insist that the only genuine Christianity is the one that is fully engaged with this world, 24/7?

For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.

So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil. (2 Corinthians 5:1-10 ESV)

And when you turn to Calvin for his comments on this passage, we read the following:

For Paul has it in view, to correct in us impatience, dread, and dislike of the cross, contempt for what is mean, and in fine, pride, and effeminacy; and this can only be accomplished by raising up our minds as high as heaven, through contempt of the world. Now he has recourse to two arguments. On the one hand, he shows the miserable condition of mankind in this life, and on the other hand, the supreme and perfect blessedness, which awaits believers in heaven after death. For what is it that keeps men so firmly bound in a misplaced attachment to this life, but their deceiving themselves with a false imagination — thinking themselves happy in living here? On the other hand, it is not enough to be aware of the miseries of this life, if we have not at the same time in view the felicity and glory of the future life. This is common to good and bad alike — that both are desirous to live. This, also, is common to both — that, when they consider, how many and how great miseries they are here exposed to, (with this difference, however, that unbelievers know of no adversities but those of the body merely, while the pious are more deeply affected 508 by spiritual distresses,) they often groan, often deplore their condition, and desire a remedy for their evils. As, however, all naturally view death with horror, unbelievers never willingly quit this life, except when they throw it off in disgust or despair. Believers, on the other hand, depart willingly, because they have a better hope set before them beyond this world. This is the sum of the argument. Let us now examine the words one by one.

Calvin adds on verse eight specifically:

Observe here — what has been once stated already — that true faith begets not merely a contempt of death, but even a desire for it, and that it is, accordingly, on the other hand, a token of unbelief, when dread of death predominates in us above the joy and consolation of hope. Believers, however, desire death — not as if they would, by an importunate desire, anticipate their Lord’s day, for they willingly retain their footing in their earthly station, so long as their Lord may see good, for they would rather live to the glory of Christ than die to themselves, (Romans 14:7,) and for their own advantage; for the desire, of which Paul speaks, springs from faith. Hence it is not at all at variance with the will of God. We may, also, gather from these words of Paul, that souls, when released from the body, live in the presence of God, for if, on being absent from the body, they have God present, they assuredly live with him.

Neo-Calvinism indeed.

The Dutch Reformed on the Kingdom of God

Perhaps in an effort to be ecumenical, Dr. K. linked to a great essay by David Engelsma of the Protestant Reformed Church (which was to Kuyperianism what the OPC was to the Bible Presbyterian Synod). In a longish piece, Engelsma writes the following about the kingdom of God (there is much more to the essay than this and is worth reading in its entirety).

1) It is spiritual in nature:

The kingdom of God is the church. The living reign of God in Christ by the Word and Spirit is the church. The realm is the sphere of the church. The citizens are the members of the church. The blessings of the kingdom are poured out on and enjoyed in the church.

There is a truth about the kingdom of God that is basic to the confession that the kingdom of God is the church. This is the truth that the kingdom of God is spiritual. Spirituality is an essential quality of the kingdom of God. Knowledge of the spiritual nature of the kingdom is essential to the right belief about the kingdom. The great errors about the kingdom that are afoot today have this in common, that they view the kingdom as earthly, as political, as carnal. This is the gross, wicked error of dispensationalism, that makes the kingdom of God an earthly Jewish world-power. This is the gross, wicked error of the liberals, that makes the kingdom an earthly, one-world government, which will satisfy all the fleshly desires of godless mankind: plenty to eat and drink; the gratification of every perverse sexual lust; the elimination of all inconvenient persons—unborn babies, old people, sick people, and, eventually, orthodox Christians; and the eradication of war and social strife.

Viewing the kingdom as carnal is also the error of those who suppose that the most important realization of the kingdom of God will be an earthly, political, visibly glorious Christian empire that Christ will rear up in the world before His second coming. Yes, they will agree, somewhat impatiently, the church is a manifestation of the kingdom at present. But the superior manifestation of the kingdom of God, the Messianic kingdom in its best and fullest form, the kingdom that finally fulfils the prophecy of the Old Testament in Psalm 72 and similar passages will be that future, earthly world-power that will have Christianised all nations.

Against these errors and on behalf of the right understanding of the kingdom of God, we must believe and confess that the kingdom of God is spiritual.

In his book, Thy Kingdom Come, Rousas J. Rushdoony, father of the Christian Reconstruction movement, says this: “The reduction of the kingdom of God to a spiritual realm is in effect a denial of the kingdom” (p. 178). I appreciate that Rushdoony sees the fundamental issue concerning the kingdom and states this issue bluntly. But in flat contradiction to this statement, I maintain that Scripture teaches that the kingdom of God in Jesus Christ is essentially and entirely a spiritual realm. I maintain further that every denial of the spirituality of the kingdom is a denial of the kingdom of God.

It is significant that Rushdoony utters this denial, that the kingdom is spiritual, in the context of his denial that the church is to be identified with the kingdom: “The church … is not to be identified as the kingdom of God, but simply as a part of the kingdom” (p. 178). Mr. Rushdoony practiced what he preached. Writing in 1991, fellow Christian Reconstructionist Gary North informed the world that “Rushdoony does not belong to a local church, nor has he taken communion in two decades, except when he is on the road, speaking at a church that has a policy of open communion or is unaware of his non-member status” (Westminster’s Confession, p. 80).

In explanation of the spirituality of the kingdom of God, negatively, the kingdom is not earthly in nature. It does not consist of dominion by physical force—the sword and its terror. It does not promise or provide earthly blessings and goods—earthly peace and material prosperity. It does not claim any earthly country for its territory—Palestine, North America, Scotland, or the Netherlands. It does not possess or display any earthly glory—power, weapons, numbers, size, or impressive leader (the Christ of the biblical gospel of the cross is not impressive to the natural man). Indeed, its citizens are not citizens by virtue of any earthly characteristic, whether race, sex, nationality, status, or achievement.

In keeping with its unearthly nature, the kingdom of God cannot be known by man’s physical senses. This is literally what Jesus said to Nicodemus in John 3:3: “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Christ taught the same thing in Luke 17:20 when, in response to the Pharisees’ question, when the kingdom of God should come, He said, “The kingdom of God cometh not with observation.” The kingdom comes without “observation” in that the manner of its coming is invisible.

2) This kingdom expands through the lives of its citizens:

The rule of God in the life of the believer begins with his own very personal, spiritual life and experience. The kingdom comes more and more in him when he abhors himself as a sinner, trusts alone in the cross of Christ, loves his king, seeks the glory of God and the good of the neighbour rather than himself, and makes some progress in his fight against doubt, envy, bitterness, discontent, drunkenness, illicit sexual desire, or whatever may be his own besetting demon.

That demon, by the way, promotes the kingdom of Satan in the believer’s life. The two kingdoms clash most violently and with the highest stakes, not out there in society in the culture wars. That clash is mere child’s play in comparison with the war of the two kingdoms in the soul of every Christian.

To the noisy champions of a grand, showy, outward kingdom that is one day to Christianise the world, this personal spiritual extension of the kingdom is of little account. But to God, Scripture, and the Heidelberg Catechism—as to the battling believer—it is first and basic. The apostle of Christ virtually defines the kingdom in terms of its experience by the individual church member: “For the kingdom of God is not meat and drink; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost” (Rom. 14:17). That the kingdom comes in the life of an elect sinner is a wonder of the almighty, life-giving, gracious power of the Holy Spirit.

The kingdom comes first and importantly in the soul and experience of the child of God. But then it necessarily advances into the active life of the Christian in the world in every sphere and ordinance, with body and soul and with all his gifts.

As a citizen of the kingdom, he is a member with his family of the church, indeed of the purest manifestation of the church; is diligent in church attendance; submits to Christ’s authority in the elders; uses his gifts for the good of the congregation and denomination; and lives in peace with the other members as much as possible.

As a citizen of the kingdom, the Reformed man marries in the Lord, loves his wife, honours marriage as a lifelong bond, rears his children in the truth, and rules his household well.

As a citizen of the kingdom, the Reformed woman marries in the Lord, submits to her husband with due obedience, honours marriage as a lifelong bond, is a “keeper at home,” brings up her children in the faith, and cooperates with her husband’s rule.

As citizens of the kingdom, the parents establish good Christian schools, to carry out the godly instruction of the children of the kingdom that they themselves cannot give.

As a citizen of the kingdom, the man labours faithfully in his job, whatever it is, high-powered or menial, as to the Lord, to provide for his own needs and for those of the kingdom. This includes that he recognizes and submits to the authority of his employer. If he is the employer, he treats his workers justly and pays them well.

As a citizen of the kingdom, the believer honours civil government as God’s servant, submits to the authority of the state and its functionaries, obeys all laws that do not require him to disobey God, and pays the taxes that the state decrees. If he is the ruler, which is perfectly proper, although quite rare, he keeps order in society, legislates in accordance with the law of God for national life, punishes those who disturb the common order, and protects those who are outwardly law-abiding.

As a citizen of the kingdom, the member of the church is honest and kind in his dealings with his neighbours, whether believing or unbelieving, and helpful to the needy as he has opportunity. As much as possible, he lives in peace with all men.

As a citizen of the kingdom, the Christian freely uses and enjoys the good creation of God his king, always in service of the kingdom and to the glory of the king of the kingdom. This creation, freely used and enjoyed, includes his own natural gifts of music, or art, or scientific study, or poetry, or gardening, or athletics, and much more besides.

Thus, in the active life of the member of the church the kingdom extends into all areas of human life in all the world.

I suspect this meets with Dr. K’s approval because Engelsma promotes Christian schools. As much as this might wind Zrim up, I could certainly live with talk about the necessity of Christian schools if it came with language that also sharply distinguished the kingdom of God from culture wars, politics, the arts, and word and deed. So while the pow wow on Mount Lookout might have suggested the basis for lessening the conflict between neo-Calvinists and two-kingdom advocates, Engelsma’s position looks much more promising.

Jihad If You Do, Holy War If You Don't

I continue to scratch my head over Christian reactions to Islam. Granted, I would not be so itchy had a three-week journey in Turkey not raised a host of questions through which I am still sorting. Even so, the Christian (and especially neo-Calvinist inspired) criticisms of Muslims for rejecting secularity are richly ironic.

Take, for instance, this plug for the new Trinity Institute to be led by theonomists-turned-Federal Visionaries, James Jordan and Peter Leithart, which talks about the all encompassing claims of Christianity, even on those areas of life considered by secularists to be not religious but secular (i.e., temporal):

When I first came to Japan in 1981, I was a premillennial dispensationalist struggling to plant a church in a pagan culture. Jordan’s The Law of the Covenant, which I read in 1984, showed me how the Bible could and must be read to apply to cultural issues today. Jordan’s various writings on Biblical symbolism, especially Through New Eyes fundamentally changed the way I read and taught the Bible. Our local church here now practices paedobaptism and paedocommunion, employs a liturgy we learned from Jeff Meyers, Jordan, and Leithart, and relies extensively on the voluminous writings of Jordan and Leithart in the research institute that supports our Christian education program. Faithfulness to the Scriptures and love for the Triune God exude from their wide ranging works that address questions and problems in Biblical exegesis, theology, liturgy, history, politics, philosophy, literature, music, and even popular entertainment. When young pastors ask me for book recommendations, I tell them to buy and read everything they can get by Jordan and Leithart.

Note that “faithfulness to Scriptures” involves politics, the arts and sciences, and movies. Note as well that Leithart himself has defended the political theology of Constantine precisely because it is a worthy alternative to secularity.

So what makes Muslims different aside from a different sacred text?

But the irony is all the more apparent in Bill Evans’ recent post about Islam. I won’t go into all of Evans’ points but a couple of paragraphs stand out. The first is the standard line about Islam lacking any room for secularity, despite the examples of Turkey and Dearborn, Michigan:

Islam is a religio-cultural-political package. There is no ultimate distinction in Islam between the sacred and the secular, and thus none between mosque and state. All of life is understood as a matter of submission to Allah. For this reason, while there has sometimes been religious toleration under Islamic governments, there can be no real religious pluralism in the practical political sense of the term. That is to say, adherents of other religions will not be viewed as equal members of society in a context governed by Islamic principles.

Don’t lots of neo-Calvinists also say this about Christianity? Substitute God for Allah and you have a fairly close resemblance, though neo-Calvinists, at least in their Dutch iteration, were never able to rid the Netherlands of the incredible toleration that the nation practiced.

Later in his piece, Evans invokes Richard John Neuhaus’ brief against a Naked Public Scqure, or an overly narrow conception of secularity:

Western secular liberal democracy no longer takes the question of religious truth seriously. In fact, it largely lacks even the vocabulary to discuss religious truth claims, and this places it at a distinct disadvantage when deals with groups for whom such truth claims are central. We in the West are the heirs of the post-Enlightenment fact/value dichotomy—on the one hand there are empirical, scientific facts; on the other hand there are values which cannot be rationally confirmed. Such values are matters of opinion, and religious beliefs and convictions are, on this reading of things, merely values. Along with this comes the inevitable privatization of religion. Religious belief is simply a matter of personal opinion that is acceptable only so long as it remains private and unobtrusive.

The public square, as the late Richard John Neuhaus aptly observed, has thus become “naked” or stripped of religious expression. When Barack Obama claims that Muslims will have a different opinion of America because he “understands their point of view,” Muslims know full well that he is not taking them as believers or their truth claims seriously, and they are not impressed. But we really cannot expect a Western secularist like Obama to respond in any other way, and hence the persistent disconnect between Islam and the West.

This may be a plausible construction of secular society, though if Christ himself introduced the notion when he distinguished between what is Caesar’s and God’s, Christians may actually embrace secularity as part and parcel of their religion. But if Evans is right about secular society in the West, can he really blame Muslims for objecting to secularism?

If Christians are going to portray the struggle between Islam and the West as a clash of civilizations, and then take shots at the West for abandoning Christianity, they will need to give a fuller account of the differences between Islam and Christianity on secular politics. Without that, they sound a tad whiney and a whole lot inconsistent.

What a Turkey! Part 5: Another Parallel between Islam and Contemporary Calvinism

If Ohran Pamuk’s setting of northeastern Turkey reveals how the simple religious act of a woman donning a scarf becomes a vigorous expression of political Islam, Nafisi’s book, Reading Lolita in Tehran, shows the extent to which political Islam in an Iranian setting will go for the sake of covering women, whether Muslim or not. Her memoir follows her experience as the daughter of the mayor of Tehran before the Islamic revolution, her education in the United States for graduate training in literature, and her return to teach in Tehran, first at the university and then privately. Along the way, Nafisi, whose religious identity is unclear, has to go from wearing jeans and T-shirts as a graduate student, to blouses and slacks as a professor, and then to a chador under Iran’s Muslim republic.

The book is less about politics and more about the way zealous believers read (or misread) literature. Hence Reading Lolita in Tehran is of use once again for Reformed Protestants who advocate w-w and Christian education. This is not meant to be a cheap shot. It is rather a way of considering parallels between totalistic claims upon knowledge and ways of understanding. If w-wists do not want to look like a Christian version of political Islam’s reading of Western literature, they could well learn from Nafisi and consider whether the reach of a w-w needs to be as entire as neo-Calvinists sometimes claim.

One particular passage from Nafisi struck and moved me. The book, thankfully, is not entirely about Nabokov’s very dark novel about a middle-aged man’s illicit relationship with a girl. Nafisi also uses discussions of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Henry James to explore her experience within Iran. Since I am an inveterate romantic (all about me), I am also a sucker for Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, which I consider to be arguably the greatest American novel and the teaching of which was crucial to my budding intellectual awareness. Nafisi’s reading of the novel is as persuasive as it is arresting and comes in the context of a university classroom trial where dedicated Muslim students wanted to prosecute the novel for its immorality and decadence, thus, embodying the evil United States’ secularism and materialism.

Here is one part of the prosecution’s case against Gatsby:

“Okay,” he conceded, “but the values were such that adultery went unpunished. This book preaches illicit relations between a man and a woman. First we have Tom and his mistress, the scene in her apartment, even the narrator, Nick, is implicated. He doesn like their lies, but he has no objection to their fornicating and sitting on each other’s laps, and, and those parties at Gatsby’s . . . remember, ladies and gentlemen, this Gatsby is the hero of the book – and who is he? He is a charlatan, he is an adulterer, he is a liar . . . this is the man Nick celebrates and feels sorry for, this man, this destroyer of homes!” . . . . “The only sympathetic person here is the cuckolded husband, Mr. Wilson,” Mr. Nyazi boomed. “When he kills Gatsby, it is the hand of God. He is the only victim. He is the genuine symbol of the oppressed, in the land of, of that Great Satan!”

Nafisi (as well as one of her sharp students) will have nothing of such a surface and pietistic reading of either Gatsby’s longing for Daisy or the American Dream:

The reality of Gatsby’s life is that he is a charlatan. But the truth is that he is a romantic and tragic dreamer, who become heroic because of his belief in his own romantic delusion.
Gatsby cannot tolerate the shabbiness of his life. He has an “extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness,” and some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life.” He cannot change the world, so he re-creates himself according to his dream. . . . Gatsby’s loyalty was to his reinvented self, which saw its fulfillment in Daisy’s voice. It was to the promises of that self that he remained faithful, to the green light at the end of the dock, not a shabby dream of wealth and prosperity.

The city is the link between Gatsby’s dream and the American dream. The dream is not about money but what he imagines he can become. It is not a comment on America as a materialistic country but as an idealistic one, one that has turned money into a means of retrieving the dream. There is nothing crass here, or the crassness is so mingled with the dream that it becomes very difficult to differentiate between the two. In the end, the best ideals and the most sordid of realities all come together. . . .

Nafisi then quotes from Gatsby’s final pages:

“‘And as the moon rose higher the in essential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island where that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes – a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplating he neither understood nor desire, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.’”

Part of Nafisi’s point is that religious zeal misses the higher and even spiritual dimensions of Gatsby and his quest. If viewed only from the standpoint of the antithesis between belief and unbelief, or between obedience to God or sinful disobedience, the political Islamic reading of Gatsby has merit. But applying the antithesis in this way also misses what could plausibly be Gatsby’s own quest, as deformed as it may be, for spiritual fulfillment and even for a new heaven and new earth. Someone might even argue that Gatsby’s condition is what all persons experience this side of paradise lost.

Still, the point here is not about the best reading of Fitzgerald but the limits of w-w thinking that relies so heavily on the antithesis. That division between believers and unbelievers, between the city of God and the city of man, is a spiritual reality that goes all the way down to a person’s inclinations and final destiny. But it is not the last word on human beings even if it is the ultimate one. Persons are bodies as much as they are souls, and while inhabiting planet earth between the advents of Christ, people are still capable of remarkable accomplishments and aspirations. The reason is not because they are free from sin or unbelief but because they are created in the image of God and the residue of that image is responsible for those noble even if unholy longings that sent Jay Gatsby to his soggy death.

If w-wers can produce that kind of intellectual agility – if they can recognize the doubleness of human existence and the dance among spiritual longings, human ingenuity, and the imperviousness of original sin – then we need to pay them more attention. If not, then they sound like just one more version of identity politics to be shelved near the section with political Islamists who also rely overwhelmingly on the antithesis.

What's the Difference between Peace & Justice and Health & Wealth?

During my drive through Oregon (wish I could say I was following the trail of Lewis and Clark), I finally had the chance to listen to the Reformed Forum interview with Anthony Bradley about black theology. During one segment Bradley questioned the wisdom of approaching the black church with the solas of the Reformation. A better point of contact would appear to be the neo-Calvinist model of Christ transforming culture since it resonates with black theology’s themes of social justice.

Why Christ is not a better contact I don’t know. Lots of black Protestants I do know love their Lord and are unashamed about talking openly about him. One of the many ironies I observed during my years on the Alumni/ae Council of Harvard Divinity School was the old-time Unitarians’ reactions to the presence of black holiness Protestants as students and graduates. On the one hand, the Unitarians delighted in the presence of minorities. On the other hand, all the talk about Jesus made them uncomfortable.

Whatever the best connection to black Protestants, I am still having trouble distinguishing the worldliness of establishing just social structures from the worldliness of owning a Lexus. This is especially puzzling since Bradley admits that when a Lexus has been denied for so long (because of economic conditions), buying a brand new luxury car may have a dose of justice added to a helping of self-gratification. Either way, whether the social order we prefer is one that costs me wealth so that others may have a larger piece of the pie, or one defined by free markets that allows me to buy as much as my credit card will allow, I’m not sure why either offers a glimpse of the kingdom. In fact, neo-Calvinist transformationalism seems to be as preoccupied with economic and political conditions as Health and Wealth preachers are concerned with experiencing God’s blessings in this life. One may be more modest than the other, though the modesty may be a function more of middle-class abstemiousness than of spiritual insight. But both look for signs of God’s victory in the here and now.

Calling all Vosians!

Consistency is the Hobgoblin of Mystery-Averse Minds

In case you haven’t noticed, Christianity is riddled with dilemmas and perplexities. For instance, Christ tells his followers to have nothing to do with the world but then he leaves Christians in the world. Another is that Christ wins by defeat; by dying on the cross, Satan’s apparent victory, Christ snatches believers from the grip of the evil one. Yet another is the doctrine of the Trinity. Still another is that Christ is Lord and Christians should submit to a counterfeit lord by the name of Nero. If you wanted intellectual consistency, then you’d likely end up abandoning orthodox Christianity.

The intellect defying mysteries of Christianity do not prevent critics of 2k from pointing out 2k’s apparent inconsistencies. Neo-Calvinism’s condemnation of all dualism fortifies critics in their quest to iron out all of Christianity’s wrinkles and gives them the upper hand in public relations contests since St. Joe the Home Schooler is more likely to trust a simple and direct answer to his questions than one that begins “well, yes and no.”

A recent attempt to catch 2k in the clutches of inconsistency came from Steven Wedgeworth at his new blog, The Calvinist International. He asks whether a seminary that trains pastors belongs to the spiritual or temporal kingdom and follows the reasoning of Ryan McIlhenry from an article in Mid-America Journal of Theology, not a journal that one associates with fans of the Federal Visions (but opposition to 2k makes for strange bed bugs). At a conference at Westminster California, David VanDrunen responded to this question in ways inconceivable to the perplexity challenged. Dissatisfied by VanDrunen’s response, Wedgeworth argues:

. . . VanDrunen attempts to soften things with a general admission of complexity and a denial that “every single plot of ground” can be put into one kingdom or the other, he does not admit the more obvious point: his specific expression of the two kingdoms cannot be coherently applied in the world. This is because he is still attempting to distinguish the kingdoms along the lines of vocation. Churchy callings and, specifically, Bible-teaching, are the business of the spiritual kingdom, whereas more ordinary jobs like committees, administration, and custodianship are the business of the worldly kingdom.

But what business does a common institution have training up the leaders of the spiritual kingdom? Indeed, under the terms of de jure divino Presbyterianism, this would mean that the spiritual kingdom of Christ is in fact dependent upon the worldly kingdom for one of its essential marks. Is VanDrunen now also among the Constantinians?

Notice that VanDrunen’s response was complex. But the actual 2k doctrine, elaborated by Wedgeworth’s interaction with Calvin and Luther, will not admit of such complexity. In which case the proponents of 2k are really not 2k after all.

But once again, history to the rescue. You don’t have to be 2k to understand that the work of seminaries does not fit easily in any of the modern categories of politics, education, or religion. Back in the 1940s the OPC debated whether to adopt Westminster Seminary as a denominational institution. Each of the committee members who studied the matter and rejected the idea of an ecclesiastically overseen seminary — R. B. Kuiper, John Murray, and Paul Woolley — appealed to the neo-Calvinist notion of sphere sovereignty, an indication that they may have been channeling Kuyper more than Machen. And each member recognized that a seminary does not belong to the church, nor to the state, but — get this — to the family, a common institution that belongs to both believers and unbelievers. According John Murray (in his portion of the report):

The teaching of the Word of God given in the family and in the Christian school will indeed, as regards content, coincide with the teaching given by the church, but this coincidence as regards content does not in the least imply that such teaching should be given under the auspices of the church. In like manner a theological seminary should teach the whole counsel of God. A great deal of the teaching must therefore coincide with the teaching given by the church, and, furthermore, a great deal of it is the teaching that may properly be conducted by the church and under its official auspices. It does not follow, however, that the teaching of the Word of God given in a theological seminary must be given under the auspices of the church. The mere fact that, in certain particulars, the type of teaching given is the type of teaching that may and should be given by the church and may also properly be conducted under the official auspices of the church does not rove that such teaching must be conducted under the auspices of the church. This does not follow any more than does the-fact that the teaching of the Word of God given in the home and in the school is in content the same as may and should be given by the church prove that the family and the school should be conducted under the auspices of the church. A theological seminary is an institution which may quite properly be conducted, like other Christian schools, under auspices other than those of the church, and a great deal of its work is of such a character that the church may not properly undertake it.

So if Reformed theologians not known for advocating 2k recognize that the formal academic training of ministers does not easily fall within either the temporal or spiritual kingdoms as designated by the earthly institutions of state and church, is it really a problem that 2kers offer complex answers to questions about to which kingdom Westminster California belongs?

Which leads to one last quibble. My impression of Mr. Wedgeworth is that he is a nice enough fellow and does not intend to bray or holler the way some anti-2k bloggers do. But when he complains that VanDrunen’s “expression of the two kingdoms cannot be coherently applied in the world,” my jaws tighten. When will the critics of 2k acknowledge that the teachings of Calvin or Richard Hooker cannot be applied coherently to our world either, or that 2k looks a whole lot more coherent after the revolutions of the late eighteenth century than do Constantinian politics applied to a mixed body of citizens? Again, for the gazillionth time, the problems of state churches and the demands of diverse populations led all the Reformed churches to drop the Reformation’s teaching about the Christian responsibilities of the magistrate. This may mean that all the Reformed communions are incoherent in their application of 2k theology. But that problem is not the peculiar possession of 2k’s advocates. I’d encourage pastor Wedgeworth to send a letter to NAPARC.