When I read Jake Meador’s index of political theologies, I was generally in agreement and thought he accurately describe 2k. I guess my biggest disagreement was over his definition of liberalism:
When I speak of liberalism, I am referring to something broader than just left-wing politics or even some brand of liberalism realized in a single discipline, such as theological liberalism.
At its heart, liberalism is concerned with how human beings know things. As a system, it is suspicious of knowledge not derived from empirical observation. Thus it is suspicious of the claims of religious faith as they inform social life. Religious practice is fine for individuals, but any attempt to enforce a set of religiously based moral norms beyond the religious individual or maybe a voluntary religious community is suspect because the knowledge is not sure enough to justify political application. Indeed, this skepticism goes beyond a skepticism toward religious faith and goes so far as a skepticism toward any kind of comprehensive moral system that claims to be true in anything beyond a particular, local sense. We simply do not trust our moral judgments enough to think they can be binding in anything beyond an individualistic, voluntaristic sense. When this epistemological agnosticism becomes pervasive in a social order, you basically have some species of liberalism.
In an odd way, these instincts can make liberalism like a more traditional Christian sort of social order. It tells us that men should be persuaded rather than coerced into belief. It tells us that there is, as one friend put it, a “just area of sovereignty,” that each person possesses. However, the way that liberalism arrives at these ideas is not necessarily through the belief in a God who rules over creation and endows his creatures with dignity, honor, and freedom. Rather, they arrive at it through a lack of confidence in the ability of anybody to wield coercive authority justly or to infringe upon a person’s autonomy.
I don’t understand why you conceive of a political order in epistemological or philosophical categories. For mmmmmeeeEEEE, liberalism was mainly a way to overcome divine right monarchy that extends from Hammurabi through to those audacious claims for the papacy by canon lawyers in the thirteenth century down to French and British kings (among others) who objected to checks upon their power. The question that liberalism (classical) tackled was not how we know but what authority is legitimate. I guess you could push that back to epistemology. But why unless you privilege philosophy?
Meador went on to describe 2k’s relationship to liberalism this way:
The best way to get at the key difference between this group and the Radical Anabaptists is to highlight the differences in how they see the church’s relationship to civil society. For these thinkers, there is no problem with Christians participating in civil society. Indeed, such participation is inevitable. That is why Dr. Moore heads up an organization dedicated to protecting religious liberty and why Dr. Leeman and a number of his colleagues with 9 Marks pastor in Washington D.C. and support church planting efforts in the capitol city.
However, the good that these thinkers hope to achieve in all societies outside of the institutional church is purely natural while the goods they hope to achieve within the church are supernatural. The institutional church is, in Leeman’s understanding, an embassy for the Kingdom of God. Thus the institutional church as such is an institution of a qualitatively different sort than any other physical, visible institutions in the world. Likewise, Drs. VanDrunen, Hart, Clark, and Trueman have all at various times gotten very nervous about what they see as an attempt to sacralize work that is rightly understood as secular.
Thus there are two core pieces that unite the Post-Liberal Retreatists:
First, they have what I take to be a realistic and appropriately sober assessment of our cultural state.
Second, they see the work to be done in non-ecclesial institutions as being primarily defensive not only in our current moment, but in principle.
The positive work of taking hold of supernatural goods happens primarily in the institutional church. Thus the Post-Liberal Retreatists are suspended, as it were, between the Post-Liberal Protestants and the Radical Anabaptists. They share a similar read of the current cultural moment with both groups. Like the Post-Liberal Protestants, they still have a place for Christian participation in civil society. Like the Radical Anabaptists, they see the work of the institutional church as being qualitatively different than the work Christians do outside the church and essentially constructive in a way that civil society participation cannot be. So they would say, with the Anabaptists, that the church is a polis, but that it is not a comprehensive polis in the way that the Anabaptists use the term.
That sounds fair enough. But it locates 2k too much within the categories of the pre-modern and modern West. In fact, much of the blow back that 2k receives comes from Protestants who have a soft spot for Christian establishment in the form of the confessional state, whether Geneva’s City Council, Scotland’s monarch, or the Netherlands’ republic. Most critics of 2k want a Christian society of some kind. 2k is suspect, then, because it won’t support such a desire or programs to achieve such a society.
But what if Christendom or post-Christendom are not the only options? What about pre-Christendom? Here the idea is not that the time before Constantine was ideal but that a religiously diverse or even a religiously hostile environment is normal. It’s what Jesus and the apostles faced. Those are the conditions under which the church emerged and the canon established. For that reason, modern Christians should not think that either Christendom or a Christian friendly liberal government (like the U.S. before 1965) are the default settings for the church. Christianity can persist in any number of circumstances. It can be like the Old Testament promised land, like the Israelites in exile, like the early church under the domination of Rome, or even like Scottish Presbyterians in covenant with a divine-right monarch. Christianity is flexible. It’s not tied to one political order.
This perspective seems to inform Proto-Protestant in his assessment of political liberalism. Notice that he starts by identifying the way that Rome used to regard liberalism and the United States:
Classical Liberalism so poignantly represented by the United States was viewed as poison and a triumph of the secular over the sacred. Rome sought to protect its flock from the influences of American ideology. Classical Liberalism was the spawn of the Reformation’s triumph of the individual. The lone man was allowed to challenge and cast down all authority. This is the sociological aspect to Luther that many Protestants have failed to grasp. The individual gets to decide what is right and wrong and the Reformation unleashed epistemological uncertainty and the social chaos which began the long process of dismantling Christendom.
The Reformation led to Modernism and as a consequence Post-Modernism and now Nihilism.
Undoubtedly there is some truth to this narrative and the post World War II period has brought about a time of intellectual reconsideration on the part of Evangelical Protestants and not a few defections to both Rome and Constantinople. The political Papacy utterly defeated by the late 19th century reformed its teaching and came up with a new paradigm for the industrial secular age. Consequently it allied first with Fascism then with the West (in general) at the conclusion of the war. It began to build a new empire, one wed to the Capitalist forces so dominant in the Protestant world and joined the fight (real or imagined) against world Communism. Today Rome no longer rules a geopolitical realm but instead reigns over a vast financial empire and has regained a little of its lost ground.
Evangelicals have been forced to reckon with the problems of Christianity wed to Classical Liberalism and as I’ve written elsewhere there are tendencies both toward revisionist history and increasingly in the direction of abandoning Liberalism for a more Roman Catholic-friendly Throne and Altar type paradigm.
So if Protestants don’t follow Roman Catholics, where do they turn? The Bible and in so doing they abandon the sufficiency of Scripture. Protestants have made Scripture do more than it was supposed to:
There is undoubtedly much that is valid in the critique of Classical Liberalism and in what the Reformation unwittingly unleashed. And for this reason the glorification of Protestantism which is at its zenith in this 500th anniversary year, ought to be weighed carefully if not rejected.
But the truth of the critique is limited to the sociological realm.
The true problem is not individualism (which can indeed work to destroy society) but the attempt to formulate Sola Scriptura into a comprehensive societal worldview. That was a rival philosophical project rooted in speculation and dependent on speculative philosophical coherence… thus it fragmented.
The Reformers only began to toy with this question. Luther, perhaps the more conservative of the Reformers was content to sustain the Medieval-Renaissance order and sit under the protection of a so-called Christian prince. Calvin’s Geneva moved in the direction of Authoritarian Republican government. Zwingli took up the sword (so to speak) and died by it on the battlefield.
It was in the 17th century that Protestant Scholasticism began to earnestly reckon with the implications of the Reformation applied to society. It was at this point that Sola Scriptura as a social organising principle failed. Rightly so I would add, as the New Testament nowhere even envisions a Christian State/Christendom project. In fact it repudiates the very notion of it.
In wedding Reformation theology to the Christendom project the Protestant Reformers and certainly the Scholastics after them undermined their own vision and sowed the seeds for epistemological collapse. They employed (and even exploited) the Scripture for something it was not meant to be used for. In the end their project exploded into the 17th century Wars of Religion and ultimately undermined not only their social vision… but their theological and ecclesiastical hopes as well….
But even granting the narrative that Liberalism and Modernism were the natural outgrowth of Protestant theology applied to society, then such a notion must be condemned as sub-Biblical. It does not represent New Testament doctrine either in its concepts of values. Confidence in reason? I think not. Rights? The individual? Progress? None of the concepts are found in the New Testament. Only deformed Judaizing hermeneutics can locate them through distorted readings of the Old Testament.
If liberalism is not the basis for evaluating politics or its reaction to Christendom, the proper starting point for political theology is as Paul Helm recently observed Christ’s teaching that his kingdom is not of this world. Proto-Protestant explains what that means for 2k (even if he does not self-identify as 2k):
Speaking generally if both paradigms were and are wrong, what then are we to make of the so-called and very misnamed Judeo-Christian West? Not much. As a society it has some very good things about it and many that are rightly condemned. Christian it is not. And the more it is associated with Christianity the more problematic it becomes.
As pilgrims we understand that this world is not our home. We look for a city to come, a new heavens and new earth. We can live and function as the salt and light Oracular Church in any culture and civilisation. That said, some will be more pleasant than others. But pleasant isn’t always better, especially if it leads to laxity, complacency and confusion. Though not pleasant the most spiritually vivacious times of my life have been during periods of hardship and opposition. It’s not pleasant to live that way but the antithesis becomes razor sharp which spiritually speaking is healthy. It’s a good place to be. If goods, lands, and prosperity are set aside and no longer important to me, then hardship becomes certainly less hard. The yoke of suffering, the burden of Christ to which we are called, becomes a little lighter.
And though on a practical level I lament the downfall and paganising trajectory of the West … spiritually speaking it’s probably the best thing that could happen. The widespread apostasy is like a forest-burn. In the end it will make for a healthier forest. The forest to which I refer is not society, but the Church. Don’t ever confuse the two.
While on the one hand I celebrate the fact that the Protestant Classical Liberal narrative is being exposed as a lie… both doctrinally and historically, I am concerned that many Protestants are quickly succumbing to an equally problematic lie… the Pre-Liberal Throne and Altar vision of Medieval Roman Christendom.
If Jake Meador had started with the church in exile and Christians as pilgrims as the frame for his index, he might have used a this-worldly (immanentize the eschaton) vs. an otherworldy (don’t immanentize the eschaton) division. That one even pits 2k against Anabaptists since the latter regard (as I understand it) the company of believers as an outworking of “the perfection of Christ.”