A Kinder Gentler Theocracy

Peter Leithart returns to the case for theocracy:

If theocracy means “the rule of priests” or involves the absorption of civil order into religious institutions, Christianity has been chary toward the idea. In fact, Christianity can be credited with introducing the distinction between religion and politics into a world where the two were fused in what Francis Oakley calls “sacral kingship.” Civil authority, Augustine insisted, belongs to the saeculum, the time between the kingdom’s coming and its consummation. The Church alone is the sacred and eternal society.

Still, there’s something disingenuous about the denials. The Church has often interfered with civil authority, sometimes calling brutal rulers to account and standing up for the weak, sometimes shamefully providing cover for the brutes. As Pierre Manent has noted, Christianity simultaneously frees “secular” society and demands that all human life conform to the will of God.

That might make sense if the Bible actually spoke to all of life or if Bible readers didn’t have to interpret it. But where exactly is the freedom that Paul commends in 1 Corinthians 8 (meat offered to idols) to be found in Manent’s view of divine rule?

And to spiritualize Christ’s kingdom? That’s dangerous.

Christians sometimes flinch from the political import of these claims. We nervously spiritualize, we frantically privatize. “Jesus is Lord” is translated into “Jesus is my personal Lord and Savior”—somewhat, as Ken Myers likes to put it, like a “personal trainer.” Jesus’s kingdom is said to be a “spiritual kingdom” that leaves Caesar’s realm pretty much intact.

That’s a dangerous misreading of the gospel. As Hauerwas says, “‘Jesus is Lord’ is not my personal opinion” but “a determinative political claim.” Psalm 2 ends with an exhortation to kings and judges to acknowledge the Lord’s anointed as King of Kings. For political rulers, repentance means bowing to Jesus as a superior authority.

Even so, Leithart thinks that theocracy doesn’t need to be scary:

Christian theocracy bends politics toward compassion, mercy, and impartial justice. I don’t share Hauerwas’s pacifism, but he’s right that Christianity introduces a new politics of patience: “Christ, through the Holy Spirit, bestows upon his disciples the long-suffering patience necessary to resist any politics whose impatience makes coercion and violence the only and inevitable response to conflict.” Christian theocracy is premised on the persuasion that there is love deep down things. It reminds rulers that King Jesus is also Judge. It’s frightening mainly to thugs.

Actually, Christ’s rule should be scary to anyone who isn’t Christ’s. At the same time, if Christ’s rule over his people isn’t spiritual this side of the new heavens and new earth, the Shorter Catechism doesn’t make any sense:

Q. 26. How doth Christ execute the office of a king?
A. Christ executeth the office of a king, in subduing us to himself, in ruling and defending us, and in restraining and conquering all his and our enemies.

There you have the spirituality of the church and two kingdoms in a nut shell. Christ rules everything; nothing falls outside his authority. But Christ’s rule over the church is different over his enemies. He rules both. But for these two spiritual races to coexist during this interadvental age, Christ institutes the church for saving his people and the state to keep in check his enemies.

That’s not theocracy. It’s two kingdoms.

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Speaking of Special Pleading (in Scotland no less)

David Robertson is not happy with one of the letters — the secularist one — to one of his many columns about Christianity in Scotland. According to the correspondent, “Scotland was a theocracy for 1,000 years, which left nothing but bloodshed and heartache in its wake.” To which Robertson responds:

In a post-modern age this 
Alice-in-Wonderland view of history, where history is just what you want it to be, may ring true for the more fundamentalist secularists whose faith tells them that any public expression of religion is bad, but anyone who actually reads history would know that this is a grotesque and laughable caricature.

The Romans did not bring their law beyond Hadrian’s 
Wall, although Christians writers did adapt some aspects of Roman law (Christianity does, after all, teach about God’s common 
grace reaching to all human 
beings who are made in the image of God).

Theocracy is the rule of the state by the Church, and that clearly did not happen in the supposed “1,000-year reign”, although, as my letter pointed out, there have been those who have used Christianity for political ends and vice versa).

Robertson is certainly correct to react against secular fundamentalism, though he might do a better job of explaining the modern era’s debt to the medieval world — constitutionalism, universities, cities. But shouldn’t he also say something about a complicated relationship between church and state in Scotland that concedes that the head of the church — the British monarch — is also head of the state. Might not he also understand the complaints that secularists do have legitimately about the sometimes less than progressive mixing of religion and politics in the United Kingdom? It may not be theocracy, but the king’s headship within the church is some variety of Caesaropapism. Not to mention that the king’s and queen’s sovereignty within the church sent Presbyterians into a rightful tizzy to protect the crown rights of Christ as head of the church.