Before Calvin

What would happen if critics of 2k had to think about the relationship between the church and magistrates before emperors got religion (and who knows if they grasped Christianity for the right reasons)?

In the current issue of New Horizons, David VanDrunen explains where 2k reflection on the state starts — not in 1536 but in 33.

The apostolic church lived under civil magistrates who did not confess Christ and sometimes persecuted people who did. Yet New Testament texts such as Romans 13:1–7 and 1 Peter 2:13–17 taught that God had ordained civil magistrates and that believers ought to honor and submit to them.

Following the Roman emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in the early fourth century, the status of Christians in society changed. The contemporary church historian Eusebius, in his Ecclesiastical History, described the Roman Empire under Constantine as the fulfillment of Old Testament texts prophesying that war would cease and the wicked would be cut off: Constantine was realizing Christ’s kingdom on earth. Shortly thereafter, Augustine (354–430) provided a much more modest view. In his City of God, Augustine described Christians as sojourners, on a pilgrimage in this world toward the heavenly city. He acknowledged that Christians should participate in their political communities, but he taught that all earthly rulers and empires are provisional, not to be confused with Christians’ eschatological hope.

In the fifth century, the “Christendom” model emerged. As described by Pope Gelasius I, there are “two powers” that exercise authority under God in this world: the emperor has authority over “temporal affairs” for the sake of “public order,” and the priest controls the sacraments and “spiritual activities,” toward the goal of “eternal life.” Priest and emperor should submit to one another in their proper spheres.

This model was helpful in important respects. It affirmed that civil governments are legitimate, ordained by God. It also taught that their jurisdiction is limited and subject to God’s authority.

But notice the problems:

First, it essentially wed the church to the state in a confessionally unified Christian society. The New Testament, however, never suggests that Christians should expect or seek such a society.

Second, the state was expected to enforce the church’s claims about doctrine and worship by punishing dissenters with the sword. This reality sat uncomfortably beside New Testament teaching that Christ’s gospel and kingdom do not advance by the weapons of this world. Many who sought to reform the church—such as John Hus in the fifteenth century—would meet untimely ends as victims of this church-state alliance.

So long as a Protestant city council supports our guy, John Calvin, we forget about the problems of a religious magistrate? It’s our civil government.

And so long as that Cadillac CTS that only gets 13.8 mpg is a comfortable ride to church, we forget about the price of gas or limits on fossil fuels? It’s our gas guzzler.

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Mencken Day 2016

After a visit to Charm City for Mencken festivities, the man remains the king of charm and truth (general revelation sense). What follows is from his coverage of the 1928 presidential election which witnessed the first Roman Catholic run for the White House on a major party ticket (that would be Al Smith):

I daresay the extent of the bigotry prevailing in America, as it has been revealed by the campaign, has astounded a great many Americans, and perhaps even made them doubt the testimony of their own eyes and ears. This surprise is not in itself surprising, for Americans of one class seldom know anything about Americans of other classes. What the average native yokel believes about the average city man is probably nine-tenths untrue, and what the average city man believes about the average yokel is almost as inaccurate.

A good part of this ignorance is probably due to the powerful effect of shibboleths. Every American is taught in school that all Americans are free, and so he goes on believing it his whole life — overlooking the plain fact that no Negro is really free in the South, and no miner in Pennsylvania, and no radical in any of the dozen great States. He hears of equality before the law, and he accepts it as a reality, though it exists nowhere, and there are Federal laws which formally repudiate it. In the same way he is taught that religious toleration prevails among us, and uncritically swallows the lie. No such thing really exists. No such thing has ever existed.

This campaign has amply demonstrated the fact. It has brought bigotry out into the open, and revealed its true proportions. It has shown that millions of Americans, far from being free and tolerant men, are the slaves of an ignorant, impudent and unconscionable clergy. It has dredged up theological ideas so preposterous that they would make an intelligent Zulu laugh, and has brought the proof that they are cherished by nearly half the whole population, and by at least four-fifths outside the cities. It has made it plain that this theology is not merely a harmless aberration of the misinformed, like spiritualism, chiropractic of Christian Science, but the foundation of a peculiar way of life, bellicose, domineering, brutal and malignant — in brief, the complete antithesis of any recognizable form of Christianity. And it has shown, finally, that this compound of superstition and hatred has enough steam behind it to make one of the candidates for the Presidency knuckle to it and turn it upon his opponent — basely to be sure, but probably wisely. (“The Eve of Armageddon,” Nov. 5, 1928)

I wonder if neo- and New Calvinists with all that w-w and earnestness and hope for a Christian society would have voted for the Democrat and Roman Catholic Smith. J. Gresham Machen, a life-long Democrat, did. Part of the reason was 2k.

Humbly Separate Church and State In the Name of Christ (of course)

Since I don’t listen to State of the Republic Union speeches, I’m not about to spend much time on what presidents say at National Prayer Breakfasts. (Why can’t it be National Word Breakfast? Why is it a monologue of Americans speaking to God and not the other way around?) But given the attention that President Obama’s remarks have received, I figured I’d try to discern what all the fuss is about. (More to come on the current efforts to rehabilitate the Crusades as a defensive war.)

The president thinks we have three ways to keep religion from being used as a “weapon” — humility, the separation of church and state, and the Golden Rule. It sounds nice in a “have a nice day” sort of way but it also sounds like what I’d expect to hear at a forum ready made for civil religion. Here’s the thing. If you want the separation of church and state, why have a National Prayer Breakfast? But someone like my mother might ask — what harm can a little prayer do? Has anyone heard of blasphemy? Might it be a tad blasphemous to invoke a generic god for all believers in the land? Would the first Christians have participated in such syncretism? So why do today’s “conservative” Christians (Protestant and Roman Catholic) so easily fall for this stuff? Maybe for the same reason that they let Jesus’ words, turned into John Winthrop’s — city on a hill — describe not their congregation or communion but their nation. I will give Michael Sean Winters credit on this one. He is disturbed by the mixing of religion and politics (even to the point of questioning whether Pope Francis should speak to Congress):

I confess I am very wary of the Pope’s addressing Congress: The optics seems all wrong, such a specifically political setting, and a powerful one too. Note to papal visit planners: The White House, the Capitol, the UN, even in its way the National Shrine, none of these really represent the peripheries where Pope Francis is most comfortable and where he has repeatedly said he wants the Church to be. I get creeped out when, at the Red Mass, they play the national anthem after the processional hymn but before the Mass begins in earnest. Of course, no politician would have the courage to simply refuse to go to the prayer breakfast. It would take a preacher-turned-politician, like Mike Huckabee, to pull that off, as it took a Nixon to go to China. I think we can all agree that a Huckabee presidency would be too high a price to pay for the breakfast to end. So, it will continue and presidents will continue to speak about things they should not speak about and say things about religion that are deeply cynical. There are worse things that happen in the world.

Aside from that last sentence, I think Winters is right. The worst thing in the world is to reverse the order of the Great (not pretty good) commandment and the Second that is like it. Upsetting your neighbor is one thing. But upsetting God?

For that reason, as much as I appreciate Matt Tuininga’s return to blogging (but why close comments?) and his push back against the conservative pundits who went batty over the president’s speech, I am not sure why Matt would be so positive about the “overall tone of the speech.” Matt included this excerpt as representative of that tone:

Our job is not to ask that God respond to our notion of truth — our job is to be true to Him, His word, and His commandments. And we should assume humbly that we’re confused and don’t always know what we’re doing and we’re staggering and stumbling towards Him, and have some humility in that process. And that means we have to speak up against those who would misuse His name to justify oppression, or violence, or hatred with that fierce certainty. No God condones terror. No grievance justifies the taking of innocent lives, or the oppression of those who are weaker or fewer in number….

If we are properly humble, if we drop to our knees on occasion, we will acknowledge that we never fully know God’s purpose. We can never fully fathom His amazing grace. “We see through a glass, darkly” — grappling with the expanse of His awesome love. But even with our limits, we can heed that which is required: To do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.

I pray that we will. And as we journey together on this “march of living hope,” I pray that, in His name, we will run and not be weary, and walk and not be faint, and we’ll heed those words and “put on love.”

Au contraire. If our job is to be true to God, how do we do that while tolerating those who aren’t true to God? How could we ever be true to God in a way that suggests we don’t know what being true to God looks like? How can we say we don’t know God’s purpose when he has revealed it in his word, and how can we say that we don’t see his grace when he has revealed himself in his son, the word incarnate? And who exactly is this “we” when we have a separation of church and state and freedom of conscience that includes in this “we” Americans who do not believe in God (or who believe in the wrong god)?

What the president said reminds me yet again of the casuistry that Ishmael in Moby Dick used to rationalize blasphemy and idolatry:

I was a good Christian; born and bred in the bosom of the infallible Presbyterian Church. How then could I unite with this wild idolator in worshipping his piece of wood? But what is worship? thought I. Do you suppose now, Ishmael, that the magnanimous God of heaven and earth – pagans and all included – can possibly be jealous of an insignificant bit of black wood? Impossible! But what is worship? – to do the will of God – that is worship. And what is the will of God? – to do to my fellow man what I would have my fellow man to do to me – that is the will of God. Now, Queequeg is my fellow man. And what do I wish that this Queequeg would do to me? Why, unite with me in my particular Presbyterian form of worship. Consequently, I must then unite with him in his; ergo, I must turn idolator. So I kindled the shavings; helped prop up the innocent little idol; offered him burnt biscuit with Queequeg; salamed before him twice or thrice; kissed his nose; and that done, we undressed and went to bed, at peace with our own consciences and all the world.

The challenge, then, is not to hold to Christianity, Judaism, or Islam in a way that recognizes a common religious enterprise that unites us all. It is to find a form of diligent and serious Christianity (and more) that engages believers in a common civil enterprise with other believers and unbelievers. That is what two-kingdom theology and the spirituality of the church try to do. As valuable as that remedy may be, I for one don’t want to see the president talk about it at a National Prayer Breakfast. That would do to 2k what Constantine did to Christianity.

Reasons for Conversion

In the year 300, by some estimates, Christianity had roughly 6.3 million adherents, a little over ten percent of the Roman Empire’s population. By 350 those numbers shot up to 33.8 million and over 55 percent of the empire’s inhabitants. What might explain such a dramatic rise? The conversion of the emperor to Christianity undoubtedly was a factor. And throughout the early middle ages, one of the major strategies of evangelists or missionaries is to win the monarch as the way to saving the nation.

By the twentieth century, however, reasons for conversion take a dramatically different form. Monarchs are largely ornamental. Societies become secular and pluralistic. And so another set of reasons for considering Christianity emerges. In a review by Stratford Caldecott of a book on the string of English writers who converted to Roman Catholicism over the course of the twentieth century, the author observes how that momentum decreased after Vatican 2:

. . . through the reforms and changes associated with the Second Vatican Council, the Church “began to move way from the Italianate paradigm into which the converts had been received.” In many places, the Church appeared to be seeking an accommodation with modernity that undermined the appeal of conversion. “As Roman Catholics exploited ensuing new opportunities and began to enter the post-war middle class and to assume prestigious social and political positions, their previously homogeneous subculture fragmented. With it crumbled the assumption that being a Roman Catholic automatically made one distinct from, and opposed to, dominant British principles and structures.” Not only did the flood of conversions begin to dry up (from 12,490 per year at the end of the 1950s to about 4,000 per year by the 1970s), but writers such as G. K. Chesterton and even Dr. Dawson came soon to be regarded as marginal even among Catholics—representatives of a subculture that had had its day.

Peter Berger weighs in on the subject of evangelism, in this case Rome’s “New Evangelism” and adds that in a period when religion is less important to social life, the tendency of churches will be to appeal to converts as part of their rejection of secularism:

Highly secularized Western Europe, the Italy of Communione e Liberazione and the Bavaria that was the home of Pope Benedict, Poland under a regime of militant atheism, which Pope John Paul resisted and eventually helped demolish, and Latin America, the locale of John Paul’s address, a continent where the main challenge to the Catholic Church has not come from secularization but from the explosion of Evangelical Protestantism. Despite the big differences between the three cases, what they have in common is the loss of Catholic hegemony. Curiously, conservative Catholics and Evangelical Protestants in the United States have also mobilized against “secularism”, which, in the most religious Western country, is a numerically small sectarian movement seeking to use the federal courts to banish religion from the public sphere. And of course “secularism” is blamed by religious conservatives of all sorts for the post-1960s changes in sexual behavior of which they disapprove.

Also curiously, the Russian Orthodox Church has defined itself as the defender of traditional values against the alleged degeneracy of modern morals. Not only has the Moscow Patriarchate found an ally in this campaign in the Putin administration, but has sought better relations with the Vatican on the same basis. In 2009 Patriarch Kirill of Moscow established warm relations with Benedict XVI.

But Berger thinks that pitting faith against secularism is a false dichotomy and argues for a way to evangelize that is remarkably congenial with 2k because it springs from a recognition that people don’t spend all their days thinking like they do when the assemble on the Lord’s Day:

Pluralism affects the faith of individuals, the character of religious institutions, and the way in which the state relates to religion. Therefore, the theory must span the psychological, institutional and political dimensions of the pluralist phenomenon. The individual lives with a diversity of worldviews and values, between which he must choose. Faith is no longer a matter of fate, but of decisions that may be reversed. It follows that religious certainty is hard to come by. Faith is typically tinged with doubt.

I would say that this situation realizes more fully what “faith” actually is. Preachers frequently counter-pose faith and unbelief, further suggesting that the latter is a terrible sin for which God will punish us in hell. Leave aside that this (Calvinist) God is not one I would want to worship. More relevant for the present argument is that the aforementioned counter-position is misleading: The opposite of faith is not unbelief but knowledge. I know that the skyline of the city I see from my desk is Boston and that this is where I am right now. I don’t need faith to make this affirmation. I do need faith if I affirm that there is the city of God, beyond all the skylines of this world, and that this city is the eternal destination intended by God for his creatures. Christians in particular should not deplore the fact that the pluralist situation points them back to the proposition of the New Testament: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).

It follows that religious institutions, even if they don’t like this, become de facto voluntary associations. This creates anxiety, and a nostalgia for certainty. It also provides a market for fundamentalist movements (not all religious), who promise absolute certainty. An important factor in the pluralistic situation is the presence of a secular discourse, which necessarily dominates in a number of modern institutions (notably those based on science and technology, on the market economy, on bureaucracy). This is where secularization theory was not completely wrong; it just exaggerated the hegemony of the secular discourse.

Aside from explaining Jason and the Callers, Berger recognizes (or at least permits the recognition) that faith in Jesus Christ is one thing but not everything. Contrary to w-wists where everything is either for or against Christ (or the French Revolution), 2k understands that faith is one part of a person’s life. It is the most important and it has clear implications for some aspects of natural life (sex, marriage, procreation). But Christianity is not a totalizing with which to one-up Richard Dawkins or Rachel Maddow.

And Now for a Helping of Radical 2K Along with Your Meat-and-Potatoes 2K

Thanks to our Inside-the-Beltway (THE Beltway!) correspondent comes this recent piece from Martin Marty. Below is an excerpt but the entire article is available here.

A Gentile (as in Russell P. Gentile) is the most recent, perhaps most earnest, certainly the boldest claimant, on the government and religion news front in the winter just past. While others have protested along the line of “separation of church and state” when government is interpreted as having crossed that line, Gentile goes further. The Florida businessman pleaded that he should not be punished (as he will be punished) for not having paid owed taxes which he argues that he does not owe. While the public is familiar with Catholic bishops being critical on the issue of having to pay taxes, even indirectly, or even “indirectly indirectly” when a government policy apparently conflicts with conscientious and doctrinal issues, Gentile will not pay taxes for anything. We are familiar with Baptists and others who hold the line on “separation,” Gentile poses a transcendent issue.

In short, he says he is not subject to human laws but is an American national who “resided in the Kingdom of Heaven.” He has been “as polite and patient” as he could be, but threatens to sue if the Feds come after him. (Thy have come.) He would not report his income, and faces substantial federal prison time and fines. He broke numbers of laws and set out to obstruct justice. The legal cases continue, and outcomes are uncertain as we write. Why waste readers’ time on a case that can be described as comical and trivial?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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