I Will Praise You In This Storm

On Monday afternoon around 4:00 a tornado 200-300 yards wide tore down Beech Ridge Road in Beaufort County, North Carolina, a peaceful rural road where I spent the latter part of my youth and still consider home. My family and I moved into a solid, beautiful house about half a mile back from the road back in 1999. I spent several years and summers there and many more vacations and holidays, building treasured memories and enjoying the people dearest to me in this world. My sister Elyssa (now eighteen) has known no other home.

Not long after we moved to the Beech Ridge house my sister Carla married her husband Mark, and they eventually purchased a dilapidated property about two miles down the same road. Over the years, and with a lot of work, Mark and Carla cleaned up the property and the house situated on it, rebuilt the barn, planted trees and a garden, and made for themselves a life. Over the years they had six children, including one set of twins, and have a seventh child on the way.

Tornado watches and warnings are relatively frequent in eastern North Carolina. We pay attention to them, but don’t let them upset our routine too much because nothing ever comes of them, or they are always somewhere else.

That afternoon my sister was homeschooling her son Daniel (7 years old) when eleven year old Joshua, who loves watching and learning about weather, burst into the house and told her he saw the tornado from the porch. Carla thought he was probably exaggerating, but when he insisted, she followed his lead and gathered the children in the bathtub: Joshua, Josiah (9), Daniel, Hannah (4), Judah and Micah (2). Carla is due to have a baby next week.

While this was happening Mark was in the barn. He heard a noise but didn’t realize it was the tornado until he saw debris blowing. Looking outside he saw the tornado coming from behind a wood, only a few minutes away. He quickly told the neighbor (who lives in a house on their property) and then ran to tell Carla and the kids. Mark made a snap judgment that this was a tornado his house – a doublewide – was not going to withstand. He yelled to everyone in the house to get out and run to a deep ditch about forty yards from the house (on the opposite side from the barn).

Carla told me she thought this probably wasn’t a very good idea. “Isn’t it better to be in here than to be outside, or even to be caught running when the tornado hits?” But the boys, she said, didn’t hesitate, and she followed their lead. Mark grabbed one of the twins, and Daniel, seven year old Daniel, grabbed the other. As he ran out the door and across the front yard, Mark said he saw the tornado begin to chew up his barn, about a hundred yards from the house. It was about twenty seconds, he said, from when he told everyone to get out of the house, to the point the tornado swept over their heads and over the ditch.

Carla was following but she realized that Hannah, still groggy from a nap, had gone back to her room, possibly to get her shoes. Carla went back and told Hannah she had to run in bare feet. Holding Hannah, she climbed or jumped off the 3 foot high front porch – she doesn’t remember how but she somehow injured her leg in the process. Being full-term, she had to put Hannah down. She took her hand, and they began to run toward the ditch, as fast as they could move.

About half way to the ditch Carla felt the wind pick up and said she realized they wouldn’t make it. She lay down and covered Hannah as the tornado swept over. Carla tries to describe what happened during the next few seconds but says she doesn’t entirely know. What she does know is that she saw a large cedar tree crash to the ground and land only a few yards away from them. The tree then swept toward them and she felt it slam against her shoulders. The next few seconds, she says, she was thrown around like a little child caught in the ocean’s waves, branches clutching and scraping her. All she could do was repeat the prayer “Lord save me!” She held on to Hannah, but the little girl was pulled from her arms.

Then it was over. Hannah was beside her and the wind was dying down. She saw a snake lying in the grass. They got up and moved toward the ditch just as Mark and the boys were getting out. This was the first moment Mark realized that not everyone had made it into the ditch. “Is everyone OK? Where is Joshua?” Joshua was still in the ditch, extricating himself from part of a tree that had landed on top of him when the tornado swept over the ditch. Everyone was alive.

But the house was gone. Literally gone. Most of the foundation was still there, but the rest of the house consisted of a pile of rubble several dozen yards away. The tree that had been swept over Carla and Hannah was lying in an adjacent field. The top story of the barn was gone and only one wall remained of the rest. The van was upside down and the car totaled. The entire property, including most of its beautiful trees, was entirely laid waste. In this picture you can see the bathtub in which Carla and the kids had taken shelter before Mark told them to get out.

 

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This is the foundation of Mark and Carla’s house.

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The tornado didn’t stop there, of course. My younger sister Elyssa was reading in the living room of my parents’ house when she heard my Mom, who thankfully was not napping in her upstairs bedroom as she usually does in the afternoon, yell that a tornado was coming. Glancing up, she could see the tornado out the front window, sweeping towards the house. They took shelter in an interior bathroom.

Within two seconds the tornado hit the house. It tore off half the roof (above my parents’ room and my old bedroom) and sent the top of the massive chimney crashing through the back deck. Huge trees were down everywhere and a barn full of massive farm equipment a few hundred yards from the house was completely destroyed, but just about everything inside the house was fine. It was pouring rain, of course, so that would not last long. Mom and Elyssa could see the tornado moving down the field away from the house.

Parents' house

Almost immediately neighbors, friends, and folks from our church began to arrive. A pale-faced man with a quivering lip told Mom that Mark and Carla had lost everything but that they were OK. They went to see Mark and Carla and found Carla in a brace with an ambulance getting ready to take her to the hospital. No words can describe the entirety of thoughts and emotions, of course. Only “‘Thank You Lord,’ a hundred times in the ditch,” Carla said. Carla had felt the baby move inside her, so that gave her great relief. Her face covered in grime, she said to my weeping mother, “we’re OK Mom. Everyone’s OK.” Hannah had blood coming out of her ear but seems to be fine. Carla’s whole body still aches with pain, and she is covered with bruises and scrapes, but aside from that, the doctors determined, she and the baby are fine. She came home from the hospital on Tuesday.

Soon well over a hundred people were helping my parents (my Dad had come home) save their possessions from the rain, and looking through the rubble of Mark and Carla’s house to see what could be salvaged. There was little in the latter case, but there were some things to be saved. The boys found a precious piece of jewelry that both my older sisters wore at their weddings and that my younger sister wore as a bridesmaid at mine. With the help of the neighbors my parents have saved just about everything of value from their home, though it is clear that the house itself is finished.

I loved that house. But things are just things, and it is not the house that I can’t stop thinking about, or that has left me in a daze over the past couple of days. I can’t stop thinking about my precious sister, in the thirty-ninth week of her pregnancy, being thrown around on the ground by a tornado even as it utterly obliterates her home some twenty yards away. I can’t stop thinking about the few seconds between the time when they were all in that bathtub and the moment when the tornado struck. We almost lost them, it was a matter of seconds and inches. I can’t stop thanking God for his mercy.

There is no doubt my brother-in-law Mark saved his family. Thank you, Mark for your wisdom and decisiveness. The boys were so courageous, taking care of themselves and helping their younger siblings at the same time (seven year old Daniel was an absolute hero, carrying his two year old brother all the way from the house to the ditch!). And Carla no doubt saved little Hannah’s life.

But our loving God, whose ways are mysterious and beyond understanding, saved them all. Our Lord, who did not think it too much to take on human flesh and pay the ultimate price for our sin, continues to show us mercy in ways that can only look to us like the miraculous.

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.

Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way,

though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea,

though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling.

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,

the holy habitation of the Most High.

God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved;

God will help her when morning dawns.

The nations rage, the kingdoms totter;

he utters his voice, the earth melts.

The LORD of hosts is with us;

the God of Jacob is our fortress.

Psalm 46:1-7.

I don’t know who wrote it, but on my parents’ living room window, where my sister Elyssa had been reading, someone has traced in the filth, “I will praise you in this storm.” Yes, our gracious God, our Savior. We praise you and we thank you.

I will praise you in this storm

Note: I have now been informed that it was Elyssa who wrote these words.

What does a Christian politician look like?

One of the popular caricatures of Protestant two kingdoms theology often bandied about – both by some of its critics and by some of its proponents – is that it separates Christianity from politics. The fact that some two kingdoms proponents in the modern era have presented the doctrine as if it does separate the authority of Christ or of scripture from politics gives some of these critics a certain measure of plausibility. However, anyone familiar with the writings of Martin Luther and John Calvin will be aware that this does not represent the classic two kingdoms position. Luther and Calvin both followed their mentor Augustine in insisting that a faithful Christian prince would look quite different from the rank and file of his (or her) fellow politicians.

In his classic The City of God Augustine paints a colorful picture of the ideal Christian emperor:

We claim that they [Christian emperors] are happy if they make their power the servant of God’s majesty by using it for the greatest possible extension of his worship; if they fear and love and worship God; if they love that kingdom in which they are not afraid to share power more than their earthly kingdom; if they are slow to punish and ready to pardon; if they apply that punishment as necessary to govern and defend the republic and not in order to indulge their own hatred; if they grant pardon, not so that crime should be unpunished, but in the hope of correction; if they compensate with the gentleness of mercy and the liberality of benevolence for whatever severe measure they may be compelled to decree; if their extravagance is as much restrained as it might have been unrestrained; if they prefer to rule evil desires rather than any people one might name; and if they do all these things from love of eternal happiness rather than ardor for empty glory; and if they do not fail to offer to the true God who is their God the sacrifices of humility, contrition, and prayer for their sins. Such Christian emperors, we claim, are happy in the present through hope, and are happy afterwards, in the future, in the enjoyment of happiness itself, when what we wait for will have come. (Book V, Chapter 24)

During the late middle ages Augustine’s two cities model was gradually transformed by the papal two swords doctrine. The popes began to claim that as the vicars of Christ, all temporal and spiritual authority alike had been given to them. When seeking to rally Christendom in support of the crusades, Bernard of Clairvaux praised “a new kind of knighthood and one unknown to the ages gone by. It ceaselessly wages a twofold war both against flesh and blood and against a spiritual army of evil in the heavens.” Temporal soldiers are worthy of honor, he admitted, and spiritual soldiers (monks and priests) are worthy of even greater honor. “But when the one sees a soldier powerfully girding himself with both swords and nobly marking his belt, who would not consider it worthy of all wonder, the more so since it has been hitherto unknown?” (In Praise of the New Knighthood)

It was to this horribly distorted version of Augustine’s theology that Luther was responding when he articulated the two kingdoms doctrine. Luther’s point, however, was not to say that politicians could not or should not conduct themselves as Christians. Rather, Luther’s point was that the vocation of a politician is secular and must be kept quite distinct from that of a pastor or priest. In his Temporal Authority: To What Extent It Should Be Obeyed Luther wrote,

Now that we know the limits of temporal authority, it is time to inquire also how a prince should use it. We do this for the sake of those very few who would also like very much to be Christian princes and lords, and who desire to enter into the life of heaven….

First, he must give consideration and attention to his subjects, and really devote himself to it. This he does when he directs his every though to making himself useful and beneficial to them … He should picture Christ to himself, and say, ‘Behold, Christ, the supreme ruler, came to serve me; he did not seek to gain power, estate, and honor from me, but considered only my need, and directed all things to the end that I should gain power, estate, and honor from him and through him. I will do likewise, seeking from my subjects not my own advantage but theirs…’ In such a manner should a prince in his heart empty himself of his power and authority, and take unto himself the needs of his subjects, dealing with them as though they were his own needs. For this is what Christ did to us; and these are the proper works of Christian love….

Fourth, here we come to what should really have been placed first, and of which we spoke above. A prince must act in a Christian way toward his God also; that is, he must subject himself to him in entire confidence and pray for wisdom to rule well, as Solomon did…. Then the prince’s job will be done right, both outwardly and inwardly; it will be pleasing to God and to the people. But he will have to expect much envy and sorrow on account of it; the cross will soon rest on the shoulders of such a prince.

At least early in his career, Luther was of course much more critical than Augustine had been of the involvement of politicians in the defense of the gospel or the discipline of the church. His early theological opposition to the use of the sword to coerce heretics, like that of Calvin, anticipated the modern separation of church and state, without relying on modern assumptions about the separation of politics and religion. But the point is that neither Luther nor Calvin ever imagined that a Christian politician would separate his (or her) politics from fidelity and obedience to Christ. Such a view owes more to the Enlightenment than it does to Christianity.

Calvin and Culture: A Response to Venema and Helm

My blogging has been light during the past few weeks and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future for several very good reasons. Last week my wife and I welcomed a new daughter into our family, and this little girl has in her own gentle ways nudged our priorities around a bit. I’m also on the stretch run for my dissertation ( I need to defend it this spring), teaching three classes at two different universities, and preparing to enter the job market.

Writing the dissertation on John Calvin’s two kingdoms theology has continued to give me the opportunity to think through some of the arguments and counter-arguments that rage across the Protestant community about whether or not Christians should be seeking to transform culture. In particular, I’ve been able to reflect on a comment by Cornel Venema in his chapter on Kingdoms Apart that has always somewhat befuddled me.

Towards the end of his chapter Venema writes that, according to VanDrunen’s interpretation of Calvin, “the future fullness of the redemptive kingdom” does not entail “the enrichment of the final state by the fruits and artifacts of the believer’s present service to God in society and culture” (26). Venema agrees that “Calvin suffered no illusions regarding the renovation of human life and the restoration of all things to proper order prior to the consummation of all things at Christ’s second advent” (31), but he worries that VanDrunen “fails to do justice to the way Calvin explicitly emphasizes the positive and integral relation between creation and redemption” (27).

I think that’s a fair criticism as far as it goes. Calvin is quite clear throughout his writings that Jesus will in fact restore and renovate the entire creation.

But then Venema goes on – in a footnote – to push a more neo-Calvinist claim about the restoration of human culture. Noting VanDrunen’s claim that the “artifacts and fruits of human culture in general” belong to the “non-redemptive kingdom of this world that is passing away,” Venema writes, “For a different interpretation of Calvin at this point, and one with which I tend to concur, see Paul Helm, Calvin: A Guide for the Perplexed” (26-27).

If you follow Venema’s suggestion and read the relevant passage in Helm’s book, you will find Helm making the fairly obvious – yet welcome – point that Calvin “certainly thinks of the renewed creation as carrying through to the world to come.” Like Venema, overall Helm gets Calvin right. But then he seeks to push the point further. On the basis of Calvin’s declaration in light of Romans 8 that even animals, trees, and stones long for the redemption of the world, Helm writes,

“Is it too fanciful to suppose that Calvin would be receptive to a parallel ‘releasing from emptiness’ of some of the artifacts of human culture, the products of the Holy Spirit of beauty and truth?” (Helm, 135)

To be honest, I am not entirely sure what Helm is proposing here. But he raises the question as if Calvin doesn’t address the matter. Venema’s endorsement is somewhat surprising here, given his own awareness that Calvin used Aristotelian logic to distinguish the the ‘substance’ of the creation, which the reformer argued will be renewed and restored, and its ‘accidents,’ which will pass away. In any case, Helm’s question seems to be answered by Calvin in his commentary on 1 Corinthians 13. The context is the Apostle Paul’s contrast of love, which is eternal, with other virtues and gifts, including knowledge, that will “pass away.”

For Calvin the contrast between love and knowledge raises a “question of no small importance – whether those who in this world excel either in learning, or in other gifts, will be on a level with idiots in the kingdom of God?” Calvin’s response, in contrast to that of Helm, is immediately to reject undue speculation. “Let them rather seek the way by which the kingdom of God is arrived at than curiously inquire what is to be our condition there, for the Lord himself has, by his silence, called us back from curiosity.”

Calvin goes on to argue, however, that Paul’s teaching does indeed suggest that the gifts of knowledge and learning are temporal and will pass away with the present life.

So far as I can conjecture, and am able even to gather in part from this passage – inasmuch as learning, knowledge of languages, and similar gifts are subservient to the necessity of this life, I do not think that there will be any of them remaining.

All of these blessings of culture were designed to direct human beings upward and forward to the kingdom of God, Calvin argues. That is their ‘fruit’. Once that kingdom has been fully established, the artifacts of culture will pass away. “That perfection, therefore, which will be in a manner a maturity of spiritual age, will put an end to education and its accompaniments.”

This statement of the point is less than dogmatic, but it hardly encourages the sort of speculation entertained by Helm and Venema. Calvin was always worried that Christians would get too caught up in the hope of a temporal kingdom. This would, in turn, soften the church and distract it from the more basic call to righteousness. He constantly stressed that God’s purposes for the church necessarily involve conflict, opposition, and suffering, as believers are called to be conformed to Christ through the way of the cross. And it was to that end that he pointed Christians forward to the second coming of Christ as the time when their labors would be blessed with triumph, peace, and the restoration of the world.

Should the United States Attack Syria?

A week ago I received a report from the International Crisis Group that began with the following warning:

Assuming the U.S. Congress authorises them, Washington (together with some allies) soon will launch military strikes against Syrian regime targets. If so, it will have taken such action for reasons largely divorced from the interests of the Syrian people.

The report goes on to identify the various arguments in favor of the attack – and then to refute them.

  1. The United States wants to punish, deter, and prevent the use of chemical weapons. Response: But the use of chemical weapons account for perhaps 1% of the 100,000+ deaths the Syrian people have suffered during the past few years, many of them (but not all) at the hands of the Assad regime.
  2. The United States needs to attack in order to preserve its credibility, President Barack Obama having declared that the use of chemical weapons would be the crossing of a red line that would not be tolerated. Response: such an argument would hardly persuade the skeptical Syrian people who have the most to lose from the escalation of the current war.
  3. U.S. attacks would be contained and would not lead to “boots on the ground.” Response: Rule Number One about war is that you can never predict consequences. There is no such thing as a carefully controlled war. If Syria or one of its allies retaliates, will the United States decline to defend itself? Not likely. Furthermore, if landing troops on the ground might secure chemical weapons against further use, as Secretary of State John Kerry argued before Congress, such a move must not be ruled out.

This week President Obama and Secretary Kerry continue their vigorous effort to persuade Congress (and the American people) that it should authorize an attack on Syria. President Obama is set to address the American people tomorrow. Although the administration has its supporters – including influential Republicans like Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham as well as the Republican House leadership – it faces much stronger opposition from across the political spectrum. Strong arguments against an attack have been raised by individuals and groups as diverse as the New York Times Editorial Board, Slate, the Cato Institute, National Review, Pope Francis, R.R. Reno, and Jim Wallis.

If there is a Christian view of the current crisis, it may be Syria’s Christians who can best articulate it. As Mark Mouvsesian writes at First Thoughts,

This group, which numbers in the millions, has consistently opposed outside military action against Assad. Not only do Christians deplore the suffering an American missile strike would bring, they also worry about anything that would tend to benefit Islamists in the opposition. Assad is a brutal dictator, but most Syrian Christians would rather take their chances with him than risk Islamist government.

This perspective doesn’t seem particularly distinctively Christian, but it’s not clear to me that it needs to be. Civil government is by its very nature a messy business, and Syria’s Christians can hardly be blamed for taking a strong Romans 13 line on this one.

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment… for he is God’s servant for your good.

Richard Land, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, has for some time supported American intervention in Syria. When I had the chance to ask him about it a few months ago, his argument boiled down to this: the United States can’t let Iran win in Syria.

Is that the best that just war theory can do?

To be sure, some of the arguments against intervention seem to prove too much. The papacy always promotes peace as its official policy, as it probably should. Yet Catholic First Things editor R.R. Reno writes,

Claims that military action is necessary to deter future uses of chemical weapons are empty. This goal–and indeed any just outcome in Syria at this juncture–requires decisively defeating the Assad regime… We would be killing them so that. . . .  the world will know that the United States is serious about the fact that using chemical weapons is a bad thing.

Put simply: Just war-making requires clearly articulated and substantive goals. Launching cruise missiles or air strikes simply to “show resolve” or “send a message” cannot be justified. At the end of the day, these rationales authorize symbolic killing, which is fundamentally immoral.

I disagree with this argument. Frankly, I find it absurd to claim that in order for a war – any war – to be just, it requires decisive victory. I find Reno’s claim just as troubling that waging war in order to send a message – “symbolic killing” – is “fundamentally immoral.” Pressed to its logical conclusions, this seems to imply that if there is ever just cause for the use of military force, it has to be all or nothing.

A glance over human history suggests otherwise. There are many instances in which nations have gone to war with very limited objectives, often simply to “send a message,” and been eminently successful. The whole balance of power that preserved early modern Europe (from the most part) from the cataclysmic wars of the later 20th Century was based on an understanding of the use of force that involved a highly symbolic framework, as well as codes of respect for civilians and the rules of war.

What’s more, Oliver O’Donovan has made a powerful argument that war can only be justified as an instance of judgment, and that all judgment, but especially the death penalty, is fundamentally symbolic. Considered in these terms, it is not so absurd for the Obama administration to claim that the use of chemical weapons violates international law, and therefore deserves punishment, a punishment that may be more symbolic than absolute.

Given this, John Kerry’s argument for an attack on Syria needs to be taken seriously. There will be painful repercussions of an erosion of the international ban on chemical weapons. This case does have fearful implications for the proliferation of nuclear weapons. And no nation can afford to take such concerns lightly. As Kerry warns,

For nearly 100 years, the world has stood up for an international norm against the use of chemical weapons

Are we willing to abandon that position now?

But of course, the actual situation in which we find ourselves is much more complicated than this simple calculus implies. It is true that international law – including a treaty signed by Syria itself – condemns the use of chemical weapons. It is equally true that the same international law offers no clear justification for unilateral enforcement by one nation. President Obama is arguing that America should go to war without the authorization of the United Nations Security Council, without the support of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and without the cooperation of our oldest and best ally, Great Britain. And this despite the fact that Syria has not attacked the United States, nor is it threatening to attack the United States. As the New York Times suggests, there is no precedent for this in international law.

The United States has used its armed forces abroad dozens of times without Security Council approval, but typically has invoked self-defense … The most notable precedent for the Syria crisis was Mr. Clinton’s 1999 bombing of Kosovo, but that was undertaken as part of NATO and in response to a time-urgent problem: stopping a massacre of civilians.

By contrast, the United States would carry out strikes on Syria largely alone, and to punish an offense that has already occurred. That crime, moreover, is defined by two treaties banning chemical weapons, only one of which Syria signed, that contain no enforcement provisions. Such a strike has never happened before.

In addition to the objection rooted in international law, there is the objection rooted in the American Constitution. It seems more and more likely that President Obama will not receive the authorization of Congress. If so, the enforcement of international law not only depends on the unilateral use of power by the United States, but the unilateral use of power by the executive branch of the US. government, without the support of the American people. Is that really international law at work?

To be sure, there are emergency situations where the President has the constitutional authority to commit American troops to war without congressional authorization. But this situation is no emergency. President Obama is not arguing that American interests are at stake, or that the United States is in danger. He claims that we have time, plenty of time, to make the right decision. So why act alone? Again the New York Times reports,

The move [to seek authorization from Congress] is right, said Walter Dellinger, who led the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel in the Clinton administration, because the proposed attack is not “covered by any of the previous precedents for the unilateral use of executive power.”

“That doesn’t mean it couldn’t become another precedent,” Mr. Dellinger added. “But when the president is going beyond where any previous president has gone, it seems appropriate to determine whether Congress concurs.”

It also seems appropriate to judge that if Congress does not concur, the President may want to hold back.

There is no doubt that the United States needs to do whatever it can to persuade the international community to enforce its prohibition against the use of chemical weapons, and I laud President Obama for making that effort. But where such efforts at persuasion fail, it makes little sense to claim that one president – against his country and against the international community – can single-handedly uphold this standard. No matter how personally convinced Obama is that his cause is just and that he can represent the interests of the world, he is no more convinced than Woodrow Wilson was in 1917 or George W. Bush was in 2003. Our neighbors (and enemies) around the world get that, and they will not hesitate to use it against us.

Yet we should not be naive about the consequences of such a rebuff to the White House. Walter Russell Mead notes that President Obama has said so much, relative to Syria and Iran, about red lines, about regimes having to go, and about his determination to bomb Syria, that for Congress to pull the rug out from under him would be to destroy the credibility of the only President of the United States we will have for the next three years. This crisis may have been a crisis of President Obama’s own making (the President should have secured the necessary support before he said what he was going to do), but that does not make its consequences any less serious. In a Middle East that is already so volatile, in a situation where the big crisis (Iran) is still coming, for the region’s leading power and the guarantor of the current world order to be AWOL is a potentially cataclysmic scenario. As Mead puts it, “We hate to say it, but that is so dangerous that there’s a strong argument for Congress to back the Syria resolution simply to avoid trashing the credibility of the only President we’ve got.”

Mead summarizes the dilemma perfectly. Congress only has two very bad possible courses of action, and the best we can hope for is that it chooses the least bad option.

Given the screwy diplomacy and inept political management that has characterized the administration’s approach to this whole unhappy mess, Congress admittedly faces an unappetizing choice. It can reject the request for an authorization, thereby dealing US prestige and power a serious blow (hugely weakening the international authority of the only president we will have for another three plus years) or it can back the president’s ill-considered bluff, opening the door to goodness knows what and committing US forces to yet another Middle East war.

Of course, I’m no Syria expert, nor am I a scholar of international affairs. But at a very basic level, it seems to me that if we have two very bad options, war and peace, neither obviously better than the other, we should default to peace. That’s where just war theory places the burden, and that’s where Jesus pointed Christians, at least as a general rule:

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called Sons of God.

Should Christians love their country?

In a provocative article published on Reformation 21 on July 2, Rick Phillips offered some thoughts on the meaning of Christian patriotism in an America that is changing rapidly. Phillips eschewed any identification of America with the kingdom of God, framing his reflections within the context of the two kingdoms doctrine.

Not long after Phillips’s piece appeared Matt Holst wrote a response raising several pertinent questions. Holst seems to share Phillips’s general two kingdoms outlook, as well as his judgment that America is in serious moral decline (though Holst rightly clarifies that America has never been the godly Christian nation it is often thought to have been). Yet he questions Phillips’s call for Christians to love their country.

Then Darryl Hart chimed in here.

Reformation21 has now graciously published my friendly engagement with Matt Holst. Here is a key part of my argument:

This conclusion surprises me because it seems to me that scripture commands us to love our country, in at least some sense (i.e., as a people), in precisely the same place that it commands us “to submit, yield obedience, give honor …” In Romans 13:7-8, toward the end of the classic New Testament text on Christians’ obligations toward governing authorities, the Apostle Paul writes,

“Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed. Owe no one anything, except to love each other; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”

We often stop reading at verse 7 and don’t read verse 8 because many of our Bibles place a subtitle there, as if a new section is beginning. But given Paul’s repeated and intentional use of the verb ‘to owe’ it is obvious that this is a mistake. What Paul is telling us is that we owe taxes, revenue, respect, honor, and obedience precisely because this is what love demands. Indeed, if love did not call us to fulfill these obligations, we would not owe them at all. Paul is teaching us to view our obligations toward government and (as Holst seems willing to extend the scope of the passage) country as the expression of Christian love appropriate to this context. Even as we serve our country, in other words, we demonstrate the love of Christ.

There’s much more of course, and you can read the whole thing here.

Why Democracy Needs Christianity

I’m currently teaching Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics as part of a course designed to familiarize students with some of the leading ideas and figures that have shaped western civilization. The scope of the class is sweeping, but it provides the opportunity to compare three broad perspectives that have shaped the West: the Greek (i.e., Aristotle); the Christian (i.e., Augustine, Aquinas, etc.); and the Enlightenment (i.e., Locke, Rousseau, etc.).

In a time when many assume that the teachings of Christianity can be jettisoned by western society without much loss to a liberal, democratic society, I think students are somewhat surprised to discover just how thoroughly religious and elitist was Aristotle’s vision of society. Along with Socrates and Plato, Aristotle was the leading pagan philosopher before Christianity came on the scene; his work on the good life, on ethics, and on politics represents some of the best the Greeks had to offer.

Take, for instance, Aristotle’s conviction that for human beings all things are to be directed towards one ultimate Good, that Good being happiness. Aristotle is by no means unique in his judgment that since ‘man’ is a social animal, and the city is greater than the individual, the science or discipline of the Good must be that of politics. The purpose of politics is to educate and train human beings in the virtues necessary to attain to the Good. Laws are measured by the degree to which they command virtue and forbid vice.

All of this may seem true to a certain extent. But my students – college sophomores – are quick to point out that if virtue and the good life are so important, it hardly makes sense to hand over their direction to the political authorities. Who is a politician, let alone a philosopher, to decide what is the good life, to tell me how to educate my children, to guide me in following the appropriate virtues? The modern instinct, in short, is to argue that if something is so important, that is precisely why it should not be subject to political control.

Aristotle’s ethics appear all the more troubling when it becomes evident just how elitist it is. Aristotle’s virtues presuppose a level of education and wealth that, as my students point out, seems utopian. But of course, Aristotle was not a utopian, and he did not think the ethics he was outlining was for the masses, the ‘slavish’ and the ‘bestial.’ On the contrary, Aristotle’s ethics was designed for that small sliver of human beings at the top of society, the citizens. The entire way of life of these citizens, their ability to study wisdom or to participate in politics, depended on the vast majority of human beings working for them as slaves. The latter were not expected to participate in any full sense in the good life.

It’s not that Aristotle was trying to justify oppression or the greed of the powerful. On the contrary, his virtues of liberality and magnificence outline the generosity and public devotion of the (wealthy) virtuous man. This man is not too concerned about acquiring wealth. He avoids shady trades like commerce and usury. His wealth – ideally self-sustaining – is simply a means to the end of doing good to others. The virtuous man will be paternalistic and do good to his inferiors – women, slaves, etc. Prudence never leads one to act unjustly.

Still, we are left with the unalterable conviction that Aristotle’s vision of society gives far too much authority to the politicians and describes the common good with far too much deference to the elites. In contrast to this it is fascinating to observe how Christianity was such a game-changer in the ancient world. Here is a religion that declares that every individual’s unqualified religious loyalty is to a man crucified and allegedly raised from the dead in Palestine. No Caesar or governor has the right or authority to dictate how a person worships or what a person teaches concerning the truth. Christians, as individuals and as congregations called out from the world, will follow their convictions regarding the good life no matter what the king or the city decrees.

It is no wonder that many sociologists and historians have found in Christianity the origin of the separation of church and state. Politics is no longer the ultimate, authoritative discipline, let alone the ultimate reference point for true community. Civil governments are merely temporal authorities with a limited, secular task.

But that’s not all. In the midst of a world whose philosophers and moralists speak only to the elites, and in which citizenship is a matter only for the few, the apostles of Christ address wives as well as husbands, children as well as parents, slaves as well as masters. They describe these socially unequal relationships in terms of equal obligations to mutual Christlike service and submission, declaring them to be eschatologically null and void ‘in Christ Jesus.’ They describe every Christian, slave or free, male or female, Jew or Greek, as being a citizen in the one city that matters.

It is no wonder that many historians and sociologists have found in Christianity the origin of a meaningful concept of the individual, not to mention the seed of the idea of individual human rights. Each person, regardless of social status, now has the obligation of a direct, responsible allegiance to Jesus Christ. Each believer has an important place as a citizen in Christ’s body, possessing an inalienable Christian liberty.

The early church was a long way from modern political liberalism, of course, and the two are not the same thing. Political liberalism – the tradition of democracy and human rights – has been successfully transmitted to thoroughly pagan societies like Japan. But there should be no doubt that Christianity laid the intellectual foundations that made modern political liberalism possible. And there is also good reason to be skeptical of claims that Christianity can be entirely jettisoned without undermining political liberalism itself. As my friend Tim Jackson likes to say, political liberalism may not be ‘Christianity translated into politics’ but it is certainly the ‘stepchild of Christianity.’ If you’re in doubt about that, go read Aristotle.

Why Did the Medieval Church Turn to the Ten Commandments? Part 2

The Ten Commandments did not play a primary role in the catechesis and discipleship of the early church. While early church catechisms did give pedagogical priority to the Apostles’ Creed and the Lord’s Prayer, the church’s approach to the Christian life through the 12th Century tended to revolve more around the Sermon on the Mount, the teachings of Jesus’ apostles, and the virtues emphasized in the New Testament.

During the late medieval era that began to change. As I suggested on Thursday, the primary reason for this was the church’s increasing concern to reform society. An era of one calamity after another, there was a growing sense that Christendom was in crisis:

the first cataclysmic outbreak of the Black Death; the deflation of wheat prices; dramatic demographic shifts; the decline of agrarian self-sufficiency; the explosive violence of urban and rural revolts; the Hundred Years’ War; local feuds; marauding mercenaries; bloody struggles for the thrones of Europe; the inability of a partitioned Church to provide solace and guarantee salvation – a litany so well known as to risk devolving into caricature. (40)

In addition, the devout could not fail to see that the masses converted under political authority remained far too devoted to paganism and that few seemed to know even the very basics of what the Christian life is all about. Most Europeans had become Christians only as whole tribes converted in obedience to their lords and kings, and the process of education and discipleship had been remarkably slow. The late medieval era therefore gave rise to wave after wave of reformers who called for instruction, social discipline, and the establishment of order.

Under such circumstances it made a whole lot of sense increasingly to turn to the Old Testament as a guide. Unlike the New Testament, which was written to congregations of individuals and families who had voluntarily embraced their calling to be separate from the broader society, the Old Testament was written to a nation of millions, steeped in idolatry and pagan practices, kept in the faith in large part by political authorities. Unlike the New Testament, which could assume a thoughtful devotion in response to grace on the part of Christ’s voluntary disciples, the Old Testament used rewards and punishments to curb idolatry and promote righteousness. Unlike the New Testament, which emphasized teaching and growth in maturity, the Old Testament featured the prominence of ceremony, pageantry, and symbolic instruction at the hands of a select priesthood.

In these ways and so many others the medieval church found its situation to be far more analogous to that of ancient Israel than to that of the early church. It was probably inevitable, under these circumstances, that the Old Testament would increasingly become the paradigm for the life of the medieval church. Reformers increasingly demanded decisive action on the part of those with power, looking to Israelite kings as examples. They called for the authorities to extend their coercive power over institutions and realms of life not previously subject to temporal authority.

Just as importantly, the reformers turned to “new symbols” around which the authorities and the masses could rally.

Obedience to the Commandments became a rallying cry for reform preachers working to combat the perceived dissolution of Church and society, and the changes in the intellectual and spiritual trends of the age wrought by their adoption were real… Diagnosis led to prescription, with the Commandments serving as the intended tonic for a critically ill Christendom. (43)

As a system of moral instruction, the Decalogue offered something that the Gregorian system did not. It was Law – God’s own Law, etched by His finger into tablets of stone, delivered on Sinai amidst the frightful clamor of thunder and lightning, backed by the promise of eternal blessedness for those who kept it and swift, dreadful punishment for its transgressors. These were details regularly echoed by catechists… [They] clung to it as a tool to fashion an ordered, godly society, and as a weapon to fight those who opposed it. (34)

Among the first theologians to give new prominence to the Ten Commandments were Hugh of St. Victor and Peter Lombard. Bast writes,

Lombard included in the Sentences a brief exposition of the Decalogue, which reached back to Augustine for the hermeneutical key that enabled the excision of the Ten Commandments from the burdens attributed by Christian theology to the Law of the Jews. Echoing Augustine, Lombard argued that … the moral precepts of the Law were the same as those of the Gospel, though ‘more fully contained’ in the latter. (35)

Much of the drive to educate and reform the masses was inspired and led by the monastic orders. Since the days of the Roman Empire, many of those Christians most devoted to following in the way of Christ had found it edifying to participate in various orders and disciplines that came to be known as monasticism. By the middle ages the monasteries became the place where serious Christianity was practiced, where sacred texts were transmitted, and where theology was studied and developed.

When the monastic orders of the church began to look outward, however, it was obvious that this approach had to be simplified. New catechisms were developed and disseminated for popular use. But in place of the monastic rule, they turned to the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments, many a cleric pointed out, were easily remembered. They could be counted on one’s fingers. Pound away at the Ten Commandments, tell the people that this was the way of Christianity, and they would follow.

Bast writes of the vernacular (common language) catechisms of this era,

They aimed for utility, eschewing difficult questions of theology and concentrating on simple doctrines and moral guidelines that taught people what to believe, how to act, how to pray – the very essence of the catechism. (13)

As one parish chaplain, Johannes Wolff, boasted, the method was so foolproof and simple that all would learn it “whether they liked it or not,” even those “as dull as a beast, a horse, an ass, or a stone.” (24)

Each Sunday, after the reading of the Creed, clerics were to recite the Ten Commandments slowly in German, counting them off on their fingers, with frequent pauses so that the congregation could repeat the words. (24)

Increasingly attempts were made to classify all of the traditional commandments and virtues under the various Ten Commandments. Although the Ten Commandments were to be interpreted through the lens of the New Testament, it was increasingly the Law itself that set the tone for church discipleship. Bast goes on,

Though it never entirely replaced the Gregorian system of the virtues and vices, by the fifteenth century it had become the single most popular guide for moral instruction in much of Europe – a position confirmed in the catechetical programs of Protestants and Catholics in the sixteenth century. Already in the thirteenth century, however, the moral theology of the new mendicant orders was making claims of the Decalogue that would have shocked earlier generations: obedience to the Ten Commandments of the Law of Moses is necessary for salvation. (36)

“We should not underestimate the significance of this paradigm shift in moral instruction,” Bast warns. He cites John Bossy’s argument that “with the emergence of Decalogue catechesis, the Western Church exchanged a communal ethic of kinship for a religious code of Old Testament severity.” (36) It was with the Catechismus Romanus at the Council of Trent that the Catholic Church “officially designated the Decalogue as the standard according to which the whole realm of moral responsibility was to be read and practiced.” (39)

The churches of the Reformation rejected the place of the law in justification, of course, and they vehemently denied any meaningful distinction between the moral teachings of Christ and the Law of Moses. As concerned to preserve Christendom as were their medieval forbears, however, they gladly inherited the emphasis on the Ten Commandments in catechesis. But I’ll write more about that later.

Why Didn’t the Church Emphasize the Ten Commandments Until the Late Medieval Era?

A few weeks ago I suggested that the emphasis of Reformed catechisms on the Ten Commandments can obscure the fact that the New Testament’s approach to the Christian life is that of putting on – or being conformed to the image of, or following – Jesus. The ordinary pedagogical approach of the New Testament, I noted, is not to explain the Ten Commandments or urge believers to follow them, but to describe the implications of the person, work, virtues, and commandments of Jesus.

Although this claim may sound radical to modern ears, for most educated Christians up until the 13th or 14th centuries it would have been a matter of course. One thoughtful reader – a student of the early church – wrote this to me:

I’ve continued reflecting on the catechetical and didactic use of the Law, particularly as I’ve been reading William Harmless’ book Augustine and the Catechumenate which details the complex and rich process of preparation for baptism in the primitive church.

I have been on the look-out for mention of the Decalogue as a core part of any of the four parts of initiation: 1) the evangelistic, 2) the catechetical, 3) the illuminative, or 4) the mystagogic processes. In both East and West, the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer receive paramount attention, especially in the weeks leading up to the Easter Vigil when baptisms would take place. Particularly during Lent, there was tremendous instruction in Christian living and ethics during the daily services which involved teaching, singing, exorcism, anointing, and blessing. But, as I’ve been reading Harmless, he makes no mention (that I’ve picked up on) of a systematic use by the primitive church of the Decalogue. I’ve now become curious as to when (presumably during the Medieval period) the Decalogue became a focus again of Christian discipleship and instruction.

This prompted me to do some research on my own. Is it true that the early church did not emphasize the Ten Commandments in its catechesis? If so, when did the Ten Commandments become a focus of Christian discipleship? And what was the motivation for the shift in focus?

These questions led me to a fascinating (and unfortunately expensive) book by Robert James Bast entitled, Honor Your Fathers: Catechisms and the Emergence of A Patriarchal Ideology in Germany 1400-1600. Bast’s basic thesis is that during the late medieval era and the early Reformation Christian theologians turned to the Ten Commandments as a focus of catechesis as a primary means of disciplining and ordering a society that was widely seen to be in crisis. The title of the book comes from the stress such theologians placed on the Fifth Commandment as the foundation for paternalistic magisterial authority, and the consequent obligation of godly magistrates to enforce all ten commandments.

In the first chapter Bast sets up the context for his more focused analysis by considering “The Ten Commandments and Late-Medieval Catechesis.” He begins by confirming the judgment of my correspondent above, that early church catechesis involved “a formal period of instruction, usually based on the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer and moral directives drawn from a variety of sources” (3). It was not until the late 12th Century that the Ten Commandments began gradually to move into a more prominent position. Yet of the tradition before this Bast writes,

Nearly unnoticed in scholarship on the catechism is the fact that while catechesis itself had been on the agenda of the Church from the very beginning, the use of the Decalogue had not. For reasons not yet completely clear, before the late twelfth century the attitude of the Church toward the Commandments was ambiguous… Christians defined themselves as recipients of a New Covenant, sealed by the ultimate sacrifice (Jesus’ death) and guided by a new and better Law (the Sermon on the Mount). (32-33)

Bast goes on to clarify that the church decisively rejected the heresy of Marcionism, which divorced Christianity from Judaism and the New Testament from the Old. As a result, the church sought to emphasize on the one hand the enduring truth and relevance of the Old Testament, including the Ten Commandments, and on the other hand its fulfillment in the clearer revelation of Jesus.

The general tenor of the solution may be seen in the writings of Irenaeus (d. 200), who claimed the superiority of Christian ethics to the Jewish Law, while affirming that the Decalogue itself had not been cancelled, but rather amplified and extended by Jesus… Catechetical texts from the Patristic era include the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, explanations of Baptism and the Eucharist, and a great deal of moral teaching drawn from various biblical and apocryphal sources, but the Decalogue was generally passed over. (33)

Augustine was somewhat of an exception, Bast points out.

[H]e preached on the Commandments regularly, and a cautious though unwavering affirmation of them runs through his works. Here too, however, the ideological need to preserve the superiority of Christian revelation was maintained, for Augustine was careful to read the Decalogue as the practical exposition of Jesus’ commands to ‘love the Lord your God with all your heart … and your neighbor as yourself. (33)

Augustine’s careful and qualified approach to the Decalogue did not change the church’s emphasis in catechism and discipleship. The typical early church approach to catechesis was solidified during the medieval era by Pope Gregory the Great (d. 604).

According to Gregory, the commandments of the Decalogue were essentially inferior to the precepts of the Gospel. While the former governed only external actions, he argued, the latter went further, dealing with matters of the heart. The old Law was ‘imperfect’ and ‘weak’; ‘bread for infants,’ given to an immature people for a limited time, but later repudiated by God himself. As … good things cease to be good when compared to what is better, so too, argued Gregory, the Commandments given to the ignorant pale beside the ethical teaching of the New Testament. (34)

Gregory’s Moralia, Bast observes, became the basis for the church’s moral instruction for centuries.

Culling ethical imperatives and prohibitions almost exclusively from the Gospels, the Epistles, and patristic theology, Gregory created a patchwork of moral teaching organized into seven virtues and seven vices (or ‘deadly sins’). (34) Ecclesiastical legislation from subsequent centuries followed Gregory in de-emphasizing the Ten Commandments. (34)

The later shift toward the Ten Commandments did not come from the Reformation. Indeed, it was not a distinctive of the Reformation at all, contrary to popular belief. It began, rather, during the 12th Century, both in response to a new scholarly interest in the Old Testament and the increasing fear of European elites that Christendom was falling into crisis. Many scholars have noted that during the late medieval era, especially after the Gregorian Revolution, the church began to devote tremendous energy to social and cultural reform. The Ten Commandments were increasingly seen as a simple and decisive authority for the illiterate masses (the Ten Commandments can easily be counted on one’s fingers). They were also conceived as an easy and obvious program for enforcement by lay magistrates.

It was no accident that the medieval church turned to Israel and the Law when its mindset revolved around reforming the masses, Bast notes.

As a system of moral instruction, the Decalogue offered something that the Gregorian system did not. It was Law – God’s own Law, etched by His finger into tablets of stone, delivered on Sinai amidst the frightful clamor of thunder and lightning, backed by the promise of eternal blessedness for those who kept it and swift, dreadful punishment for its transgressors. These were details regularly echoed by catechists… [They] clung to it as a tool to fashion an ordered, godly society, and as a weapon to fight those who opposed it. (34)

In part 2 of this series I’ll consider these developments after the 12th Century. Either there, or in a part 3, I’ll take a look at how the Protestant appropriation of the Ten Commandments built on and adapted the late medieval approach.

“Am I my brother’s keeper?” How Nelson Mandela Helped South Africa Find Peace

At the Huffington Post my friend Jimmy McCarty offers a thoughtful contrast between Egypt, which has seen its effort at democracy collapse in violence and chaos, and South Africa, which almost miraculously emerged from generations of racism, division and strife to become a democratic, multiracial, and relatively stable society.

At least one key difference, he suggests, is the role of South Africa’s first ever black president Nelson Mandela, who at age 95, has been in the hospital for the past two months. McCarty writes,

As the world watches the unfolding events in the streets of Egypt with a nervous gaze and watches the events in a South African hospital room with mournful admiration it is easy forget that it was not too long ago that South Africa was a country that political pundits were sure was going to devolve into a horribly bloody civil war (not unlike the concerns many have about Egypt today).

How did South Africa’s miracle happen? It was not by accident. And, though there may have been divine intervention, it was not “out of nowhere.” South Africa avoided civil war and established a stable, though always tenuous and in-process, democracy because its leaders, especially Mandela, were able to cast a vision of social life capable of sustaining a lasting peace. That vision can be summed up in the phrase, “We are each other’s keepers.”

McCarty goes on to outline the Genesis story of Cain and Abel, the first murder in recorded history. When God confronted Cain about Abel’s whereabouts, Cain responded with the famous dismissal, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

Though not explicitly stated, we are taught in this story that we are, indeed, to be one another’s keepers. We are responsible for our fellow humans. Our own well-being is intimately tied to the well-being of our siblings, our neighbors, and even our enemies. We diminish our very own humanity when we do not act as each other’s “keepers.”

Nelson Mandela understood this, McCarty, points out. In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela writes,

Freedom is indivisible; the chains on any one of my people were the chains on all of them, the chains on all of my people were the chains on me. It was during those long and lonely years [in the struggle against apartheid and in the 27 years he was imprisoned at Robben Island] that my hunger for the freedom of my own people became a hunger for the freedom of all people, white and black. I knew as well as I knew anything that the oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed … I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else’s freedom, just as surely as I am not free when my freedom is taken from me. The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity … For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.

It was based on this conviction that Mandela led South Africa in a process of forgiveness and reconciliation that is unparalleled in the events of the 20th Century.

You can read McCarty’s whole article here. You can read his thoughtful blog here.

If Jesus Is Lord, Can Unbelievers Own Property?

In his commentary on 1 Timothy 4:5 Calvin makes one of his most provocative claims about the significance of the lordship of Christ over all things.

God has appointed to his children alone the whole world and all that is in the world. For this reason, they are also called the heirs of the world, for at the beginning Adam was appointed to be lord of all, on this condition, that he should continue in obedience to God. Accordingly, his rebellion against God deprived of the right, which had been bestowed on him, not only himself but his posterity. And since all things are subject to Christ, we are fully restored by his mediation, and that through faith, and therefore all that unbelievers enjoy may be regarded as the property of others, which they rob or steal.

Calvin makes the same point in numerous other places. When Adam sinned humanity forfeited not only its hope of eternal life, but its very right to the blessings of God’s creation. Jesus’ work as the second Adam has regained the creation, which is now destined for complete restoration at Christ’s return. Yet only those who hold fast to Christ in faith can participate in this legitimate lordship, let alone in its future restoration. All other possession is unjust.

Continuing in his commentary on 1 Timothy 4:5, Calvin writes,

And which of us would venture to claim for himself a single grain of wheat, if he were not taught by the word of God that he is the heir of the world? Common sense, indeed, pronounces that the wealth of the world is naturally intended for our use, but since dominion over the world was taken from us in Adam, everything that we touch of the gifts of God is defiled by our pollution, and on the other hand, it is unclean to us, till God graciously come to our aid, and by ingrafting us into his Son, constitutes us anew to be lords of the world, that we may lawfully use as our own all the wealth with which he supplies us.

Some contemporary Reformed Christians, wary of Neo-Calvinist claims about the progressive transformation of the world into the kingdom of Christ, have insisted that the New Testament teaches a redemption of persons but not of creation itself. Whether or not this is the case (and I believe the New Testament is quite clear that Christ reconciles creation itself), there is no doubt that Calvin is on the side of the Neo-Calvinists here. Jesus’ lordship over all things is exhaustive, and no one has any right to use or enjoy the blessings of creation without dedicating it to the glory and service of God. As he puts it in his commentary on Hebrews 2:8, “nothing is ours except through the bounty of God and our union with Christ.” This includes “not only things needful for eternal blessedness, but also such inferior things as serve to supply the wants of the body.”

But does that mean non-Christians have no rights to property or political power? In the medieval era a number of Christian theologians, as well as some popes, claimed just that. A king might forfeit his authority over his subjects, for instance, if he was excommunicated. We might find a parallel to this view among contemporary Christians who speak and act as if unbelievers should not be placed in positions of political leadership, or as if political power justified on any other basis than Christian scripture is illegitimate.

Yet Calvin does not go there. He carefully distinguishes between right and legitimate use. Because of his sin, he argues, Adam was denied the good things of creation, “not that he was denied the use of them, but that he could have had no right to them” (Commentary on Hebrews 2:5). Nowhere in his massive corpus of writings does Calvin question the practical right of unbelievers to hold property or to exercise political power.

But if Jesus is lord over all things, how is this consistent? For many of us it seems intuitive that if Jesus is lord his authority must be asserted with energy and power. We are quite confident that we understand what lordship looks like and what its implications should be. If we’re serious about following him, we need confidently to conquer and defend every square inch of creation.

“Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war, with the cross of Jesus, going on before.”

This is where it is crucial to understand Calvin’s understanding of the eschatological nature of Christ’s kingdom. To put it in ordinary terms, while Calvin affirms that Jesus is lord over all things in heaven and on earth, he insists that until he returns to judge the living and the dead, this lordship is exercised in the context of mercy, service, and suffering. Just as Jesus, in other words, declined to exercise his judicial authority during his earthly ministry, taking instead the form of a servant and going the way of the cross, so believers are to live in the same way. This is true even though Jesus has ascended to God’s right hand and holds all authority in heaven and on earth. Today is the day of salvation.

As Calvin explains in the commentary on Hebrews 2, following his comments on Adam’s having forfeited his rights over creation, it is God’s will that believers “spend their whole life under the cross,” just as Christ did before them. “This is the conforming of the head with the members, of which Paul speaks in Romans 8:29.”

If we are serious about Christ’s lordship, then, we are going to have to give up our intuitions about what that must mean and start to pay attention to what our lord has actually told us to do. The calling of Christians in this age is not militantly to assert and defend Christ’s lordship, as real as that lordship is, but to proclaim and witness to that lordship by conforming to the image of Christ in service and suffering.

And it is here that much of the Protestant tradition after Calvin went wrong. Whether due to an idealistic Puritan postmillennialism or to Whig theories of liberal progress, leading theologians, both conservative and liberal, became convinced that the kingdom of Christ will be realized progressively in this world, transforming all political and social structures in its wake. They even claimed Calvin’s authority for this view, despite the reformer’s constant insistence that the Christian life this side of Christ’s return is marked by the experience of the cross.

To be sure, Calvin taught adamantly that society is to be regulated in accord with the word of God, and he was confident that the kingdom of Christ would expand progressively up to Christ’s return. But the primary expression of this expansion is the preaching of the gospel by Christ’s ambassadors, empowered by the Spirit, and the consequent gathering of repentant sinners. And Calvin never wavered from insisting that this expansion takes place under the cross.

Thus it is a most apt conclusion – that whatever the gospel promises respecting the glory of the resurrection vanishes away, except we spend our present life in patiently bearing the cross and tribulations….

He then shows by the very order of election that the afflictions of the faithful are nothing else than the manner by which they are conformed to the image of Christ, and that this was necessary, as he had before declared… [G]ratuitous adoption, in which our salvation consists, is inseparable from the other decree, which determines that we are to bear the cross, for no one can be an heir of heaven without being conformed to the image of the only begotten son of God… [H]e will have all those whom he adopts to be the heirs of his kingdom to be conformed to his example. (Commentary on Romans 8:25,29)

So often in contemporary debates among Christians one side insists that because Jesus is lord Christians need to be more assertive in the culture wars, while the other side insists that because Jesus’ kingdom is spiritual Christians shouldn’t worry about or even engage the culture wars. Yet Calvin’s theology points us in a different direction. Because Jesus is lord over all things, whether on earth or in heaven, Christians should imitate their lord and conform to his example, taking up their cross and serving their neighbors in love. Clearly Christians need to be engaged in the issues of our time, but the manner of our engagement matters just as much as the engagement itself. Because we testify that apart from Christ no one has any right to political authority or property, including ourselves, we must approach the things of this world as Christ did, in humility and service.

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15).

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