Is Christianity Inherently Undemocratic? Hierarchy and Predestination

In his well-known book Christian Faith and Modern Democracy, Robert P. Kraynak argues that Christianity is inherently illiberal and undemocratic. Nowhere does Scripture prescribe democracy or speak of human rights, Kraynak points out, let alone call for a separation of religion and politics. And while the Bible affirms the dignity of every single human being by virtue of her creation in the image of God, the image of God is conceived in primarily spiritual terms, in which obedience to God is more essential than liberty.

This spiritual view of the image of God, Kraynak argues, implies that human dignity is relative to degrees of human perfection. A more faithful person has more dignity – is higher in the hierarchy of value – than a less faithful person. Similarly, a man is naturally superior to a woman.

Herein lies the fundamental difference between the biblical and the contemporary understanding of human dignity. In the biblical view, dignity is hierarchical and comparative; in the modern, it is democratic and absolute. The Bible (both Old and New Testaments) promotes hierarchies because it understands reality in terms of the ‘image of God’ which is a type of reflected glory – a reflection of something more perfect in something less perfect. Hence, dignity exists in degrees of perfection rather than in abstract qualities. The dignity or glory possessed by something made in the image of a more perfect being carries moral claims of deference, reciprocal obligation, and duty rather than equality, freedom and rights. (60)

To be sure, Kraynak admits, the New Testament undermines all such hierarchies by asserting the fundamental equality of all persons in Christ, so relegating social and political hierarchies to secondary status. Still, this very relegation, this very separation between the spiritual and earthly cities, means such inequalities can be tolerated as long as spiritual equality is preserved. This is in sharp contrast to liberal democracy, which insists on social and political equality.

Kraynak thinks that the early Christian theological tradition only accentuated the Bible’s hierarchical tendencies insofar as it was infused with Platonic and Neoplatonic notions of the world. According to such Greek philosophical notions, the natural universe is “a hierarchy of beings, ascending from lower to higher substances in an order of rational perfection” (73). The understanding of the universe as a chain of being was integrated with Augustine’s orthodox doctrines of the two cities and of predestination to create a thoroughly hierarchical understanding of both church and society. Thus,

In general, traditional Christians were illiberal and undemocratic because they conceived of God’s created universe as a hierarchy of being and thought that institutions should promote rational and spiritual perfection. (73)

Kraynak admits that the Reformation undermined the church’s hierarchicalism and rejected systematic Neoplatonism, but he claims that in their doctrines of the two kingdoms and predestination Luther and Calvin maintained the theological commitments that lie at the heart of Christianity’s illiberalism. For Kraynak that is not a bad thing. Christianity is not inherently democratic, he maintains, and Christians have been wrong to imagine it so.

It  is true, of course, that classic Christian political theology consistently distinguishes between the kingdom of God and earthly political structures (a distinction that has been variously labeled as the two cities, the two kingdoms, the two governments, the two jurisdictions, the two powers, the two swords, etc.). It is also true that this distinction makes Christian political theology a species of political realism. Politics is the art of the possible, not of the ideal. We must tolerate sin and injustice because only God can set things right. Our task is to maintain a general degree of peace, justice, and order.

But this doctrine does not make Christianity inherently illiberal. True, the toleration of the status quo has all too often meant the defense of oppressive gender relations, slavery, and tyranny, but this is hardly the thrust of the New Testament. In acknowledging the prophetic roles of women in the church, in maintaining the essential equality and consequent moral reciprocity between master and slave, in calling political authorities to submission to Christ, and in relativizing the spiritual priority of marriage and the family, the apostles set in motion an ethical trajectory that challenged all rigid conservative notions of the way things ought to be. (Paul called each person to be content with the situation in which he found himself, of course, but he also called slaves to seek their freedom, if possible, and he insisted that it is good for a Christian woman to devote herself to the service of Christ and the church rather than to marry and raise children.)

In my view, therefore, Christians have rightly identified equality, along with liberty, as an essential part of the gospel of Christ. This does not mean equality without difference, but it does suggest that Christians should aspire to forms of equality much more substantive than is implied by the bare minimum of political realism.

What about the doctrine of predestination? My friend and teacher Timothy P. Jackson insists that the doctrine of predestination leads Christians constantly to create distinctions between ‘us’ and ‘them’, distinctions that fall all too easily into the oppression of or apathy toward the ‘other.’ The only way to overcome this temptation, he insists, is to eliminate any distinction between the saved and the damned.

The objection has to be taken seriously. No doubt Christians have used the distinction between the saved and the damned, the elect and the reprobate, in just such nefarious ways. But in my view such misuses of the doctrine of predestination actually rely on a caricature of it – one common enough that it is proclaimed by some Christians as the teaching of Scripture (thus rendering plausibility to Jackson’s objection). In this caricature God wills the judgment of the reprobate, and thus no matter what such persons do in their lives, they cannot escape it.

That is not the Christian doctrine of predestination as it has been articulated by Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, or Calvin. Christian theologians have generally distinguished between the revealed and normative will of God, on the one hand, and his divine sovereignty, which is hidden and mysterious, on the other.

The distinction amounts essentially to this. God desires that all people be saved just as he desires that all people act lovingly and justly. This is a genuine desire on God’s part. The one who is love does indeed love all persons made in his image, and he does good to the just and the unjust alike. It was out of love for the world that he sent his son to suffer as the lamb of God, the one who is the propitiation not only for our sins, but also for the sins of the whole world.

But this does not deny the fact that as the sovereign Lord, God does, in some mysterious way, govern all that occurs. This governance does not take place on the ordinary plane of causality. Without dictating the actions of angels or human beings, God nevertheless governs them according to his sovereignty (or his decretive will). While hating evil and injustice, and while desiring the good for all people, he nevertheless ordains all things according to his purposes. This is not a doctrine that arises from philosophical logic but from faith. It is not a doctrine that we seek to explore to its depths, as Calvin pointed out, but one that we accept based on the recognition that God is entirely different from us, and cannot be measured by our notions of scientific or philosophical causality. Indeed, he cannot really be known or understood at all, apart from his revelation in Christ.

Christians are therefore called to conform to Christ in their attitudes towards all persons, laying down their lives in humility and service. Any other ethical use of the doctrine of predestination is ideological and self-serving.

None of this requires that Christianity is inherently liberal of course, let alone democratic. That would depend both on what is meant by liberalism and what is meant by democracy. But it does suggest that Christianity is not inherently illiberal or undemocratic. Perhaps we can agree on that.

Should Government Enforce the Law of God? Christian Humility and the Limits of Politics

Christian political activists from across the political spectrum sometimes speak and act as if Christians should brook no compromise with the state on the particular issue with which they are concerned. Whether the issue is sustenance for the poor, protection for the unborn, the punishment of what scripture calls sexual immorality, or something else, the argument is made that on this point there can be no compromise: A Christian cannot vote for a libertarian or a Tea party candidate, or for a pro-choice politician, or for a politician who supports gay rights, etc. So the argument runs. I suppose we are all supposed to write in our favored names, be it Jim Wallis, Pat Robertson, or Doug Wilson.

It is certainly true that when it comes to proclamation and witness Christians should preach the whole will of God. As Timothy P. Jackson points out, no faithful Christian would willingly sacrifice fidelity to God to her own political or personal interests. We are disciples of Christ first and foremost. A Christian pastor is obligated prophetically to proclaim the whole word of God.

But that doesn’t mean civil government should enforce the whole will and word of God, as the great Christian theologians from Augustine to Aquinas to Calvin have all recognized. Unlike Judaism or Islam, Christianity offers no divine blueprint for politics. It sharply delineates the kingdom of Christ from political authority, the restorative ministry of the gospel from the limited preservative power of civil government, and divine law from human law. To put it another way, Christian theologians distinguish the perfect standard of God’s natural moral law from the way in which Christians, in service to their neighbors, apply that law to politics according to the virtues of love and prudence (not to be mistaken for self-serving pragmatism). As Jacques Ellul put it,

“Our task, therefore, is not to determine what law with a Christian content is; rather, it is to find out what the lordship of Jesus Christ means for law (law as it exists), and what function God has assigned to law.”

All of this may sound an awful lot like moral relativism. Wouldn’t it be best simply to advocate the implementation of the law of God, come what may? In fact, John Calvin pointed out, even the law of God itself, the Torah, limited the civil enforcement of God’s will to what sinful human beings could be expected to fulfill. Its severity was relaxed due to the hardness of human hearts, and it even regulated unjust practices in order to minimize their destructive consequences.

OK, you might think, we all know that civil government can’t enforce certain laws, such as the prohibition of coveting, or lust, and that Israel’s laws tolerated things like slavery. But surely government must enforce the big prohibitions, like the ones against murder, adultery, or theft, without compromise. In fact, Calvin recognized the limits of Israel’s civil law even here. The prototypical case was the Torah’s law of divorce, which Jesus himself said is ordinarily unjust even though Moses tolerated and regulated it due to the hardness of human hearts. But Calvin extended the principle to a myriad of other laws in the Torah, including laws that tolerated adultery, murder, and the abuse of slaves, that he believed failed to measure up to the standards of God’s natural law. These include:

  • the law that permitted men to enslave and force into marriage women captured in war (Commentary on Deuteronomy 21:10)
  • the law that minimized the penalty for a man who committed adultery with a slave (Commentary on Leviticus 19:20-22)
  • the law that permitted soldiers to murder prisoners of war (Commentary on Deuteronomy 20:12)
  • the law that permitted a man to sell his daughter into slavery (Commentary on Exodus 21:7-11)
  • the law that permitted a slave to divorce his wife in order to attain his freedom (Commentary on Exodus 21:1)
  • the law that minimized the penalty for slave-owners who mistreated their slaves (Commentary on Exodus 21:26)
  • the law that tolerated and regulated polygamy (Commentary on Leviticus 18:18)

In all of these cases Calvin argues that although the conduct in question was patently unjust, God nevertheless tolerated it due to the hardness of human hearts, and even provided for its regulation in Israel’s civil law. His point is not to defend these laws. On the contrary, Calvin is more than willing to suggest that the Torah’s civil laws can and should be improved upon by in the laws of nations. The objective is not to seek the lowest common denominator, but to recognize that there are limits on what the state can do and should try to do. While the gospel may accomplish what is impossible for human beings, politics remains the art of the possible.

All of this suggests that many Christians would do well to reconsider their dogmatism when it comes to contemporary American politics. The questions facing citizens and politicians alike are complex. It is no easy matter to determine what forms of injustice or immorality government should tolerate, let alone how it should regulate them to minimize abuse. It is not always easy to determine which politicians hold their convictions about the limits of law in good faith.

Christians desperately seek certainty in these matters, but when it comes to politics certainty is a luxury. Here we do not have a clear divine blueprint for law or policy. Here we are in the arena of the virtues of love, prudence, and humility, which each person must seek to put on, in conformity to the image of Christ, as best she can, in good conscience.

In the meantime, Christians must remember that what the state is able to accomplish is not the limit of what human beings are expected to fulfill, let alone what the church should proclaim. Christ demands perfect justice and holiness from all human beings, in every area of life, and it is to that standard that he will hold us all accountable when he comes to judge the living and the dead. “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).

What Are the Elders and Pastors of the Church Supposed to Do?

I once attended a church in which a group of women decided to start a book club as a means of fostering Christian friendship among themselves. The women only saw one another at worship and were looking for further ways of connecting. This is not uncommon, of course. But the book club never got off the ground. The women had selected a book to read and were planning their first meeting when the pastor got wind of it. Without discussion or warning, he announced from the pulpit that the women would be reading a different book, one that he had selected. That sort of sucked the life out of the endeavor, turning what had been a bottom-up affair among women to one that came down from the man at the top. Yet I could not help but wondering, why did this pastor assume he had the authority to take control in this way? I eventually realized that this was not an isolated incident. The pastor was a man accustomed to being in control. He was willing to use his office as he felt necessary in order to accomplish his ‘pastoral’ objectives, without accountability.

Of course, there are few controversies in the church older than that of church government. In the New Testament the pastors of the church are interchangeably described as presbyters and bishops. Not long after the apostles passed from the scene, however, Christian churches began to rally around the authority of particular bishops (such as the bishop of Rome) as focal points of unity and standards of orthodoxy. Bishops took on a whole new array of governmental tasks, overseeing the deacons’ care for the poor and adjudicating conflicts among believers. The church’s emerging hierarchy was a clear imitation of the highly successful polity of the Roman Empire.

By the high middle ages the pope had won widespread recognition of his authority not only as the vicar of Peter, but the vicar of Christ. The pope’s authority in the church was embraced as having been instituted by Christ in his famous words to Peter,

“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:19)

The canon lawyers of the medieval church recognized that Christ spoke similar words to the apostles as a group, not simply to Peter, and so they came to distinguish between two types of authority grounded in Jesus’ statement. On the one hand, they argued, Christ gave all the apostles, and hence all priests directly, the sacerdotal authority to administer the sacraments, including penance. On the other hand, Christ gave to Peter alone, and hence to the popes, supreme ‘jurisdiction’ and ‘administration’, the power to govern, to legislate, and to adjudicate specific disputes. In such matters the pope had the ‘fullness of power’; he could not violate articles of faith, but he did have full discretionary authority over the church’s temporal affairs, and – very significantly – that authority was backed up by the powers of excommunication.

The sharpest medieval critic of this view was Marsilius of Padua. Marsilius denied the divine origin of the papacy and insisted that the church is a purely spiritual institution concerned with otherworldly salvation. He vigorously rejected any coercive power on the part of the church, including excommunication, insisting that ecclesiastical affairs of jurisdiction and administration belong to civil government. Marsilius thus became the clear forerunner of the later Protestant theory known as “Erastianism,” in which civil magistrates are placed at the head of the church and the authority of the church’s ministers is limited to the word and sacraments.

The Marsilian or Erastian view became the default view of the early magisterial reformers. To varying degrees, Luther, Melanchthon, Zwingli, Bullinger, and the Henrician reformers in England all not only relied on magisterial power as an emergency source of authority to launch the reformation, but embraced civil government as the rightful overseer of the church’s order and life. On the far extreme was the English Reformation, with Henry VIII’s claim to be the Head of the Church. Much more moderate was Martin Luther, who was always uncomfortable with civil authority in the church, but who struggled to find an alternative.

Most prominent in Reformed churches were the views of Zwingli and Bullinger, who equated the church and civil government as essentially one society with two kinds of power, that of pastors and that of civil magistrates. For Zwingli and Bullinger the tasks of excommunication and poor relief entrusted to the church in New Testament appropriately fell to civil magistrates in the era of Christendom. Now that such civil rulers had converted to the faith, there was no need for ecclesiastical ministers to maintain such functions independently of the city or commonwealth. Ecclesiastical control over discipline and poor relief was associated with the tyranny of the papists.

It was Calvin, finally, influenced by Martin Bucer, who began to navigate a way between the extreme claims of the papacy, on the one hand, and the Protestant Erastians (or Marsilians) on the other. Calvin insisted that as the spiritual kingdom of Christ, the church is called to administer specific spiritual functions without interference from political authorities. These functions do not only consist of the word and sacraments, but of discipline (including excommunication) and of care for the poor. Calvin thus insisted that the church has its own right of spiritual jurisdiction that must be sharply distinguished from the political jurisdiction of civil government.

How was this spiritual jurisdiction to be distinguished from the tyrannical claims of the papacy? Calvin maintained that the church’s jurisdiction is non-coercive. It simply consists in barring a person from the Eucharist and urging him to repent. Just as importantly, he stressed that the church’s right to excommunicate or discipline its members cannot be invoked with reference to any dispute or temporal matter whatsoever, as happened under the papacy, but only with reference to spiritual matters. To put it another way, the church could only discipline a person if she was in direct and clear violation of the moral law of God. Thus the church’s spiritual jurisdiction was not magisterial or discretionary, but ministerial. It was entirely bound up with the word such that church discipline could be said to be an extension or appendage of that word, an exercise of the spiritual sovereignty of Christ.

For Calvin even the church’s care for the poor, an expression of the communion described in Acts 4, is fundamentally spiritual rather than temporal. It is a direct manifestation of the restoration that the kingdom of Christ has begun in human beings.

But Calvin agreed with the other reformers that the outward and temporal matters of the church’s life are to be sharply distinguished from these spiritual matters, and are therefore subject to a different kind of government or polity. Such “indifferent” matters included the appropriate time and day of worship, the speech and attire of women, the forms and postures of liturgy, none of which, Calvin insisted, pertain to the conscience (which does not mean that scripture has nothing to say about them).

Calvin was not very clear about just who should regulate such indifferent things. Clearly he permitted civil government some control here. He submitted to the Geneva government’s decision concerning the frequency of the Eucharist, to its control of the procedures by which the ministers of the church were elected, and to its funding of the church’s ministries (and consequently its control over the church’s finances). Equally clearly, he insisted that civil government could not direct such matters according to its own whim and preference. All the affairs of church life are to be ordered consistent with scripture and for the edification and peace of the body.

Yet it is noteworthy that when Calvin described the offices of church government he did so with respect to the church’s spiritual functions rather than with respect to its temporal or indifferent affairs. For instance, Calvin was adamant in his preaching that the deacons of the Genevan church – which he said should include an order of women – were to be embraced as possessing a spiritual office like that of the pastors rather than that of the civil magistrates. Even more significantly, he always defined the office of elder with respect to the function of spiritual church discipline. He never characterized it as an office of general rule or jurisdiction in the church. In that sense Calvin was no Presbyterian. His office of elder, unlike that of later Reformed and Presbyterian churches, had one specific spiritual function – the function of church discipline. And it is only with respect to that specific function, he argued, that the elders can claim to administer the spiritual government of Christ’s church.

Why did the later Reformed tradition develop a much broader understanding of the office of elder? When Reformed churches were established in Catholic France, under the cross, it was obviously impossible to concede control of even indifferent ecclesiastical affairs to hostile civil magistrates. French churches therefore tended to turn such affairs over to the control of deacons and elders (in some cases the offices of elder and deacon even blended into one). But they were mindful that this was an outward or temporal authority, not a spiritual one. Evidence for this appears from the fact that they (ordinarily) dealt with matters of (spiritual) church discipline at separate meetings from those in which they handled the general affairs of church government.

A similar development, I believe, explains the evolution of church government in the Dutch Reformed Churches. To this day the elders in Dutch Reformed churches are supposed to distinguish their spiritual oversight of the congregation, with which they deal in meetings of the Consistory (pastors and elders), from the matters of general church government, with which they deal in meetings of the Council (pastors, elders, and deacons). Here the Dutch Reformed ‘Council’ (an office of the church) seems to have neatly taken the place of the Geneva ‘Council’ (the supreme authority of Geneva’s civil government) in governing the indifferent affairs of church life.

What worries me is that in some Reformed churches there seems to be little understanding of the difference between the spiritual government of the church, in which the pastors, elders, and deacons administer the kingship of Christ, and the church’s handling of indifferent affairs, in which they are merely representatives of the congregation. In short, I fear that too often elders and pastors think that when they are exercising their authority over indifferent matters they are exercising the authority of Christ! Perhaps that helps explain why many elders devote far more time to such mundane affairs than they do to the vital and spiritual function of church discipline.

Understanding the difference between spiritual and indifferent affairs also has implications for the involvement of the broader congregation in decisions concerning the latter. If Calvin and the other reformers were willing to cede significant authority over the indifferent affairs of church life to civil authorities (a willingness I think we should wholeheartedly reject) because such matters were simply to be conducted for the edification and peace of all believers, how much more should we yield authority over such matters to the very believers whose edification and peace is its objective? This doesn’t mean the church need always operate by majority vote. It does suggest that the general matters of church government might be appropriately handled at meetings and through procedures in which all faithful men and women, in addition to the officers of the church, can participate.

Such a conception of church government would have a twofold salutary advantage. First, it would make the church more sensitive to the gifts, wisdom, and consent of its full membership. Second, it would help people to distinguish the spiritual government of Christ administered by the church’s officers strictly according to the word from those indifferent matters of government appropriately subject to the primary concerns of love, edification, prudence, compromise, and peace. That in turn might help our fragmented churches achieve a greater measure of unity. I believe the Apostle Paul had something to say about that.

Why We Need Natural Law More Than We Need a Theory About It

Protestants are currently experiencing revival of interest in natural law. For a long time most Protestants dismissed natural law as a Roman Catholic concept, one that carried with it all sorts of semi-Pelagian assumptions about human nature and the powers of reason. Even worse, they associated it with the Enlightenment and its Deistic abandonment of orthodox Christianity.

Even today many conservatives and liberals alike find their reasons to reject natural law. For conservatives the concept serves as a Trojan horse for the rejection of scripture, a dangerous elevation of human reason and autonomy. For liberals the captivity of natural law thinking to the concerns of “pelvic ethics” suggests that it is simply a way for religious conservatives to pretend they are using public reason, when in fact they are simply expounding traditional Roman Catholic attitudes toward sexuality, marriage, and birth control.

Both of these dismissive views share a common confusion about natural law, one well summarized by the French Reformed sociologist and theologian Jacques Ellul in his 1946 The Theological Foundations of Law, written just after World War II had destroyed law in Ellul’s native France:

“Too often … natural law is defined as a doctrine, as an interpretation of legal facts, as a philosophy of law… Yet natural law is not primarily this philosophy. It is first of all a phenomenon which exists not as an idea, but as a concrete event in history… As such, it cannot be disclaimed any more than the fact of religion or the fact of the state can be disclaimed.” (14)

Ellul identifies the philosophy of the Stoics and the theologies of Aquinas and Calvin as examples of relatively sophisticated natural law theories that had virtually no impact on actual law. Real natural law, he insists, is something on which we reflect, not something that we construct.

Ellul thinks natural law arose at a point in human history shortly after religion and magic became differentiated from law and morality. At that stage

“Law is established by custom or legislation, independently of the religious power, as if it were a spontaneous creation of society under the impact of economic, political, and moral factors. It is not dictated and created in one piece by the state. It is not imposed from outside. It springs directly from within society, from the common sentiment and the common will.  These may not of necessity be consciously intended to result in a juridical creation, but they are certainly consciously experienced as a habit and obedience. This law rests on the adherence of the people who brought it into existence. This adherence is won because the law is merely the expression of the conscience of these people and of the circumstances in which they live. There is no alternative to adhering to this code.” (18-19)

By the time theories of natural law arise, Ellul argues, the phenomena is already in its decline. “It is indeed the moment when man ceases to be spontaneously ‘within the law.’ He places himself outside the law and examines it. Law becomes an object of speculation and interpretation.” (19)

It is but a short step from the systematic analysis of natural law to its replacement by positive law. “It does not take long for this view to reach the jurist, who in turn tries to organize law in a rational way.” Soon law becomes becomes a creation of the state.

“[A] juridical technique is worked out which is increasingly precise, increasingly rational, and increasingly removed from spontaneity. At this point the code hardens. It becomes a consecrated abstraction, always trailing behind social and political evolution, always in need of being brought up to date by arbitrary innovations, more or less adapted to the conditions of society. Law becomes the affair of jurists, receiving authority and sanction from the state.” (19)

No longer is law viewed primarily as the expression of an organic public consensus concerning justice, but it is viewed as an alien imposition on the part of those who have power. No longer are laws enacted as general rules of justice to be applied and enforced with prudence and equity, but law is seen as a mass of particular rules and regulations designed to foresee every possible circumstance and eventuality. Law becomes ruthlessly logical and systematic, yet blind to justice itself. “It is adequate for all material interests, yet inadequate for justice.” (32)

Here we are faced with the specter of tyranny, no matter what our system of government, as law becomes simply a means by which the powerful exploit the weak. After all,

“juridical technique is at the disposal of whoever wishes to take advantage of it… it may be utilized by any kind of power in history. When this happens, a definite purpose is ascribed to this intrinsically neutral technique. The technique is manipulated according to new and arbitrary criteria, substituted for the ideas of justice and natural law.”(32)

Having been a leader in the French resistance, Ellul identifies Nazism and Communism as the phenomena that he has in mind. In both cases the natural law of justice was abandoned and law was manipulated as a flexible tool for a new and greater purpose (i.e., ideology). The inevitable byproduct of this development is the collapse of the rule of law itself. The state is raised above the law and those under its rule know it. Why should they voluntarily submit to rules that have no grounding in right or justice? The power of the law now simply consists in fear and coercion, and people will disobey it when they get the chance and when it suits their interests.

Ellul describes these developments as history. Natural law, he thinks, has been lost, and no amount of theorizing or theologizing can recover it. The only hope for humanity is a revival of civilization on the part of God himself. I get the sense this sentiment would resonate with many American Christians today. Why even bother reasoning about politics or the law? Things are too far gone for that.

I think Ellul’s analysis of natural law and its history has much to be said for it, but I think he wrongly reduces history to an inevitable evolutionary process over which humans have little control. I also think that he – and many contemporary Christians – are too quick to dismiss the moral sensibilities of a world that remains under the common grace of God. Ellul wrote in the shadow of a shattered Europe, with millions of the dead able to testify to what law had become in the hands of dictators and soldiers, guerrillas and criminals. But even in the late 1940s and 1950s Americans were much more optimistic (witness the baby boom) because they realized that the European experience was not the whole story.

Indeed, it was out of the ashes of World War II that a system of international law and human rights emerged that can only, only be explained as an example of natural law at work. It is true that this system is codified and enforced to varying degrees around the world. It is also true that while it approximates certain Christian moral sentiments better than did the laws of traditional societies, it largely ignores others. But this is nothing new under the sun. Anyone who tells you there was a golden age of morality and law hasn’t read much history.

Ellul rightly characterized the dangers facing a society that has lost its allegiance to justice (i.e., to natural law), but if the West has received another lease on life, Christians would do well to engage in the hard work of strengthening and rebuilding moral consensus rather than seeking to overcome it with the use of brute force (all the while complaining about its demise). Jesus is still Lord, the sun continues to shine, and rain continues to fall on the just and the unjust alike. That suggests there is still something to be said for the world after all.

John Calvin and the Restoration of the Cosmos

I am grateful to the Davenant Trust for the opportunity to present a paper entitled “The Kingdom of Christ is Spiritual: John Calvin and the Redemption of the Cosmos” a few weeks ago at the 2014 Convivium Calvinisticum in South Carolina. Thanks to the Trust and to all who attended for some good papers and stimulating conversation. Political Theology Today has kindly published my short summary of the paper. Here are the first few paragraphs:

One of the great paradoxes of John Calvin’s political theology can be captured in terms of two of the phrases the reformer used over and over throughout his writings. On the one hand, he emphasized, “the kingdom of Christ is spiritual.” On the other hand, through the kingdom of Christ God is bringing about the “restoration of the world.” Various scholars highlight different sides of this paradox, often for their own ideological or critical purposes. Critics claim that Calvin was captive to neo-platonic dualisms of body and soul, earth and heaven, the outward and the inward, so denigrating the significance of the material creation. More appreciatively, some claim that Calvin envisioned the future of Christ’s kingdom, and the purpose of the church, in purely spiritual or “other-worldly” terms. On the other extreme, many influential scholars have characterized Calvin as calling Christians to bring about the transformation of the world into the kingdom of God, or at least as the inspiration for the elite saints who could bring transformation through their zealous activism.

In fact, none of these perspectives are wholly accurate. The key to making sense of the disparate strands in Calvin’s thought is interpreting them through the lens of his two kingdoms eschatological framework. Calvin understands the kingdom of Christ to entail the restoration of the world that will fully take place only at the return of Christ. Creation was always designed for the purpose of attaining this future as the heavenly kingdom of God, Calvin argues. “Truly the first man would have passed to a better life, had he remained upright, but there would have been no separation of the soul from the body, no corruption, no kind of destruction, and, in short, no violent change.”[1] Thus when Calvin talks about the restoration of the world, or about human beings’ restoration to their original state, he is not referring to this original state in a static sense, but in the sense of its eschatological purpose (2.1.3).

You can read the rest here.

Imperial Calvinism: Transforming the World

It has long been standard in scholarly circles to claim that whereas Lutheran Protestantism tends to be passive and pietistic due to its emphasis on justification by faith alone and on the difference between the two kingdoms, Calvinism is active and vigorous in every area of life due to its emphasis on sanctification and the lordship of Christ. No matter how hard historical theologians work to show that this contrast is seriously exaggerated, the invention of modern theological controversies (not to mention Calvinists’ proclivities toward a certain Whiggish interpretation of history), it remains influential, enduring in the widely quoted statements of prominent scholars like Ernst Troeltsch, H. Richard Niebuhr, and Jurgen Moltmann.

Take, for instance, Troeltsch’s famous study, The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches, now more than one hundred years old. Troeltsch agrees that Calvin used the language of Luther’s two kingdoms, but he claims that, spurred by the doctrines of predestination and the absolute sovereignty and glory of God, Calvin’s social theory turned in a radically different direction.

“In his teaching on the independence and secular character of the State Calvin used exactly the same language as Luther; since, however, at the same time he created a strong independent Church … through which he desired to effect a Christian and ethical transformation of the whole of Society and civilization, in practice he made the State subordinate to the Church.” (2:627)

Troeltsch, like so many early twentieth century scholars, erroneously believed that Calvinism is a system of thought “logically constructed” on “the idea of predestination, the famous central doctrine of Calvinism.” (2:579, 581) In this system, according to Troeltsch, the gospel was no longer a means to the salvation of sinners rooted in the God who is love, but a means to the greater end of the glory of God who is majesty. The purpose of the doctrine of justification was not the joy of the forgiveness of sins that results in loving service to one’s neighbors, but the sovereign calling of an individual to serve as an instrument of the divine will. The gospel thus became “a spur to action” and the “spirit of active energy” in the heroic elect, who in turn became “Christ’s warriors and champions.” (2:584) Certain of their salvation, Christians were free to look outward and to devote themselves to the transformation of society into the holy community of Christ.

The doctrine of predestination thus gave rise to Calvinism’s second distinctive characteristic, which was its heroic religious individualism. Protestantism is inherently individualistic, Troeltsch admitted, but Calvin directed that spirit toward the purpose of “the glorification of God in action, [which] is the real test of individual personal reality in religion.” Whereas the Lutheran Christian satisfies himself with the quiet loving service amid the providentially arranged circumstances of life, for the Calvinist

“the whole meaning of life consists precisely in entering into these circumstances, and, while inwardly rising above them, in shaping them into an expression of the Divine Will. In conflict and in labour the individual takes up the task of the sanctification of the world … The Calvinist knows that his calling and election are sure, and that therefore he is free to give all his attention to the effort to mold the world and society according to the Will of God.” (2:588, 589)

The result is the establishment of a sort of “spiritual aristocracy.” (2:590) The lordship of Christ bestows upon Calvinists a “high sense of a Divine mission to the world,” an “immeasurable responsibility.” (2:617) “Predestination means that the  minority, consisting of the best and the holiest souls, is called to bear rule over the majority of mankind, who are sinners.” (2:618)

The third distinctive characteristic of Calvinism is “the central significance of the idea of a society, and the task of the restoration of a holy community, of a Christocracy in which God is glorified in all its activity, both sacred and secular.” (2:590-591) Here the church is not merely the organ of justification but “the means of sanctification: it ought to prove itself effective in the Christianizing of the community, by placing the whole range of life under the control of Christian regulations and Christian purposes.” This is to take place “in every aspect of life: in Church and State, in family and in society, in economic life, and in all personal relationships, both public and private.” (2:591) Calvin thus made “an ethic of sanctification the underlying basis of Church discipline and of the development of the State.” (2:601) Calvinism “sought to make the whole of Society, down to the smallest detail, a real expression of the royal dominion of Christ.” (2:622)

Calvin’s tool for this transformation, Troeltsch argued, was the Bible, which Calvin turned into the blueprint of the holy community, “a law, whose aim and nature were of equal value in every part.” (2:586) To be sure, Calvin recognized that parts of the law were no longer binding on Christians, and in that sense he did not seek to revive “Jewish legalism.” (2:601) But in contrast to the Lutherans, Calvinism “extended the authority of the Bible over a wider field, and in the process it transformed the whole conception of the Bible into an infallible authority for all the problems and needs of the Church.” (2:587) Based on the premise that the Bible could speak to all of life, Calvinists seeking the political and legal transformation of society inevitably found lessons in the example of Israel, its kings and its prophets. Calvin dismissed the immediate significance of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, Troeltsch claims, in favor of the more relevant Old Testament.

I reject Troeltsch’s interpretation of Calvin’s theology, of course, though I will not refute it at length in this blog post, but there is a reason why it has been so influential. It rings true, I believe, for a significant strand of Calvinism, which takes as its raison d’etre the vindication and assertion of the absolute sovereignty of God. Far too often this has bred what Max Stackhouse has called “imperial Calvinism,” or what Nicholas Wolterstorff describes as “that most insufferable of all human beings, the triumphalist Calvinist.” Take, for instance, the following quote from Troeltsch:

This peculiar combination of ideas produces a keen interest in politics, but not for the sake of the State; it produces active industry within the economic sphere, but not for the sake of wealth; it produces an eager social organization, but its aim is not material happiness; it produces unceasing labour, even disciplining the senses, but none of this effort is for the sake of the object of all this industry. The one main controlling idea and purpose of this ethic is to glorify God, to produce the Holy Community, to attain that salvation which in election is held up as the aim; to this one idea all the other formal peculiarities of Calvinism are subordinate.” (2:607)

In short, what we have here are highly activist, enormously confident individuals, whose devotion is to exerting power over other human beings in order to assert the sovereignty of God. This is in sharp contrast to the proper emphasis of the Christian ethic, which is on conforming to the image of Christ in self-sacrificial service toward others.

Thankfully, Troeltsch’s characterization is not accurate for many Reformed people on the ground. Many of us were reared on the Heidelberg Catechism, which says precious little about the themes Troeltsch believes are so central to Calvinism. And however later Calvinists might have conceived of the implications of their faith, John Calvin himself took the distinction between the two kingdoms seriously, stressing that the kingdom of Christ is manifest in the church and its ministry, and that during the present age its witness is characterized by the suffering of the cross (a means of conformity to Christ, Calvin stressed in light of Romans 8, that has been predestined by God!). Calvin well understood the difference between sanctification and politics, between spiritual righteousness and civil righteousness, between the church and the commonwealth. He was no “Imperial Calvinist.”

Pontius Pilate and the Trial of Jesus: Politics 101 According to Karl Barth

On Wednesday I challenged Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth’s criticism of Calvin’s two kingdoms doctrine as a failure to understand the 16th Century reformer’s political theology. But I do not want to obscure the value of Barth’s constructive point. It is necessary for Christians to understand not just how the two kingdoms are different and separate from one another, but how they are connected under the lordship of Christ.

Here Barth does offer some helpful reflection.

He begins (in his essay “Church and State”) by suggesting that we begin not with Romans 13, as is traditionally done, but with the confrontation between Jesus and Pontius Pilate as recorded in John 18-19. Here we see the state in demonic form, Barth argues, in contrast to the homelessness of the church in Christ. And yet, Jesus “expressly confirms Pilate’s claim to have ‘power’ over Him, and not, indeed, an accidental or presumptuous power, but one given to him ‘from above.’” Barth interprets this power not as that of the devil but as that of God. (109)

Pilate’s power gave him several options at Jesus’ trial. First, he could have acquitted Jesus, recognizing him to be the King he claimed to be, the one sent into the world to bear witness to the truth. Barth, in stark contrast to Calvin, declares that “Such ‘recognition’ cannot be and is not Pilate’s business. To the question of truth, the State is neutral. ‘What is truth?’” (110)

Second, Pilate could have released Jesus and offered legal protection to the proclamation of Jesus’ kingship, “the legal granting of the right to preach justification.” (110) This is what Christians who embrace political liberalism would desire. It is appropriate for the state to protect the ministry of Christ’s kingdom without it therefore being appropriate for the state to punish heretics or the adherents of other religions.

But Pilate rejected both of these options for a third. He used his power, the power given to him by God, to crucify Jesus. And as heinous as this act was from the perspective of justice,

“what actually took place in this use of the statesman’s power was the only possible thing that could take place in the fulfilment of the gracious will of the Father of Jesus Christ! Even at the moment when Pilate (still in the garb of justice! and in the exercise of the power given him by God) allowed injustice to run its course, he was the human created instrument of that justification of sinful man that was completed once for all time through that very crucifixion.” (110)

In this act of flagrant injustice the pagan state allied itself with the “sin of Israel,” only to secure “the inheritance of the promise made to Israel.” (111)

This leads Barth to an important conclusion, one that contemporary Christians would do well to consider in the midst of all their angst about the supposed dangers to religious liberty in America.

“What would be the worth of all the legal protection which the State could and should have granted the Church at that moment, compared with this act in which, humanly speaking, the Roman governor became the virtual founder of the Church? … [T]he very State which is ‘demonic’ may will evil, and yet, in an outstanding way, may be constrained to do good. The State, even in this ‘demonic’ form, cannot help rendering the service it is meant to render.” (111)

Barth’s point is worth reflecting on. Where would the Church be today if Pilate had released Barabbas instead of Jesus? (112)

This, of course, is not all that needs to be said on the subject, and this is not all that Barth says. But it is striking that this is where he starts. I do not know how many times I have heard evangelical Christians – admittedly they are typically older Christians – respond to stories about American politics in the following way: “Things are really going badly. We are clearly in the end times.” What is implied in such claims, of course, is that the conservative political agenda in America is a bellwether of the progress of Christ’s kingdom. It is a sentiment that Barth, like Calvin, would have vigorously rejected.

But Barth presses the point a step forward, and here he continues to follow Calvin as well as Luther. Because the state is ordained by God, because God uses it in his purposes in ways that Christians cannot understand, “the State” – and remember Barth writes in the shadow of Nazi Germany here, just as Paul wrote under the shadow of Imperial Rome – “cannot lose the honour that is its due. For that very reason the New Testament ordains that in all circumstances honour must be shown to its representatives (Romans 13:1-8; 1 Peter 2:17).” (111)

I would suggest that the implications of this point extend not only to the individuals who exercise government at the federal, state, and local levels, but also to the institutions through which they govern. The apostles wrote in a time when political power was intrinsically personal; we live in an era in which political power is subject to the rule of written law, bound to concrete rules that channel the use of power through institutions and offices that reflect fundamental principles of justice. This system, which we might refer to in short hand as political liberalism, is for us that which has been established by God, the authority that “exists.” It is worth defending on so many levels, but even for its critics this is an important fact that must be taken into account.

But Barth offers one further point of reflection on Jesus’ encounter with Pilate. He observes that despite the travesty of justice through which Pilate empowered the crucifixion of Jesus, he proclaimed Jesus innocent. In the very act of overthrowing justice “he is fulfilling his specific function.” (112) Had Pilate done what he should have done, had he acquitted Jesus, “the State would have had to grant legal protection to the Church! The fact that this did not actually happen is clearly regarded by the Evangelists as a deviation from the line of duty on the part of Pilate, as a failure on the part of the State.” (113) In other words, “In this encounter of Pilate and Jesus the ‘demonic’ State does not assert itself too much but too little; it is a State which at the decisive moment fails to be true to itself.” (113)

Barth concludes,

“Certainly, in deflecting the course of justice he became the involuntary agent and herald of divine justification; yet at the same time he makes it clear that real human justice, a real exposure of the true face of the State, would inevitably have meant the recognition of the right to proclaim divine justification, the Kingdom of Christ which is not of this world, freely and deliberately.” (113-114)

In other words, the legal administration does have something to do with the order of redemption. Calvin went so far as to claim that the Christian state’s responsibility to defend the ministry of Christ’s kingdom includes the duty to suppress and punish those who polluted its certain truth through their false teaching, at least in a society where that truth was widely embraced as certain. He was surely wrong about this. Yet Barth is correct to characterize the responsibility more narrowly, in a manner reflective of the values of political liberalism. At the heart of the state’s responsibility under the lordship of Christ is the responsibility to protect the freedom to speak the truth.

Karl Barth’s Criticism of Calvin’s Two Kingdoms Doctrine

In his 1938 essay “Church and State,” written on the eve of World War II, the Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth offered a sharp criticism of the ‘two realms’ doctrine taught by Calvin and the other reformers. Barth lauded the reformers for distinguishing divine justification, the gospel, faith, and the mission of the church from human justice, the duties of citizenship, and the state. He praised them for showing, in contrast to the Anabaptists, “that the two are not in conflict, but that they can very well exist side by side, each being competent in its own sphere.”

But Barth criticized the reformers for not going beyond that. “Clearly we need to know not only that the two are not in conflict, but, first and foremost, to what extent they are connected.” Barth claimed that Calvin offered insufficient explanation of the degree to which civil government belongs to the external means by which God invites human beings and retains them within the society of Christ. He alleged that Calvin failed to develop the implications of his claim that all earthly rulers are subject to Christ, and consequently of his embrace of a Christian political order. In short, he accused the reformers of failing to develop a gospel foundation, a “Christological foundation,” for the state.

The result of this failure, Barth believed, was that Christians had constantly been tempted toward too great a separation of church and state. It had become all too easy, based on the distinction between true justice and civil justice, to construct “a highly spiritual message and a very spiritual Church.” On the other hand, as events in Germany made all too clear, it had led to the construction of “a secular gospel of human law and a secular church.”

The two kingdoms distinction was legitimate as far as it goes, therefore, but it had failed to answer the vital question: “is there an actual, and therefore inward and vital, connection between the two realms?” Or as Barth puts it in the first paragraph of the work, “is there a connection between justification of the sinner through faith alone … and the problem of justice, the problem of human law?” How does the order, peace, and freedom of the kingdom of God relate to the political order.

“Is there, in spite of all differences, an inner and vital connection between the service of God in Christian living … and another form of service, what may be described as a ‘political’ service of God, a service of God which, in general terms, would consist in the careful examination of all those problems which are raised by the existence of human justice, of law, or, rather, which would consist in the recognition, support, defence, and extension of this law – and all this, not in spite of but because of divine justification?”

Barth’s answer, of course, is that there is a fuller connection, and that it is clearly taught in scripture. But his own political theology turns out to be highly dialectical (and paradoxical). The doctrine of the state is to be understood in the context of Christology, he argues, with the state being called to respond obediently to the preaching of the gospel and the law on the part of the church (though without appeal being made to the word or the Spirit in the running of its affairs, given that the state encompasses nonbelievers and is therefore broader than the community of faith!). The state is an allegory of the kingdom of God (though it never becomes the kingdom of God!). It is the outward circle of the reign of Christ (though not to be confused with its inward circle, the church!).

But what is most striking about Barth’s argument is his complete failure, as Reformed critics like Emil Brunner pointed out, to grasp what was the real political theological teaching of the Reformation. For at the heart of Barth’s criticism of the reformers was his absolute rejection of natural revelation or natural law (although even here he granted the useful functioning of a “so-called natural law”). This rejection led him to confuse the reformers’ embrace of the temporal and secular nature of civil government under the natural law with a practical denial of the sovereignty of Christ.

In fact, contrary to Barth’s claims, Calvin’s two kingdoms doctrine was thoroughly Christological from start to finish. Calvin recognized that, having ascended to God’s right hand, Jesus holds sovereignty over all authorities, both in this age and in the age to come. In fact, Calvin claimed that Christ is the heir of all things and that human beings only enjoy the legitimate use of material things insofar as they are in Christ. Thus all civil government properly belongs to Christ, is obligated to honor Christ, and must enforce his law insofar as that is possible. Indeed, Calvin even argued that civil government is obligated to establish, defend, and maintain the ministry of Christ’s kingdom (a position whose first and third tenants – establish and maintain – Barth was right to reject)!

At the same time, Calvin recognized that although all legitimate justice, law, and government is subservient to Christ and his purposes, and therefore is an outward reflection of true justice, law, and government, these categories cannot be collapsed into one because through the power of the gospel Christ accomplishes something different from anything that the state can accomplish. By his word and Spirit Christ creates true justice rather than mere civil justice, he fosters the spiritual use of the law rather than the mere civil use of the law, and he establishes his spiritual government rather than mere civil government.

Barth was right to call for a clear understanding of the relationship and connection between the two kingdoms in the context of Christology, one that would help Christians to see that the righteousness created by the gospel is the righteousness that takes concrete form in this world. But he was wrong in claiming that Calvin failed to offer this in his two kingdoms theology.

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.

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