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.
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
During the past few weeks I’ve written several articles arguing that the Christian life is about following Jesus Christ rather than about following the law. As I carefully explained, my point was not that Christians have no obligation to follow God’s moral law, including as that moral law is revealed in the Ten Commandments. We do. Rather, I was speaking of the law in its covenantal sense (i.e., the Sinai Covenant), as the New Testament usually does. My main point was that the New Testament presents the Christian life within the covenantal framework of putting on Christ (i.e., the new covenant) rather than the covenantal framework of the law.
Some of my readers were confused by this point. Are not the Ten Commandments the summary of the very moral law of God? Do they not represent God’s timeless moral will for all people in all places? And as long as we interpret them through the lens of Christ and the New Testament, is it not entirely appropriate to present them as a norm for Christian living?
I agree with these objections in their conclusion. As I declared several times in the articles, the law remains profitable for Christians for correction and instruction (the third use of the law). I wholeheartedly affirm, for instance, the interpretation of the Ten Commandments found in the Heidelberg Catechism.
But the problem I have with this argument is its assumption that the Ten Commandments are somehow a timeless document of ethical instruction. It seems to assume that scripture’s ethical instruction can be removed from its covenantal context, or even that the Christian life is fundamentally about fidelity to any timeless moral standard. To be sure, Christian obedience never falls below God’s moral law. But is that all that it is?
The reality is that scripture always presents the life of the faithful as a covenantal life, and its instruction to the faithful always comes in covenantal form. What’s more, if there is any document in scripture that is the very form and essence of a covenantal document, it is the Ten Commandments, often referred to in the Torah as “the covenant” itself. Scripture generally presents the Ten Commandments not as a summary of God’s timeless moral will but as the representative document of God’s covenant relationship with Israel. The Ten Commandments, therefore, like the rest of the law, emphasize Israel’s having been called out as separate from the nations, faced with God’s promised blessings for obedience and threatened curses for disobedience.
And while there can be no doubt that the perfect fulfillment of the covenant required wholehearted love for God and love for one’s neighbor, it is equally clear that the Ten Commandments themselves largely take the expression of negative prohibitions. The law is framed as a document for children, as Paul writes in Galatians, filled with types and shadows. Its perfect righteousness is highlighted by its emphasis on judgment (both on the Canaanites and on unfaithful Israel). Its perfect love is obscured, as Jesus declares, by concessions to “your hardness of heart,” even though “from the beginning it was not so” (Matthew 19).
The beautiful prediction of the prophets was that although Israel flagrantly and consistently broke this covenant from the very beginning (Moses threw down and broke the tablets even before they could be presented to the people), God would make a new covenant with his people. This covenant would not be like the one he made with the people when he brought them out of the land of Egypt. Rather, he would take his law and write it on their hearts, enabling them to serve as his faithful people by granting them his Holy Spirit and forgiving their sins. It was through this new covenant that the law would no longer serve as a dividing wall of hostilities, separating Israel from the nations; rather, all nations would come streaming to Zion to receive instruction from Zion’s King, the Messiah.
As the New Testament writings make quite clear, it is Jesus who fulfilled these prophecies, establishing a new and better covenant in the process. Many statements in the writings of John, Luke, Paul, and Hebrews declare that the Christian life is shaped within the covenantal framework of following Jesus rather than the law. The understandable objection of the Jews and the Judaizers was that the law was central to God’s relation to his people; that it could not be abandoned without abandoning Israel’s very identity. The response of the apostles was that Jesus is the new Israel, the one who fulfilled the law, and that by holding fast to him by faith and being united to him through the Holy Spirit Christians are grafted into Israel and fulfill the law in the only way that they possibly could.
The New Testament’s instruction about the nature of the Christian life therefore takes a quite different form from that of the law and the Ten Commandments. In terms of God’s timeless moral will there is continuity, of course, but that is only a small part of what the Christian life is all about.
- If the law communicated God’s character through inscriptions written on tablets of stone, Jesus is the express image of God himself, in the form of a living, breathing, acting, speaking human being.
- If the law emphasized Israel’s identity as having been called out from the nations to be different, Jesus called his followers to go into all nations, baptizing and making disciples, always being willing and ready to give a reason for the hope that is within them.
- If the law established Israel as a nation called to wage war against its pagan neighbors, as the expression of the judgment of God, Jesus called his disciples to love their enemies, to turn the other cheek, and to suffer rather than inflict vengeance on others.
- If the law tolerated a certain degree of mistreatment of captives, slaves, or wives, because of the hardness of human hearts, Jesus, both in example and in word, called his disciples to serve one another, recognizing that greatness takes the form of humility and self-sacrifice.
- If the law stipulated capital punishment for thirty odd cases of impiety and injustice, including adultery, Jesus, the messianic king himself, refused to decree death on a woman caught in adultery, taking instead the curse of the law on himself, and calling her to go and sin no more.
- If the law warned that suffering was a sign of God’s judgment for disobedience, and promised that obedience would be rewarded with earthly prosperity and peace, Jesus declared that suffering was the sign of God’s blessing for being identified with him, and promised that it would be a means of our being conformed to his image.
I could go on and on, of course. And yet the point that needs to be emphasized is that although not one of these changes amounts to an alteration of God’s timeless moral law, the nature and experience and mission of being one of God’s people has changed radically. Our calling is not merely to conform to God’s moral law. Our calling is to hold fast to Jesus Christ as the express image of God, and in our lives of service, self-sacrifice, and obedience, faithfully to witness to him as the only hope of the world that God so loves. As we do so we together become his body, drawn from all nations, proclaiming peace and reconciliation even to the worst of sinners who seek salvation.
And it makes a difference, as Chris Gordon helpfully explains, whether or not we conceive of our Christian lives and our churches as testimonies first and foremost of the law, or as witnesses of Jesus Christ.
Does this mean we forget the history of Israel, forget the teaching of the law and the prophets, or forget the Ten Commandments? Of course not! How else would we understand just how rigorous is God’s righteousness and how tragic is our sin? How else would we understand just who Christ is and what he has done? We neglect the teaching of the law at our peril.
And yet, Jesus Christ remains our focus, for justification, sanctification, and glorification. We dare not turn back to the law as the covenantal framework for our lives, let alone as the summary of all that is required of us. The law takes its place as that which pointed to and prepared us for Jesus, and we should use it accordingly. “The law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ…. ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but through me” (John 1:17; 14:6).