In the debates that sometimes stir across the evangelical world natural law and Scripture, creation and redemption, are often played off against one another as if they are dueling forces in a zero-sum game. Usually these controversies obscure the point that the real question under discussion is about the appropriate relation between natural law and Scripture, or between creation and redemption, rather than about dividing and classifying the world or ethics according to some scientific principle.
The fact is, in orthodox Christian theology it is precisely the creation that God redeems in Jesus Christ (what else could he possibly be redeeming?) and it is the natural law to which Scripture commands us to adhere (otherwise God would be schizophrenic). The real questions we should be discussing – How does future redemption call us to relate to the presently fallen creation? How in the created order do we see the natural law that points all human beings to their creator? – are much more difficult to answer, and require much more humility, than are these false dilemmas.
Shortly after I arrived at Westminster Seminary California some years ago Michael Horton guided me into the field of political theology by suggesting that I read Oliver O’Donovan’s Resurrection and Moral Order. I had been a history major at Covenant College and in Washington D.C. my focus was on practical politics and government. This was my first deep foray into the theology that underlies ethics and politics.
Oliver O’Donovan is one of the preeminent ethicists of our time. He certainly knows the Christian tradition better than anyone else (he is the editor of the massive From Irenaeus to Grotius: A Sourcebook in Christian Political Thought 100-1625), and he has a way of bringing the debates of the past into conversation with the issues of the present in a way that is appropriate, rather than strained, insightful rather than anachronistic.
In Resurrection and Moral Order O’Donovan does a masterful job articulating the decisive relationship between Christ’s resurrection and the created order, particularly as it relates to Christian ethics. As he puts it,
In proclaiming the resurrection of Christ, the apostles proclaimed also the resurrection of mankind in Christ; and in proclaiming the resurrection of mankind, they proclaimed the renewal of all creation with him. The resurrection of Christ in isolation from mankind would not be a gospel message. The resurrection of mankind apart from creation would be a gospel of a sort, but of a purely Gnostic and world-denying sort which is far from the gospel that the apostles actually preached. So the resurrection of Christ directs our attention back to the creation which it vindicates.
This doesn’t mean, of course, that every last individual, or every particular of creation will be renewed. As John Calvin argues in his commentary on 2 Peter 3, making use of Aristotelian logic, it is the substance of creation that will be renewed, not the accidents. “Of the elements of the world I shall only say this one thing, that they are to be consumed only that they may be renovated, their substance still remaining the same, as it may be easily gathered from Romans 8:21 and from other passages.” As Calvin warns, we should be wary of theological speculation that seeks to identify precisely the sort of continuity this entails.
Still, Calvin is quite clear that the restoration for which fallen creation is destined is the same telos, or goal, for which it was always intended. God is redeeming the creation through Christ not in the sense that he is returning it to some static, original state, but in the sense that he is restoring it to its original destiny and purpose. As Michael Northcott puts it, directly in line with Calvin, “the resurrection vindicates the original relational ordering of creation towards the Triune God.”
Some of the readers of my article, “Should Christians be Environmentalists?“, questioned whether it is really appropriate to ground Christians’ approach to care for the environment in our Christology. Wouldn’t it be better simply to look to creation, rather than to confuse creation with redemption? I understand the concern. It would be ludicrous for Christians to claim the ability to somehow bring this fallen world to its eternal purpose in God’s kingdom, let alone even to restore it to its original pristine state.
But that is not the purpose or implication of grounding our attitude towards creation in Christ’s work of redemption. Rather, it is to demonstrate that Jesus’ incarnation and bodily resurrection has vindicated the created order, placing God’s stamp of approval on it and establishing its eternal existence. The sin and curse that have so tarnished it have done their worst, but they have ultimately failed. Creation is not destined for destruction, but for restoration.
Why does this matter? If the fall so tarnished creation that God has decided to abandon it, elevating human souls to some sort of transcendent destiny, then Christianity isn’t so different from Gnosticism or neo-Platonism. Natural law can hold little claim over us. Creation has mere instrumental value. The philosophers of modernity and the Enlightenment then had plausible reasons to view the human relationship toward the environment as one of mastery and exploitation. Christians are simply waiting out the deluge in the lifeboat, waiting to be rescued from this dying world. All that really matters is how many souls are saved.
If, on the other hand, the resurrection amounts to the reconciliation of all things in the body of Jesus, as Paul declares in Colossians 1:15-20, then that tells us something about the fundamental goodness of creation. No matter how tarnished it may be, no matter how radical a transformation it will undergo when Christ returns at the end of the age, the creation itself is destined for salvation. The resurrection has enabled us to make a “decision about the status of the ordering of creation as we still partially encounter it, both in ourselves and in the rest of the created order.” The decision is that natural law endures.
The practical implications of this are therefore significant. Because creation is good, because it continues to hold a place in God’s redemptive purposes, the created order – natural law – maintains its authoritative place in Christian ethics. O’Donovan ties together the various threads:
only if the order which we think we see, or something like it, is really present in the world, can there be an ‘evangelical’ ethics. Only so, indeed, can there be a Christian, rather than a Gnostic, gospel at all. The dynamic of the Christian faith, calling us to respond appropriately to the deeds of God on our behalf, supposes that there is an appropriate conformity of human response to divine act.
In other words, only if Christian ethics reflects the created moral order does it remain faithful to the gospel. Christians must constantly be about the business of demonstrating that the moral order found in Scripture is indeed that of the creation within which we live. It is, in short, natural law.
Far too much of modernity amounts to a war waged against creation for human ends. Women must have the right to choose to destroy the life within them if we are to be free. Industry must have the right to pollute rivers and groundwater if we are to be prosperous. Men must be permitted to use their property – even human property – precisely how they desire, if we are to be autonomous. Governments must be granted the unchecked ability to wage war against weaker nations if we are to be secure. Individuals must be permitted to engage in sexual relations that bring them pleasure, even to bring children into family structures that seem rewarding to them, regardless of the alienation from the body and from the sexuality of male and female that it entails, if we are to have genuine self-regard.
Christianity permits no such mechanical domination over nature. It requires, rather, a respect for natural law, finding genuine freedom within the order that God has created and that he has redeemed in Christ’s resurrection. And while Evangelicals are good at insisting on these principles for their own pet issues (i.e., abortion, same-sex marriage), their record is less impressive when it comes to others. Claims to a principled approach to politics, or to genuine interest in natural law, would be far more credible were they applied across the board. In the same sense that the health of the fetus, or of a sexual relationship, or of children, is normative for Christians, so the health of the environment, of material and social relationships, and of international affairs deserves our careful attention. The more power human beings, whether as individuals or collectively, have to exercise power unjustly in these areas, the more government is required to intervene to maintain at least a basic measure of justice and peace.
That does not mean we are imposing our religion, seeking to bring about a utopian kingdom of God. Although our motive is forward looking (faithfulness to Christ and his work) our standard is backward looking (conformity to the created order, or to natural law). Although the measure according to which we will be judged is that of perfection (idealism), we recognize that this side of Christ’s return – and in the realm of coercive politics – we are dealing with fallen human beings and a cursed creation (realism). We are therefore motivated and informed by distinctly Christian theology, but the basic material with which we are concerned and the practical knowledge on which we rely, is shared commonly between believers and unbelievers. Christ is lord of all, but we remain caught in the eschatological tension between the two kingdoms, between the present evil age and the kingdom of the age to come.
Anyone who takes all of these principles seriously will quickly see that the Christian religion is not a political conversation stopper. There are no direct lines between biblical teaching and environmental policy. Our Christian faith calls us to take our responsibility toward the environment seriously, and yet it is by no means immediately clear what this means in practical terms. Indeed, on a practical level unbelievers or pagans might hold more wisdom and prudence in these areas than we do. Our calling is humbly to serve, testifying in this way to the hope that lies within us.
Christianity does eliminate several options. We are not pagans who worship nature, setting it above human beings in status and worth. Nor are we humanists who value prosperity and wealth no matter what the human and environmental cost. We are Christians who recognize that the destiny both of ourselves and of creation is in Christ, and that in the meantime, we are to be stewards of the created order, to the best of our ability.
In December 1966, historian Lynn White gave a paper at the American Association for the Advancement of Science arguing that the roots of America’s environmental crisis lay in Christianity and Judaism. White’s paper, which has shaped the anti-Christian animus within parts of the environmental movement for decades, was published in 1967 in Science magazine with the title, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis.”
White argued that the notion of a God who is transcendent over his creation desacralized nature, turning it into a mere instrument for human purposes. Judeo-Christian theology, which not only gives humans dominion over creation, but (in light of the curse) calls them to struggle against it for their survival, helped to promote a utilitarian and exploitative approach to nature as a mere resource, an attitude that became more and more destructive throughout the modern period.
White’s argument has been refuted many times over the years, but that has not eliminated its force among environmentalists as a general critique of Christianity. The reason for that, in part, is that his argument does have an element of truth to it. There is no doubt that over the centuries, especially after the Enlightenment, many Christians have viewed the creation with precisely the attitude that White describes. In the heady days of exploration, colonization, and imperialism during the 17th and 18th centuries, many self-proclaimed Christians embraced the Enlightenment’s turn to the self, to rationality, and to the scientific method, arguing that it was the white man’s (in the gendered sense) destiny to conquer the world and to exploit its people and resources for human advantage. However much they may have rejected various parts of this view, more orthodox Christians nevertheless often fell under its influence in practice (and even ideology) as well.
White’s argument has been rendered all the more plausible since the 1960s because of the influence of the culture wars on the environmental movement. As Robert H. Nelson argues in his interesting book, The New Holy Wars: Economic Religion Versus Environmental Religion in Contemporary America, both economics and environmentalism have taken on nothing less than a religious character and fervor in their attempts to explain world possibilities and challenges while claiming full moral authority over human life. For various reasons, one of which is the unnecessary and self-destructive impulse of the environmental movement to demonize business, industry, and capital, and to rely on centralized federal bureaucracy to advance its cause, the Christian Right has tended to ally itself with economic religion rather than environmental religion.
Today, most Americans, including Christians, share broadly in the concern about the environment as well as in the judgment that the federal government should protect that environment by regulating industry, limiting pollution, and conserving natural resources and parks. But despite the encouraging emergence of the Creation Care movement within Evangelicalism, environmentalism remains powerfully influenced by forms of pantheism and other profoundly anti-Christian instincts. In the political spectrum that shapes our outlook on just about everything in this politicized country, the environmental movement remains on the far left.
If there is any area in which a rapprochement would be for the benefit of all, this is it. Eliminating the left’s grip on the environmental movement, and especially on government bureaucracies like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), would give it more credibility among the American public, and broaden its influence. It would mitigate the statist impulse that so often informs its political campaigns by encouraging the sort of market oriented strategies that often work best. It would curb conservatives’ tendency to oppose environmental regulation in the name of free enterprise no matter how necessary that regulation in a particular case might be. In short, it would help liberals and conservatives alike to see that Christianity, care for the environment, and commitment to a free market economy need not be, and never should have been, rivals in a zero-sum game.
Is there a way forward? No doubt it will be a challenge to overcome the politicization that plagues more and more of American life as the years wear on, but there are promising signs that at least Christians are increasingly interested in improving their record on creation care.
In a (for the most part) excellent essay in The Cambridge Companion to Christian Ethics entitled “Ecology and Christian Ethics,” Michael S. Northcott demonstrates that the roots of the West’s instrumentalist, exploitative attitude towards nature lie in the Enlightenment, not in orthodox Christian theology. It is not simply a matter of demonstrating that God called the creation good, or that the dominion God gave to Adam and Eve in Genesis is a matter of stewardship and protection rather than exploitation or domination. Much more, Northcott argues, following Oliver O’Donovan’s excellent book Resurrection and Moral Order, Christian theology and ethics is shaped by the central paradigmatic event of Jesus’ resurrection. In Jesus’ incarnation God demonstrated his commitment to save the material world from human sin and the curse. In Jesus’ resurrection God gave that creation a new life, reconciling all things to himself. In Christ’s resurrection, in other words, creation and redemption come together. Both find their goal, their hope, and their telos, in the coming kingdom of God. Every time Christians partake of the Eucharist, as Ben Quash points out, they celebrate – in a profoundly earthy way, by the consumption of bread and wine – this hope.
That does not mean Christians forget about the curse or imagine that Jesus will restore the creation to wholeness before his return to judge the living and the dead at the end of the age. It doesn’t mean they imagine that their actions relative to the environment have eternal material consequences (Jesus builds his kingdom, not us.) It does mean that Christians shouldn’t relegate nature to that which does not matter, to that which is forever cursed, or to that which will end in destruction. The creation groans, as Paul says in Romans 8, because it awaits its transformation. Christians should relate to creation as that which, like them, is destined for salvation.
Although he does not use the term, then, Northcott ends up proposing something like a two kingdoms approach to care for the environment. We should never imagine that our efforts are transforming the cosmos or bringing the kingdom to earth; we should expect to witness to God’s love for creation, and to his promise to transform it, by treating it with care, respect, and justice. We shouldn’t fall under the spell of utopian schemes to return nature to some sort of pristine, untarnished state. We should do our best to minimize the harmful effects of human sin and carelessness, a goal balanced only by the other tasks to which we are called (i.e., the promotion of human flourishing).
There’s so much more to say here, of course (so don’t blame me in the comments section for not saying something you think I should have said, though feel free to argue with what I have said). In future posts I hope to consider the significance of natural law in all of this, as well as the appropriate balance between environmental and free market concerns. But hopefully this is a good start.
In their excellent book Modest, Tim Challies and R. W. Glenn note that when Christians argue over whether or not women should wear bikinis (an argument being waged on the electronic pages of the Aquila Report this week) they often confuse the real issues – and virtues – that are at stake. Challies and Glenn draw our attention to a statement by C. S. Lewis in Mere Christianity, distinguishing between chastity, modesty, and charity.
The Christian rule of chastity must not be confused with the social rule of ‘modesty’ (in one sense of that word); i.e., propriety, or decency. The social rule of propriety lays down how much of the human body should be displayed and what subjects can be referred to, and in what words, according to the customs of a given social circle. Thus, while the rule of chastity is the same for all Christians at all times, the rule of propriety changes. A girl in the Pacific islands wearing hardly any clothes and a Victorian lady completely covered in clothes might both be equally ‘modest,’ proper, or decent, according to the standards of their own societies: and both, for all we could tell by their dress, might be equally chaste (or unchaste)…. When people break the rule of propriety current in their own time and place, if they do so in order to excite lust in themselves or others, then they are offending against chastity. But if they break it through ignorance or carelessness they are guilty only of bad manners. When, as so often happens, they break it defiantly in order to shock or embarrass others, they are not necessarily being unchaste, but they are being uncharitable. (Mere Christianity, 83-84)
Those seeking clear and precise standards for modesty from Scripture are sure either to abuse and manipulate the text, or, if they are more careful, bound to be disappointed. Because modesty, even in Scripture, is a relative virtue. As Challies and Glenn define it, “Modesty is that virtue which is respectful of a culture’s rules for appropriate and inappropriate dress, speech, and behavior in a given situation.”
The argument that those who oppose bikinis need to be making is not that bikinis offend against modesty or chastity but that they offend against charity. In fact, the better arguments, such as that of Rachel Clark last week, do emphasize that the fundamental issue is one of charity. But even Clark confuses a woman’s self-sacrificial decision not to wear a bikini, out of love for the men who might be tempted when they see her, with the virtue of modesty itself.
Once, however, we grasp that the issue at hand is that of charity, rather than modesty, then it becomes important to ensure that we are acting charitably to the woman who decides to wear a bikini as well as to the man who wishes she didn’t. This means at least two things. First, a man seeking to be virtuous in his attitude towards women fails entirely if he only manages to avoid lust when such women are dressed according to his own demands. If that man is truly to conform to the image of Jesus, he must learn to love, and to act virtuously towards, a woman in a bikini. Second, those women who believe they demonstrate love for others by not wearing bikinis must make sure that they demonstrate equal love for others by respecting those who do choose to wear one. This is not exactly a matter on which Scripture has ruled decisively.
Yet in her essay Clark manages to make the case against women wearing bikinis only by first reducing women (by analogy) to the status of the objects of consumer desires. She writes,
Let’s try and put ourselves in a guy’s shoes. I think we can all agree that as girls, exercise is important to us. We want to stay healthy and are often working on getting fit. We work out and stay away from carbs or sweets. We use all of our willpower to not eat the chocolate cake on the counter! Now, let’s pretend that someone picked up that chocolate cake and followed us around all the time, 24/7. We can never get away from the chocolate, it’s always right there, tempting us and even smelling all ooey gooey and chocolate-y. Most of us, myself included, would find it easy to break down and eat the cake. And we would probably continue to break down and eat cake, because it would always be there. Our exercise goals would be long gone in no time.
This is how I imagine it is for guys.
If women are mere sex objects, this logic makes sense. But if women are human beings, made in the image of God, then the argument fails entirely. Because a man has no right to process a woman made in the image of God as he would an object for his appetite, sexual or otherwise. As Aimee Byrd puts it in her excellent response to Clark,
First of all, I am a woman made in the image of God, not a piece of cake. Isn’t that a huge part of the problem with our thinking about sexuality? I don’t want my daughters to think of themselves as some tantalizing dessert that needs to always be self-conscious that they look too good. Sure, I care very much about what they wear, and they would say that I am pretty strict, but I’m trying to send a healthy message about beauty and modesty.
Byrd drives the question home in a very helpful way:
Of course, this also begs the question, If a woman looks good in her bathing suit, is that being immodest? There’s also the question that I’ve asked before, Can a man admire a beautiful woman without sexually fantasizing about her?
If we come to the conclusion that some men cannot help but sin if they are confronted with a woman in a bikini, we must also come to the conclusion that those men are in deep, deep trouble. Because you cannot possibly function in our culture without being able to handle such images. You can’t drive down the highway. You can’t go to the airport. You can’t purchase bread at the grocery store. You might not even be able to put gas in your car. You certainly can’t have yahoo mail.
Nothing outside of a man can make him unclean, as Jesus said in Mark 7. Rather, sexual immorality stems from the heart. That’s why Jesus, in contrast to the Pharisees, places the burden of lust on men, as I argue in this sermon. If we allow men to think they should never be confronted with attractive women we are setting them up for massive failure.
It’s interesting. Both the world and fundamentalists agree that we live in a sex-saturated culture, and that it is very difficult for many men not to lust after women in such a culture. The response of the world, quite often (though not always), is to say, Just do it. Far too often the response of fundamentalists is little better: Just don’t do it. The world says look and lust. Fundamentalists say look away. But the gospel calls us to look with the eyes of Jesus, seeing not sex objects to be consumed or avoided at your choice, but seeing human beings made in the image of God. That’s the real issue. If we are serious about being conformed to the image of Christ, we need to be trained not to look away, or even not to look at all, but to look with the love of Christ.
In a helpful essay published last month by Reformation 21, Nick Batzig draws attention to a point not often appreciated or discussed among Christian theologians. When Paul talks about the curse of the law satisfied by Christ in Galatians 3:13, he is talking about Israel’s civil law.
An important biblical theological idea emerges out of Paul’s use of Deuteronomy 21:23 in Galatians 3:13. In the middle of the most polemical book in the New Testament, Paul made the astounding declaration: “Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us (for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’).” The immediate context shows that the curse to which Paul is referring is the curse of the law (Gal. 3:10-11). Returning to Deuteronomy 21, out of which Paul takes the command for capital punishment and applies it to Christ, we discover the theological riches of Gal. 3:13. In Deuteronomy 21:23 we read:“If a man has committed a sin deserving of death, and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain overnight on the tree, but you shall surely bury him that day, so that you do not defile the land which the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance; for he who is hanged is accursed of God.” (Deut. 21:22-23)The civil law, given to Israel in redemptive-history, was meant to prepare God’s people for the coming Redeemer. Just as the moral and ceremonial laws pointed to Jesus and our need for Him, so too did the judicial principles of the civil law. The civil law as a redemptive-historical guide is one that has often been neglected–and yet it is one of the richest in all the Scriptures.
When we come to the New Testament we do not find the apostles insisting on the church’s implementation of civil law into the governments. Rather, we find them applying it spiritually to the life of the New Covenant church.
I already commented in passing on this in my post yesterday, but given that Mark Van Der Molen’s article has now been republished by the Aquila Report, I thought it would be helpful to make the point explicitly.
In his essay Van Der Molen presents the following as part of the text of the Belgic Confession:
And being called in this manner to contribute to the advancement of a society that is pleasing to God, the civil rulers have the task, in subjection to the law of God, while completely refraining from every tendency toward exercising absolute authority, and while functioning in the sphere entrusted to them, with the means belonging to them, to remove every obstacle to the preaching of the gospel and to every aspect of divine worship, in order that the Word of God may have free course, the kingdom of Jesus Christ may make progress, and every anti-Christian power may be resisted.
Van Der Molen is a URC elder, so he should know better than this, but this rejoinder is for those of you outside of the URC, who cannot check his claim against the URC’s 1976 Psalter Hymnal. There the text of the relevant portion of the Belgic Confession reads as follows:
Their office is not only to have regard unto and watch for the welfare of the civil state, but also to protect the sacred ministry, that the kingdom of Christ may thus be promoted. They must therefore countenance the preaching of the Word of the gospel everywhere, that God may be honored and worshipped by every one, as He commands in His Word.
Van Der Molen’s quotation does not appear. The text Van Der Molen cites appears in a footnote to the confession, which presents it as a statement adopted by the CRC’s Synod of 1958 and proposed for evaluation. Here is the exact text of the footnote, introducing the text Van Der Molen cites:
The Synod of 1958 approved the following substitute statement which has been referred to other Reformed Churches accepting the Belgic Confession as their creed for evaluation and reaction: …
The statement is therefore not incorporated into the Confession. It is not confessionally binding, as Van Der Molen claims it is.
It’s one thing for Van Der Molen to make his arguments about the Belgic Confession and against two kingdoms theology. It’s another thing – and entirely inappropriate – for him explicitly to misrepresent the URC’s Confession of Faith.
[Note: I should add that neither the version of the Belgic Confession published by Oceanside and Pasadena URCs, and widely used in the URCNA, nor the version of the Confession published and used by Mid-America Reformed Seminary, include the text Van Der Molen insists is part of the Confession. They do not even place it in the footnote.]
In the February 27 issue of Christian Renewal Doug Barnes, a pastor in the denomination of which I am a member, writes a column addressing readers’ concerns about two kingdoms theology. Barnes declares that the two kingdoms doctrine “currently making waves” is sometimes called the “Radical Two Kingdoms” doctrine because it is so “sweeping” and “vast” in its implications. Clearly this is pretty serious stuff.
Barnes goes on to describe the two kingdoms view as one that divides the world into two spheres, the redemptive kingdom containing the church, and the common kingdom containing “the state and all other social institutions” (there is no eschatological nuance recognized here). In this kingdom, he says, “God reveals his will not by Scripture, but by ‘natural law’” (emphasis added). To drive the “vast” implications home to his readers, he then affirms that two kingdoms theologians believe Scripture is intended for the church but not for “the life of the common kingdom.”
The church has neither the right nor the calling to preach about politics or other matters distinct to life in the common kingdom, according to Two Kingdoms proponents.
Yikes. If what Barnes is saying is true, these two kingdoms people are arguing that God does not reveal his will about anything in the common kingdom in Scripture, and that pastors should therefore never say anything about marriage, the raising of children, relations between masters and slaves, or civil government, the sorts of matters discussed regularly in the New Testament. If what Barnes is saying is true, in other words, the theologians he has in view must be denying the authority of Scripture at best; they are outright heretical at worst. How many of Barnes’s readers come to just this conclusion? Labeling the doctrine “radical” doesn’t exactly set the stage for objective consideration.
Who does Barnes identify as the leaders of this wave, this movement that is so sweeping in its implications? He mentions three names, Michael Horton, R. Scott Clark, and David VanDrunen. VanDrunen is the chief theorist, of course, but Barnes points his readers to the book Kingdoms Apart, which he assures them, has ably addressed VanDrunen’s troubling views (for evidence that this is not remotely the case, see my review of Kingdoms Apart here and here, and VanDrunen’s review here). The most redeeming thing about Barnes’s column is that he points his readers to VanDrunen’s book Living in God’s Two Kingdoms (although he immediately reminds his readers that they should quickly follow up this book by reading Cornel Venema’s critique of it).
Yes, please do go and read VanDrunen’s book. If you do, I hope you note that this is a book that claims to present what Scripture teaches about both of God’s two kingdoms. On its very face, therefore, the book challenges Barnes’s characterization of two kingdoms theology as a view that claims God does not reveal his will about the common kingdom in Scripture. Then, after reading the first five chapters of the book, which lay out biblical theological foundations for the two kingdoms view, note that VanDrunen concludes the book with two chapters, one of which discusses Scripture’s teaching on the church, the other of which discusses Scripture’s teaching on education, vocation, and politics. The latter chapter, by the way, is longer than the former.
In fact, on pages 194-203 VanDrunen goes on to outline what he believes Scripture teaches about politics, and how the church should proclaim these truths while avoiding usurping God’s authority by going beyond them. VanDrunen even concludes the section by declaring that there may be times when pastors need to specifically address particular political controversies or public policies. “Each preacher must wrestle conscientiously with the particular text he is expounding and determine what obligations it undoubtedly places upon his hearers” (203).
It is time for serious Reformed people to step up and demand that whatever concerns people may have about two kingdoms theology, they raise them in a responsible way. If you want to criticize someone, I was always taught, you have to earn the right by showing that you actually understand their views, summarizing those views in terms they themselves would recognize. This has not been happening much lately in certain circles. To be sure, there are important questions worth asking and yes, there are legitimate criticisms of certain versions of two kingdoms theology that need to be made. But this is not the way to do it.
Note that Barnes and others are raising the stakes quite high here. Barnes admits that the “first generation” of two kingdoms proponents are “firmly committed to the confessions” and suggests “that keeps them from working their doctrine out to its logical ends.” Later generations, however, can be expected to follow the doctrine to its obvious conclusions. What then? “If that happens with the Radical Two Kingdoms doctrine, I suspect our broader assemblies eventually will need to evaluate how compatible the Radical Two Kingdoms doctrine is with our confessions.”
In fact, some confessional watchmen are already doing just that. Interestingly enough, in a ten page essay comparing two kingdoms theology to Belgic Confession Article 36, Mark VanDerMolen, an elder in the same denomination, focuses almost entirely on blog posts and does not even mention the name VanDrunen. He embraces a view of Belgic 36 that takes the footnote found in the 1976 Psalter Hymnal as confessionally binding, a view that would not be widely shared within the denomination. He ends up concluding that Belgic 36 includes three vital claims:
- the Magistrate is subject to both tables of God’s law
- the Magistrate is subject to the authority of God’s Word
- the Magistrate is ordained to advance the kingdom of Christ
I’m not aware of any two kingdoms theologian who would dispute the first two points. While it is true that all two kingdoms theologians agree that government should not enforce everything commanded in both tables of God’s law, I’m not aware of any two kingdoms theologian who argues that they magistrates may with impunity disobey them. No two kingdoms theologian thinks, for instance, that magistrates are justified in worshiping false gods or idols, blaspheming God’s name, or teaching false doctrine.
On the third point, VanDerMolen’s phrasing is sloppy. Belgic 36 does not declare that the Magistrate is ordained to advance the kingdom of Christ. What it says is the following:
Their office is not only to have regard unto and watch for the welfare of the civil state, but also to protect the sacred ministry, that the kingdom of Christ may thus be promoted. They must therefore countenance the preaching of the Word of the gospel everywhere, that God may be honored and worshipped by everyone, as He commands in His Word.
As Nelson Kloosterman clarifies on his own blog (where, however, he hosts and seems wholeheartedly to affirm VanDerMolen’s essay),
BC 36 does not require civil rulers to agree with the gospel preached or to engage in divine worship, but to remove every obstacle that could impede these. Nor does BC 36 require civil rulers to advance the kingdom of Jesus Christ or to resist every anti-christian power—but to fulfill their calling of obstacle-removal for these purposes to be achieved, presumably by Christians.
Exactly. Civil government is indeed ordained by God to fulfill certain purposes that contribute to the advancement of the kingdom of God, but such advancement is indirect, not direct (Calvin in his commentary on John 18 says it is accidental). And while Kloosterman does not admit it here, this insight comes directly from the two kingdoms theology of which he is so critical. Every Reformed two kingdoms theologian since Calvin has emphasized that civil government may not engage in the ministry of the gospel or the administration of the sacraments because Christ’s spiritual and political kingdoms are distinct and not to be confused. Article 36 of the Belgic Confession of Faith does not contest two kingdoms theology. It assumes it.
In his own essay VanDerMolen writes,
Undoubtedly, the manner of the magistrate accomplishing its God-ordained and God-honoring purposes in a pluralistic age lead[s] us into difficult thorny questions. But difficulty in application does not abrogate the principles we confess.
Thank you. That is precisely the premise of the scholars, like VanDrunen and myself, who have actually devoted significant scholarly attention to this problem. We are not questioning the principles we confess. We are trying to work through the “difficult thorny questions” that arise when these principles, as well as the teaching of Scripture in general, are applied to our pluralistic age. Can we get on with that task now?
[Note: For a brief, general introduction to two kingdoms theology, see these essays at Reformation 21:
The preface to an album I purchased at Auschwitz properly describes the Holocaust as the great watershed moment for modern Europe. The Nazis planned the complete extermination of European Jewry but they also believed, as SS leader Heinrich Himmler declared, that the genocide was a story that would never be written. As Soviet forces approached Auschwitz-Birkenau they tried to wipe out all traces of what they had done, destroying the gas chambers and crematorium. But, as Piotr M. A. Cywinski notes in the book’s preface,
They failed in this in a way that they surely did not anticipate in their darkest surmises. The memory not only endured, but it changed the view of all contemporary civilization. Relations between European states were rebuilt on completely different principles – communitarianism and solidarity. Genocide and crimes against humanity have been defined legally. Protection of minorities has become a basic democratic norm. The Holocaust has become a fundamental reference point in culture, philosophy, theology, and all of anthropology – what is more, it increasingly plays the role of a historical European turning point. Nothing is what it was before. Without the Holocaust, there is no way to understand Europe today. (Auschwitz-Birkenau: The Place Where You Are Standing … 2012)
That is exactly right. Apart from World War II and the Holocaust, the foundations of the modern international order would never have been established: the United Nations, the European Union, internationally embraced norms of human rights and international law, the supremacy of the liberal democratic political order.
These principles aren’t entirely new, of course. They are deeply rooted in Christianity and the legacy of Christendom, as numerous scholars have demonstrated. Rather than a rejection of Europe’s Christian past in favor of the Enlightenment, as is often assumed, they amount to a secular affirmation of Christianity’s most basic humanitarian principles. They are new only because they synthesize those principles with the best insights of the Enlightenment and work them out in the context of modernity. They are new insofar as they are a rejection of modernity’s most horrific 20th Century legacy: racism, militant nationalism, communism, totalitarianism, and world war.
In my past few blog posts I’ve described the ongoing legacy of World War II and the Holocaust in Berlin and in Poland. Europe’s not so distant past is incredibly dark, and no religious or political tradition, no ethnic or national group is free of blemish or taint. Some groups come out better than others, but too often it is only because they lacked the power to do worse, or because they suffered so much that we simply view them as victims. There are very good reasons why Europeans are skeptical about dogmatic political, national, and religious ideologies. There are even better reasons why they are absolutely committed to human rights and to the protection of minorities.
American conservatives, specifically Christian conservatives, tend to be pessimistic about the future of America, of Christianity, and of western culture. Yet we need this history, and these stories, to put things in perspective. The 1930s, the 1950s, the 1980s, were not the good ole’ days. The history of the West is not a history of unilinear decline. The emergence of international organizations like the UN and the EU, the widespread embrace of human rights and basic free market principles, the rejection of nationalism, racism, and the persecution of minorities, and the supremacy of the liberal political tradition over Fascism, Nazism, and Communism all tell a different story. Although few people appreciate it today, especially in Europe, none of this is conceivable apart from the legacy of Christendom, of Christian political principles, and of basic human awareness of natural law.
One of the most important task facing American and European Christians in our time is to offer our skeptical neighbors hope by witnessing to the gospel of Christ. An entire continent is turning away from the faith that shaped it so decisively, confusing evil, injustice, and hypocrisy with what is good, what is just, and what is true. It is by no means clear that these people understand the alternative. Surely few of them grasp the importance of Christian convictions regarding God, humanity, and natural law as the foundation for the liberal order to which they remain so committed. Christians, for their part, need to be honest and own up to our tradition’s complicity in the tragedies of the past. Let’s stop pretending that to be be Christian is to be conservative. But we also need to be courageous in demonstrating that the best hope of the future – the true insights of the liberal tradition – are rooted in the truths of Christianity.
The hope of the future, of course, is neither Christendom nor liberalism. Human history is a long story of “one damned thing after another,” of course, and that is as true for the achievements of the middle ages and modernity alike. But truth shines through, or is at least reflected, in the debris. The hope for all human beings is that God was incarnate in the flesh, that Jesus Christ died for our sins, was raised, and now reigns at God’s right hand. One day he will will set all things right in the perfect justice of his kingdom.
The European Court of Human Rights has rejected appeals by British Christians in two cases in which the individuals were fired by their employers for refusing to perform services for homosexuals that violated their conscience. One of the cases involves a local government employee who refused to conduct civil partnership ceremonies. The other involves a charity employee who indicated he could not in good conscience assist homosexual couples with their sex lives.
Marriage registrar Miss Ladele was disciplined by Islington [a London borough] council for refusing to conduct civil partnership ceremonies when they were legalised in 2004 … Mr McFarlane was dismissed as a relationship counsellor at charity Relate after he said he was prepared to counsel same sex couples but not to discuss sexual issues.
Peter Saunders worries that these cases set an obvious precedent: gay rights trump conscience rights.
The two rulings demonstrate that under British law gay rights now trump conscience rights and that reasonable accommodation need not be made for employees. At a stroke this puts at risk the job of any employee objecting to helping gay couples in activities they believe to be wrong (eg. Celebrating a civil partnership, adopting a baby, having sexual counselling etc).
Saunders does see a silver lining in the court’s logic.
The European Court decided that decisions of the UK Courts were within the ‘margin of appreciation’ (discretion) that it allows to national Courts – but in so doing it challenged many of the principles adopted by UK Courts and asserted by the British government.
So for example, the UK Courts had held that beliefs about marriage as between a man and a woman was not a core component of Christian belief and so not protected. The European Court said that these beliefs were part of Gary and Lillian’s Christian identity and so were in principle protected!
The British Government also suggested that because the individuals were free to resign and find other jobs, there had been no infringement of their freedom of religion – in other words, ‘your freedom to resign secures your freedom of religion’. But the European Court ruled that ‘freedom to resign and find another job’ is not sufficient to guarantee religious freedom.
These are significant breakthroughs and will be a great help in contending for Christian freedoms in the UK Courts in the future.
Cases like these will be important to follow moving forward. Liberal democracies are committed to protecting minority rights. The problems arise because often these rights conflict. Still, it is worth noting that what is at issue here is not the right of gay couples to enter into civil partnerships or receive sex counseling. What is at issue is whether a particular individual can be required to perform such services as a condition of maintaining her employment. The real issue is therefore not about gay rights vs conscience rights, but about duties vs rights. Simply put, do the British really think that the duty to offer particular services to homosexual couples trump freedom of conscience?
During my stay in Poland last week I had the privilege of visiting many of the important sites of recent Polish history. There is the city of Poznan, where my mother-in-law studied, Polish and Catholic through and through, but still witnessing to 150 years of Prussian/German occupation with its Protestant church named after Kaiser Wilhelm II. There is the astonishingly beautiful city of Krakow, which was undamaged during the war, but whose massive Wawel castle served as the headquarters for the brutal Nazi governor general of Poland, Hans Frank.
Then there is Auschwitz. Auschwitz I was particularly meaningful for me, as it was there that my wife’s great-grandfather was murdered in 1941. He was part of the Polish ‘intelligentsia,’ an engineer who designed antiaircraft weaponry for the Polish military. After the German invasion of Poland in September 1939 he initially avoided arrest by going into hiding. Even during the months before he was captured, my wife’s grandmother (We call her, in the Polish way, Bapcia Hanna) tells me, she, a young girl of 7 years at the time, did not get to see him. But he apparently remained involved in the nascent Polish partisan movement, and when he was accidentally arrested in late 1940, the Nazis quickly figured out who he was. He lasted 7 months in Auschwitz, sending one letter to his family each month (these letters are now in the possession of my mother-in-law). The last letter came from Block 11, the infamous barrack next to the shooting wall in which the Germans kept the prisoners they intended to torture, starve, or murder. It was in the basement of this barrack that the Nazis first experimented with the gas Zyklon B on Soviet prisoners.
Auschwitz II, otherwise known as Auschwitz-Birkenau, much larger than Auschwitz I, was the largest and most efficient of the Nazis’ extermination camps. It was here that the Nazis murdered over 1 million Jews, many of them Hungarian, during the last years of the war. A German soldier – we will likely never know who – somehow photographed the process through which several trainloads of Hungarians were brought to Birkenau and murdered. Now you can go to the very places where the photographs were taken, identifying precisely how these men, women, and children were taken off the trains, removed of their possessions, and divided by ‘selection’ into two groups: those who were to be put to work as slaves, and those who were to be immediately gassed. For those in the latter category, it was a short walk to the gas chambers at the back of the camp. The whole process from debarkation to death might not last more than 30 minutes. The Nazis tried to demolish the chambers and crematorium but the ruins are still there, and you can easily identify the undressing room, the gas chamber, and the crematorium based on the architectural plans the Nazis failed to destroy.
Then there is Warsaw, the city entirely destroyed by the Nazis in retaliation for the Polish Home Army’s uprising in late 1944, yet rebuilt in its core areas with such meticulous care that it has been designated as a UNESCO world heritage sight (the only such sight that is a reconstruction). I had the good fortune of being shown around the city by Bapcia Hanna’s partner Teddy, who was a boy during the war. Teddy told me how during his first encounter with German soldiers in 1939, as a boy of ten, he was beaten for failing to get off the sidewalk when the soldiers passed by. Later Teddy became one of those remarkable Polish youths who were involved in partisan work, serving as a courier, training with weapons, and even sabotaging German railroads and trains. Teddy describes one such foiled effort, in which he and a friend had to flee into a forest while under direct fire from German soldiers. Teddy also showed me the house in the old part of Warsaw, now reconstructed, in which he had once lived, and in which his uncle, aunt, and their children lived during the uprising. The home was destroyed by the bombing and Teddy’s family had to dig themselves out.
Today there is a famous monument in Warsaw to the boy soldiers who fought, and in many cases died, during the Warsaw uprising in 1944. Teddy, 15 at the time, and his older brother were prevented from joining in the uprising by the cordon of German troops around Warsaw. Despite the fact that over 200,000 partisans and civilians were killed by the Germans during and after the uprising, Teddy tells me that to this day he regrets not having been able to participate. Bapcia Hanna’s mother, apparently carrying on her husband’s work (and apparently refusing to believe until well after the war that her husband had really been murdered), brought her two children to a farm south of Warsaw, then returned to serve in the uprising, like many other women, by preparing food for the partisans. Captured by the Germans like so many others, she avoided a concentration camp by escaping and managed to get back to her children. She did not escape the brutality of the Soviet soldiers who subjected thousands of Polish, German, and other women to rape and abuse as they occupied the region following the retreating German army.
Warsaw also witnesses to the Holocaust. During the war the city’s massive Jewish population was confined along with Jews from other places within a ghetto of only a few square miles. Conditions, which the Nazis captured on film, were horrific. Well before the ghetto inhabitants were deported to extermination camps thousands had died from the effects of overcrowding, starvation, and disease. Both Bapcia Hanna and Teddy described to me what they saw when they passed through the ghetto on the tram (whose windows were supposed to be darkened so that the Poles could not see what was taking place). The suffering, starvation, and death, stared them in the face.
Americans and western Europeans tend to look back on World War II as a just war that ended in victory. Poles don’t necessarily think of it that way. Poland, we forget, was invaded by two brutal armies during September 1939, the German and the Soviet. Both occupying forces murdered Poles by the thousands and deported Polish civilians by the hundreds of thousands. Both persecuted the Catholic Church and both sought to wipe out any semblance of Polish culture and nationality. The Polish became reluctant allies of the Soviets when Hitler invaded Russia in 1941, hoping that with British help their country might yet win its independence. They rose up against the Germans in 1944 in anticipation that the Soviets would come to their assistance. But Stalin intentionally betrayed them, hoping to see the Germans wipe out the underground government and military that might serve as the foundation for a future free Polish state.
Six million Poles, half of them Jews, died during World War II (the total population of Poland on the eve of war was just over 30 million people). Yet the Poles, as they will tell you today, were not liberated in 1944. The British and the Americans betrayed Poland, along with the other countries east of the iron curtain, to the Soviets, figuring that Polish freedom was a small price to pay for the avoidance of war with the Soviet Union. The Soviets subjected the nation to their own brutality, and though communism was challenged by the Catholic Church and the solidarity movement in the 1980s, communism did not finally collapse until 1989. It was only then that the Polish people could erect a monument to the Polish resistance during World War II, or could openly discuss the Soviet murder of thousands of Polish officers in 1940, the communists having subjected the people to decades of propaganda and deceit.
To this day the Poles are still coming to grips with what exactly happened during those fifty brutal years. Given the years of manipulation and deceit, it is not only the conspiracy theorists who are skeptical and wary of standard historical accounts. Yet the churches in Poland, unlike in Germany and other parts of eastern Europe, remain vibrant and full, a testimony to their role in resisting the oppression of Nazis and Soviets alike, in providing hope by pointing to another way of life. The challenges for the younger generation are obvious, and here the churches have their work cut out for them. Still, for Poland, it would seem, the future can only be brighter than the past. I sure hope so.
Americans often look back on the past with a sense of nostalgia, a feeling that for several centuries now we’ve had something very good going on here in this country. Although we are a very forward-looking people, we love to remember, to preserve, and to honor the heroes of the past.
Germans could not be more different. Berlin is a city whose troubled history overwhelms visitors and residents alike. The city has suffered more calamity in one hundred years than most cities endure in a thousand. The most famous sites – the Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag building, the Berliner Dom – are all reconstructed or significantly repaired in the wake of damage from fire, bombs, and battle. The Germans have surrounded these monuments with exhibitions and displays reminding passers-by of just what horrors took place on these grounds in past years. A few images show Nazi soldiers marching these very streets and doing their damage. Many more feature the numerous heroes who resisted the Nazi scourge – usually paying the ultimate price. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s photo, with an explanation of his story in various languages, is there, a few hundred yards from the reconstructed Reichstag building.
The buildings and monuments point back to better times as well, of course. The Reichstag was the meeting point for the German parliament in the brief years of democracy between World War I and Hitler’s rise to power. The Brandenburg Gate, like France’s Arc de Triomphe, hails to a spirit of patriotism and an age of military success with which any people can identity in some sense. And the Berliner Dom reminds its visitors of Germany’s solidly Protestant, Christian past. In the sanctuary prominent statues of Martin Luther, John Calvin, and other reformers are symbols of an evangelical tradition in which the Calvinist Prussian Hohenzollern dynasty united together Reformed and Lutheran branches of the Reformation in one united Prussian church.
But at the heart of Berlin, only a few blocks from the city’s massive postmodern Jewish memorial, the legacy of the Nazi past again confronts the careful observer. Walk the Wilhemstrasse, once the nerve center of Hitler’s government, and you will see a number of prominent Nazi buildings that fully or in part survived the Allied bombing of the city – the propaganda ministry building, the air ministry building, and more. A sign (Germans are careful to insist that it is not a plaque) tells you that where communist-era apartment buildings now appear Hitler’s Chancellery once stood. Pass down a side street, duck through an opening in the row of buildings, and you find yourself in a grass and gravel covered parking lot. Oddly enough, this ugly parking lot is full of interested, chattering tourists. As another sign informs you (again, not a plaque), this was the site of Hitler’s bunker. Germany refused to indicate the site until only a few years ago, not wanting it to become a shrine for neo-Nazis, but the myths and falsehoods swirling around about the site finally convinced the authorities that acknowledging the sordid truth is the best way to come to grips with the past in such a way that it will not be repeated.
The gift shops in Berlin are all about the era of communism and the Berlin Wall, which of course, ended just under 25 years ago. You can search far and wide but for the most part you won’t find postcards or tourist trinkets about World War II. Various segments of the Berlin Wall have been preserved, as well as a very touristy Checkpoint Charlie, and these sites get much more attention than do the World War II era bomb shelters, bunkers, or anti-aircraft towers that can still be found around the city.
Still, the key points for the Holocaust and Nazi terror are there. A few blocks east of the Berliner Dome, tucked away on the Rosenstrasse, there is a quiet monument to a group of German women who successfully protested and prevented the deportation of their Jewish husbands to extermination camps during 1943. The courageous protest saved some 1,800 lives. It was the only significant successful protest against the extermination of Jews in Germany during the war. You have to know about it to find it, but take the train to the Berlin-Grunewald station at the southwest edge of Berlin, pass under the rail lines, and there is a sign marked ‘Gleis 17′ pointing off to the left. Walk up the steps and you come to a stretch of old track, no longer used and now partly overgrown with weeds. Two stretches of old platform have been covered with a series of dozens of metal grates. On the top of each grate is a date, a number, and a place. Each one records the date of a deportation of Jews – usually in the hundreds – and the camp to which they were deported, usually Theresienstadt or Auschwitz. This was the train station from which Germany deported the Jews rounded up in the area of Berlin.
Another ten minutes on the train brings you to the beautiful resort town of Wannsee. It takes a short bus ride, but within twenty minutes you can reach the Wannsee Conference House, a beautiful mansion on the edge of the lake, surrounded by gardens and shaded by large trees. Here, unlike at the Gleis 17 memorial, there are a fair number of visitors. Wannsee was used for numerous purposes by the SS, the mansion serving as a place to host prominent officials as well as important meetings and conferences. The most important of these was the conference of January, 1942, at which SS officer Reinhard Heydrich gathered representatives of the various German bureaucracies and ministries for a brief but high level ‘discussion.’ As the perfectly preserved minutes of the meeting tell us, it was here that the SS made clear its ownership of the Final Solution of the Jewish problem, and just what it expected in cooperation from the various parts of the German government (you may have seen the stirring film Conspiracy, which dramatizes the conference). Here, as much as anywhere, the Holocaust was conceived. For me, it was the stark contrast between the evil that was conceived here and the mundane feel of the house and the pacific beauty of its idyllic neighborhood that made this the most depressing stop of all. How could the Germans have done this?
And the past does very much live on with the Germans, even the younger generation. Few Jews have returned to the country, and those who have often still feel like outsiders. Antisemitism remains strong among a fringe of the population. Jewish graves are still occasionally desecrated, and even in my short time in Berlin I was on the receiving end of remarks about “Jews” that it would be hard to imagine an American making. Also, the controversies remain. A few years ago, when the Holocaust memorial was being built, it emerged that one of the companies responsible for the construction was the same company that once produced Zyklon B, the gas used to murder millions of Jews at Auschwitz and other locations. Now, a middle-aged German grumbled to me, some of the solid stones of the monument are breaking apart. “We Germans can’t seem to get anything right.”
Yet as one young German noted, this history is pounded into them day after day in school. “We get it,” he said. “We’re not going to start a war again.” That’s quite obvious. If there is anywhere in the world where a country has come to grips with its own evil and its own crimes, it is Germany. Nothing has been shoved under the carpet here, as has been done, for instance, in China or Russia. Germans (unlike some Americans) fully appreciate that nationalism, conservatism, and religious or ethnic solidarity are forces that can easily degenerate into the worst forms of evil. There are no “good ole’ days” in the memories of Berliners.
Yet it is not hard to detect a wary skepticism among Germans even about the future. Although the country is dramatically outperforming many of its southern European neighbors, its economy and society are riddled with problems that raise questions about the sustainability of the country’s welfare state. The folks driving the BMWs, a German business owner told me, are often the unemployed. They don’t bother working because they get a higher income if they remain inactive. People are abandoning the churches and social institutions like marriage in droves. The young, in particular, seem to think that partying and fun are what makes life most worth living. If Berlin is known for anything now, in addition to its endless construction and reconstruction, it is the city’s nightlife. The trains run at all hours of the night, the partiers not leaving the clubs until light appears in the wee hours of the morning. There is little worth conserving in Berlin’s storied past, it seems; but many Germans wonder just what it is that is worth living for in the future.