Category Archives: The Secular
A classroom full of kindergarten students is busily working on their art projects. One student glances over at the work of the student sitting next to him. “What’s that?” he asks. “It’s a cat,” the second child answers. The other looks skeptical. “No, that can’t be. We have a cat at home, and that’s not what it looks like.” The second child stops drawing, stiffens, fixes his eyes straight ahead of himself, and repeats, “it’s a cat.” The first child insists again, absolutely sure of himself, “no it’s not.” The conversation gradually escalates, with each student offering reasons as to whether or not the object in view is or is not a cat. The first stresses the lack of fur, whiskers, and movement. The second points to the shape of the head, the ears, and the body.
Finally a teacher is forced to mediate, and quietly explains to the second student that what his critic means is that it’s not a real cat; it’s simply a picture of a cat. She then explains to the first student that what the other means is that it’s a picture of a cat, not a real cat. The same word can mean different – though similar – things, in different contexts. This is not something we are supposed to argue about.
Something similar to this often happens, I think, when Christians get to arguing about the meaning of words like ‘Christian’ or ‘culture’ or ‘redemption’ or ‘transformation.’ We act as if any of these terms has one, authoritative meaning that everyone is supposed to accept, and then criticize everyone who, using the word differently, makes statements that seem contrary to our own.
Consider the word ‘Christian.’ The word appears in the New Testament three times. In Acts 11:26 we are told that in Antioch the disciples of Jesus were first called ‘Christians.’ There is no hint that there is anything normative about this. It’s simply a passing reference to the historical origin of a descriptive term. In Acts 26:28 we come across the word again, this time in the mouth of a pagan ruler. After listening to the Apostle Paul proclaim the gospel King Agrippa asks, “In a short time, would you persuade me to be a Christian?” Here again it is obvious that the term refers to a follower of Jesus. Finally, in 1 Peter 4:16 the Apostle Peter reminds believers that whether or not suffering has a redemptive quality to it depends on whether or not a person is suffering “as a Christian,” as opposed to as a “murderer or a thief or an evildoer or a meddler.” Here the term seems to refer to someone who is actually following Christ in his or her conduct, rather than simply to someone who professes faith in Christ.
Of course, there are many other examples in the New Testament of the apostles declaring one thing or another to be “in Christ.” It would seem that these instances are also occasions in which the adjective ‘Christian’ might fairly be used. So for instance, when Romans 8:1 says that there is no no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, it would be a fair paraphrase to say that there is no condemnation for those who are Christians. Or when Paul says in Romans 9:1 that he is speaking the truth in Christ, it would be appropriate to say that he is declaring the “Christian truth.” Finally, when Paul says in Romans 12:5 that believers are “one body in Christ” we could paraphrase him as saying that we are “one Christian body.”
Fair enough? What then about those occasions in which Paul uses the phrase “in Christ” in breathtakingly expansive ways, ways indicative of the radical claims of the gospel over all of life. For instance, what about a passage like Colossians 1:15-20, in which Paul says that all things were created in Christ, all things are reconciled in Christ, and all things exist in Christ. Could we say that from this perspective there is a sense in which all things are definitively Christian (in origin, destiny, and existence)? It would seem so. At the very least it would seem very silly or petty of a person to say that we can say that something is “in Christ” and yet we cannot say that it is in any sense “Christian.”
From these examples you can readily see that the word ‘Christian’ can have a wide range of meanings. It can be a purely descriptive, historical term, referring to someone who outwardly professes to be a Christian. It can refer to someone who is actually living as a Christian, or to someone who is actually united to Christ. More broadly it could refer to the truth of Christianity, or even to the truth seen from the perspective of Christianity. Indeed, it could even refer to material objects insofar as they are seen in relation to Christ.
What then, about the word culture? Here we are on much more difficult ground, because the word culture is not a Scriptural word. There is a wide range of meanings and uses of the word culture, and all of them are correct. For instance, culture can refer to human products, such as a hammer, or an article of clothing. It can also refer to a set of beliefs or understood meaning about those products, such as a religious perspective or philosophical worldview. Ryan McIlhenny suggests in Kingdoms Apart that Christians should think of the redemption of culture (and remember, redemption is another tough word, with both concrete theological meanings and general secular meanings that predate Christianity) not in terms of the redemption of material things but as the expression of a Christian perspective on those things, i.e., about an understanding of how those things relate to Christ.
Darryl Hart has trouble with this. As he writes in a comment to Friday’s post on this blog, “I don’t think the Bible has much to say about cultural life.” What does he mean by that? Is he referring to the meaning of life, suggesting that the Bible doesn’t have much to say about the meaning of life? Or is he talking about the structure and nature of material things, as if to say, I don’t think the Bible has much scientific or technical information in it? The first understanding of Darryl’s sentiment would be absurd; the second makes a whole lot of sense. Darryl gives an indication of how he is thinking:
It seems to me that when Christians make culture they end up making things informed as much by non-biblical teaching as by Scripture itself… The issue in my mind is the sufficiency of Scripture. I do not deny that the Bible has much to say about a Christian’s obedience. I don’t think it has much to say [of the] odd notion of ‘cultural obedience.’
Clearly Darryl is not saying that the Bible doesn’t have much to say about the meaning of life, or about the necessity of obedience in all of life. He is talking about epistemology – or how we know things. He is concerned that Christians arrogantly claim for themselves superiority over unbelievers regarding matters about which Scripture does not speak. He is using the word culture in a narrow way (i.e., material culture rather than culture as meaning) and he is implying a narrow use of the word Christian (i.e., something found in Scripture but not anywhere else). And for the point he is trying to make, a point I think most Reformed Christians would affirm, that makes sense. The question is, is that the only way Christians can speak?
In another comment Darryl sheds more light on his concern: He notes five definitions of culture found in a particular dictionary, the fifth and most significant of which is “the behaviors and beliefs characteristic of a particular social, ethnic, or age group: the youth culture; the drug culture.” Darryl then writes, “The closest that we get to a Christian culture in there is perhaps a church culture … But for Christians to claim anything distinct in this list of definitions is beyond me.”
Darryl gives the example of language. Language is basic to culture, but Christians clearly don’t use their own distinctive vocabulary or grammar. And of course, if we are understanding language as a bare symbolic fact, he is right. On the other hand, if we understand language as a set of tools that presuppose a structure of meaning (people do sometimes talk about the ‘language of Scripture’ or of Christianity, referring to its ordinary use of terms and concepts to refer to certain truths), much more needs to be said.
Darryl also gives Kuyper’s example of a civilization such as Rome, the Muslim world, or other ancient cultures. He writes, “To my mind, that is a conceit of neo-Calvinism, the thought of a Christian culture. It applies the antithesis where it does not belong, at least in this age.” Again, it seems that Darryl’s words could be parsed out here in ways with which most of us would agree. Christians do often use these words loosely and in ways that confuse and mislead unbelievers at best, while utterly alienating them as sheer arrogance at worst. On the one hand, if by Christian culture we are talking about a material society becoming the kingdom of God itself, then Christians should spurn all such talk. If we are saying that a particular society does everything justly and in accord with the truth (i.e., Peter’s use of the term) we should also reject its application to a whole group of people, believers and non-believers alike. If we are saying that everything good in a civilization comes from Christian people or from exclusively biblical ideas, we have become guilty of breathtaking (and ignorant) arrogance.
On the other hand, historians and sociologists routinely refer to particular societies with the descriptive term Christian, often in contrast to other societies that are Buddhist, Muslim, or pagan. And what they mean when they write this way is that various societies have been shaped to a certain extent by truths of the Christian religion, or by beliefs unique to a body of Christians. Does Hart reject this? I doubt it.
I could go on and on, applying the same analysis to words like redemption and transformation, but this post is already long. Consider it a testimony to my frustration with the sound-bite quality that the Reformed debate over questions of Christianity and culture often takes, a quality no better than those two kindergarteners arguing over whether or not a picture of a cat should be referred to as a cat. I’m not saying there are no real disagreements or important issues at stake. I am an ethicist, after all, having devoted the last four years of my life to studying Christianity and culture. And no, I’m not simply picking on Darryl Hart here, any more than I’m picking on neo-Calvinists or reconstructionists.
Far too often our debates devolve into simplistic sloganeering against paper caricatures that obscures the real points of agreement and disagreement. We abandon all charity of interpretation as we insist that others use their terms precisely as we do. Well aware of the extremes to which those in the other camp have gone, we are entirely blind to the extremes of those in our own. Knowing our own faults and inconsistencies, we readily forgive them based on our good intentions and correct thinking on the ‘main points’, while holding others ruthlessly accountable for the logical outworking of their own mistakes. A good test here: do you find yourself stubbornly unwilling to talk about something with the language or perspective found in Scripture, simply because someone somewhere has abused it?
I’m not above criticism here either. At one point or another, I’ve done every one of the things I’m saying we shouldn’t do. We all need to do better.
Note: Part 1 of this review can be found here.
The first and last chapters of the book, however, by Ryan McIlhenny, articulate a much better model of Christian cultural engagement, a model in substantive continuity with a basic two kingdoms paradigm if perhaps not with that of “the Two Kingdoms perspective” engaged in this book. While I do not agree with McIlhenny on every point, I do find his overall perspective to be a helpful step forward.
In the opening chapter McIlhenny, who is quite sympathetic with criticisms of certain versions of neo-Calvinism, explains why he nevertheless believes it should not be abandoned. But what is the neo-Calvinism that he is defending? The core assertion, he notes, is that Christ’s sovereignty extends to every square inch of the cosmos. He then develops this assertion in terms of four basic tenets: the cultural mandate, sphere sovereignty, the antithesis, and common grace. What is striking about this core assertion and its four tenets is that they are equally affirmed, if with some qualifications, by the leading Two Kingdoms advocate David VanDrunen. Is it possible that VanDrunen’s own project presupposes a basic neo-Calvinist theological framework?
The main difference to McIlhenny, it seems, is that while VanDrunen emphasizes the commonness of cultural activities by virtue of the Noahic Covenant, neo-Calvinists affirm that creation always had a Christological telos and that those who are redeemed in Christ are to witness to that telos in everything that they do. “Thus, for the neo-Calvinist, understanding the continued relevance of the cultural mandate, a changed life through the gracious work of Christ, opens one’s eyes to attend to the wounds of a broken world, spreading the gospel and demonstrating the love of Christ to the whole earth. Christians necessarily act on their transformed lives. Whatever Christians do, even the most quotidian of things such as eating and drinking, they must do for the honor and glory of God” (xxi).
But does VanDrunen really disagree with this point? I cannot speak for him but I am certainly not aware of anything in a two kingdoms paradigm that would lead one to say anything differently. The real question, then, is what does McIlhenny think this acting on the basis of transformed lives look like? And for that we need to turn to the last chapter of the book.
In the last chapter of the book McIlhenny articulates his model of cultural engagement: Christian Witness As Redeemed Culture. Although the chapter is a revision of an essay in which McIlhenny tried to articulate a middle way between neo-Calvinism and the Two Kingdoms perspective, even here McIlhenny is clearly seeking a position that embraces the best insights of both perspectives. Indeed, invoking H. Richard Niebuhr’s five models of Christ and culture he reminds his readers that the models “are not isolated categories to choose from. Each one overlaps, and they are better understood as corresponding moods that every Christian feels when engaging culture” (252). Stating his desire to “bridge the aisle by highlighting a feature of Christian cultural activity that both Two Kingdoms and neo-Calvinist thinkers can agree on” he stresses the character of Christian cultural engagement as a matter of witness and service in expression of Christ’s kingdom, a “setting apart” of Christian activity as “redeemed culture” in place of the transformational activism that seeks to be “externally sacralizing” by “redeeming culture, as if it were a thing to which redemption needs to come” (253). In short, McIlhenny favors transformed witness over transforming conquest.
Key to McIlhenny’s argument is his careful and scholarly definition of culture. He distinguishes between a view of culture as a thing or object that is given to us without meaning, a view he suggests VanDrunen implicitly espouses in his Living in God’s Two Kingdoms, and culture as a language of meaning, or to take the phrase of Clifford Geertz, which McIlhenny appropriates, a “transmitted pattern of meetings” (260). “Failing to recognize culture as language puts us in the habit of confusing culture with nature. It is crucial to understand this point. Presupposing culture as a thing, I believe, is a problem common to both neo-Calvinists and Two Kingdom proponents. Culture is born from human interaction with nature, as stated above, but is distinct from it” (261).
In other words, McIlhenny is suggesting that when VanDrunen emphasizes commonality between what believers and unbelievers do he is talking about nature itself, the objective stuff of life. And McIlhenny does not disagree that when it comes to this the activity of Christians is often no different from that of unbelievers. But he suggests that to properly understand what is going on in cultural engagement we need to recognize that human beings constantly and inevitably use the stuff of nature in ways that communicate meaning. In the context of the antithesis that both he and VanDrunen affirm, therefore, the ways in which Christians understand and communicate the meaning of what they do has to be fundamentally different from the way in which unbelievers do.
To be sure, the project of Christians should not be to seek to transform the culture of unbelievers – an impossible task. Rather, Christians witness by ensuring that their own culture, the meaning that they seek to communicate through their actions, is in service to Christ, or to put it as McIlhenny does, “redeemed.” McIlhenny rightly chastises VanDrunen, I believe, for being too stingy in his use of the adjective ‘Christian’, invoking Kuyper to argue that what the adjective denotes is Christianity’s influence on culture. He rightly invokes Luther and Calvin, “who understood that even the most mundane tasks such as washing dishes and tending a field were given new meaning because of the Christian’s worshipful attitude” (265).
The work that Christians do and the moral standard to which that work conforms is therefore common with that of unbelievers, as VanDrunen argues, but the way in which believers perform those works constitutes a witness to Christ. “The good works done by Christians, although common in the abstract, nonetheless can effectively win over people to the kingdom, as Lord’s Day #32 (Q&A 82) of the Heidelberg Catechism tells us” (265). The effect of this point is that it becomes impossible to make “facile” distinctions between the sacred and the secular. Affirming Darryl Hart’s definition of the secular in A Secular Faith as describing what is of this age, or what is passing, McIlhenny nevertheless points out that while Christians constantly interact with the secular, they always direct their use of secular things to the glory of God. Here he insists that “Two Kingdoms scholars ignore this neo-Calvinist distinction between structure and direction” (268). It seems to me that VanDrunen maintains this distinction in his own work, but I believe McIlhenny is correct that the distinction permits a broader use of the adjective Christian than VanDrunen or Hart acknowledge. As Ephesians 5-6 clearly indicates, Christians do all things “in Christ” even as they fulfill their very secular tasks and vocations. There can therefore be a Christian marriage or a Christian college insofar as through these institutions Christians communicate the meaning of the gospel. McIlhenny even sounds like VanDrunen (and he goes on to admit that substantively on this point “VanDrunen seems to agree with this”) when he writes, “In the particulars, Christian activity is similar to that of unbelievers and therefore part of the common, secular realm, but the picture changes when the pieces form a whole” (270, 269).
Neo-Calvinists have therefore struggled to explain what it means to redeem culture because they have focused on transforming things in themselves, “the ding an sich of material things.” Yet culture is about meaning, not material. And when it comes to meaning, “Everything we do as Christians should have a missionary and eschatological focus. Even our cultural involvement such as it is, should take place from the perspective of Christ’s coming kingdom” (271). Indeed, the preaching of the gospel, itself an inherently cultural activity according to McIlhenny’s definition, calls believers to live precisely this kind of life, presenting an identity to the world that leads unbelievers to ask for a reason for the hope that is in them. Through preaching and witness Christians therefore bring unbelievers into contact with the gospel of Jesus through which they are transformed by the power of God. Thus “It is through common or natural-law deeds – ‘our godly walk of life’ – that, as the Heidelberg Catechism reminds us, ‘we may win our neighbors for Christ’ (Q 86)” (273). Christians’ good works “are the same works [as are the good deeds] of non-Christians, but only in mere common appearance…. Christians serve in culture exactly because they have been redeemed; their redemption now surrounds everything they do and consequently communicates that redeemed identity to the world” (274-275).
McIlhenny’s model of Christian cultural engagement as the witness of redeemed culture is very different from the triumphalist and external transformationalism so often associated with neo-Calvinism and criticized by so many of the authors of this book. It amounts to a defense of the fundamental Christian idea that Christians are to witness to their allegiance to Christ and his kingdom in every single thing that they do, in every area of life. No theology of culture, it seems to me, can be faithfully Christian and yet consistently deny this point. Insofar as Kingdoms Apart highlights and critiques elements of the Two Kingdoms perspective that are in tension with this basic point it performs an excellent service.
But despite some of its own claims, Kingdoms Apart should not be read as a critique of two kingdoms thinking generally any more than it should be read as a categorical endorsement of neo-Calvinism, both of which are far too diverse for such judgments of identity. On the contrary, (most of) the authors do much to show (perhaps unwittingly) that a biblical neo-Calvinism and a biblical two kingdoms perspective are not only compatible with one another, but actually need each other. I wish that McIlhenny had done more to tie the various arguments of the book together, relating his own thought to Calvin’s two kingdoms doctrine as well as to the more radical neo-Calvinism of authors like Jason Lief. Indeed, I suspect that, rhetoric aside, many of the book’s authors are closer in substance to VanDrunen than they are to Lief, one of the important points that the book’s problematic self-presentation on the dust jacket obscures. But there is no question that in bringing these essays together McIlhenny and his co-authors have helpfully illuminated some of the complex issues of culture and politics that need to be more clearly addressed by Reformed theologians. If it is interpreted through the lens of McIlhenny’s closing chapter, this book is a beneficial step forward.
Comparing Islamism to Protestantism – The trajectory of reformation, pluralism, democracy, and public influence
Yesterday I highlighted some of the changes in the Arab world that are leading to the democratization and secularization of politics. What is particularly striking about the phenomena is that it is not the growing acceptance of western values or of liberal theory that is driving the change. Rather, it is the development of competing and evolving forms of Islamic practice, including Islamic fundamentalism.
The great example is Egypt. Despite the surge in influence of conservative Islamic groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis, Egypt has not followed the path of the Iranian Revolution three decades ago. Rather, various Islamic groups are competing with one another, and with the military and other parties and movements, to shape an evolving quasi-democratic state. In the process, Islamist leaders are more concerned about pandering to popular values concerning, say gender and sexuality, than they are to imposing their own revolutionary agendas. In short, religion and democracy are allies here, not enemies.
It is still unclear where all of this will lead, but what are particularly striking are the various points of analogy with the western, particularly the Protestant, experience of modernity.
To be sure, Christian political theology has always been more conducive of the separation of church and politics than has Islam. There is something about the proclamation of a kingdom that is not of this world that creates the concept of secularity, the idea that certain institutions and practices are limited in their significance to this world. The state is one of those institutions, and politics involves such practices.
But the fact is, the West did not immediately pursue the way of democracy. Although Christian political theorists and theologians articulated theories of self-government, of representation, of rights, and of the separation of powers long before the Enlightenment arrived, these developments took place within the context of serfdom, monarchy, and empire, and only eventually of small scale aristocratic republics. They never questioned the establishment of religion or considered how government might recognize religious pluralism because there was little need to do so.
It was the various social, political, and religious developments that came with and followed the Reformation that changed all of this. All of a sudden nations like the Netherlands found themselves bitterly divided between Catholics and Protestants, while countries like England found their populations fracturing into a multitude of Protestant sects and eventually denominations, groups that defined themselves according to belief and commitment rather than cultural or ethnic identity. In fact, it was the religious pluralism that became so dominant in the American colonies, particularly in the middle colonies, that gave rise to the separation of church and state, and to the largest scale experiment in democratic governance the world has ever known.
And yet something profoundly unexpected to many religious zealots then took place. In precisely the country where church and state were separated, religion thrived, and in the continent where governments refused to give up the establishment of religion, Christianity withered. During the Second Great Awakening it was the most evangelical and democratic forms of Christianity that won the allegiance of the masses. And it was in the context of both exponentially multiplying religious pluralism and of widespread cultural and political influence – what historians have called the Benevolent Empire – that Protestantism experienced its disestablishment from political power.
The pattern was arguably repeated in the 20th Century. The Mainline denominations that were so culturally and politically prominent gradually declined in number as their theological moorings collapsed. On the other hand, the Fundamentalist and Evangelical groups most isolated from political power and most faithful to their conservative creeds thrived. By the end of the century it was these groups, not the Mainline denominations, that represented mainstream Christianity, and it was these groups that had the most moral, social, and political influence in the country. Even more interestingly, the political significance of these groups (i.e., the rise of the Christian Right) appeared only in the context of the increasing secularization of government and the growing pluralism of the country.
What is the connection with the Islamic experience? Note some of Olivier Roy’s conclusions once again:
Fundamentalism, by disconnecting religion from culture and by defining a faith community through believing and not just belonging, is in fact contributing to the secularization of society… In such a context, any endeavor to restore traditional norms through laws and regulations will fail. After all, you cannot change a society by decree. [Think of the impact of the Reformation on the understanding of the church, and the gradual shift away from the coercion of the true religion in Protestant countries.]
The growing de facto autonomy of the religious arena from political and ideological control does not mean that secularism is necessarily gaining ground in terms of culture and society. Yet certainly a new form of political secularism is emerging… What is at stake is the reformulation of religion’s place in the public sphere. There is broad agreement that constitutions should announce the ‘Muslim’ identity of society and the state. Yet there is similar agreement on the proposition that shari’a is not an autonomous and complete system of law that can replace ‘secular’ law. Instead, shari’a is becoming a loose and somewhat hazily defined ‘reference point’…. [Think of the growing recognition among Protestants that the Torah could not directly be applied to modern civil law, and a willingness to wrestle with the complexity of applying biblical law to modern societies.]
The recasting of religious norms into ‘values’ helps also to promote an interfaith coalition of religious conservatives that could unite around some specific causes: opposition to same-sex marriage, for instance. It is interesting to see how, in Western Europe, secular populists stress the continent’s Christian identity, while many Muslim conservatives try to forge an alliance with believers of other faiths to defend shared values. In doing so, many of them tend to adopt Protestant evangelical concerns, fighting abortion and Darwinism even though these issues have never been prominent in traditional Islamic debates. In this sense, the modern neofundamentalists are trying to recast Islam into a Western-compatible kind of religious conservatism. [Here the comparison to conservative Christianity in America - in both its Catholic and Evangelical forms - is obvious.]
It’s all very fascinating. Note again the points of analogy:
1) It is in the context of the revival and reformation of religion that a new emphasis is placed on individual faith and commitment. The group of disciples is distinguished from the cultural or ethnic people group.
2) The inevitable result is religious pluralism, the competition between various religious sects or denominations.
3) Religious pluralism makes it impossible for any one religious group to dominate the cultural or ethnic people group theocratically. Politics must necessarily be secularized and democratized.
4) It is by appealing to broadly accepted religious values, or by translating religious commitments into more widely accepted moral commitments, that religious groups maintain their political and cultural influence.
5) Groups that refuse to play according to the democratic game, or to accept the secularization of politics, are marginalized.
In some of the conversations that arose yesterday regarding Philip Jenkins’s post comparing strands of 17th Century Calvinism to contemporary Islamism the question arose of the degree to which the Reformation contributed to modern secularism. As political science professor Troy Gibson puts it,
It’s hard to deny that secularism was to some degree a by-product of the Protestant Reformation, if only indirectly by providing political and legal context. More debatable is whether Reformation theology itself made space for the rise of isms, like secularism.
Gibson is putting his finger on an old argument that runs something like this. The world of medieval Christianity was an enchanted world, a world of angels and demons, saints and witches, superstition and magic. The theology of the church articulated a hierarchy in which the secular realm of nature was inferior to the sacred realm of grace, rendering the former relatively insignificant for Christians except insofar as it was thoroughly penetrated by the spiritual forces of the enchanted world.
The Reformation overthrew all of this, rejecting the sacramental theology of the church and the power of saints and magic and instead placing all of its emphasis on the certainty of faith in a sovereign God. It also emphasized the legitimacy of secular life in such a way not only to make all vocations honorable in God’s sight, but also to remove those secular vocations from the hierarchical control of the church. The result was the liberation of secular affairs such as politics, economics, and marriage from the thumb of the clergy, and the freedom of such affairs to develop according to their own natural logic and character, as ordained by God. In short, by emphasizing the distinctive goodness of secular nature, the Reformation freed the secular life of human beings from the suffocating limitations of an enchanted and hierarchical world.
Of course, history is much more complex than this basic outline suggests, but for all that there is a degree of truth to it that is widely recognized. The Reformation was certainly in the genealogical ancestry of the Enlightenment and modernity, regardless of what one thinks of the various marriages and dalliances that ultimately brought forth such descendents. As one of my professors likes to say, political liberalism is at the very least a step-child of Christianity.
I believe it is enormously important, however, to distinguish between the secular and secularism. The secular refers to what belongs to the present age but not to the age to come – things like marriage, coercive government, and particular economic or educational institutions. Secularism refers to an ideology in which the age to come is dropped from the equation; the secular is all that there is. The concept of the secular – to which the Reformation directly contributed – is simply intended to recognize that the enduring significance of the things of the present age is relativized by the coming kingdom of God and that the two ought not be confused. Secularism is an ideology that exploits the idea of the secular by eliminating any reference to the kingdom that made the idea of the secular possible in the first place. In Christian logic you cannot have the secular without something that is beyond it. In secularism the beyond is destroyed, and the secular really becomes the sacred (i.e., think Marxism).
To get a little bit more practical, the Reformation contributed to the process already begun by Christianity in the first century that enabled people to discover the various spheres of life, each governed by God according to its own logic – economics, science, political science, etc. It freed human beings not simply to ask the question, What does this god or priest want us to do in order that he might be happy with us?, but to ask the question, How did this God create the world such that we might learn how it works, and develop it to its greatest potential?
For Christians, as for many earlier Enlightenment thinkers, it was understood that although each sphere of life operates according to its own logic it is nevertheless governed and providentially maintained by God. But the separation between the various spheres and the authority of priests, and the distinction between the general revelation of nature and the special revelation of Scripture made it possible to conceive of the former independently of the latter. Science no longer had to flow from special revelation alone, and economics no longer had to be derived simply from the dictates of Scripture. Christians could pursue natural law and general revelation with the confidence that the world is God’s world and that all knowledge is God’s truth. Discovering how an economy can create wealth, not simply distribute it, or how government can be responsive to the citizens under its charge, rather than dominate them, are two great examples of the fruit of an approach to reality that does not require that all important knowledge be found in Scripture.
And yet the unintended consequence of this development was that Scripture and religion could be abandoned altogether. For if they can be conceived separately, why could they not be completely separated? The modern ideologies of Marxism, materialism, and secularism all rest on the borrowed capital of a Christianity that invented the very idea of the secular on which they depend. All of these ideologies are therefore caricatures or Anti-Christian distortions of the world view of Christianity itself.
The question our culture is flirting with is, What happens to the ideals of the West – its rights, and freedoms, and liberties – when they are cut loose from their Christian heritage? It is true that the Reformation helped make this question possible. But it is equally clear what answer the Reformation provided.
There are many Christians who think that as the kingdom of God progressively unfolds in this world it will transform our culture at every level, all the way up to the highest levels of government. For these Christians, and they fall all along the political spectrum from the right to the left, government is itself part of the kingdom of God, and should be governed according to Christian principles, whether those principles are those of Jesus in the New Testament, or whether they are the laws of Moses in the Old.
This does not bother me so much. After all, there will always be divisions among Christians, and we do need to work through these issues. What I am concerned with here is the attempt that people make to claim John Calvin as support for this sort of project. Protestant Liberalism claimed Calvin for the social gospel long ago, and H. Richard Niebuhr cemented Calvin’s place in our minds when he made him a poster-boy for transformationalism in his Christ and Culture.
A simple consideration of Calvin’s discussion of civil government in the final edition of the Instititutes, however, demonstrates just how misguided is this reading of Calvin. Calvin discusses civil government at the very end of the Institiutes, in Chapter 20 of Book 4, and he only does so after specifying that the political kingdom needs to be carefully distinguished from the spiritual kingdom of Christ. Even then, however, he feels the need to explain to his readers why he is discussing politics at all. And when he does so, he admits that the main reason why he is addressing civil government is to respond to those who think that government must conform to the New Testament standard of the kingdom of God, or that it has unlimited power. Calvin writes,
For although this topic seems by nature alien to the spiritual doctrine of faith which I have undertaken to discuss, what follows will show that I am right in joining them, in fact, that necessity compels me to do so. This is especially true since, from one side, insane and barbarous men (i.e., the Anabaptists who taught that Christians could not serve as magistrates or soldiers) furiously strive to overturn this divinely established order; while, on the other side, the flatterers of princes, immoderately praising their power, do not hesitate to set them against the rule of God himself. Unless both these evils are checked, purity of faith will perish. (4.20.1)
Calvin goes on to again explain the two kingdoms doctrine, and the way in which it distinguishes between Christ’s spiritual kingdom and civil government, and throughout much of the chapter he explains why the Anabaptists are wrong to confuse the two. In one particular statement that should make any transformationalist shudder he writes, “it makes no difference what your condition among men may be or under what nation’s laws you life, since the Kingdom of Christ does not at all consist in these things.” (4.20.1)
Now those of you readers who think government should follow the Mosaic Law may be noticing at this point that nothing I have said here refutes the argument that Calvin thought government should rule by the Torah. And the fact is, Calvin constantly uses the Old Testament and the laws of Moses to make arguments about what government should or should not do. I do not deny that.
But the reality is that Calvin did not believe the laws of Moses or the nature of Israel was a binding example on Christian civil governments, and he only used the Old Testament insofar as he believed it testified to the demands of natural law. When he defended the obligation of government to advance the true religion, for instance, he was just as likely to invoke the example of Plato or Cicero as he was Moses or David. Again, if you are one of those people who worries when Christian political theologians rely on Enlightenment philosophers to make certain arguments, it is worth asking, why was Calvin allowed to use Plato, but I cannot use John Locke?
The proof for this interpretation of Calvin appears in section 14 of Chapter 20 when Calvin turns to the laws with which “a Christian state ought to be governed.” Yet he immediately declares that no one should expect a long treatise on this subject and that Calvin is only going to present the bare minimum. In fact, he writes, he would have preferred not to discuss the issue at all, and the only reason he is going to do so is to refute those who think that government should be administered according to the laws of Moses.
I would have preferred to pass over this matter in utter silence if I were not aware that here many dangerously go astray. For there are some who deny that a commonwealth is duly framed which neglects the political system of Moses, and is ruled by the common laws of nations. Let other men consider how perilous and seditious this notion is; it will be enough for me to have proved it false and foolish. (4.20.14)
To be sure, Calvin did not think the law of Moses was irrelevant for modern nations. He viewed the civil and judicial laws of Israel as specific “formulas of equity and justice,” the formulas of which were unique to Israel but which reflected natural law insofar as they represented timeless truths of equity and justice. And as Calvin writes,
It is a fact that the law of God which we call the moral law is nothing else than a testimony of natural law and of that conscience which God has engraved upon the minds of men. Consequently, the entire scheme of this equity of which we are now speaking has been prescribed in it. Hence, this equity alone must be the goal and rule and limit of all laws. Whatever laws shall be framed to that rule, directed to that goal, bound by that limit, there is no reason why we should disapprove of them, howsoever they may differ from the Jewish law, or among themselves. (4.20.16)
For Calvin, in short, the standard for government is natural law, not the kingdom of Christ or the Mosaic Law. And that is why even when Calvin defended the argument that government should enforce the true religion he relied primarily on arguments from philosophy and nature rather than on Scripture (see especially 4.20.9).
The result is that we should follow Calvin’s example, not necessarily his conclusions. Calvin believed, with Plato and virtually everyone before Christianity invented the idea of the secular, that government was inseparable from true religion. Now insofar as natural law and the idea of the secular are inherently Christian ideas I agree with Calvin. But along with most philosophers and theologians of our day, who disagree with the belief of most philosophers and theologians of Plato’s and Calvin’s days that natural law demands that government enforce true religion, it would seem to me that Calvin was wrong in his conclusions. Scripture and natural law are our authorities, I would remind you, not Calvin and Plato.
Those who think we are to imitate our forefathers in what they did rather than in the method they told us to follow may have a problem with this use of Calvin. That’s fair enough. But whatever you think about whether or not government should punish Jews, Muslims, atheists, and the various Christian denominations you disagree with, don’t try to pretend Calvin thought that politics was kingdom activity, or that it should be organized after the manner of Israel. He wasn’t on your side.
In the introduction to his landmark study The Modernist Impulse in American Protestantism (1976), William R. Hutchison, the late professor of religious history at Harvard University, described the theological modernism (or liberalism) of a century ago in terms of three basic commitments. First, modernism sought to adapt religious ideas to modern culture. Second, modernism believed that God is immanent in and revealed through human cultural progress. Third, modernism was committed to a belief that society is progressively moving toward the realization of the kingdom of God.
All of this is standard fare for those familiar with Protestant liberalism, but Hutchison went on to note that the foundation of the modernist commitment to these three points was its rejection of the classic Christian distinction “between sacred and secular, between a starting point in revelation and a starting point in reason or in science” (8). As Hutchison put it, liberals “ordinarily refused to make automatic moral distinctions between church and world, or even between the religious and the secular” (9).
Hutchison argued that the experience of two world wars, the Great Depression, and the Cold War pretty much decimated liberalism’s confidence that the kingdom of God is being realized in the progress of society. But he pointed out that the most important emphasis of liberalism continued to endure in the theology of his day: “the attempt … to renounce long-standing categories of ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ probably constitutes the most important claim that modernism makes as a movement reaching beyond the needs and illusions of the time in which it flourished” (11).
Commenting on Hutchison’s book almost four decades later, I would note that this emphasis has won significant ground among Evangelical and even among confessional Reformed Christians. Even in the most conservative denominations Reformed theologians seeking to recover a healthy recognition of the difference between the kingdom of God and secular life (i.e., life in the present age) are subject to widespread criticism. Indeed, liberalism has been around for so long that many now regard its basic commitments as conservative Christianity, and speak freely about their fear that those trying to recover the old ideas are radicals at best, and liberals at worst. There is a lot of confusion out there. A lot of work needs to be done.
In another of his series of blog posts (see my first response to Thompson here) on the role of the church in the world Greg Thompson, pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Charlottesville, Virginia, describes how Christians tend to diminish the goodness and significance of creation through two basic impulses: anti-materialism and pietism. For conservatives who are in reaction mode to the social gospel or to neo-Calvinism in particular, Thompson’s words are particularly apt.
According to the anti-materialism impulse (sometimes described as neo-Platonic):
there are two parts to creation, the “spiritual” and the “material.” The spiritual part of creation is the “higher,” the home of wisdom and virtue. The material parts of creation—the earth, the body, and the artifacts of our lives—are the lower parts. In the anti-material perspective, these lower parts are variously portrayed as (at best) a backdrop to the cultivation of higher spiritual goods or (at worst) as a hostile obstruction to them.
Pietism builds on this anti-materialism. It,
suggests not only that the spiritual realm is higher in the order of creation, but also that it is more important—perhaps exclusively important—in the order of redemption. In this account, God’s fundamental concern is with the spiritual aspects of a person’s life—the heart or “the life of the soul.” … [For pietism] these material aspects have no fundamental role in God’s larger redemptive purposes. That this is so may be seen in several widespread expressions of pietism. First, we see it in pietistic preaching, which fails to positively address larger social or material concerns. Second, we see it in pietistic ethics, in which renunciation of the world functions as the animating conviction. And third—and perhaps most clearly—we see it in pietistic eschatology in which the actual trajectory of salvation is to be literally taken out of—or raptured from—the world.
Thompson uses the dangers of anti-materialism and pietism to warn his readers against separating creation from redemption. As he puts it, “Creation and redemption are not opposed—they are wed (Rm. 8). The same God who made the world in creation entered into the world in incarnation (1 Jn. 1), and began the process of healing the world in resurrection—the first-fruits of the coming renewal of all things (1 Cor. 15).”
I first came to grips with the importance of affirming creation even in our theology of redemption through the work of Michael Horton. In his excellent book Covenant and Eschatology Horton demonstrates that Christianity teaches a theology of two ages (creation and new creation, the present evil age and the age to come), not of two realms (matter and spirit, body and soul). This dynamic is integral to Paul’s thought, he argues, building on the work of the great Dutch New Testament scholar Herman Ridderbos. “Instead of the ‘true world’ of eternal perfection versus the ‘apparent world’ of temporal change we find ‘this present age’ and ‘the age to come.’” Horton goes on to write,
It becomes clear that this two-age model is concerned not with two worlds or realms, but with two ages, one inferior to the other not for any necessary or ontological reasons but for situational and ethical ones... (emphasis added)
That which happens in the present is not simply for that reason evil, for God’s providence or common grace is active in upholding all things and restraining evil, and God’s Spirit is creating a community of faith, hope, and love out of spiritual death. It is not ‘this world’ of matter, transience, contingency, and so forth, that is set against ‘the other world’ of pure spirit and apathetic bliss, but ‘this world-age’ of human rebellion, injustice, and irresponsibility in opposition to ‘the age to come’ in which God’s reign is uncontested, the cross is transformed fully and finally into glory, and faith and hope are exchanged for sight. (32-33)
What this means is that although Christianity is not about secular earthly politics, it very much is about bodily human beings, concrete human communities, and the very physical actions and interactions that these human beings and communities perform. Preaching that pretends that hungering and thirsting after righteousness is simply about justification before God, or that the justice with which Paul is so concerned in Romans is simply about being right before God is profoundly distorting. To seek first the kingdom and its justice, that all these things may be added unto you, is not a distinction between spiritual things and physical things, but between the redemptive transformation of all of life and the passing secular affairs of mortality. As Calvin argues, Christians are to hate the sin and death of the present age, not the life to which human beings aspire and which they receive in Christ.
Where the social gospel (and forms of neo-Calvinism) go wrong, in other words, is not in their emphasis on the material, but in their emphasis on the present. Liberalism is so determined to realize the kingdom now (and it has so lost confidence in basic Christian teaching regarding the resurrection, ascension, and return of Christ) that it turns redemption into a process, attacking any theology that teaches that life before the second coming of Christ is life under the cross. Liberalism argues that the kingdom is realized progressively in this world, along the lines of Hegelian or Marxist philosophy, thus avoiding the need to trust in Christ’s unexpected and cataclysmic second coming.
I’m not sure where Thompson is going with his blog posts, and in fact, I wish he was somewhat clearer about this in his final paragraph (why does he speak of resurrection as a process in the quote above? Does he want entirely to collapse creation and redemption together?), but the orthodox Christian distinction between the secular and the eternal is not one of matter and spirit but one of life before Christ’s return and life after it, between life in the mortal, decaying creation and life in the resurrection of the body. To be sure, we anticipate the kingdom by demonstrating our obedience to Christ in every area of life as the body of Christ in this world. But in the final analysis our entire hope for redemption is caught up with the body of Christ, who is in heaven, and will one day return, as the Apostle’s Creed tells us, to judge the living and the dead.
What matters here, however, is that Christianity is about transformation, not destruction. It is about genuine bodily human life before God, not about its transcendence in immateriality or piety. Thompson is headed in the right direction. I am eager to see where he goes with this.