Can Obergefell v. Hodges Make Same-Sex Marriage Real?

At a first read, Obergefell v. Hodges, the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision declaring same-sex marriage to be a fundamental right, follows a logic that is breathtaking in its simplicity.

Whether you find this logic exhilarating, depressing, or irrelevant does not depend on what you think of gay and lesbian people, or how they should be treated. I firmly believe that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is unconscionable; we should treat each person in accord with the human dignity that stems from her or his creation in the image of God. I have zero sympathy with anyone who thinks their Christian faith ordinarily requires them to refrain from serving, living near, befriending, or otherwise loving gay and lesbian people (though this should not, as a matter of freedom of conscience, require Christians to participate in or celebrate gay weddings). The media and political drama notwithstanding, I believe most Christians agree with me.

And yet I, along with most Christians, not to mention Muslims, Hindus, and many other people of good will, find the Supreme Court’s decision deeply troubling.

Read the rest of this article at Canon and Culture.

Presbyterians and the Political Theology of Race (Part 2): Old Testament Politics

In Part 1 of this series I observed that southern Presbyterian defenders of segregation emphasized the Old Testament as the authority for biblical norms regarding race over against the more New Testament oriented arguments of their opponents in the civil rights movement. The most prominent version of the southern Presbyterian argument was not the caricatured appeal to the mark of Cain, let alone to the curse of Ham, as we might like to imagine. It was much more sophisticated than that. It usually ran something like this:

In constructing the Tower of Babel human beings attempted to establish a socio-political unity in defiance of the natural law of God. God defeated this attempt by dividing human beings on linguistic and national lines. He then called Abraham out from the nations, and in his law he demanded that Israel likewise be separate. When the people of Israel intermarried with other nations, God punished them severely. The segregationists maintained that nothing in the New Testament suggests that God’s views have changed. To be sure, the Gospel is now universal; Pentecost is proof of that. But the unity of the church is purely spiritual and does not extend to temporal, social institutions. Thus the Old Testament remains a valid testimony to the natural law of God with respect to social institutions such as segregation.

To read the rest of this article please go to Reformation 21.

Presbyterians and the Political Theology of Race (Part 1): Cultural Captivity

The primary problem with southern Presbyterian defenses of segregation was not that they assumed an individualistic view of sin but that they embraced a spiritualized, even neo-platonized, understanding of the Gospel. Like their Presbyterian forebear Thornwell, men like Gillespie, Richards and Smith insisted that the spiritual kingdom of God does not take concrete social expression. In other words, their political theology suffered from an under-realized eschatology even more than it did from some sort of American individualism. While this under-realized eschatology led them to conceive of the expression of the kingdom in this life in individualistic terms, it also led them to a greater reliance on the Old Testament as the best source of biblical insight regarding social and political life.

Lucas points out that the spirituality of the church doctrine did not lead southern churches to avoid speaking toward political matters; it simply made them selective in the issues that they addressed. I would make the point more specific by suggesting that the doctrine led them to prioritize the Old Testament over the New Testament as the source for political insight. The Old Testament rendered plausible the theological defense of a thoroughly communitarian and segregated vision of political life, while the rejection of the social and political relevance of the New Testament rendered its more radical and inclusive social ethics moot. Thus southern Presbyterians read Pentecost through Babel, and the unity of the nations in Christ through the division of the nations from Israel, rather than the other way around. Only by interpreting the Gospel through the law could they imagine that church membership, let alone justice within political society, could legitimately be constituted on the basis of race.

To read the rest of this article, please go to Reformation 21.

Why We Should Read Pope Francis’s Encyclical on Creation

If you have been paying attention to the media hype about Pope Francis’s first encyclical, Laudato Si’, you might be forgiven for assuming that the pope’s 180-page encyclical is devoted to the issue of climate change. In fact, the encyclical devotes relatively little attention to the phenomena of global warming: as little as 2% of its text, according to climate change skeptic Calvin Beisner. It offers but a cursory summary of the scientific consensus, calling the faithful to accept that consensus and take steps to curb global warming. But it offers nothing in the way of an argument that would persuade a climate change skeptic to change her position on the issue. The only way that might happen is if the skeptic in question is a Catholic Christian – or otherwise admirer of Pope Francis – who is committed to following papal direction for its own sake.

The danger, however, is that a thoughtful, theologically insightful, and morally helpful statement of the Catholic Church’s teaching on creation will be ignored by many conservatives because of its conclusions regarding climate change. This danger is all the greater given the valid economic critiques that have been raised against the encyclical by Catholic intellectuals such as my friend Sam Gregg, not to mention the criticism from climate change activists and scientists that Pope Francis significantly understates the threat of global warming.

You might be surprised, then, to learn that Laudato Si’ is first and foremost a theological document whose assertions regarding policy are presented cautiously and tentatively – as proposals for debate and discussion – rather than as conversation stoppers.

The pope is quite clear on this point:

[T]here is no one path to a solution. This makes a variety of proposals possible, all capable of entering into dialogue with a view to developing comprehensive solutions [60]. On many concrete questions, the Church has no reason to offer a definitive opinion; she knows that honest debate must be encouraged among experts, while respecting divergent views. But we need only take a frank look at the facts to see that our common home is falling into serious disrepair [61].

It is worth emphasizing that when the pope speaks of “this situation” which requires a solution he is not primarily referring to the problem of climate change. Rather, he is talking about ecological deterioration in general. We are wrecking our planet in more ways than one, and the pope’s fundamental thesis is that in doing so we are failing both to love God and our neighbor by failing to live as stewards of the creation that he has given to us as a gift.

The solution, Francis is at pains to stress, cannot consist simply of changes in laws or regulations. What is required is nothing less than “ecological conversion” away from the self-centered, consumerist-driven, technocratic paradigm that dominates modern society and that leads modern society to dominate [i.e., ruthlessly exploit] creation. (It is the same sort of dominating attitude, the pope points out, that characterizes modern attitudes toward the embodied human being, giving rise to moral catastrophes ranging from abortion to rampant confusion about gender.) On this central point, as I hope to argue in forthcoming posts, Laudato Si’ is a praiseworthy and helpful document. I would even go so far as to say that it is one that all serious Christian leaders should read.

But why, you may ask, is the pope taking a position on global warming, a point on which there are “honest debate[s]” and “divergent views.” Here, it is clear, the pope must defer to the experts. But he obviously believes that there is a meaningful consensus that the church is obligated to take seriously.

I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, as a Reformed Protestant I do not believe the pope has any divine authority within the church. Just as important, following Calvin I would argue that the church has no authority to offer official pronouncements on matters of academic debate or public policy. Its public authority is tied up with, or contained within, the Word. When the church attempts to use its spiritual authority to “come down” on matters of controversy or disagreement it almost always ends up undermining its own credibility. The exceptions – areas on which scriptural teaching is relatively clear – merely prove the rule.

So while I am an admirer of the tradition of Catholic social teaching, I think that teaching is at its best when it avoids pronouncements on specific policies.

On the other hand, I believe the document’s clear theological teaching on what evangelicals like to call creation care is desperately needed within conservative evangelical circles. We tend to be dangerously and irresponsibly suspicious of environmental concerns. To be sure, as the pope notes, there is a radical sort of environmentalism that is in sharp conflict with Christianity. But too many conservative Christians have gone to the opposite extreme of turning environmentalism into a whipping boy. How many times have I heard pastors drop off-handed remarks dripping with scorn for “environmentalism”? How often do our writers list environmental concerns as one of those areas on which Christians need not work towards any substantive agreement? It’s as if stewardship for creation were no more important than what baseball team you root for or what style of music you like.

In part this dismissive attitude arises from an unhealthy skepticism toward science and the scientific community. It is true that within certain strands of society there is far too great of a deference towards science. But too many evangelicals go to the opposite extreme.

Let’s face it, for most of us our conclusions regarding biology or quantum physics, let alone climate change or evolution, come down to who we decide to trust (which, incidentally, is one good reason why the church should abstain from ruling definitively on these matters). For instance, most of us are not experts on the matter of climate change, and it is eminently reasonable for us to defer to the consensus of the scientific community (this book offers a good introduction to the issue). On the other hand, it can be praiseworthy to withhold judgment while continuing to learn from what others have to say. The scientific community has not done a very good job persuading the American public of its concerns about climate change in a measured, sympathetic way. But populists on both sides tend to be dogmatic and even shrill, undermining the trust necessary for thoughtful and open-minded communication. Both sides need to do the hard work of listening and learning in a spirit of humility and respect.

Enough about that. I want to stress that this encyclical is not primarily about global warming. I’ll have more to say about the positive aspects of the pope’s encyclical in the next few posts. For now let me just say: Read it. Reflect upon it. Take its call to Christian stewardship seriously. It won’t do you any harm, and it just might do your Christian sanctification a world of good.

Bearing the Death of Jesus in Charleston, South Carolina

In his classic short story “Jesus Christ in Texas” (1920) W.E.B. DuBois explored what it might have looked like if Jesus had reappeared incarnate in the early twentieth century South. In the story a stranger, who a white pastor senses he has known long ago but can’t determine just where or when, secretly exchanges places and clothing with a black convict on the run from police. Falsely charged with attacking a white woman, the stranger is viciously lynched by a white mob.

DuBois describes the closing scene from the perspective of the white woman:

She shuddered as she heard the creaking of the limb where the body hung… she saw the dead man writhe. He stretched his arms out like a cross, looking upward. She gasped and clung to the window sill. Behind the swaying body, and down where the little, half-ruined cabin lay, a single flame flashed up amid the far-off shout and cry of the mob. A fierce joy sobbed up through the terror in her soul and then sank abashed as she watched the flame rise. Suddenly whirling into one great crimson column it shot to the top of the sky and threw great arms athwart the gloom until above the world and behind the roped and swaying form below hung quivering and burning a great crimson cross.

She hid her dizzy, aching head in an agony of tears, and dared not look, for she knew. Her dry lips moved: “Despised and rejected of men.”

She knew, and the very horror of it lifted her dull and shrinking eyelids. There, heaven-tall, earth-wide, hung the stranger on the crimson cross, riven and blood-stained, with thorn-crowned head and pierced hands. She stretched her arms and shrieked.

He did not hear. He did not see. His calm dark eyes, all sorrowful, were fastened on the writhing, twisting body of the thief, and a voice came out of the winds of the night, saying: “This day thou shalt be with me in Paradise!”

DuBois’s story is fiction, of course, albeit fiction that speaks a powerful truth. But in the events of this past week, beginning with the horrifying tragedy at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, this story was played out in the truest way possible.

A deeply disturbed young man, filled with self-righteousness and hate, was determined to do what he could to spawn violence in return for perceived injustice. He was welcomed with open arms by Christians meeting for prayer. He was given the special seat just next to the pastor.

Near the end of the time of prayer he opened fire, murdering nine of the black worshipers in cold blood, and then turning his gun on himself. Only because his suicide attempt failed did he flee, to be captured later by police.

Those nine Christian women and men had taken up Christ’s story as their own, paying the ultimate price because they were willing to welcome a stranger. Like Jesus, they were betrayed by an enemy they had treated as a friend.

Immediately the national media and the politicians took up the appropriate battle cries, exploring the significance of the shooting for matters of race, gun control, or South Carolina’s Confederate flag. The public, liberals and conservatives alike, joined in the free for all on Facebook, Twitter, and other public fora. Evangelical leaders called for justice.

Some conservatives went so far as to bemoan the fact that the worshipers at Emanuel were not permitted to have and use guns to defend themselves. This is a completely understandable reaction. Jesus’ disciples also wanted to use the sword to defend their Lord when he was confronted by his enemies during that prayer meeting in Gethsemane. It is sobering that Jesus’ final act of healing before his death was in just this instance, on behalf of one of his enemies, a member of the armed mob who had been wounded due to Peter’s act of self-defense.

The family members of the victims at Emanuel also spurned the call to respond to hatred and violence with hatred and violence. They took up Jesus’ narrative further, speaking to the murderer himself in court:

Ethel Lance’s daughter:

I just want everyone to know, to you, I forgive you. You took something very precious away from me. I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul. You’ve hurt me. You’ve hurt a lot of people But God forgive you, and I forgive you.

Myra Thompson’s husband:

You know I forgive you and my family forgive you. But we would like you to take this opportunity to repent. Repent, confess, give your life to the one who matters the most, Christ, so that he can change it, can change your ways no matter what happened to you. And You’ll be OK.

Tywanza Sanders’s mother:

We welcomed you Wednesday night at our Bible Study with open arms. You have killed some of the most prettyfullest people that I know. Every fiber in my body hurts, and I will never be the same… But as we say in Bible study, we enjoyed you. But may God have mercy on you.

How many of us would be capable of taking up Christ’s story in these ways? How many of us could offer such testimony and forgiveness?

Many of us are prepared to purchase a gun, to respond to hatred and violence with more violence, defending ourselves and the ones we love. And from an earthly standpoint the refusal to do defend oneself seems downright foolish. Jesus’ murderers laughed at him publicly because he claimed the power to defend himself but refused to do so. His response was simple: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

These brave Christian men and women of Charleston are enacting Jesus’ life and death in the most breathtaking way. Pray for them. Learn from them. This is the Gospel in action. This is Christian ethics in its purest form.

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. (Matthew 16:24-25)

 

 

How Christianity Helped End Segregation in the South

David L. Chappell’s A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow challenges standard accounts of the civil rights movement and the reasons for its success, identifying religion as the key factor that enabled change. It was the prophetic vitality of the religion of black churches, leaders, and civil rights activists, he argues, that enabled them to overcome the much more economically and politically powerful forces of segregation. On the other hand, it was the lack of religious support that undermined the cause of the segregationists. While “black southern activists got strength from old-time religion, … white supremacists failed, at the same moment, to muster the cultural strength that conservatives traditionally get from religion” (p. 8).

Chappell begins by diagnosing the inadequacy of post-World War II liberalism. Liberals believed in human nature, convinced that reason could and would overcome prejudice and superstition. But this very optimism rendered them passive in response to stubborn southern opposition. If human progress was inevitable, better to allow time to do its work than to provoke a southern backlash that might only delay such progress. Some liberals realized that the problem was liberalism’s lack of spiritual energy and authority. Post-war liberals supported civil rights, but “They were not the ones who made it move”  (p.43).

Read the rest of this review at Reformation 21.

Why Do Evangelicals and Catholics Disagree over Net Neutrality?

One of the primary reasons Christians seeking to work out the implications of their faith disagree so sharply on matters of politics and public policy is because they make conflicting assumptions about the purpose and efficacy of government.

Evangelicals, for instance, interpret biblical teaching through the prism of a prior commitment to small government. It has not always been this way. Evangelicals formed the backbone of William Jennings Bryan’s populist campaigns for the presidency in 1896, 1900, and 1908, and southern evangelicals were a core part of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal Coalition during the late 1930s. But evangelicals increasingly evaluated the secularization and growth of the federal government in light of the Cold War and the threat of godless communism. It therefore made sense for them to align themselves with the emerging conservative movement, first in southern California, and then throughout Dixie. Anger over federal enforcement of desegregation, of course, made a big difference for southerners, but so did concerns over secular humanism (in education), feminism, and the liberalization of abortion laws.

African American Protestants, on the other hand, interpret biblical teaching in light of their experience of the federal government as their key shield and protector against racism and discrimination. It was the emergence of a strong Supreme Court and a more interventionist Congress that led to the end of segregation. On the other hand, the doctrines of limited government and states’ rights, to which conservatives often appealed as the bastions of liberty, were typically used in defense of the oppression of black people.

Roman Catholics, for their part, are more conflicted. Catholics also made up a core constituency of FDR’s New Deal coalition, and the labor-friendly social teachings of the Catholic Church rendered them much firmer in this commitment than were southern evangelicals. Unlike Protestants, who experienced the secularization of the federal government as a form of marginalization, Catholics experienced it, at least at first, as their own liberation from what had been an essentially Protestant establishment. But when secularization extended to fundamental issues of Catholic moral teaching, such as gender roles and abortion, many Catholics found their allegiances divided. To this day the Catholic bishops lean Democratic on issues such as immigration, health care, and care for the poor, but they shift sharply to the right on matters pertaining to the life of the unborn. Hence the Catholic bishops’ advocacy for an expanded federal role in health care, followed by a sharp rejection of Obamacare as it emerged.

Nowhere do these tendencies appear more starkly than in the Catholic and evangelical responses to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)’s recent endorsement of net neutrality, which passed on partisan lines (three Democrats in favor, two Republicans opposed).

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) endorsed the shift, viewing the federal government as a powerful force for religious liberty: “From the inception of the Internet until the mid-2000s, Internet service providers were not permitted to discriminate or tamper with what was said over those Internet connections. Today, the FCC restores this protection for speakers, protection particularly important to noncommercial religious speakers.” For the Catholic bishops, the greatest threat to religious liberty on the Internet comes from the potential tyranny of the market; it is the federal government’s job to ensure that Internet communication remains free.

In contrast, the evangelical National Religious Broadcasters (NRB) unanimously opposed a move toward net neutrality on the part of the FCC. As president and CEO Dr. Jerry A. Johnson put it, “I am saddened that the FCC voted on partisan lines to dramatically expand federal power over the Internet.  Bigger government is not fertile ground for the flourishing of free speech and innovation.  This is a power grab, and NRB opposes it.” For evangelicals like Johnson, the primary threat to free speech comes from the growth of government; leaving such matters to the market ensures that they will flourish and remain free.

Neither the Catholic bishops nor the evangelical members of the NRB are being hypocrites here. Both are seeking to work out the implications of their faith as they see it. No doubt the bishops come at the matter from a more theological perspective, while the members of the NRB work from a more business-oriented standpoint. But they are taking opposite positions on an issue in the name of the same objective – liberty and freedom of speech – largely because they conceive of the role of government in relation to the market in profoundly different ways.

Should Christians Be Offended By Obama’s Speech at the National Prayer Breakfast?

At the National Prayer Breakfast yesterday President Obama spoke at length about the ways in which religion is so often hijacked in the name of violence and injustice. Most of the examples Obama cited were of actions committed by Muslims and in the name of Islam. But Obama paused, for just a few sentences, to remind his mostly Christian audience not to be too self-righteous.

And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.  In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ…. So this is not unique to one group or one religion.

Conservative critics pounced.

Jim Gilmore, former governor of Virginia, claimed that the president’s comments were the most offensive he’d heard from a president in his life. “He has offended every believing Christian in the United States.”

Conservative columnist Charlie Krauthammer declared himself “stunned” that the president could say something so “banal and offensive.”

Here we are from an act shocking barbarism, the burning alive of a prisoner of war, and Obama’s message is that we should remember the Crusades and the Inquisition. I mean, for him to say that all of us have sinned, all religions have transgressed — it was adolescent stuff. Everyone knows that. What’s important is what’s happening now. Christianity no longer goes on Crusades. It gave up the Inquisition a while ago. the Book of Joshua is knee deep in blood. That story is over too.

And none other than the usually clear-headed Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, claimed that Obama’s comments were “an unfortunate attempt at a wrongheaded moral comparison.”

“The evil actions that he mentioned were clearly outside the moral parameters of Christianity itself and were met with overwhelming moral opposition from Christians.”

Really? The crusades and the Inquisition were met with the “overwhelming” moral opposition of Christians? Slavery and Jim Crow were condemned by an “overwhelming” consensus among southern Christians? As an intelligent Southern Baptist, Moore knows better.

Krauthammer claims that Obama’s comments were “adolescent stuff,” but it is Krauthammer’s misrepresentation of Obama’s speech that is juvenile in its politicized self-righteousness. Krauthammer implies that Obama’s reflective comments about Christianity constituted the main message of his speech, when in reality the president was simply offering a passing word of humility about his own religion in the context of a larger point about the legitimate and illegitimate uses of religion. It was a speech overflowing with positive references toward Christianity and its teachings of love, even as it sought to identify areas of common moral ground among diverse religions.

Is it politically incorrect for conservatives humbly to acknowledge the sins of the Christian tradition in public?

Is it really true, as Gilmore claims, that “every believing Christian in the United States” is too proud to be reminded of great sins committed in the name of Christ?

If so, orthodox Christianity would be in far worse trouble than I ever imagined.

This sort of self-righteous indignation, thankfully, does not represent all Christians. Many of us do recognize the crusades, the religious persecution of heretics (vigorously defended by prominent Catholic and Protestant theologians in past centuries), and the racial oppression and violence committed toward African Americans (also justified by Christian pastors and theologians in the memory of many still alive today) to be serious distortions of Christianity that have had tragic consequences for the credibility of the gospel.

What is more, President Obama was right to remind us that many devout Muslims reject radical and violent interpretations of their faith, as those of us with Muslim friends and neighbors understand. Perhaps it should not be so offensive to Christians, in the midst of their justified anger at the injustice of Muslim terrorists, to remind themselves of their own religious sins and of the fact that they too stand only by grace.

Rather than cherry-pick the president’s comments to score political points, it would be better to highlight the words that are more representative of the overall tone of the speech:

Our job is not to ask that God respond to our notion of truth — our job is to be true to Him, His word, and His commandments.  And we should assume humbly that we’re confused and don’t always know what we’re doing and we’re staggering and stumbling towards Him, and have some humility in that process.  And that means we have to speak up against those who would misuse His name to justify oppression, or violence, or hatred with that fierce certainty.  No God condones terror.  No grievance justifies the taking of innocent lives, or the oppression of those who are weaker or fewer in number….

If we are properly humble, if we drop to our knees on occasion, we will acknowledge that we never fully know God’s purpose.  We can never fully fathom His amazing grace.  “We see through a glass, darkly” — grappling with the expanse of His awesome love.  But even with our limits, we can heed that which is required:  To do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.

I pray that we will.  And as we journey together on this “march of living hope,” I pray that, in His name, we will run and not be weary, and walk and not be faint, and we’ll heed those words and “put on love.”

President Barack Obama, National Prayer Breakfast, February 5, 2015

For the Healing of the Nations

I’m happy to advertise the publication of For the Healing of the Nations, a conference volume edited by Brad Littlejohn and Peter Escalante, published by the Davenant Trust. The book features excellent essays by James Bratt on Abraham Kuyper’s political theology and legacy, as well as essays by several other scholars on themes ranging from Christian Reconstructionism to Calvin’s theology of resistance, from Reformed two kingdoms theology to the problems with radical Van Tilian presuppositionalism.

Chapter 4 is an essay by me exploring Calvin’s doctrine of the kingdom of God and its restoration of the world. Calvin’s discussion of the kingdom of God involves an important paradox. On the one hand, he argues, the kingdom of Christ brings about the restoration of the material world. On the other hand, the kingdom of Christ is spiritual.

As I argue in the chapter, Calvin’s explanation of this paradox, and its implications for the church and for politics, only makes sense in light of his two kingdoms theology. To find out more, buy the book!

FtHotNcover

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here is a complete table of contents:

Introduction
Peter Escalante
vii
1  Abraham Kuyper: A Compact Introduction
Dr. James D. Bratt
1
2  Sphere Sovereignty among Abraham Kuyper’s Other Political Theories
Dr. James D. Bratt
21
3  And Zeus Shall Have No Dominion, or, How, When, Where, and Why to “Plunder the Egyptians”: The Case of Jerome
Dr. E. J. Hutchinson
49
4  “The Kingdom of Christ is Spiritual”: John Calvin’s Concept of the Restoration of the World
Dr. Matthew J. Tuininga
81
5  Participating in Political Providence: The Theological Foundations of Resistance in Calvin
Andrew Fulford
105
6  “Bavinck’s bug” or “Van Tilian” hypochondria?: An analysis of Prof. Oliphint’s assertion that cognitive realism and Reformed theology are incompatible
Laurence O’Donnell
139
7  De-Klining From Chalcedon: Exegetical Roots Of The “R2k” Project
Rev. Benjamin Miller
173
8  Narrating Christian Transformationalism: Rousas J. Rushdoony and Christian Reconstructionism in Current Histories of American Religion and Politics
Dr. Brian J. Auten
209
9  Nature and Grace, Visible and Invisible: A New Look at the Question of Infant Baptism
Joseph Minich

Is Christianity Inherently Undemocratic? Hierarchy and Predestination

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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