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).
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.
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
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!
Here is a complete table of contents:
|1|| Abraham Kuyper: A Compact Introduction
Dr. James D. Bratt
|2|| Sphere Sovereignty among Abraham Kuyper’s Other Political Theories
Dr. James D. Bratt
|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
|4|| “The Kingdom of Christ is Spiritual”: John Calvin’s Concept of the Restoration of the World
Dr. Matthew J. Tuininga
|5|| Participating in Political Providence: The Theological Foundations of Resistance in Calvin
|6|| “Bavinck’s bug” or “Van Tilian” hypochondria?: An analysis of Prof. Oliphint’s assertion that cognitive realism and Reformed theology are incompatible
|7|| De-Klining From Chalcedon: Exegetical Roots Of The “R2k” Project
Rev. Benjamin Miller
|8|| Narrating Christian Transformationalism: Rousas J. Rushdoony and Christian Reconstructionism in Current Histories of American Religion and Politics
Dr. Brian J. Auten
|9|| Nature and Grace, Visible and Invisible: A New Look at the Question of Infant Baptism
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.
Christian political activists from across the political spectrum sometimes speak and act as if Christians should brook no compromise with the state on the particular issue with which they are concerned. Whether the issue is sustenance for the poor, protection for the unborn, the punishment of what scripture calls sexual immorality, or something else, the argument is made that on this point there can be no compromise: A Christian cannot vote for a libertarian or a Tea party candidate, or for a pro-choice politician, or for a politician who supports gay rights, etc. So the argument runs. I suppose we are all supposed to write in our favored names, be it Jim Wallis, Pat Robertson, or Doug Wilson.
It is certainly true that when it comes to proclamation and witness Christians should preach the whole will of God. As Timothy P. Jackson points out, no faithful Christian would willingly sacrifice fidelity to God to her own political or personal interests. We are disciples of Christ first and foremost. A Christian pastor is obligated prophetically to proclaim the whole word of God.
But that doesn’t mean civil government should enforce the whole will and word of God, as the great Christian theologians from Augustine to Aquinas to Calvin have all recognized. Unlike Judaism or Islam, Christianity offers no divine blueprint for politics. It sharply delineates the kingdom of Christ from political authority, the restorative ministry of the gospel from the limited preservative power of civil government, and divine law from human law. To put it another way, Christian theologians distinguish the perfect standard of God’s natural moral law from the way in which Christians, in service to their neighbors, apply that law to politics according to the virtues of love and prudence (not to be mistaken for self-serving pragmatism). As Jacques Ellul put it,
“Our task, therefore, is not to determine what law with a Christian content is; rather, it is to find out what the lordship of Jesus Christ means for law (law as it exists), and what function God has assigned to law.”
All of this may sound an awful lot like moral relativism. Wouldn’t it be best simply to advocate the implementation of the law of God, come what may? In fact, John Calvin pointed out, even the law of God itself, the Torah, limited the civil enforcement of God’s will to what sinful human beings could be expected to fulfill. Its severity was relaxed due to the hardness of human hearts, and it even regulated unjust practices in order to minimize their destructive consequences.
OK, you might think, we all know that civil government can’t enforce certain laws, such as the prohibition of coveting, or lust, and that Israel’s laws tolerated things like slavery. But surely government must enforce the big prohibitions, like the ones against murder, adultery, or theft, without compromise. In fact, Calvin recognized the limits of Israel’s civil law even here. The prototypical case was the Torah’s law of divorce, which Jesus himself said is ordinarily unjust even though Moses tolerated and regulated it due to the hardness of human hearts. But Calvin extended the principle to a myriad of other laws in the Torah, including laws that tolerated adultery, murder, and the abuse of slaves, that he believed failed to measure up to the standards of God’s natural law. These include:
- the law that permitted men to enslave and force into marriage women captured in war (Commentary on Deuteronomy 21:10)
- the law that minimized the penalty for a man who committed adultery with a slave (Commentary on Leviticus 19:20-22)
- the law that permitted soldiers to murder prisoners of war (Commentary on Deuteronomy 20:12)
- the law that permitted a man to sell his daughter into slavery (Commentary on Exodus 21:7-11)
- the law that permitted a slave to divorce his wife in order to attain his freedom (Commentary on Exodus 21:1)
- the law that minimized the penalty for slave-owners who mistreated their slaves (Commentary on Exodus 21:26)
- the law that tolerated and regulated polygamy (Commentary on Leviticus 18:18)
In all of these cases Calvin argues that although the conduct in question was patently unjust, God nevertheless tolerated it due to the hardness of human hearts, and even provided for its regulation in Israel’s civil law. His point is not to defend these laws. On the contrary, Calvin is more than willing to suggest that the Torah’s civil laws can and should be improved upon by in the laws of nations. The objective is not to seek the lowest common denominator, but to recognize that there are limits on what the state can do and should try to do. While the gospel may accomplish what is impossible for human beings, politics remains the art of the possible.
All of this suggests that many Christians would do well to reconsider their dogmatism when it comes to contemporary American politics. The questions facing citizens and politicians alike are complex. It is no easy matter to determine what forms of injustice or immorality government should tolerate, let alone how it should regulate them to minimize abuse. It is not always easy to determine which politicians hold their convictions about the limits of law in good faith.
Christians desperately seek certainty in these matters, but when it comes to politics certainty is a luxury. Here we do not have a clear divine blueprint for law or policy. Here we are in the arena of the virtues of love, prudence, and humility, which each person must seek to put on, in conformity to the image of Christ, as best she can, in good conscience.
In the meantime, Christians must remember that what the state is able to accomplish is not the limit of what human beings are expected to fulfill, let alone what the church should proclaim. Christ demands perfect justice and holiness from all human beings, in every area of life, and it is to that standard that he will hold us all accountable when he comes to judge the living and the dead. “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).
I once attended a church in which a group of women decided to start a book club as a means of fostering Christian friendship among themselves. The women only saw one another at worship and were looking for further ways of connecting. This is not uncommon, of course. But the book club never got off the ground. The women had selected a book to read and were planning their first meeting when the pastor got wind of it. Without discussion or warning, he announced from the pulpit that the women would be reading a different book, one that he had selected. That sort of sucked the life out of the endeavor, turning what had been a bottom-up affair among women to one that came down from the man at the top. Yet I could not help but wondering, why did this pastor assume he had the authority to take control in this way? I eventually realized that this was not an isolated incident. The pastor was a man accustomed to being in control. He was willing to use his office as he felt necessary in order to accomplish his ‘pastoral’ objectives, without accountability.
Of course, there are few controversies in the church older than that of church government. In the New Testament the pastors of the church are interchangeably described as presbyters and bishops. Not long after the apostles passed from the scene, however, Christian churches began to rally around the authority of particular bishops (such as the bishop of Rome) as focal points of unity and standards of orthodoxy. Bishops took on a whole new array of governmental tasks, overseeing the deacons’ care for the poor and adjudicating conflicts among believers. The church’s emerging hierarchy was a clear imitation of the highly successful polity of the Roman Empire.
By the high middle ages the pope had won widespread recognition of his authority not only as the vicar of Peter, but the vicar of Christ. The pope’s authority in the church was embraced as having been instituted by Christ in his famous words to Peter,
“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:19)
The canon lawyers of the medieval church recognized that Christ spoke similar words to the apostles as a group, not simply to Peter, and so they came to distinguish between two types of authority grounded in Jesus’ statement. On the one hand, they argued, Christ gave all the apostles, and hence all priests directly, the sacerdotal authority to administer the sacraments, including penance. On the other hand, Christ gave to Peter alone, and hence to the popes, supreme ‘jurisdiction’ and ‘administration’, the power to govern, to legislate, and to adjudicate specific disputes. In such matters the pope had the ‘fullness of power'; he could not violate articles of faith, but he did have full discretionary authority over the church’s temporal affairs, and – very significantly – that authority was backed up by the powers of excommunication.
The sharpest medieval critic of this view was Marsilius of Padua. Marsilius denied the divine origin of the papacy and insisted that the church is a purely spiritual institution concerned with otherworldly salvation. He vigorously rejected any coercive power on the part of the church, including excommunication, insisting that ecclesiastical affairs of jurisdiction and administration belong to civil government. Marsilius thus became the clear forerunner of the later Protestant theory known as “Erastianism,” in which civil magistrates are placed at the head of the church and the authority of the church’s ministers is limited to the word and sacraments.
The Marsilian or Erastian view became the default view of the early magisterial reformers. To varying degrees, Luther, Melanchthon, Zwingli, Bullinger, and the Henrician reformers in England all not only relied on magisterial power as an emergency source of authority to launch the reformation, but embraced civil government as the rightful overseer of the church’s order and life. On the far extreme was the English Reformation, with Henry VIII’s claim to be the Head of the Church. Much more moderate was Martin Luther, who was always uncomfortable with civil authority in the church, but who struggled to find an alternative.
Most prominent in Reformed churches were the views of Zwingli and Bullinger, who equated the church and civil government as essentially one society with two kinds of power, that of pastors and that of civil magistrates. For Zwingli and Bullinger the tasks of excommunication and poor relief entrusted to the church in New Testament appropriately fell to civil magistrates in the era of Christendom. Now that such civil rulers had converted to the faith, there was no need for ecclesiastical ministers to maintain such functions independently of the city or commonwealth. Ecclesiastical control over discipline and poor relief was associated with the tyranny of the papists.
It was Calvin, finally, influenced by Martin Bucer, who began to navigate a way between the extreme claims of the papacy, on the one hand, and the Protestant Erastians (or Marsilians) on the other. Calvin insisted that as the spiritual kingdom of Christ, the church is called to administer specific spiritual functions without interference from political authorities. These functions do not only consist of the word and sacraments, but of discipline (including excommunication) and of care for the poor. Calvin thus insisted that the church has its own right of spiritual jurisdiction that must be sharply distinguished from the political jurisdiction of civil government.
How was this spiritual jurisdiction to be distinguished from the tyrannical claims of the papacy? Calvin maintained that the church’s jurisdiction is non-coercive. It simply consists in barring a person from the Eucharist and urging him to repent. Just as importantly, he stressed that the church’s right to excommunicate or discipline its members cannot be invoked with reference to any dispute or temporal matter whatsoever, as happened under the papacy, but only with reference to spiritual matters. To put it another way, the church could only discipline a person if she was in direct and clear violation of the moral law of God. Thus the church’s spiritual jurisdiction was not magisterial or discretionary, but ministerial. It was entirely bound up with the word such that church discipline could be said to be an extension or appendage of that word, an exercise of the spiritual sovereignty of Christ.
For Calvin even the church’s care for the poor, an expression of the communion described in Acts 4, is fundamentally spiritual rather than temporal. It is a direct manifestation of the restoration that the kingdom of Christ has begun in human beings.
But Calvin agreed with the other reformers that the outward and temporal matters of the church’s life are to be sharply distinguished from these spiritual matters, and are therefore subject to a different kind of government or polity. Such “indifferent” matters included the appropriate time and day of worship, the speech and attire of women, the forms and postures of liturgy, none of which, Calvin insisted, pertain to the conscience (which does not mean that scripture has nothing to say about them).
Calvin was not very clear about just who should regulate such indifferent things. Clearly he permitted civil government some control here. He submitted to the Geneva government’s decision concerning the frequency of the Eucharist, to its control of the procedures by which the ministers of the church were elected, and to its funding of the church’s ministries (and consequently its control over the church’s finances). Equally clearly, he insisted that civil government could not direct such matters according to its own whim and preference. All the affairs of church life are to be ordered consistent with scripture and for the edification and peace of the body.
Yet it is noteworthy that when Calvin described the offices of church government he did so with respect to the church’s spiritual functions rather than with respect to its temporal or indifferent affairs. For instance, Calvin was adamant in his preaching that the deacons of the Genevan church – which he said should include an order of women – were to be embraced as possessing a spiritual office like that of the pastors rather than that of the civil magistrates. Even more significantly, he always defined the office of elder with respect to the function of spiritual church discipline. He never characterized it as an office of general rule or jurisdiction in the church. In that sense Calvin was no Presbyterian. His office of elder, unlike that of later Reformed and Presbyterian churches, had one specific spiritual function – the function of church discipline. And it is only with respect to that specific function, he argued, that the elders can claim to administer the spiritual government of Christ’s church.
Why did the later Reformed tradition develop a much broader understanding of the office of elder? When Reformed churches were established in Catholic France, under the cross, it was obviously impossible to concede control of even indifferent ecclesiastical affairs to hostile civil magistrates. French churches therefore tended to turn such affairs over to the control of deacons and elders (in some cases the offices of elder and deacon even blended into one). But they were mindful that this was an outward or temporal authority, not a spiritual one. Evidence for this appears from the fact that they (ordinarily) dealt with matters of (spiritual) church discipline at separate meetings from those in which they handled the general affairs of church government.
A similar development, I believe, explains the evolution of church government in the Dutch Reformed Churches. To this day the elders in Dutch Reformed churches are supposed to distinguish their spiritual oversight of the congregation, with which they deal in meetings of the Consistory (pastors and elders), from the matters of general church government, with which they deal in meetings of the Council (pastors, elders, and deacons). Here the Dutch Reformed ‘Council’ (an office of the church) seems to have neatly taken the place of the Geneva ‘Council’ (the supreme authority of Geneva’s civil government) in governing the indifferent affairs of church life.
What worries me is that in some Reformed churches there seems to be little understanding of the difference between the spiritual government of the church, in which the pastors, elders, and deacons administer the kingship of Christ, and the church’s handling of indifferent affairs, in which they are merely representatives of the congregation. In short, I fear that too often elders and pastors think that when they are exercising their authority over indifferent matters they are exercising the authority of Christ! Perhaps that helps explain why many elders devote far more time to such mundane affairs than they do to the vital and spiritual function of church discipline.
Understanding the difference between spiritual and indifferent affairs also has implications for the involvement of the broader congregation in decisions concerning the latter. If Calvin and the other reformers were willing to cede significant authority over the indifferent affairs of church life to civil authorities (a willingness I think we should wholeheartedly reject) because such matters were simply to be conducted for the edification and peace of all believers, how much more should we yield authority over such matters to the very believers whose edification and peace is its objective? This doesn’t mean the church need always operate by majority vote. It does suggest that the general matters of church government might be appropriately handled at meetings and through procedures in which all faithful men and women, in addition to the officers of the church, can participate.
Such a conception of church government would have a twofold salutary advantage. First, it would make the church more sensitive to the gifts, wisdom, and consent of its full membership. Second, it would help people to distinguish the spiritual government of Christ administered by the church’s officers strictly according to the word from those indifferent matters of government appropriately subject to the primary concerns of love, edification, prudence, compromise, and peace. That in turn might help our fragmented churches achieve a greater measure of unity. I believe the Apostle Paul had something to say about that.
Protestants are currently experiencing revival of interest in natural law. For a long time most Protestants dismissed natural law as a Roman Catholic concept, one that carried with it all sorts of semi-Pelagian assumptions about human nature and the powers of reason. Even worse, they associated it with the Enlightenment and its Deistic abandonment of orthodox Christianity.
Even today many conservatives and liberals alike find their reasons to reject natural law. For conservatives the concept serves as a Trojan horse for the rejection of scripture, a dangerous elevation of human reason and autonomy. For liberals the captivity of natural law thinking to the concerns of “pelvic ethics” suggests that it is simply a way for religious conservatives to pretend they are using public reason, when in fact they are simply expounding traditional Roman Catholic attitudes toward sexuality, marriage, and birth control.
Both of these dismissive views share a common confusion about natural law, one well summarized by the French Reformed sociologist and theologian Jacques Ellul in his 1946 The Theological Foundations of Law, written just after World War II had destroyed law in Ellul’s native France:
“Too often … natural law is defined as a doctrine, as an interpretation of legal facts, as a philosophy of law… Yet natural law is not primarily this philosophy. It is first of all a phenomenon which exists not as an idea, but as a concrete event in history… As such, it cannot be disclaimed any more than the fact of religion or the fact of the state can be disclaimed.” (14)
Ellul identifies the philosophy of the Stoics and the theologies of Aquinas and Calvin as examples of relatively sophisticated natural law theories that had virtually no impact on actual law. Real natural law, he insists, is something on which we reflect, not something that we construct.
Ellul thinks natural law arose at a point in human history shortly after religion and magic became differentiated from law and morality. At that stage
“Law is established by custom or legislation, independently of the religious power, as if it were a spontaneous creation of society under the impact of economic, political, and moral factors. It is not dictated and created in one piece by the state. It is not imposed from outside. It springs directly from within society, from the common sentiment and the common will. These may not of necessity be consciously intended to result in a juridical creation, but they are certainly consciously experienced as a habit and obedience. This law rests on the adherence of the people who brought it into existence. This adherence is won because the law is merely the expression of the conscience of these people and of the circumstances in which they live. There is no alternative to adhering to this code.” (18-19)
By the time theories of natural law arise, Ellul argues, the phenomena is already in its decline. “It is indeed the moment when man ceases to be spontaneously ‘within the law.’ He places himself outside the law and examines it. Law becomes an object of speculation and interpretation.” (19)
It is but a short step from the systematic analysis of natural law to its replacement by positive law. “It does not take long for this view to reach the jurist, who in turn tries to organize law in a rational way.” Soon law becomes becomes a creation of the state.
“[A] juridical technique is worked out which is increasingly precise, increasingly rational, and increasingly removed from spontaneity. At this point the code hardens. It becomes a consecrated abstraction, always trailing behind social and political evolution, always in need of being brought up to date by arbitrary innovations, more or less adapted to the conditions of society. Law becomes the affair of jurists, receiving authority and sanction from the state.” (19)
No longer is law viewed primarily as the expression of an organic public consensus concerning justice, but it is viewed as an alien imposition on the part of those who have power. No longer are laws enacted as general rules of justice to be applied and enforced with prudence and equity, but law is seen as a mass of particular rules and regulations designed to foresee every possible circumstance and eventuality. Law becomes ruthlessly logical and systematic, yet blind to justice itself. “It is adequate for all material interests, yet inadequate for justice.” (32)
Here we are faced with the specter of tyranny, no matter what our system of government, as law becomes simply a means by which the powerful exploit the weak. After all,
“juridical technique is at the disposal of whoever wishes to take advantage of it… it may be utilized by any kind of power in history. When this happens, a definite purpose is ascribed to this intrinsically neutral technique. The technique is manipulated according to new and arbitrary criteria, substituted for the ideas of justice and natural law.”(32)
Having been a leader in the French resistance, Ellul identifies Nazism and Communism as the phenomena that he has in mind. In both cases the natural law of justice was abandoned and law was manipulated as a flexible tool for a new and greater purpose (i.e., ideology). The inevitable byproduct of this development is the collapse of the rule of law itself. The state is raised above the law and those under its rule know it. Why should they voluntarily submit to rules that have no grounding in right or justice? The power of the law now simply consists in fear and coercion, and people will disobey it when they get the chance and when it suits their interests.
Ellul describes these developments as history. Natural law, he thinks, has been lost, and no amount of theorizing or theologizing can recover it. The only hope for humanity is a revival of civilization on the part of God himself. I get the sense this sentiment would resonate with many American Christians today. Why even bother reasoning about politics or the law? Things are too far gone for that.
I think Ellul’s analysis of natural law and its history has much to be said for it, but I think he wrongly reduces history to an inevitable evolutionary process over which humans have little control. I also think that he – and many contemporary Christians – are too quick to dismiss the moral sensibilities of a world that remains under the common grace of God. Ellul wrote in the shadow of a shattered Europe, with millions of the dead able to testify to what law had become in the hands of dictators and soldiers, guerrillas and criminals. But even in the late 1940s and 1950s Americans were much more optimistic (witness the baby boom) because they realized that the European experience was not the whole story.
Indeed, it was out of the ashes of World War II that a system of international law and human rights emerged that can only, only be explained as an example of natural law at work. It is true that this system is codified and enforced to varying degrees around the world. It is also true that while it approximates certain Christian moral sentiments better than did the laws of traditional societies, it largely ignores others. But this is nothing new under the sun. Anyone who tells you there was a golden age of morality and law hasn’t read much history.
Ellul rightly characterized the dangers facing a society that has lost its allegiance to justice (i.e., to natural law), but if the West has received another lease on life, Christians would do well to engage in the hard work of strengthening and rebuilding moral consensus rather than seeking to overcome it with the use of brute force (all the while complaining about its demise). Jesus is still Lord, the sun continues to shine, and rain continues to fall on the just and the unjust alike. That suggests there is still something to be said for the world after all.
I am grateful to the Davenant Trust for the opportunity to present a paper entitled “The Kingdom of Christ is Spiritual: John Calvin and the Redemption of the Cosmos” a few weeks ago at the 2014 Convivium Calvinisticum in South Carolina. Thanks to the Trust and to all who attended for some good papers and stimulating conversation. Political Theology Today has kindly published my short summary of the paper. Here are the first few paragraphs:
One of the great paradoxes of John Calvin’s political theology can be captured in terms of two of the phrases the reformer used over and over throughout his writings. On the one hand, he emphasized, “the kingdom of Christ is spiritual.” On the other hand, through the kingdom of Christ God is bringing about the “restoration of the world.” Various scholars highlight different sides of this paradox, often for their own ideological or critical purposes. Critics claim that Calvin was captive to neo-platonic dualisms of body and soul, earth and heaven, the outward and the inward, so denigrating the significance of the material creation. More appreciatively, some claim that Calvin envisioned the future of Christ’s kingdom, and the purpose of the church, in purely spiritual or “other-worldly” terms. On the other extreme, many influential scholars have characterized Calvin as calling Christians to bring about the transformation of the world into the kingdom of God, or at least as the inspiration for the elite saints who could bring transformation through their zealous activism.
In fact, none of these perspectives are wholly accurate. The key to making sense of the disparate strands in Calvin’s thought is interpreting them through the lens of his two kingdoms eschatological framework. Calvin understands the kingdom of Christ to entail the restoration of the world that will fully take place only at the return of Christ. Creation was always designed for the purpose of attaining this future as the heavenly kingdom of God, Calvin argues. “Truly the first man would have passed to a better life, had he remained upright, but there would have been no separation of the soul from the body, no corruption, no kind of destruction, and, in short, no violent change.” Thus when Calvin talks about the restoration of the world, or about human beings’ restoration to their original state, he is not referring to this original state in a static sense, but in the sense of its eschatological purpose (2.1.3).
You can read the rest here.