Monthly Archives: September 2012

Is Peter Leithart right to defend Constantine?

I just finished reading Peter Leithart‘s Defending Constantine, a book in which Leithart synthesizes the work of modern scholarship to present a thorough-going critique of John Howard Yoder’s popular narrative in which the fall of the church into heresy comes with the “Constantinian turn.” A Mennonite theologian, Yoder inspired what many have come to describe as the emergence of a neo-Anabaptist tradition within the academy and the broader church. And of course, not only did Yoder reject the idea of Christendom, but he was a pacifist.

Leithart’s book makes a predominantly historical argument, although he is forthright about his theological and polemical concerns, and particularly towards the end of the book he shifts to the work of straight-up theology. The first few chapters are an excellent introduction to the Roman Empire of Constantine’s day, as well as to the basic narrative of Constantine’s life and the controversies surrounding it. Leithart offers a persuasive case that Constantine was a genuine Christian believer who sought to place his life and rule at the service of Christ and his church, not a cynical politician who simply used Christianity and manipulated the church for his own imperial purposes.

One important contribution of Leithart is to put the reign of Constantine back into perspective. Whatever one might think of the “Constantinian turn” Constantine should be credited for liberating the church from persecution and making its existence legal. He should be praised for eliminating the gladiatorial games and outlawing violent sacrifice. He should be recognized as the one who began the process of conforming Roman law to a higher standard of justice (what Leithart calls “the evangelization of law”) even if his own record on that account was somewhat mixed.

To be sure, Leithart does not hesitate to criticize Constantine from time to time. Constantine did little to challenge the oppressive social dynamic of his day in which the lower classes were easily manipulated and mistreated by the upper classes. He used military force in an unsuccessful attempt to end the Donatist controversy, confiscating the Donatists’ property, closing their churches, imprisoning bishops, and even allowing some to be tortured and executed. And as interpreted by church historians like Constantine’s contemporary Eusebius, his Christianization of the empire led many to link their hopes for the church and for Christ’s kingdom too closely with Rome.

But Leithart insists that in the case of Constantine the good contributions outweigh the bad. While there may have been a Constantinian “moment” of excess and eschatological utopia, the moment did not last long and was certainly repudiated by Augustine in his City of God (despite Yoder’s conflation of Augustine with Eusebius). The only reason Constantine’s reign seems like such a fall to Yoder, Leithart suggests, is that Yoder exaggerates the pacifism and anti-statism of the church leading up to Constantine, and he caricatures the Christendom that followed him.

On the point of pacifism Leithart rejects the claim that the early church was ever universally pacifist. He suggests that not only were concerns of theologians like Origen and Tertullian about military service closely tied with concerns about pagan Roman religion, but that these sources themselves suggest awareness of a “divergence in Christian opinion and practice” (263). Leithart’s case is somewhat more persuasive and based on the evidence than was suggested in George Kalantzis’s recent lecture at the Candler School of Theology. And he helpfully demonstrates how even those early Christian theologians who are claimed to have been pacifist differ in their emphasis from contemporary neo-Anabaptist pacifists. For instance, the early church fathers spoke highly of Rome and prayed for the success of the Roman legions in war.  What’s more, unlike contemporary neo-Anabaptists “No church father, at least, ever made the distinction between police work and warfare as a way of justifying Christian military service” (266). And tellingly, “there was, quite strikingly, no controversy over war and pacifism at the time of Constantine’s conversion” (272).

What about Constantine’s legacy? Not only did Constantine not conflate the church with the empire, but if anything he weakened the empire by uniting Christians, including those outside the empire, in subservience to an allegiance higher than that of Rome. Constantine’s patronage of the church in the form of wealth and the empowerment of bishops’ courts drastically increased the church’s independence and prestige at the expense of Rome.

In short, the conversion of the empire did not bond empire and church inseparably together. It had, as we would expect and Yoder would want, the opposite effect. It loosened the bonds that many Romans felt to the empire, even as it strengthened their bonds to another city, another kingdom, one that spilled far over the limits of the empire. Baptized Rome found that it could join with baptized barbaria, wince Jesus had broken down the dividing wall. (292)

In all of these areas Leithart’s book is a worthwhile contribution, and it should encourage Protestant theologians to take the legacy of Christendom and the middle ages more seriously. Leithart helpfully asks the question, What should the church do if an emperor or empire actually embraces its message about Jesus Christ and seeks to serve and “kiss the Son” (Psalm 2)?

That said, I do not find Leithart’s own answer to this question, (too) briefly outlined in the last chapter of the book, entirely satisfactory. His defense of the occasional use of force by Christians ignores Romans 13 and appears to be more of an apology for the right of self-defense than of anything like that offered by a theologian like Augustine or John Calvin. He describes the government’s use of the sword as a matter of loving discipline rather than in Paul’s terms of the exercise of vengeance and of God’s wrath. And he explains Jesus’ command to ‘Turn the other cheek’ with an exegetical interpretation that is obscure and is rejected by most New Testament scholars.

Leithart is right to say that in accordance with the Sermon on the Mount magistrates should “not do alms or pray or fast or do any other good things to be seen by others, especially by others with cameras – a rule that would revolutionize modern politics” (338). He is right to note that the church should inform a ruler that he or she will be judged based on “what she had done for the homeless, the weak, the sick, the imprisoned, the hungry” (339). But on what basis does Leithart suggest the church should urge a person with the vocation of civil magistrate “not to lose sleep over budget shortfalls or stock market declines, and exhort them instead to store up treasure in heaven by acts of mercy and justice”? (339)

Most troubling of all, in my view, is Leithart’s criticism (or dismissal) of the modern democratic state. He claims that the state “will not kiss the Son as the King of a different city” and that “Democratic states more or less peacefully marginalize the church.” He even goes so far as to argue that “because the modern state refuses to welcome the church as city, as model city, as teacher and judge, the modern state reasserts its status as the restored sacrificial state” (340). The modern state, like Rome, needs to be willing to be baptized and so listen to the teaching of Jesus rather than to devote itself to violence in subservience to its highest god – the nation itself. Such a baptism would initiate “a new beginning” (the beginning of what?) and avoid what is otherwise inevitable – an apocalypse (doesn’t John teach us that the apocalypse is certain?) (341-342).

I beg to differ. Part of Leithart’s problem here, it seems to me, is his conflation of rulers and magistrates, who can indeed kiss the Son (as, for instance, virtually every American president has claimed to do), with the impersonal, bureaucratic, pluralistic state, which cannot. Yet underlying even this claim is the question of how a magistrate is to kiss the Son in the first place. Is it really by giving the church material wealth so that the church can use government dollars to build churches and care for the poor, as Leithart seems to suggest?

Leithart’s claim that modern democracies marginalize the church also baffles me. Churches are not required to pay taxes in this country, are not forced to conform to national and state policies against discrimination, and are given numerous freedoms and exceptions not awarded to other organizations. Many, if not most, American politicians, probably regularly attend church or study religious teaching in order to learn from that “model city, as teacher and judge.”

Finally, I find bizarre Leithart’s claim that the modern nation has reasserted its status as the restored sacrificial state, the state devoted to violence and bloodshed in rejection of the teachings of our Lord. The democratic states of modern Europe have been disarming at an alarming pace, and the United States requires its armed forces to operate according to standards of just war more strict than possibly any army in the history of the world. America does not act as if it considers itself to be god, but “under God” is committed to a doctrine of rights and freedoms grounded in the existence of a Creator. Even if there are traces of an ideology of sacrifice in American rhetoric, Leithart’s claim is at best a massive exaggeration.

But of course, the emphasis of Leithart’s book is not on his own constructive political theology. And I highly commend Defending Constantine for its careful historical analysis, and for its asking some excellent questions. Although it seeks to defend a man who ruled 1,700 years ago this book helps move the conversation forward, not backward.

You didn’t build that, which is why I’m not concerned about the poor. A two-party problem.

Over at First Things Robert George, whose conservative credentials are not remotely in doubt, suggests that President Obama got a bit of a “bum rap” in the criticism over his “You didn’t build that” rhetoric. While George gratuitously qualifies his defense of Obama so as to clarify to his conservative readers that he utterly rejects Obama’s big governmentism and so thinks that Obama deserved the criticism anyway, his begrudging concession to the president makes a substantive point.

[E]xamined in context, I don’t think it is correct to interpret the “that” in “you didn’t build that” as referring to businesses.

Here, I believe, the President is telling the truth in saying that by “that” he meant the infrastructure (roads, bridges, etc.) that makes it possible for businesses to flourish, but which businesses do not themselves provide.

And of course, Obama is right. Government does far more to shape the context for productive business than many if his critics would like to admit, and even if they might wish things were different, in the real world of American politics and governance there are few sharp lines between the free market and political power.

Take, for instance, the Washington Post‘s recent report that one of the main reasons Obama has as much of an eight point lead over Mitt Romney in the absolutely vital state of Ohio is that the president has showered the state with the blessings of federal patronage in the past four years. To be sure, Ohio is no doubt a very meritorious state, and surely no president would ever use his political clout to sway the merit-based procedure of determining what states or business should receive government grants, loans or tax breaks. Yet, as the Post begins its report,

After President Obama pledged in March to create up to 15 manufacturing centers nationwide, the first federal grant went to a place at the heart of his affections: Ohio.

When the Obama administration awarded tax credits to promote clean energy, the $125 million taken home by Ohio companies was nearly four times the average that went to other states.

And when a Cleveland dairy owner wanted to make more ricotta cheese, he won what was then the largest loan in the history of the U.S. Small Business Administration.

And what about the Fed? In another recent article the Washington Post describes how Ben Bernanke has radically increased the role of the Federal Reserve in bolstering and guiding the U.S. economy.

In what might be his final years as chairman of the Federal Reserve, Ben S. Bernanke is transforming the U.S. central bank, seeking to shed its reclusive habits and make it a constant presence in bolstering the economy. The new approach would make the Fed’s policies more responsive to the needs of the economy — and likely more forceful, because what the Fed is planning to do would be much clearer….

Bernanke has already pushed the Fed far along this path. The central bank this month pledged to stimulate the economy until it no longer needs the help, an unprecedented promise to intervene for years. That’s a big change from the Fed’s usual role as a curb on inflation and buffer against financial crises.

That may have a calming effect on the economy, as the article notes, but it also threatens to politicize the Fed and possibly to increase the likelihood of inflation. Micromanaging the free market, as economic theorists know, is fraught with danger. And according to what principles will the Fed operate? Those of the Democrats or the Republicans? Keynes or the Austrian School?

Unfortunately the problem is not simply with the current administration, the current Federal Reserve chairman, or the Democratic Party. As Joel Kotkin wrote over a month ago, both parties are beholden to Wall Street and to big business, and the common man to whom Ronald Reagan was so committed finds himself with no advocate in the 2012 presidential campaign.

In a sane world, one would expect Republicans to run against this consolidation of power, that has taxpayers propping up banks that invest vast amounts in backing the campaigns of the lawmakers who levy those taxes. The party would appeal to grassroots capitalists, investors, small banks and their customers who feel excluded from the Washington-sanctioned insiders’ game. The popular appeal is there. The Tea Party, of course, began as a response against TARP.

Instead, the partynominated a Wall Street patrician, Mitt Romney, whose idea of populism seems to be donning a well-pressed pair of jeans and a work shirt.

Romney himself is so clueless as to be touting his strong fund-raising with big finance. His top contributors list reads something like a rogue’s gallery from the 2008 crash: Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, Morgan Stanley, Credit Suisse, Citicorp, and Barclays. If Obama’s Hollywood friends wanted to find a perfect candidate to play the role of out-of-touch-Wall Street grandee, they could do worse than casting Mitt….

Who loses in this battle of the oligarchs? Everyone who depends on the markets to accurately give information, and to provide fundamental services, like fairly priced credit.

And who wins? The politically well-situated, who can profit from credit and regulatory policies whether those are implemented by Republicans or Democrats.

Of course, there are those who believe the significant shift within the conservative movement of our time has been from traditionalist conservatism towards an infatuation with the utopian benefits a free market might bring, but as Joe Knippenburg points out (responding to David Brooks), the Republican Party has always been controlled more by the interests of business and economics than it has by thoughtful conservatism, whether of the traditionalist stripe or of the libertarian version.

In electoral politics, the business-oriented guys have always had the upper hand. The traditionalists … have never been major players in partisan politics.  They’ve always been more noticeable in various “ivory towers,” like the Intercollegiate Studies Institute and the editorial offices of First Things (if I may be so bold)….

In day to day politics, the pressing (the unsustainable size of government) crowds out the important (the state of our souls and our civil society). We should not stint in reminding our friends, colleagues, and fellow political disputants of what’s really important. But we have to recognize that the failure adequately and responsibly to address our pressing problem puts what we really care about at risk as well.

But Knippenburg is also wise enough to recognize that the Republican Party’s version of economic prosperity doesn’t always help the little guy and it is certainly not winning the hearts and minds of the working class.

A substantial majority (70 percent) of white working class Americans thinks that our economic system unfairly favors the wealthy…. Connected with working class doubts about fairness is a conviction held by almost half (47 percent) that the American Dream once held true, but does no more… One might ask why those people who mistrust the fairness of markets and society at large don’t turn to government to make things right. Surely they’re tempted to do so. And surely Barack Obama wants them to do so. Their hesitation for the moment might be due as much to the likelihood that government just seems to them to present unfairness in another guise.

But Republicans have to come up with a compelling way of talking about the opportunities provided by the marketplace. To be sure, they can offer a celebration of freedom and a critque of government intervention as “crony capitalism,”  but I’m not sure how far that goes with a working class person who doesn’t see an obvious path to prosperity for himself and his family.

I wish I had a magic bullet here, but I don’t. We have to recognize that in our economy, the opportunities for those who lack skills are very limited.

It’s easy to criticize government for being too big or for interfering with the economy too much. It’s even easier to criticize the Democratic Party and Barack Obama. Everything gets a lot harder when we recognize that the Republican Party is not offering very persuasive solutions, and in many ways it is simply another part of the problem.

Coming to Grips with the New Testament Teaching on Nonviolence: Richard Hays

Richard Hays’s The Moral Vision of the New Testament may well be the best book on New Testament ethics written in the past two decades. It is certainly the most helpful exegetically based book that I have read. To be sure, that does not mean that I agree with Hays on every point, or even on some of Hays’s most important points. But Hays does a brilliant job letting the various texts of the New Testament speak for themselves, refusing prematurely to force them into a synthesis or a systematic ethics. As a result, he helps the reader come to grips with what the texts are really saying, allowing the reader (or the church) to do the hard work of determining how to bring the various texts together. (Note: this post is part 2 of my series on pacifism.)

Probably the most significant area in which I disagree with Hays is his affirmation of pacifism, an affirmation in which he breaks with the Christian tradition’s long-held just war doctrine. In particular I find Hays’s rather dismissive treatment of Romans 13:4 somewhat unconvincing.

But Hays nevertheless makes as solid a case for pacifism as I have ever read, and he makes an eminently persuasive (and sound) case for interpreting the Gospel of Matthew as calling Christians to a life of suffering service and nonviolence. To be sure, Matthew’s voice is not the sole word on the subject; Matthew does not raise the question of civil government or just war, and we should not force Matthew to say more than he is saying. But by that same token, we should hear the voice of the Spirit (and our Lord) in what Matthew is saying, and we should follow it.

Hays begins his presentation of Matthew’s teaching on nonviolence by noting that the Sermon on the Mount calls the church to be a light to the world and a city on a hill, “to exemplify the reality of the kingdom of God in a pluralistic and sinful world” (321). The Beatitudes proclaim God’s blessing on those who mourn, on the meek, on the peacemakers, and on those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness and of Christ, promising to these the kingdom of heaven. Jesus calls his disciples to follow the way of reconciliation with one another rather than anger, to renounce retaliation, and to imitate God by loving and blessing their enemies.

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also … Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 5:38-39, 44-45)

The age-old question, of course, is whether or not this amounts to a call on Christians never to use violence, not even if it is necessary to defend one’s own life, or the lives of others, or even if Christians hold a position of lawful authority. As Hays points out, Christian theologians have offered all sorts of explanations to demonstrate why – in relation both to Jesus’ teaching on violence and on other subjects – Jesus’ words should not be interpreted or applied in the way that would at first seem obvious. These explanations range from claiming that Jesus’ concern was merely with the heart but not with actions, to suggesting that the most stringent commandments are merely counsels of perfection intended for a class of particularly holy Christians.

Hays helpfully suggests that we interpret the Sermon on the Mount within the context of Matthew’s broader narrative.

In the temptation narrative (4:1-11), Jesus renounces the option of wielding power over the kingdoms of the world, choosing instead to worship and serve God alone. In the three passion predictions (16:21-23, 17:22-23, 20:17-19), Jesus foretells his fate as one who will be ‘persecuted for righteousness’ sake,’ and he intimates that those who follow him will suffer the same fate (16:24-26). In Gethsemane, Jesus struggles with this vocation but aligns his will with the Father’s will that he should drink the cup of suffering (26:36-47). As Yoder has persuasively suggested, the temptation to refuse the cup is precisely the temptation to resort to armed resistance. Jesus, however, chooses the way of suffering obedience instead of the way of violence.

This point is even clearer in Matthew’s story than in the synoptic parallels, for at the moment of Jesus’ arrest, he admonishes the disciple who attempts armed resistance: ‘Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword’ (26:51-54). As Ulrich Mauser observes, ‘Jesus does not yield to the temptation to preserve his life by resisting evil with evil’s own armor. If anything in Matthew’s Gospel, this scene at the arrest is the authentic interpretation of the sentence in the Sermon on the Mount, ‘Do not resist an evildoer’ (Matt 5:39).’ Thereafter, the passion narrative plays out to its inevitable conclusion: Jesus dies powerless and mocked (27:39-44). Thus, the death of Jesus exemplifies the same character qualities that are taught as normative for Jesus’ disciples in Matthew 5. (322)

Of course, that is not the end of the story. Jesus rises from the dead, demonstrating that he has conquered violence, injustice, and death, and he tells the disciples that he has been given all authority in heaven and on earth. He commands them to make disciples of all nations, teaching them to “obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20).

Although these few quotations are insufficient to demonstrate the point or to capture Hays’s full argument, I believe they accurately summarize the teachings of Matthew’s Gospel. In fact, as Hays points out, this perspective is replicated with impressive consistency in all of the New Testament writers, including in particular Luke, Paul, and John. In Revelation it is the lamb who was slain who conquers the violent forces of history by the power of the word of his mouth. The call of the faithful is to conquer through their suffering, in faithful witness to him.

Again, this is not the whole story. But however we interpret Romans 13 (and associated texts) and whatever we do with the various passages which are silent on whether or not Jesus or his apostles told soldiers, centurions, jailers, government officials, and tax collectors to abandon their vocations, our interpretation must embrace the teaching of Jesus as recorded in Matthew’s Gospel and the other parts of the New Testament. If we dismiss this teaching, or explain it away, we reject our Lord.

As I hope to demonstrate in further posts this week, the key involves recognizing that because the kingdom is already but not yet, God does indeed give civil government the power of the sword, calling it to use that sword justly (i.e., just war theory) rather than unjustly. (In all honesty, I do not understand how those who reject the two kingdoms perspective can possibly make sense of the disparate data. But let’s save that for the Calvin post.)

But that does not solve the problem. It merely tells us how we can begin to start thinking about how to solve the problem. The question remains, what does it mean for a Christian magistrate, or a Christian soldier, or a Christian citizen, to conform to Christ’s call to put away anger, hatred, and violence, and to follow Christ’s example as a suffering servant, even to the point of the cross?

Should we take pacifist Christians seriously? What’s at stake?

Pacifism is making a comeback in the Christian church. It used to be that if you were a pacifist you were either a liberal academic or some sort of sectarian Anabaptist. Now many of the most significant (and best) ethicists and theologians in the church, scholars whose influence on evangelicalism is only growing, argue that the New Testament clearly calls Christians to practice a nonviolent ethic (think John Howard Yoder, Stanley Hauerwas, Richard Hays). Even the Roman Catholic Church, thanks in large part to the work of Pope John Paul II, has moved significantly in the direction of pacifism (though Rome still holds to just war theory).

For conservative theologians and pastors the temptation is simply to react. We can trot out the old ideas, list off the many centurions and soldiers described as Christians in the New Testament, and quote Romans 13’s reference to the civil magistrate as the minister (or deacon) of God who has been given the sword in order to maintain basic justice. If we are unaware of the way in which neo-Anabaptists and other pacifist minded Christians read their Old Testaments through Christ, we may even unthinkingly point to all the great Old Testament saints who were sword-bearing warriors and magistrates, or to the Israelite conquest (and genocide) of the Canaanites. If all else fails, we can always remind the pacifists of what would happen if no one ever used violence to protect the weak. What about Hitler (and Dietrich Bonhoeffer)? What if you saw a murderer about to explode a bomb that would kill hundreds of people and you had a momentary second to stop him with the loaded gun you were holding in your hand?

The problem with all of this is that it is so defensive and reactionary that it leads us to miss the most important point that the pacifists are right to emphasize: the New Testament does indeed call Christians to follow the example of Christ by devoting themselves to peace, practicing nonviolence, and being willing to suffer in love for their enemies rather than take up the sword against them. However we might qualify this affirmation by taking equally seriously Paul’s teaching about government in Romans 13, we should also be historically sensitive enough to realize that just as often as just war theory has served to restrain the violence of Christian magistrates and soldiers, it has been used as an excuse to justify wars waged in the name of honor, glory, and self-interest, wars characterized on a breathtaking scale by murder, rape, enslavement, and theft.

The fact is, it may well be the case (and I believe it is) that Romans 13 does indicate that a Christian can be faithful to Christ while bearing the magisterial sword, and yet the vast majority of war and violence in which Christians have participated on that basis be immoral and contrary to the teaching of Christ. It may well be the case (and I believe it is) that the overwhelming weight and emphasis of the New Testament falls on the call upon Christians to be nonviolent and love their enemies, rather than on those passages that point to potential exceptions. It may well be the case (and again, I fear that it is), that many Christians have turned the exceptions into the norm, and the norm into the exceptions. We have glorified the coercive power of the state to the point of losing all perspective on just how hard it is for a Christian to be a politician, or a judge, or a soldier, and yet remain faithful to his master.

This week I hope to build on Saturday’s post about pacifism in the early church by reflecting on this difficult question. I plan to summarize the New Testament scholar Richard Hays’s defense of pacifism based in particular on the gospel of Matthew, and then to follow up that presentation of the case for Christian nonviolence with a post offering some thoughts on Peter Leithart’s Defending Constantine. I’ll also take a look at Calvin’s approach to the problem, particularly his response to the Anabaptists of his day.

For now, I want to make one point often ignored by those who can’t figure out why a simple glance at the Old Testament ends the discussion once and for all. Although Chris Smith’s recent article on Rousas John Rushdoony in California reminds us that there are plenty of conservative Christian who still view the letter of the Torah as the timeless statement of how God wants to be served by human beings (and how he wants us to punish those who don’t), most Christians, from the early church to Augustine, from Thomas Aquinas to John Calvin, have always rejected this assessment of the Christian’s relationship to the Old Testament. In particular, they have emphasized that although the Old Testament does help us to determine God’s timeless moral law, its witness is significantly qualified by the fact that its primary purpose was to point the faithful forward to the messiah, to Christ, and not to be the final statement on Christian ethics. For that reason, the Christian tradition has always emphasized that we read, interpret, and apply the Old Testament, and the law, only through the lens of the teachings and example of the one who fulfilled it, Jesus Christ.

At minimum this involves recognizing that not to relax “one of the least of these commandments” and to do them and teach them is to follow the teachings of Jesus (Matthew 5:17-20). It requires recognizing that the curse of the law from which Jesus redeemed us when he was executed and hung on a tree (Galatians 3:13) was nothing less than the curse of the Torah’s civil (or judicial, or penal) law (Deuteronomy 21:23). Any discussion of the meaning of the Christian call to nonviolence, though obviously informed by the Old Testament, must therefore be focused on what it means to follow Jesus Christ.

When your team comes through …

I told my 3 year old son there was no hockey this year because the players were complaining and arguing. He asked me if the Oilers were complaining and arguing too, or if they just wanted to play hockey. Not wanting to speak of the Oilers in any remotely morally dubious way, I was unsure how to respond. Now with a sigh of relief I can tell him that the Oilers (and the Flames) really do just want to play hockey

Wheaton Scholar Argues the Early Church Was Pacifist

The Institute on Religion and Democracy published a piece by me yesterday on a lecture given by George Kalantzis at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. Kalantzis’s lecture, which previews arguments from a forthcoming book, was entitled “There Will (Not) Be Blood! Early Christian Attitudes Toward War and Military Service.” For those interested in the matter, Kalantzis framed his arguments as a direct challenge to some of the conclusions of Peter Leithart in his Defending Constantine (a book that was itself aimed at refuting some of the Anabaptist historiography of the Constantinian turn associated in particular with John Howard Yoder).


Here are the first few paragraphs of my article, but of course I’d appreciate it if you clicked through and read the whole thing over at IRD.

At the heart of Kalantzis’s lecture was his argument that Christianity and Rome embodied two radically clashing worldviews – worldviews involving not only contrary practices of religion and piety but contrary ethical commitments as well. Indeed, “the conflict between Rome and the Church was ultimately the collision of sacrificial systems.”

Rome embodied an understanding of the cosmos built on violence and ruled by gods that demand sacrifices. While the Romans tolerated various accounts of the truth they demanded that all Romans participate in those sacrifices and related cultic practices in order that the gods might be appeased and Rome prosper. That prosperity, like the cult on which it depended, was built on violence and military conquest.

Christianity, on the other hand, embodied an understanding of the cosmos shaped by Jesus’ triumph over sacrifice and death through his resurrection. Early Christian writers therefore rejected participation in the Roman army or even in Roman government because it implicated them in pagan worship and because it required them to perform actions fundamentally incompatible with the way of Christ. For Christians the bloodless sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper marked participation in a kingdom that transcends national divisions.

Read the rest here.

Calvin on the diaconate as Christ’s spiritual government.

Yesterday I indicated that I would provide a few quotations from Calvin to demonstrate that he viewed the diaconate as part of Christ’s spiritual government, or as an expression of his spiritual kingdom. There are more, but given that these come from a work I hope to publish in an academic journal, I’ll leave it at this for now.

In the Institutes Calvin argues that the work of deacons is not to be understood as part of the civil government: “it was not secular management that they were undertaking, but a spiritual function dedicated to God” (4.4.5). He clearly places the deacons in the order of ministers that together make up the order of church government and he discusses the diaconate under the category of spiritual government, not civil government (4.4.1). Calvin’s insistence on this point is even clearer in his sermons on 1 Timothy 3:8-13, where he carefully distinguishes the civil magistrate from the deacon and places the latter in the spiritual government. “It is true that those who are in the office of justice also do God service … But these deacons appertain to the spiritual government which God has established.” In that sense preachers and deacons hold parallel offices. “Because the question touches the spiritual government which God has established among his, St. Paul wills that they who are ordained, whether to preach the Gospel or to care for the poor, be of unblameable life.”

Why does this matter? Justice for the poor is a fundamental concern of the kingdom of God. Indeed, it is so fundamental that for Calvin, and for the New Testament, it is the raison d’etre for the second most prominent office in the church.

Friendly Chatter About the Two Kingdoms – A Response to Brad Littlejohn

Last week Brad Littlejohn wrote a fair and thoughtful essay over at The Calvinist International engaging my recent essay on the two kingdoms at Reformation 21. Littlejohn poses some questions, and I want to try and answer most of those questions here.

As Littlejohn points out, this is not the first interaction we’ve had, and our previous interaction was not entirely ideal. I believed the best way to overcome the impasse was gradually to clarify my own views. I have done that in a few essays on this blog and will do it further (and more definitively) in the next articles on Reformation 21. All that said, both public and private interaction with Littlejohn suggests we are making some progress, and for that I am grateful.

Now I do have one quibble with Littlejohn’s introduction. I have not largely conceded that the Lutherans, the Zurich Reformed, and the English Reformed “shared the kind of two kingdoms doctrine that we have here [at the Calvinist International] outlined and advocated. What I conceded was that the implications of Richard Hooker’s formulation of the two kingdoms doctrine was more in line with the political theology of the Zurich Reformed (who, as far as I am aware, never explicitly articulated a two kingdoms doctrine) and with Lutherans like Melanchthon (not necessarily Luther, who’s views are too complicated to engage in this post – perhaps I’ll comment more on him at a later date) than with that of Calvin. Of course, other English Reformed theologians like Thomas Cartwright disagreed with Hooker, and I think these legitimately claimed to represent some of the concerns of the two kingdoms theology articulated by John Calvin and threatened in the English doctrine of the royal supremacy.

Later Littlejohn identifies three main criteria for distinguishing the two kingdoms and asks whether I agree with his formulation. He writes:

We might identify here three main criteria distinguishing the two kingdoms: 1) of the age to come vs. of the present age (though this does not deny overlap, as if Christ’s government did not make itself known or felt in the present), 2) by the word rather than by outward elements or instruments (though this does not deny that Christ’s government comes to us wrapped up in outward elements and instruments, from which it remains nonetheless distinct), and 3) through the power of the Spirit, vs. through the work of human mediators (though this does not deny that human beings become media through whom the Spirit accomplishes His gracious work).

I do differ with this formulation somewhat. I fully agree with the first distinction, but I find the second and third distinctions so qualified by what is in the parentheses as to be unhelpful. After all, Calvin describes the preaching of the word and the administration of the sacraments as “outward” elements and instruments through which Christ governs his spiritual kingdom, and he argues that the work of the Spirit should not be separated from these outward means, exercised by human mediators. I fear Littlejohn’s formulation here simply confuses the fact that for Calvin Christ’s spiritual government of his kingdom occurs through the visible means of the ministry of the church, and that this point is absolutely fundamental to Calvin’s account of the two kingdoms doctrine (as I will seek to show in my second Reformation 21 piece).

In place of Littlejohn’s second and third distinctions I would offer a distinction between two governments (Calvin’s language), one of which works through the word and Spirit, reaches to the inward person, and is by definition the mark of the visible church, the other of which works by means of coercion or other outward means, cannot transform the inward person, and is the mark of all secular (i.e., temporal) institutions.

Of course, Littlejohn helpfully acknowledges that “Calvin tends to undermine the inward/outward distinction somewhat, by elaborating the structures of outward offices that play a necessary role in the spiritual government of the church, and thus also tends to undermine the distinction between the two ages, by suggesting that Christ’s spiritual reign could be clearly identified visibly here and now.” I would suggest that Calvin is not undermining the distinction between the two ages but simply demonstrating that they overlap: the church is the body of Jesus who is the beginning of the new creation. As it holds fast to Christ it participates in the blessings of the age to come and witnesses to those blessings in this age, so constituting a city on a hill and a light to this world. Calvin liked to refer to the ministry of the church in particular as an embassy of Christ’s kingdom.

It is this that explains why the work of the diaconate is “spiritual” and why it is an expression of Christ’s kingdom in a way that the work of a civil magistrate is not. Littlejohn requests quotations from Calvin on this point and I will oblige in a follow up post that will hopefully be published tomorrow.

Later in the essay Littlejohn asks some pointed questions. First, “Was Cartwright’s version of the two-kingdoms doctrine a faithful republication or development of Calvin’s?” I have to confess up front that I do not know Cartwright well enough to answer this question in detail; I am largely familiar with Cartwright through Hooker’s work rather than the other way around. I do believe that insofar as Cartwright distinguished between Christ’s rule over the political kingdom as God but not as man he moved the two kingdoms doctrine in a direction that was unfaithful to Scripture. It is as the ascended Christ that Jesus is raised above all authority (both in this age and in the age to come) (Eph 1:21). On the other hand, I think that Cartwright was right to reject the idea that the civil magistrate is in any sense the head of Christ’s church, and I think he was developing Calvin in a legitimate way when he insisted that the government of basic matters of worship and discipline should be in the hands of the ministers whose obligation was to mediate the rule of Christ.

Second, Littlejohn asks, “Was opposition to the royal supremacy a necessary conclusion to be drawn from the two kingdoms doctrine?  Or even from the Calvinist form of it?  Or were defenders of the royal supremacy legitimate in their claim to be champions of the two-kingdoms doctrine?” I believe opposition to the royal supremacy was a necessary conclusion to be drawn from Calvin’s version of the two kingdoms doctrine (though obviously not from all versions of it, as Hooker’s arguments testify). I believe defenders of the royal supremacy were championing a version of the two kingdoms doctrine that broke in fundamental ways with that of Calvin.

Third, he asks, “If it is true that Reformed Christians ‘never arrived at unanimity on the political implications of the doctrine’—by which we take him to be acknowledging that some saw it as precluding royal supremacy and others did not, some saw it as the basis for a theocratic state and others for a somewhat secular state—then does this not suggest that modern two-kingdoms advocates are wrong to insist that the doctrine requires a particular political-theological stance vis-a-vis the relationship of church and state?” I believe it does suggest that. I believe many of the contemporary debates over the two kingdoms doctrine are actually debates over what the two kingdoms doctrine should mean. Of course, I believe some versions of the doctrine are more faithful to Scripture than are others. I do not believe that under any circumstances it would be legitimate for a civil magistrate to assume for himself or herself rule over the preaching, worship, or discipline of Christ’s church.

Towards the end of Littlejohn’s essay he suggests that I have not “satisfactorily explained how a doctrine that in its inception was primarily intended to bolster lay power against the pretensions of clerical power became a doctrine that was primarily intended to bolster clerical power against the pretensions of lay power.” I do not have the space here to go into detail, but I would point out that from the very beginning Luther posed the two kingdoms doctrine as a response to magistrates who were hindering the work of the gospel (See Secular Authority, To What Extent It Should Be Obeyed), though his views on this point did later change somewhat. More importantly for the Calvinist two kingdoms doctrine, however, Calvin clearly used the doctrine as a basis for his opposition to the civil magistrate’s authority over the process of church discipline. In fact, the struggle over church discipline was arguably the most significant conflict between Calvin and the magistracy during his time in Geneva, and there is no question that Calvin proteges like Beza and Cartwright picked up on this.

Littlejohn goes on to write, “Tuininga appears to endorse, that ‘the institutional expression of the kingdom in this age is the church, not the state, the family, or any other created institution’—while this claim may admit of an acceptable interpretation, we would wish to emphasize that qua institution, the Church shares in the nature of other created institutions, and qua institution, cannot rightly be identified as the kingdom of Christ.” I basically agree. In its essence, as defined by the marks of the preaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments, and as experienced in the communion of the saints, the church is Christ’s body, and it participates in and reflects the age to come in a way that no other institution does. That does not mean that the church is removed from the secular age nor does it mean that it is removed from being under the authority of civil government in secular matters or that it can ignore the significance of other created institutions in its midst (i.e., relationships between husbands and wives, parents and children, etc.). Sociologically it can be said that the church is an institution (or sphere) of the secular kingdom.

But Littlejohn is still worried about what I mean when I say the church is the “institutional expression” of Christ’s kingdom, and he concludes his essay by writing “We would merely close by asking whether it is possible to continue to use language of the visible church as the “institutional expression of the kingdom of Christ” without falling into the trap of thinking of the spiritual kingdom as a “sphere” of human life in this way.

This statement reflects the basic fear of Littlejohn and the other authors of the Calvinist International as I understand it. To summarize, they worry that if the kingdom of Christ finds any unique, concrete, tangible, outward expression in one place, then its authority and claims are separated from the rest of life. The result is that the rest of life is outside of the lordship of Christ.

This is a legitimate fear. There have been those, such as John Locke and Thomas Jefferson, who believed that religion is merely about worship and piety. However I am not one of those people, nor was Calvin. It is patently obvious to me, as it was to Calvin, that the preaching of the word calls believers to a whole way of life shaped by God’s moral law and by the example of Jesus. The implications of this way of life extend to every single thing that human beings do. Even civil government has the obligation to kiss the Son and to recognize the limits on its own authority.

Now it is fully possible (and necessary) to recognize that the claims of the Lord Jesus extend to every area of life while recognizing that only where the word and Spirit have changed human beings and drawn them voluntarily into a community does the kingdom actually come to social or institutional expression (Ephesians 4). It is also fully possible to recognize that until the actual resurrection of the dead and the transformation of the cosmos certain created institutional structures that will never be part of the kingdom of Christ will remain, and that the institutional expression of the kingdom in the church is always qualified by the ongoing existence of these structures (see Ephesians 5-6). Finally, it is fully possible to recognize that short of the transformation of all things Christ rules through violently coercive structures (i.e., civil government) that will not exist in the kingdom of peace, and that therefore cannot be conformed in every respect to the standards of the kingdom that is coming (Romans 12-13).

In short, as long as the two kingdoms doctrine is understood eschatologically (i.e., in terms of two ages) and in terms of two governments rather than two spheres, the overlap between the two kingdoms will always qualify any talk of their separation. As long as the statement that the church is the institutional expression of Christ’s kingdom is understood as qualified by these realities, the dangers Littlejohn fears can be held at bay.

Letting Christian theology shape our politics: the Christian tradition and property Part 3

Many of the early church fathers, such as Ambrose and Augustine, argued that private property, like civil government, was a result of the fall. They believed that God had given material resources to human beings in common, and that individual persons would only have possessed such resources under the principle of stewardship. According to that principle, how I use my possessions for the good of others is just as important as my right to use those possessions in the first place.

Later Christian theologians muddied the waters, and with the rise of the market economy and the beginnings of what became capitalism these theologians articulated careful justifications for the idea of property. But even then both scholars and pastors consistently emphasized the obligations of property owners more than their rights. The commandment ‘you shall not steal’ was always explained in light of the teachings of Jesus not simply as a prohibition of someone taking my property, but as a requirement that I use my property to serve the needs of others. This is a matter of justice (giving another his or her due), not simply “charity.” (See Post 1, Post 2, and also a complementary post by Brad Littlejohn.)

Now in all of this I have said very little about civil government. Yet it is fascinating to see that virtually all of those who objected to what I have written in one way or another engages the issue on a political – or specifically an Americanized political – level. Very few critics actually engaged the substance of the Christian tradition. Many American Christians, it seems, even those most worried about nefarious doctrines like that of the two kingdoms, don’t like having their modern assumptions about property and the poor tested by the actual substance of Christian theology. They judge Christian theology from the perspective of their American political convictions, rather than the other way around (though they often baptize their political convictions as Christian in the process).

Let me give two examples:

1) In contrast to the Christian tradition, which has generally viewed both property and civil government as good but as the results of the Fall, American Christians tend to view civil government as highly suspect and private property as nothing less than sacred. And although there is a general consensus that God appointed civil government as his minister to enforce – i.e., coerce – justice, there is a marked reluctance to view government as having even the right (i.e., authority) to tax property holders for the sake of ensuring justice for the poor.

Note, this objection is not simply an objection to the manner in which government is using tax revenues to protect the poor. There are plenty of good Christian reasons, for instance, to oppose communism or even socialism on the grounds that 1) they do not work; 2) they are often destructive of civil society; and 3) they hurt the very poor they are trying to help. But many libertarians will not even allow us to consider or debate the best ways in which government should help the poor. They question the notion that government should help the poor at all because they reject the Christian notion that an individual’s property rights are qualified by the more basic rights of the community or in particular of the needy.

2) Many American Christians believe whether or not a person is poor should be determined based on that person’s income or possessions. On that basis, they say, there are virtually no poor people in America, and there are certainly no responsible people who are poor. But this assumption is hardly biblical (not to mention the fact that it ignores the fact that the reason there are so few poor in America is because government helps those who would otherwise be poor). In Scripture the concept of the poor is much broader than an assessment of economic resources suggests. The poor are those who are 1) oppressed or vulnerable to oppression; 2) excluded from meaningful participation in the community; 3) lacking the basic resources necessary for life. The specific examples Scripture often provides of those who are poor are slaves, immigrants, women without husbands, and children without fathers.

Now anyone remotely familiar with American society knows that these groups make up a significant percentage of the American population. While many of the “widows and fatherless” in our society are what they are because they’ve been abandoned by irresponsible men rather than because those men died, that hardly changes their basic plight. The poor are still with us (as Jesus said they would be), and it is good that our government seeks to protect them.

Now none of this dictates that any particular policy or program is the appropriate way to protect or help the poor. Civil government should not be equated with civil society (or the rights of the community and the poor), and the first level of support for the poor and for one another should come through the organic structures of civil society. This is a fundamental point needing recognition in a society that wants to be free, and a point often ignored by well-meaning folks on the Left. But I also believe government has a responsibility to make sure this happens, and it seems, increasingly, as if this point is acknowledged by fewer and fewer on the Right (to their own political and moral disadvantage).

It is true that many government programs designed to protect or help the poor have actually done them great harm. Dependency is never a good thing, and America seems to be becoming an increasingly dependent society. But the dependent, contrary to popular perception, are not simply the poor. Most of the programs that are redistributive in this country, whether through grants, entitlements, or tax credits, redistribute resources directly to the middle class or to the wealthy because they are not means-tested (think education, Medicare, Social Security, the mortgage tax credit, lavish public pension programs, and the plethora of subsidies for various businesses, industries, or research programs).

It is obviously true that American government is too big and in too much debt. But it is not Medicaid, nor is it basic provision for the poor, that is bankrupting the country.

It is clear that we need to have, and are having, an open debate about the future of America, and about the nature of government’s responsibility to its citizens. But whatever positions Christians advocate in this debate – and we should advocate positions that make sense economically, politically, and morally – we should not forget the teaching of our own theology. Calvin argued from Scripture that a magistrate will be judged based on how well he protects the poor under his charge. In a democracy, when we are all magistrates insofar as we influence legislation or political debate, we should be mindful that we will be judged on the same basis.

Aquinas and Calvin believed property rights were subject to the rights of the poor

Thomas Aquinas

The greatest theologian in church history between Augustine and Martin Luther was the Dominican Thomas Aquinas, author of the great 13th Century Summa Theologiae that so brilliantly articulated some of the best of 13th Century Christian theology (and philosophy). One of the topics Aquinas addressed in the Summa was the matter of property (Note: this post builds on my earlier post on the Christian tradition and property found here).


For Thomas Aquinas, of course, all material things are to be used by Christians as a means to the higher end of glorifying and enjoying God. Property therefore is a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. Only God has absolute lordship over material things, but he gives human beings the natural right to use these things for their benefit. In her Cambridge History of Medieval Political Thought Janet Coleman summarizes,

Man therefore, was created with the dominium naturale in this wider sense which did not specify the mode of possession, be it private or in common. Possessions were originally required to be for the use of all mankind. Private property is not wrong but it is a mode of possession that has only conventional justification (ius gentium), and the primary recognition of the purpose of property is its use for men in pursuance of higher ends… Human affairs are more efficiently organized when each has his own responsibility over his own things for there would be chaos if everyone cared for everything….

But natural law does not specify how private property should be arrived at and therefore historical institutions determine distribution; private possessions are not contrary to natural law but are inventions of reason. They are human additions to natural principles. (622-623)

Property is therefore justified, but the rights of property are always trumped by the basic rights of human beings according to natural law. Aquinas writes in 2.2, Q 66, A 7:

Things which are of human right cannot derogate from natural right or Divine right. Now according to the natural order established by Divine Providence, inferior things are ordained for the purpose of succoring man’s needs by their means. Wherefore the division and appropriation of things which are based on human law, do not preclude the fact that man’s needs have to be remedied by means of these very things. Hence whatever certain people have in superabundance is due, by natural law, to the purpose of succoring the poor. For this reason Ambrose says, and his words are embodied in the Decretals: “It is the hungry man’s bread that you withhold, the naked man’s cloak that you store away, the money that you bury in the earth is the price of the poor man’s ransom and freedom.”

In fact, Aquinas even argued that in cases of extreme necessity it is not theft for a person to take what he or she needs from someone who has excess. He certainly believed, as Coleman writes, that “when the common welfare is at stake, the civil law is obliged to activate the natural law principle of the primacy of use over ownership” (623). As Aquinas puts it,

It is no robbery if princes exact from their subjects that which is due to them for the safe-guarding of the common good, even if they use violence in so doing (2.2, Q 66, A 8, Reply 3).

To be sure, Aquinas did not hold the suspicion towards business, investment, or profit for which medieval Christian theology is often known. He appreciated the value of such economic activity for supporting families, the poor, and the public good (though his views of usury are more complicated). But he believed that individual rights regarding property were always subject to the greater rights of the broader society, to whom according to natural law God has given all possessions in common.

John Calvin

On virtually every point of substance John Calvin’s attitude toward property is directly in line with the Christian tradition running from Ambrose and Augustine through Huguccio, Johannes Teutonicus, and Thomas Aquinas. Calvin argues over and over throughout his commentaries and other writings that God has given human beings their material possessions in order they might meet their basic needs and even their desires (in moderation), and then share their excess possessions with those who are in need. Calvin believed the bond between all human beings created in the image of God is such that when people do not display generosity and liberality by sharing with the poor they are guilty of theft (a view later affirmed in the Westminster Larger Catechism’s exposition of the 8th Commandment, and less explicitly in the Heidelberg Catechism’s exposition of the same).


Let me offer one very poignant example, although I could provide many more. In his commentary on Isaiah 58:7 Calvin writes,

Uprightness and righteousness are divided into two parts: first, that we should injury nobody, and second, that we should bestow our wealth and abundance on the poor and needy. And these two ought to be joined together, for it is not enough to abstain from acts of injustice, if you refuse your assistance to the needy, nor will it be of much avail to render your aid to the needy, if at the same time you rob some of that which you bestow on others….

By commanding them to ‘break bread to the hungry’ he intended to take away every excuse from covetous and greedy men, who allege that they have a right to keep possession of that which is their own. ‘This is mine, and therefore I may keep it for myself. Why should I make common property of that which God has given me?’ He replies, ‘It is indeed yours, but on this condition, that you share it with the hungry and thirsty, not that you eat it yourself alone. And indeed this is the dictate of common sense, that the hungry are deprived of their just right if their hunger is not relieved. That sad spectacle extorts compassion even from the cruel and barbarous.

To be sure, neither Aquinas nor Calvin nor the rest of the Christian tradition before them advocated anything like the modern welfare state any more than they opposed it. That is not my point. My point is that the Christian tradition has unanimously affirmed that all property rights are always qualified by the claims of the needy upon them. In addition, the tradition has explicitly or implicitly affirmed that God gives material possessions to human beings in common, and that although property regulations are necessary to keep peace between sinful human beings, in cases of necessity the natural law affirming this common right trumps human laws and conventions concerning property.

I’ll conclude this series with one final post (hopefully tomorrow) clarifying what I believe are the implications of this Christian political theology for government and and for contemporary politics.

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