Monthly Archives: October 2012

Why are Evangelicals fudging on the gospel to promote Mitt Romney?

On Sunday in the Aquila Report Bill Evans made some interesting claims concerning Mormonism in his attempt to persuade readers that there is a Christian position in the upcoming presidential election – a position that requires voting for Mitt Romney.

Evans writes:

While Mormons are not Christians in the traditional creedal sense of the term, I also have little doubt that there are Mormons who are looking in faith to Christ for salvation. In addition, the argument can be made that Mormons are closer to biblical truth on some issues than many liberal Protestants.

Scott Clark has a thoughtful analysis of Evans’s claim at the Heidelblog so I won’t offer that here. What strikes me is how so many Christian conservatives, from Bill Evans to Billy Graham, feel the need to soften their criticism of Mormonism in order to justify voting for Romney.

Part of what puts Evans, at least, in this position, may be his off-handed dismissal of the two kingdoms perspective. Christians who do not conflate the kingdom of God with the kingdoms of this world have less trouble justifying voting for a candidate who approximates their understanding of justice regardless of his or her religion. To be sure, they do give up the right to claim their perspective on the election as the Christian one, a concession Evans is loath to make.

For a much better perspective on the upcoming election – one grounded in the two kingdoms perspective – see Richard Phillips’s article published by the Aquila Report yesterday. Phillips argues that the church should proclaim the political principles taught in Scripture but should avoid entanglements in politics itself. Why?

The first [reason] is the doctrine known as the spirituality of the Church, which means that the Church is an institution of the Kingdom of Jesus Christ and His spiritual reign, and as such should avoid distracting itself by entanglements in the secular realm of politics (see John 18:37).

I have no problem with a Christian making an argument that people ought to vote for a particular candidate for various reasons informed by the Christian tradition. But I don’t think we should dilute our understanding of Christianity or the gospel to do so. Compromising Christ’s lordship for (the possibility of) four years of Republican possession of the White House doesn’t strike me as being the best trade.

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The Two Kingdoms at Covenant College: toning down the rhetoric

When it comes to the two kingdoms doctrine and Christian liberal arts institutions like Covenant College (the college of the Presbyterian Church in America) in Lookout Mountain, Georgia there may not be that much conflict after all. That, at least, is the conclusion to which one might come in response to a panel discussion on the topic yesterday between Michael Horton, a professor at Westminster Seminary California, and several Covenant College faculty.

Horton began the panel discussion by reminding the audience that there is no such thing as an “Escondido theology” or Escondido two kingdoms doctrine. The faculty of Westminster Seminary California is not monolithic in its views of cultural engagement, the institution’s president Robert Godfrey himself being a staunch Kuyperian. Suggesting that it makes little sense to describe Kuyperian neo-Calvinism and the two kingdoms perspective as contrary positions, Horton pointed out (as did Godfrey in a presentation several years ago) that on most important points these perspectives are agreed. Among the commonalities he described:

1) Both clearly distinguish the form of cultural and political engagement obligatory on Christians from the model of Old Testament Israel.

2) Both maintain a sharp critique of the militancy and culture war mindset that marks much of the Christian Right, which has its own version of the social gospel.

3) Each perspective affirms basic neo-Calvinist concepts concerning common grace, the antithesis, and sphere sovereignty.

4) Both seek to distinguish the work proper to the institutional church (church as organization) and the way in which believers serve Christ and witness to his kingdom in every area of life (church as organism).

5) Both agree that Christians cannot bring the kingdom of God to earth through their cultural work.

6) Each perspective insists that Scripture has much to say about how Christians should be involved in culture through their vocations.

7) Both agree that the church must proclaim what the word of God says about God’s law to the state, while avoiding false claims to expertise in matters of economics or policy.

8) Both affirm that while the actual objective work of Christians often looks similar to that of unbelievers, in terms of motivation, worldview, and sometimes objective results such work is profoundly different.

9) Both affirm the value of Christian parachurch organizations like colleges and seminaries, while at the same time preserving the liberty of Christians to participate in non-Christian organizations as well.

In their responses to Horton the various Covenant faculty affirmed their basic agreement on these points, expressing in particular their appreciation for the emphasis the two kingdoms doctrine places on the importance of the institutional church.

Of course, they had questions too. Jeff Dryden, a professor of New Testament, affirmed David VanDrunen’s critique of certain over-optimistic versions of redemptive transformationalism, but he rightly noted that more moderate accounts of transformation are by no means incompatible with the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith. He worried that certain expressions of the two kingdoms doctrine misinterpret the New Testament call to believers to seek things that are above, where Christ is, rightly pointing out that the New Testament describes such seeking in terms of concrete, this-worldly virtues (as I argued here).

Bill Davis, a professor of philosophy, suggested that while the the rhetoric of two kingdoms advocates and moderate transformationalists often makes the two perspectives sound radically opposed to one another, in actual point of practice there is virtually no difference between the two positions. To be sure, Davis rightly questioned the notion that natural knowledge of God’s moral law is a sufficient standard or point of commonality for Christian cultural and political engagement. He also worried that passivity rather than militancy is the greater temptation of young Christians today, and he legitimately criticized the tendency of some two kingdoms advocates to speak as if there is no spiritual element to the ordinary vocational work that Christians do. But Davis again reminded the audience that while adherents to the two perspectives often describe their approaches to culture quite differently, in actual practice they are doing the same things.

Brian Fikkert, a professor of economics and author of the highly acclaimed book When Helping Hurts, likewise affirmed the two kingdoms emphasis on the work of the institutional church and on Christ as the one who alone brings his kingdom. He also lauded the humble approach to cultural engagement inherent to the two kingdoms perspective. But he worried about the idea that Christians bring little that is objectively different from unbelievers to their work, pointing out that while in principle Christians share the standard of natural law with unbelievers, in practice unbelievers constantly suppress that law. He gave excellent examples of instances in which the Christian faith helps Christians bring something to their work that does indeed look objectively different from the work of unbelievers.

Horton responded to these concerns by affirming many of them. He did suggest that in the New Testament redemption is always described as something that God does for us, not something that we do in our vocations or cultural activity. Why not choose a better word to describe what we are doing? We all agree, he pointed out, that we should seek to bring a Christian influence to our culture. But there are varying ways to talk about how we do that, some of which are more faithful to biblical language than are others.

Horton agreed that Scripture is necessary not just to the Christian doctrine of salvation but to the proper interpretation of natural law for the purposes of cultural and political engagement. He agreed that Christians need to be careful not to articulate theologies of culture that pander to passivity, highlighting the important legacy of the Reformation doctrine of vocation. He clarified that the two kingdoms doctrine does not amount to a distinction between material and immaterial things but between the present age and the age to come. For that reason he rejected versions of the doctrine of the spirituality of the church that have been used to argue that the church should not speak out against patent evils like the racial slavery of the Antebellum South.

Horton concluded in a spirit that seemed to be echoed by many of the faculty present (at least those with whom I spoke afterwards). He noted that while the two kingdoms perspective is often portrayed as a position in conflict with moderate neo-Calvinism, in reality the perspectives are less polar opposites than points on a common spectrum. Once one looks past prominent rhetorical and linguistic differences it can often be difficult to determine what in practice is actually being disputed. And indeed, when it came to the greatest dangers threatening Reformed believers in their cultural and political engagement the members of the panel were in significant agreement. That is a point worth thinking about as this conversation moves forward.

Why discrimination against women in the workplace is a bad idea for Christians

In an interesting article featured last week in the Aquila Report Rebecca VanDoodewaard argued that Christian business owners and churches should consider making an extra effort to hire male clerks to fulfill jobs often satisfied by female secretaries. VanDoodewaard clarified that she does not have a problem with women working. But, she says, “we can easily fall into the trap of going along unthinkingly with our culture because evaluation of a societal norm can be uncomfortable.”

She goes on to offer several reasons, a couple of which relate closely to the roles and interrelationships of men and women.

1. In this economy, the role of clerk would give men a job. I know that it is controversial to give a man job priority over a woman, but let’s face it: in spite all the feminism, men are still the primary breadwinners in families, and they should be (I Tim. 5:8). What about single women, you ask? As primary breadwinners, shouldn’t they have jobs, too? Of course. But there are women working as secretaries whose income supplements their husband’s. I’m not saying that they don’t need the money, I’m not saying they should not work. I’m saying that where a man could support himself and maybe a wife with the job that is simply supplementing a married woman’s household income, then the man should get the job, competence being equal. No, this is not politically correct. But it would enable more men to provide for themselves and their wives.

4. Replacing secretaries with clerks would also reduce the opportunity for work place adultery. Secretary jokes are standard in our world because people know it’s a reality. We know women whose husbands have left them for their secretaries. Think about it: having a woman who is not your wife helping you day in, day out opens up a huge avenue for emotional entanglements which often lead to physical ones. A clerk, while not removing the sin in your heart, will remove the opportunity, and that’s half the battle (Matt. 5:28-30).

I have written on this blog before about the danger of viewing the problem of lust and adultery as a problem that is to be solved by reducing the social interactions between men and women. And in an excellent response to VanDoodewaard’s article Rachel Miller points out that the ordinary workplace is already far too integrated for VanDoodewaard’s proposal to make much sense in most circumstances. But Miller also raises excellent questions about the level of paternalism required in VanDoodewaard’s approach.

I am greatly disturbed by Mrs. VanDoodewaard’s belief that women in secretarial jobs are “simply supplementing” the household income. She does note that the income may be needed, but she goes on to say that men should be hired preferentially, all other factors being equal…

How exactly should businesses go about determining if woman is working to “simply supplement” her husband’s income or working because without her income there wouldn’t be food on the table or a roof over their heads or clothes on their backs? …

While I’m sure there are women who are working for purely selfish reasons, the majority of women who work low-paying, secretarial jobs are working to help provide for their families. What does Mrs. VanDoodewaard suggest these women do instead? In the current economy, two incomes are often a necessity, not a luxury.

These are excellent points. Should employers be probing prospective employees about their marital status, relationships with their husbands, or their family finances? Rarely are two job candidates entirely equal. Just how high up the list of job criteria should gender and marital circumstances be?

I wholeheartedly affirm the importance of encouraging mothers to focus their best time and energy on raising and teaching their children (Titus 2:5; 1 Timothy 2:15). There is no doubt that children do best when both Dad and Mom are not distracted by full-time jobs that leave only the marginal hours for the family. And especially in the early years there is no question that a mother is capable of the kind of nurture that no one else can provide.

But I also think that the sorts of questions VanDoodewaard is raising are best answered by each particular woman and her husband rather than by the paternalistic second-guessing of prospective employers. It is somewhat denigrating of the dignity of a woman who has thought long and hard about whether to seek employment and come to a difficult decision on the matter only to have to answer to the probing of an employer who does not even know her. And who is he to think he is the judge?

Yet aside from the invasive and paternalistic nature of these sorts of questions VanDoodewaard’s argument comes up against a further obstacle that Christians need to take very seriously. Her proposals are not simply politically incorrect and counter-cultural; they seem to be illegal. According to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964:

It shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employer –

(1) to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin; or

(2) to limit, segregate, or classify his employees or applicants for employment in any way which would deprive or tend to deprive any individual of employment opportunities or otherwise adversely affect his status as an employee, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

Now Christians and business people might find this law unnecessarily obtrusive. Some might believe that the law goes beyond the proper authority of the federal government, or that it prevents them from using their employment opportunities to shape society as they desire – whether in terms of religion, race, gender, or whatever. But it does remain the law of the land, designed to secure a measure of justice in part for women who wish not to be subject to the sort of paternalism VanDoodewaard urges us to consider. Unless the law forces us to disobey the commandments of God, which is not the case in this situation, we need to obey it.

How important is Christianity for free markets and economic liberty?

In Max Weber’s first and most famous book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, written around 1904-1905, Weber argued that Protestantism, specifically Calvinist (or really Puritan) Protestantism, gave rise to the ethic and spirit that so defines western capitalism. Although Weber did not argue that Calvinist or Puritan theologians themselves articulated and fostered this ethic, he did suggest that the ethic was an unintended consequence of Puritan doctrines like predestination, vocation, the moral law, and the glory of God.

Numerous scholars have demonstrated the many flaws in Weber’s argument. Once one looks at the particulars, comparing various countries in Europe with one another, comparing Catholics with Protestants in particular countries like the Netherlands, or even comparing pre-Reformation expressions of a free market ethic with post-Reformation expressions, the thesis quickly breaks down.

But at a Liberty and Markets lecture sponsored by the Acton Institute and Liberty Fund Samuel Gregg made the case that while Max Weber got his particular story wrong, he was right to emphasize that capitalism is not simply an economic phenomena. It is not simply about production and exchange, nor can it be reduced to a set of institutions that foster free production and exchange. Capitalism involves a whole set of values and commitments that bring it into close connection with religion.

Gregg questioned whether direct lines can be drawn from religion to modern free market capitalism, but he did stress the way in which late medieval theologians began to articulate various commitments regarding liberty and property, commitments that grew more pervasive as western Europe urbanized and trade networks grew. Although medieval guilds tended to create “closed shops,” seeking fixed prices and wages while fostering negative attitudes towards independent entrepreneurs, they sometimes received significant criticism from bishops and city officials who suggested they were infringing upon the common welfare, against natural justice and the natural law.

Already in the 13th Century therefore, Gregg argues, medieval Christians were articulating clear commitments to personal security and freedom from economic domination, emphasizing equality before the law and the functional importance of private property in a fallen world. Here, he suggested, is evidence of the roots of a capitalist ethic much earlier than the Reformation.

Gregg’s lecture is a helpful reminder. Although we moderns like to separate life into various compartments or spheres (politics, economics, religion, etc.) matters are never quite so simple. The history and development of free market capitalism, like the political order we Americans so cherish is incomprehensible apart from the long story of Christianity and Christian political theology. That doesn’t mean we should make arrogant or naive arguments about how Christianity produced all of this (let alone how it could all be deduced from Scripture). But it does suggest that we shouldn’t imagine the various strands can neatly be separated either. We do have a history.

Jesus for President? A Closer Look at Shane Claiborne’s Politics

The Institute on Religion and Democracy has again published one of my articles, this time on the neo-Anabaptist Shane Claiborne. Claiborne is in many ways a compelling figure and speaker. Educated in part at Princeton Theological Seminary, yet sporting baggy pants and dreadlocks, he has demonstrated impressive courage in his campaigns for peace. When the United States bombed Iraq in 2003 Claiborne was in the country, at the mercy of the Iraqis due to injuries sustained in a car accident. He is a pacifist but he has seen war firsthand. A great story teller, he repeatedly had his audience in stitches, and there is no question that on numerous points his critique of American Christianity has merit.

I think one of the dangers in election year is to sort of think that politicians are going to solve all of the problems when often they just keep creating them…. And we have to insist that, ‘No, we’ve found the last best hope on earth, we’ve found the light of the world, and it is not Barack Obama or Mitt Romney or America, it’s Jesus, the Christ, the Savior of the World.’

That said, when I listened to Claiborne speak, and I observed as the liberal, academic audience nodded in approval of so much of what he said, I could not help but think to myself that Claiborne is compelling in just the same way that the 16th Century Anabaptists were compelling. He firmly believes in Jesus and is willing to pay the ultimate price for his understanding of what that faith entails, and yet his prescriptions, if followed by all Americans, or even all Christians, would lead to absolute disaster (see my article for more on this). Like so many neo-Anabaptists, however, Claiborne tends to hedge on this point. On the one hand he calls believers to the way of the cross, the ultimate embrace of earthly disaster; on the other hand he continues to insist that if pacifism was tried maybe, just maybe, it would make the world a better place.

The consistent Anabaptists understand that you can’t have it both ways. The way of Jesus is the way of the cross, and Christians shouldn’t pretend that it will solve all the world’s problems. Of course Reformed folks like John Calvin agree with the Anabaptists on this point. But Calvin also emphasized that because of his graciousness towards the world (what Abraham Kuyper called common grace) God established civil government to preserve a modicum of peace and justice. Civil government is not the kingdom of God, as Claiborne rightly pointed out, but neither is it given the sword in vain, a point that Claiborne did not acknowledge.

In all the Reformed debates over the two kingdoms doctrine it is easy to forget why we need the doctrine in the first place. If you wonder, listen to folks like Shane Claiborne. After all, it was in part people a lot like Claiborne that led Calvin to articulate the doctrine in the first place.

You can read my whole article here.

When the State makes the Church do things its way: (un)reformed discipline and worship

One of the problems with conservatism as a theological perspective is that it tends to assume that the status quo within the church is grounded in Scripture. In an era when the biggest and most visible denominations are all sliding to the left and abandoning Scriptural teaching on numerous points, many Christians fall into the mistake of interpreting every church controversy through the lens of the conservative/liberal dichotomy. In some of these controversies, it is conservatives who find themselves defending theologically dubious practices against those who seek change.

Let me provide three examples, all taken from the early Reformation period.

1. It is well known that the primary point of conflict between John Calvin and the civil government of Geneva centered on Calvin’s insistence that the pastors and elders of the church, not the civil government, had the final say on who could or could not participate in the Lord’s Supper. What is less well known is that Calvin wanted the Lord’s Supper to be observed “at least weekly.” For Calvin Communion was the central expression of the union and fellowship of believers with Christ and with one another. Its observance should constantly characterize the gathering and worship of the church.

The civil government of Geneva, for its own not entirely theological reasons, insisted that the Lord’s Supper should be observed quarterly, and most Reformed churches have followed the guidance of the state ever since, celebrating the sacrament at most monthly. Traditions can be hard to break even when there is good reason to do so.

2. When the Reformation triumphed in the Netherlands the Reformed pastors immediately sought to establish what they regarded as biblical church discipline. Like Calvin, they believed the church should be marked not simply by belief in the gospel but by communal living that is worthy of the gospel. But they immediately ran into trouble with the civil authorities who were loath to give so much authority to the pastors. The result was a compromise. As Andrew Pettegree describes it in Tolerance and Intolerance in the European Reformation,

The ministers were expected to marry or baptize any citizens who presented themselves, and in some towns it was only with difficulty that the Calvinist consistories defended their right to restrict access to the Lord’s Supper to full members of their own church…. [T]he Calvinist consistories themselves adamantly defended their right to restrict full membership of their church to those who had made a full confession of faith; a distinction which inevitably led, even among those sympathetic to the Reformed, to a two-tier membership, with full members, the lidmaeten, who subjected themselves to the full disciplinary supervision of the consistory, being far outnumbered by liefhebbers, citizens who attended services but did not make the Confession of Faith which would have secured admission to communion (188, 189-190).

Does this longstanding two-tiered membership help explain the reluctance of so many elders in the Dutch Reformed tradition today to allow children who have professed their faith and understand the basic gospel to participate in the Lord’s Supper? Does this help explain why many find it completely normal when most of the teenagers in these churches are baptized and attend the services but do not observe Christ’s call to observe the sacrament in remembrance of him?

3. Calvin and most of the Calvinist wing of the Reformed tradition consistently rejected the use of musical instruments in worship because they viewed the New Testament rather than the Old Testament tabernacle/temple ceremonies as the model for Christian worship. They rightly observed that organs had been brought into the churches in the middle ages along with the other forms of Roman Catholic piety and superstition to which they were so opposed. The aversion to musical instruments in worship came to mark the Presbyterian tradition until the 19th Century.

The Dutch Reformed are often cited as an example of a branch of the Reformed tradition that broke with this attitude towards instruments in worship. What is less often appreciated is that the reason why the Dutch churches kept their organs was because of the insistence of the state. To cite Pettegree once again,

[I]f the magistrates were expected to maintain the church space, they were not necessarily prepared to allow the ministers to dictate to them on all aspects of their internal decoration. Thus representations from the more precise ministers that organs should be removed along with other ‘idols’, were generally ignored. Organs belonged to the municipality or parish and could not be removed without their permission, a circumstance which provoked some Calvinist ministers almost beyond endurance. ‘I really marvel’, protested Jean Polyander in 1579, ‘that when other idols were removed, this noisy idol was retained.’ But retained it was, despite frequent protests from the Calvinist national synod (188-189).

Does this help explain why many Dutch Reformed elders can be so critical of the musical instruments brought into church in contemporary worship and yet be so oblivious to their own pious appreciation for the pipe organ?

All three of these examples pertain to areas of continued disagreement in Reformed churches today. In each case the Reformed pastors advocated a particular practice on the basis of Scripture and Reformed theology, and in each case the magistrates prohibited that practice for its own reasons. Yet in each case the most conservative Reformed churches today follow the practice once dictated by the magistrates rather than that defended on the basis of Scripture. To be sure, once certain practices were forced on the church theologians rose up to articulate post facto theological defenses of those practices. But such theological arguments should not blind us to the history that often lies behind the practices defended.

These are not matters over which Christians should ever divide. But conservatives need to be just as open to self-criticism on the basis of Scripture as they are to the criticism of whatever seems new and different. After all, the Reformation calls the church not simply to be Reformed, but to be always reforming according to Scripture.

Is Joel Belz right that the church should say more about politics?

In a recent column in World Magazine Joel Belz wondered whether churches have become too cautious or fearful in engaging politics. Belz notes that churches rightly steer away from endorsing candidates or political parties, and he agrees that Christians need to make it clear that their “spiritual and heavenly allegiance” is much more important than their “worldly character.” But he suggests that given the “radical secularization of our culture” churches may need to step up the political instruction. As would be expected in this sort of argument, Belz invokes the legacy of the pastor turned Dutch Prime Minister Abraham Kuyper, along with Kuyper’s ringing declaration of the lordship of Christ over every area of life.

What is Belz looking for in particular?

When the Bible says that “righteousness exalts a nation,” it seems minimally appropriate for churches and their ministers to help their people understand better in practical political terms what that righteousness looks like. What does “righteousness” mean when we think about tax rates, immigration, education, foreign policy, healthcare—and a hundred different issues?

Belz doesn’t answer the question but he does direct his readers to a course offered by Summit Ministries.

I agree that the church should teach its members the basic principles of Christian political theology, many of which are helpfully summarized on the website of Summit Ministries. Christians should know what Scripture says about God’s ordination of the state in the context of the Noahic Covenant, about government’s responsibility to secure basic justice for the poor and the oppressed, about the obligation to pay taxes and give honor to the civil magistrate, and about the need for the church to obey God rather than human beings when necessary. And it would be very beneficial for pastors and teachers who have the expertise to hold a Sunday School series on some of the principles of Christian political theology as taught by the tradition running from Augustine through Thomas Aquinas to the reformers and beyond.

But Belz seems to be pressing further when he speaks of what righteousness looks like in “practical political terms,” applied in particular to “tax rates, immigration, education, foreign policy, healthcare—and a hundred different issues” (emphasis added). Does Scripture really teach what righteousness looks like in practical political terms in the 21st Century United States of America on a hundred different issues?

I know some pastors who argue that based on Christian principles the government should definitely tax the wealthy at higher rates than it currently does. I know others who argue that anything other than a flat tax rate is virtual theft. Some contemporary Christians think Jesus demands a crack-down on illegal immigration. Others argue that the principles of mercy and of hospitality to strangers should temper such a crack-down. And while many conservative Christians assume that Christianity calls for a limited government that leaves matters like education, health care, poor relief and the church outside of the supervision of the state, they might be surprised to find out that a theologian like Calvin found it quite sensible that the state should have oversight over all of these matters; indeed, in his commentaries he argues that it is within the obligation of the state to establish schools and hospitals, as well as to provide for the poor and pay the salaries of the ministers of the church.

Calvin may have been wrong, of course. But how sure can we be that Scripture provides the answers for which we are looking if Calvin (and all other Christian political theologians prior to the advent of modern liberalism) came to such different conclusions than we do? Belz wants the church to recover its prophetic edge. But if the church’s hearers are not convinced that it is truly the Lord speaking when the prophet says “Thus says the Lord” the effect will be the destruction of the church’s credibility, not the recovery of such a prophetic edge.  Jim Wallis and Jerry Falwell saw themselves as prophets but outside of their small group of already convinced followers few shared the conviction.

In a thoughtful review of Kenneth J. Collins’s recent book on politics and evangelicalism, my friend and former teacher Jay Green, professor of history at Covenant College, suggests that Collins comes close to conflating thoughtful Christian engagement with libertarianism. Green writes,

although Collins encourages evangelicals to move “beyond ideology” as a solution to our current impasse, the cumulative effect of his own persistent grievances against the modern secular state amounts, in the end, to a book-length argument on behalf of an almost reflexive libertarianism. In other words, the central concern that seems to animate Collins’s book isn’t the divided soul of evangelicalism as much as the moral (il)legitimacy of the modern liberal state. I waited in vain for Collins to advance (or at least acknowledge) some semblance of a Christian case for the state as a God-ordained institution, established to do his bidding, even when its goals and methods are unholy and its thirst for expansive power unquenchable. (Consider the regime the apostle Paul was living under when he penned the 13th chapter of his letter to the Romans.) Treating the robust exercise of state power as little but oppressive, or denying that participation in “power politics” can result in anything but corruption, seems to undervalue or simply ignore the extent to which all such activity is done under a sovereign God as an extension of his good government.

I sincerely appreciate Collins’s admonitions against evangelicals shilling for or baptizing secular political ideologies, as well as his warnings against confusing political movements with God’s kingdom. I do not, however, believe that his persistent libertarian contempt toward government power provides a very helpful path forward. I think he meant to gesture toward a public code for evangelicals leavened by a Wesleyan ethic of love and self-denial, which is attractive in many ways. But his analysis reads more often like a treatise on behalf of what David Brody has called “Teavangelicalism”—an alliance between evangelicals and Tea Party conservatives. If we hope to support a robust Christian vision for public life, we must be properly wary of government propensities toward tyranny. But we must also ingest a healthy dose of realism that understands coercive power not as a unique invention of modernity, but as an intrinsic and complex feature of the human condition.

I share Green’s concern. Although I agree with Belz and many other Christians that the church should proclaim the whole counsel of God, including what that counsel says about political theology, I am not very confident in the ability of most pastors and teachers to engage in “practical political terms” on a hundred different issues while at the same time rising above their own political predilections and loyalties (whether to the left or to the right). If the church wants to maintain its prophetic edge it needs to focus on what Scripture actually teaches, encouraging Christians to work out these principles in citizenship and vocation and in a spirit of service to their neighbors (think Kuyper’s distinction between the church as institution and the church as organism). But that won’t happen unless the church steers well clear of practical political matters, on a hundred different issues.

Part 2 on the Two Kingdoms at Reformation 21

Reformation 21 has kindly published part 2 of my series on the two kingdoms doctrine (Part 1 can be found here). Here are the first few paragraphs:

In the various political theological debates that have raged across the Reformed tradition over the centuries, virtually every group and every theologian has claimed the support of the legacy of John Calvin. When English Puritans and Elizabethan bishops clashed over the royal supremacy in sixteenth century England both sides claimed the support of John Calvin’s two kingdoms doctrine for their position. In the early twentieth century it became fashionable for liberal scholars to claim that Calvin’s theology of culture was one of “Christ transforming culture,” claiming that theology as a precedent for the social gospel. Resisting this emphasis were those theologians and pastors who picked up on Calvin’s repeated contrast between earthly things and the heavenly life to argue for radical discontinuity between the coming kingdom and life in this world. In the debates regarding theonomy both those who supported the continuing relevance of the Torah’s penal code and those who rejected it found support for their positions in Calvin’s various arguments on civil punishment and natural law.

Given this background, it is no wonder that Calvin has become a battleground in the controversy over the two kingdoms. Yet, as with so many of these controversies, it is both anachronistic and impossible to try to fit Calvin into the contemporary two kingdoms debate. The best we can do is to understand what the reformer himself taught about the two kingdoms, how he fit the doctrine into his broader theology, and to what extent we find it helpful to us today.

Read the whole thing here.

Michael Horton on the lordship of Christ over all

Commenting on Tim Keller’s new book Center Church Michael Horton writes,

One of the places where I found the book especially thought-provoking was his engagement with various approaches to Christ and culture—especially transformationalism, pietism, and two kingdoms.  I still would demur with a couple of his descriptions of the “two kingdoms” perspective, but I think he does point out helpfully that this view is no more monolithic than other positions.  I also share some of his concerns about how the model can be used to justify unfaithful witness—as in the way that it was used by Southern Presbyterians (under the rubric of the “spirituality of the church”) to justify slavery.

There is nothing, however, in two-kingdoms thinking itself that would ever justify sin and injustice, whether public or private, or keep the church from preaching all of God’s Word and disciplining members who refuse its clear instruction.  In fact, by more clearly articulating the proper authority and jurisdiction of the church and the state, a two-kingdoms perspective is most allergic to any ideology, movement, leader, or party that would make absolute claims.  The reduction not only of religion but even cultural life to politics is something that such a perspective opposes with might and mane.  Christ is Lord of all, even if he rules his two kingdoms in different ways, with different means, toward different ends.

Read the whole thing here.

Forget big business and small businesses: it’s the middle that counts

From the recent issue of The Economist:

America has around 197,000 medium-sized firms, defined as those with annual revenues between $10m and $1 billion, according to data from the National Centre for the Middle Market at Ohio State University. Together, they employ over 40m people in the country and account for around one-third of private-sector GDP (equivalent to the economies of India and Russia combined).

Some 82% of medium-sized firms survived the dark years of 2007-10, compared with 57% of small firms. And although the survival rate among the 2,100 big firms (with revenue over $1 billion) was 97%, these giants shed 3.7m jobs during those years. Mid-sized companies, by contrast, added 2.2m jobs. This trend has continued as the economy has struggled back to its feet. In 2010-11, medium-sized firms increased employment by 3.8%, compared with growth of 2.5% by small firms and 0.8% by big business

So fixated on the big and small ends of the spectrum, it seems, Americans have forgotten those companies that do the most for them. What does it mean politically?

The biggest concerns of the executives surveyed quarterly by the National Centre are regulation and access to growth capital (they have plenty of working capital for ongoing operations, having built up cash reserves just like their bigger corporate brethren). Mid-sized firms tend to bear the heaviest burden of new regulations, since smaller firms are often given some exemptions initially, whereas bigger firms have legions of lawyers to cope with the additional rules. Conversation among the 1,000 or so middle-market executives due to attend the National Centre’s annual meeting on October 24th is expected to be dominated by worries about the new health-care system. Given the importance of medium-sized firms to the economy, politicians might look more carefully at how they are affected by new laws.

Read the whole thing here.

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