Monthly Archives: November 2012
Franklin Delano Roosevelt transformed the American presidency because he connected with the ordinary American. While the presidents preceding him – especially Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover – tended to emphasize the things that government could not do, along with the necessary virtue of patience, FDR approached the Great Depression with a determination to make changes that would actually help people – right away. He was not only the president who spoke directly to the people in his famous fireside chats; he also presided over the most productive Hundred Days (the first three months after a president’s inauguration) in the history of Congress.
There are all sorts of things that can be said in evaluation of Roosevelt’s New Deal. The President’s policy was hardly Keynsian (he was motivated more by the simple desire to put people to work than to stimulate the economy) and yet it expanded the reach of the federal government in breathtaking ways. FDR’s approach to the Constitution was cavalier and destructive of the nation’s legal (and ultimately cultural and political) infrastructure, though he was prevented from achieving his worst designs relative to the Supreme Court (about which I hope to write more next week). Economically it was World War II that ended the Great Depression, not the New Deal, and yet the New Deal may well have saved America from revolution. Many of FDR’s policies are widely supported even by conservatives today. Others were thankfully overturned by the Supreme Court already during the 1930s.
But one thing that made FDR a great president – as his admirer, consistent supporter, and eventually conscious emulator Ronald Reagan appreciated – was that he knew how to speak to and represent ordinary, hard-working Americans without pandering to base desires. For instance, in November 1935 Roosevelt spoke at a homecoming rally at Georgia Tech in Atlanta:
I realize that gentlemen in well-warmed and well-stocked clubs will discourse on the expenses of Government and the suffering that they are going through because their Government is spending money on work relief. Some of these same gentlemen tell me that a dole would be more economical than work relief. That is true. But the men who tell me that have, unfortunately, too little contact with the true America to realize that … most Americans want to give something for what they get. That something, which in this case is honest work, is the saving barrier between them and moral degradation. I propose to build that barrier high and keep it high.
Note how FDR – like the recent Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney – criticized dependency on the federal government. But notice also how – profoundly unlike Romney – he did it in a way that was perceived as respectful and helpful to the people who were most in need.
Or take Roosevelt’s speech at the 1936 Democratic convention, only a few months before the greatest landslide election in American history (until Johnson’s even greater victory in 1964):
Liberty requires opportunity to make a living – a living which gives man not only enough to live by, but something to live for. For too many of us the political equality we once had won was meaningless in the face of economic inequality. A small group had concentrated into their own hands an almost complete control over other people’s money, other people’s labor – other people’s lives.
These economic royalists complain that we seek to overthrow the institutions of America. What they really complain of is that we seek to take away their power. In vain they seek to hide behind the Flag and the Constitution….
Governments can err. Presidents do make mistakes. But the immortal Dante tells us that divine justice weighs the sins of the cold-blooded and the sins of the warm-hearted in different scales. Better the occasional faults of a Government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a Government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.
Americans didn’t vote for FDR by massive margins because they wanted handouts. They – especially southern Evangelicals (black and white alike) – voted for FDR by massive margins because they knew he would stand for them against the sorts of people who were not terribly concerned about their welfare. While they, like most contemporary Americans, may not have understood the ins and outs of economics or fiscal policy, they could appreciate the significance of having a president willing to err on the side of compassion.
Conservatives need to learn how to communicate this way. To be sure, American voters are much more sensitive today about the dangers of a government that is too “warm-hearted,” living in a “spirit of charity” that results in its own destruction. They are not looking for another New Deal (and they did not – in general – like Obamacare). But they still need political leaders who care about them and who know how to communicate that concern. A conservatism that fails to meet this need forfeits the right to govern, especially in a time as economically uncertain as the present day.
Reformed pastors are invoking Reformed resistance theory to justify disobedience to the Obama administration: Do they have a case?
Since starting up this blog about six months ago I have repeatedly encountered Reformed writers – many of them pastors – who are invoking 16th Century Reformed resistance theory to justify rejection of the Obama administration, whether in the form of civil disobedience or more open forms of resistance. The argument starts, of course, with the assertion that the federal government has become tyrannical. It then claims, supposedly on the basis of the old theory of resistance, that tyrannical governments have no claim on the obedience of Christians. It finally turns to propose that Christians take up active resistance in various ways, such as by refusing to pay taxes. Here are some examples of rhetoric I have heard or read:
- One Presbyterian pastor whose church I visited proclaimed from his pulpit that Americans face worse oppression than the Hebrew slaves did in the land of Israel because we have higher tax rates. His audience seemed to agree with him.
- A Reformed pastor wrote on his blog that because of its policy on immigration and health care the Obama administration has forfeited its moral authority. Christians no longer owe it any obedience.
- A Presbyterian pastor wrote on his blog that if the government uses federal money to fund abortions, or even if it simply raises income taxes too much, Christians might legitimately refuse to pay taxes.
None of these pastors were advocating particular acts of violence, but all of them invoked Reformed resistance theory when pressed, at least asserting that violent resistance is a legitimate option.
The question is, do any of these statements actually reflect continuity with classic Reformed resistance theory? To answer this question I have to point out that there is really not one authoritative version of that theory. Over time persecution, religious war, and atrocities such as the St. Bartholomew Day Massacre clearly radicalized Reformed polemicists. Eventually some Reformed thinkers argued what would have been unthinkable to a theologian like John Calvin, that if a government fails to promote the true Reformed religion believers may seek to overthrow it.
Here, however, I want to focus on the more moderate version of Reformed resistance theory, the version famously articulated by Calvin in his 1559 Institutes. This version, I think it is fair to say, has a lot in common with the sorts of resistance theories appealed to by America’s Founding Fathers, as well as by the South in the Civil War era. But it has little in common with the sorts of arguments made by contemporary Reformed pastors as I highlighted above.
In the last chapter of the Institutes Calvin explicitly argues that Christian believers must obey the governing authorities, no matter how tyrannical they may be, in everything that does not force them to sin. He makes himself quite clear that tyranny on the part of the government does not justify disobedience, whether in the form of a refusal to obey a law or pay taxes, or in the form of seditious or violent activity.
We are not only subject to the authority of princes who perform their office toward us uprightly and faithfully as they ought, but also to the authority of all who, by whatever means, have got control of affairs, even though they perform not a whit of the princes’ office. (4.20.25)
There are many things, he goes on to explain, that a tyrant does that he has no right to do from the perspective of the law, but they nevertheless retain their rights in relation to the people. For instance, relative to the tyranny of a future king described by the prophet Samuel in 1 Samuel 8 Calvin writes,
Surely, the king would not do this by legal right, since the law trained them to all restraint. But it was called a right in relation to the people, for they had to obey it and were not allowed to resist. (4.20.26)
That is Calvin’s basic rule for ordinary Christians when it comes to tyrannical government. But in the second last section of the Institutes Calvin offers one significant exception, an exception that presupposes his two kingdoms distinction. He clarifies that everything he has been saying refers to Christians in their roles as private persons. It does not refer to persons who hold magisterial office within the civil government.
For if there are now any magistrates of the people, appointed to restrain the willfulness of kings (… perhaps, as things now are, such power as the three estates exercise in every realm when they hold their chief assemblies), I am so far from forbidding them to withstand, in accordance with their duty, the fierce licentiousness of kings, that, if they wink at kings who violently fall upon and assault the lowly common folk, I declare that their dissimulation involves nefarious perfidy, because they dishonestly betray the freedom of the people, of which they know that they have been appointed protectors by God’s ordinance. (4.20.31)
Note that Calvin’s explicit reference is to the estates in their assemblies. Here there is clear precedent for the sorts of arguments made by the Founding Fathers (i.e., that the colonial governments had the authority to resist the tyranny of Parliament) or the Southern secessionists (i.e., that the states had the authority to resist the unjust policies of the federal government), whether or not either of those cases were in fact instances of tyranny or injustice.
How did Calvin apply his theory in practice? In 1560 a French nobleman came to Geneva seeking the support of Calvin and the other pastors for a military coup against the French government. In 1559 the powerful French monarch Henri II had tragically died in a jousting accident. His oldest son, Francis II, though fifteen years of age, was neither physically nor mentally able to be King. As a result the stridently anti-Protestant House of Guise established an unofficial regency that was inevitably threatening to the Reformed churches in France. Yet the House of Guise had little right to take this step. For it was the Bourbon family, which was sympathetic to Protestantism, that was most closely related to the monarchical line. Thus it was the Princes of the Blood, Anthony of Navarre and his younger brother Louis, Prince of Conde, who should have had the primary role in the establishment of a regency.
Calvin rejected what became known as the Conspiracy of Amboise because it was not led by the Princes of the Blood. And the conspiracy ended catastrophically for the Protestant cause. Within a few years, however, Francis II also died, and the ascent to the throne of his younger brother Charles IX, too young legally to exercise the full power of the monarchy, required the establishment of an official regency. The refusal of the House of Guise to allow the Bourbons to exercise their own legal rights in the process turned many of the French nobility against them. Although Anthony of Navarre was always indecisive, his brother Conde came to lead a political party known as the Huguenots, made up largely though not exclusively of Protestants, that challenged the Guise hold on power. War broke out in 1562 as Conde launched a failed effort to secure the King and his mother, Catherine de Midici, under his own Bourbon-led government.
In this case Calvin was entirely supportive of the cause because he, like so many other Protestant pastors and leaders, deemed it to be led by the appropriate lesser magistrates and in defense of the actual law of the land, indeed, of the monarchy itself. But what is striking is that the Huguenots emphasized just how secular and political was the nature of their cause. In his Declaration of Protestation Conde declared,
Firstly, therefore, he protests that no selfish passion leads him, but that his sole consideration is of what he owes God, with the duty he has particularly to the crown of France, under the government of the Queen, and finally the affection he bears to this kingdom, constrain him to look for all methods legitimate according to God and men, and according to the rank and degree which he holds in this kingdom, to return to full liberty the person of the King, the Queen and messieurs her children, and to maintain the observation of the edicts and ordinances of his Majesty, and namely the last edict issued concerning religion.
The document went on to list matters of taxation and debt, the intimidation of the King by his councilors, Conde’s loyalty to the King, and his willingness to lay down his arms if his opponents did so as well. The war ended indecisively in 1563 and Calvin died before the next war of religion broke out.
It should be obvious that the sort of resistance theory presupposed by Conde and articulated by Calvin has nothing in common with the claims of contemporary Reformed clergymen that Christians have a right to disobey or resist the federal government. Calvin understood that if Christians were to pay taxes and honor to a regime as tyrannical as that of Rome, the same had to be said of a regime as Catholic as that of France. It doesn’t matter if tax money is going towards unjust purposes or even towards murder (the French government was killing hundreds of Protestants). The authorities that exist have been appointed by God.
Of course, if lesser magisterial authorities determine that the federal government is practicing tyranny, and that it is their duty to resist such action, then matters change somewhat. But in the contemporary United States we are not in that position. As long as it is just a bunch of disgruntled conservative pastors who are calling us to disobey our government, we should utterly reject their arguments, take up our cross, and follow Christ.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has approved a document calling priests to step up the quality of their preaching at Sunday services. The document, entitled “Preaching the Mystery of Faith: The Sunday Homily,” positions the call for better preaching as part of Rome’s recent push for a “New Evangelization.”
In our day many Catholics have drifted away from active participation in the Church and are in need themselves of hearing again the Gospel of Jesus Christ and of recommitting themselves to discipleship.
The bishops note that the Catholic faithful have been calling for better preaching for years now.
We are also aware that in survey after survey over the past years, the People of God have called for more powerful and inspiring preaching. A steady diet of tepid or poorly prepared homilies is often cited as a cause for discouragement on the part of laity and even leading some to turn away from the Church.
The new emphasis on preaching among Catholics is a good sign. Amid all the issues that led the reformers to break with Rome, as I argued in a recent post, the lack of gospel preaching was first and foremost. Calvin was willing to acknowledge the existence of true churches under the Roman hierarchy, but only where the gospel was faithfully preached. My own Catholic friends tell me that, unfortunately in their view, things have not changed much in the Church since Calvin’s day. Clear, biblical, gospel-oriented preaching is still quite rare.
But the recent push for better preaching comes all the way from the top. Following a 2008 assembly of bishops on the Word of God in the life of the church, Pope Benedict XVI declared that since the word is at the heart of every ecclesial activity, the church’s homilies must be improved. In 2010 he declared that the church’s preaching needs to be direct and focused on the gospel:
Generic and abstract homilies which obscure the directness of God’s word should be avoided, as well as useless digressions which risk drawing greater attention to the preacher than to the heart of the Gospel message.
The document approved by the U.S. bishops likewise declares,
The message of the Gospel is truly a matter of “life and death” for us; there is nothing routine or trivial about it. If a homilist conveys merely some example of proverbial wisdom or good manners, or only some insight gained from his personal experience, he may have spoken accurately and even helpfully, but he has not yet spoken the Gospel, which ultimately must focus on the person of Jesus and the dynamic power of his mission to the world….
The ultimate goal of proclaiming the Gospel is to lead people into a loving and intimate relationship with the Lord, a relationship that forms the character of their persons and guides them in living out their faith.
Of course, many Evangelicals and Reformed believers will find this to be but a small step. Luther and Calvin were adamant that the faithful preaching of the gospel is the mark of a true church, such that where there is no such preaching there is no true church. From this perspective the document’s opening assertion of the importance of preaching is still quite weak:
One of the most significant ways in which the Church as the Body of Christ proclaims the dynamic Word of God is through the preaching of her ordained ministers, particularly in the context of the Sunday Eucharist. (emphasis added)
As long as many Catholic priests continue to accept cultural allegiance to Rome, implicit faith, and participation in the sacraments as equally sufficient conditions of a healthy church, the emphasis of Rome and the Catholic bishops on better homilies probably won’t bring about the sort of preaching for which they hope. There is something crucial in the Protestant emphasis on the preaching of the gospel as fundamental – and on the need for Christians to have an active, informed faith – that even this new document fails to capture.
Nevertheless, the efforts of Rome and the bishops should be lauded. The closer priests and the faithful get to the text of Scripture and its presentation of the gospel the healthier (or “truer”) their churches will be. I wish them success in this endeavor.
Not long ago on the Aquila Report a certain writer asserted that America is in decline. He did not specify any particular form of decline – moral, economic, or political. He simply spoke of decline. The context was his claim that as America continues its track under President Barack Obama, more and more Christians will turn to Reconstructionism as an alternative worldview. But of course, others with more mainstream views have made the same claim about the decline of America. There are plenty of liberals, conservatives and moderates – people across the political and religious spectrums – who worry every day that as a nation we are coming to the end of the road.
In my response to this claim I noted that it is by no means evident to me that America is in decline. I can agree, as I had said in the context of an earlier article comparing the 1960s to the post-revolutionary era, that in certain respects America has been experiencing decline. In particular I’m thinking of what we might call matters of “sex and social justice” (i.e., the collapse of moral norms, as well as social and legal structures protecting the unborn, women and children). I can also understand the feeling of some that as America abandons many of the trappings and moral commitments of Christendom this bodes a form of religious decline.
On the other hand, there are plenty of areas in which America has experienced tremendous progress: racial, economic, moral, etc. It is by no means obvious to me that people who claim to be Christians and then use their Christianity to justify the brutality of racism and violence are somehow superior (in any way) to contemporary “nones” who abandon any claim to Christianity, or to contemporary liberals who claim to be Christians and then use their Christianity to justify sexual immorality.
Whether or not you think the country is in decline politically depends on your place on the political spectrum. Of course, for conservatives there is Obamacare and the growth of the welfare state, and for liberals there is the Bush tax cuts, the War on Terror, and growing inequality. But we need to be careful about assuming that the Fiscal Cliff is the sort of challenge the likes of which this nation has never faced before. That’s why I referenced Jimmy Carter’s famous 1979 “Crisis of Confidence” speech. There have been numerous times in our history in which things looked pretty bleak, and thoughtful people thought surely the country was in decline.
But I’m not convinced. And the reason is not, as a number of people have suggested in reaction to my skepticism, because I am on the moon. I promise. I am not currently on the moon. The reason is that I am a student of history, especially of American history. And anyone who has read extensively in American history knows that ever since the Puritans got off the boat in New England and observed their inability to establish their new colony as a city on a hill, clergymen, philosophers and politicians have been preaching Jeremiads about American decline.
Of course, from the perspective of the early Puritans America was in decline because not everyone was upholding the strictest Puritan ideals about church and society. The generation born in America lacked the piety and enthusiasm of the one that had come from England and it was all downhill from there. But that did not mean America was in decline in anything more than a ‘Puritan’ understanding of decline.
Then again, after the American Revolution many New England Federalists (the descendants of the Puritans) thought America was in decline because the broader population was abandoning its former deference to status and authority. The artisans and shopkeepers who swept the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republican Party into power in 1800 believed in a form of equality that required the elites to engage their inferiors in political and economic debates on a level of equality that was viewed as nothing less than anarchy by their social betters, and once again, it was all downhill from there. But that did not mean America was in decline according to anything other than a ‘Federalist’ understanding of decline.
Then, of course, there was the Civil War. When Federal troops descended on the South in 1861-1865, setting the slaves free and wreaking paths of violence and destruction, southern politicians, preachers, and ordinary citizens alike were convinced that it was the end of civilization. The best preachers of the day were sure that the abolition of slavery meant the onset of communism, not to mention the degradation of the white race and the whole world that it had built. If America was ever in decline, no doubt, it was when Sherman’s armies marched through Georgia and South Carolina, throwing just war theory under the bus with impunity, or when former slaves were given the right to vote. But of course, America was not really in decline, except perhaps from a ‘Confederate’ perspective.
We can go on and on of course. The Great Depression supposedly hailed the end of capitalism and democracy. The New Deal brought us fascism and socialism. The Cold War was sure to end everything as a result of Mutually Assured Destruction. Desegregation showed the white supremacists that America really was headed for barbarism, and Vietnam and Nixon illustrated the same thing to the New Left. Stagflation and the miasmic slowdown of the American economy in the 1970s led to Carter’s famous speech – a speech reflective of the assumptions of many American intellectuals that America’s days as the world’s great superpower were numbered. But then came Reagan, the end of the Cold War, and the economic prosperity of the 1990s, and we were all optimistic again.
Of course, in each of these cases there was an element of truth to what the pessimists were saying. In each situation there was some obvious respect in which morality or society could be said to be “in decline.” And yet in every case the pessimists turned out to have a distorted vision, an attitude driven by the failure of their own vision or agenda into one of despair. And yet life goes on. In every example I’ve noted above there was some other respect in which America was actually on the ascendancy – economically, politically, or morally. Does the progress outweigh the decline? It all depends on what you are talking about.
Now we are in another downtime. Is this one really so different from the previous eras in which thoughtful, well-meaning people thought we had finally begun to fall? Maybe it is, but I don’t see how we could know that from our position today. What concerns me is the tendency of some Christian conservatives to fall into the sort of pessimistic ranting about decline that makes us look just like those pessimistic Puritans, rigid Federalists, die-hard Confederates, and other grumpy groups whom history has left behind. If you are convinced that we have taken a wrong turn you are entitled to your opinion, of course. But please don’t implicate Christianity in your pessimism. There is nothing particularly Christian about the feeling that America is in decline, any more than there is anything Christian about the certainty that it is in a period of national and global ascendancy (for which a strong argument could be made; see Walter Russell Mead’s excellent blog).
It’s sobering enough that we have to proclaim to the world that the Lord Jesus Christ will hold it accountable for every word and every deed, coming at the last day to judge the living and the dead. It’s hope enough that by preaching the gospel we can give people the confidence that the injustice and sorrows of life do not hold the last word on the matter. When we get to the business of taking up our cross and following Christ, serving our neighbors in love in our various vocations, let’s not pretend we know God’s immediate plans for (or against) American prosperity. Just as importantly, let’s not proclaim that the decline of the United States (and of our neighbors) is somehow good for our cause because it will lead more people to see the light. Our calling is to pray for and contribute to the peace and welfare of our country. We should convey a spirit consistent with that calling.
In a fascinating blog post in the Guardian (HT: David Koyzis) Andrew Brown points out that the version of Christianity on the ascendancy in China is Calvinism. In Africa and Latin America the Christian surge is largely charismatic or Pentecostal, and its target demographic is the poor. But in China, which Brown suggests may well represent the future center of global Christianity, charismatic tendencies are despised.
Calvinists despise pentecostalists. They shudder at unbridled emotion. If they are slain in the spirit, it is with a single, decorous thump: there’s to be no rolling afterwards. And in China, the place where Calvinism is spreading fastest is the elite universities, fuelled by prodigies of learning and translation. Wang Xiaochao, a philosopher at one of the Beijing universities, has translated the two major works of St Augustine, the Confessions and the City of God, into Chinese directly from Latin. Gradually all the major works of the first centuries of the Christian tradition are being translated directly from the original languages into Chinese.
All of this is happening outside the control of the official body which is supposed to monitor and supervise the churches in China. Instead, it is the philosophy departments at the universities, or the language departments and the departments of literature and western civilisation that are the channel.
The unofficial churches, it seems, are younger, wealthier, more intellectual. But what is most interesting about Brown’s report is his explanation of why Calvinism is the theology of choice for so many Chinese.
Dr Tan suggests that this is because it is Protestant: that is to say it can be made much more convincingly native than Roman Catholicism, since presbyterian congregations choose their own pastors. This is, I suspect, enormously important at a time when China is recovering from a century and a half of being the victim of western powers; the pope’s insistence on appointing Catholic bishops is unacceptable to the government and perhaps to the people too.
Calvinism isn’t a religion of subservience to any government. The great national myths of Calvinist cultures are all of wars against imperialist oppressors: the Dutch against the Spanish, the Scots against the English; the Americans against the British. So when the Chinese house churches first emerged from the rubble of the Cultural Revolution in the 80s and 90s “They began to search what theology will support and inform [them]. They read Luther and said, ‘not him’. So they read Calvin, and they said ‘him, because he has a theology of resistance.’ Luther can’t teach them or inform them how to deal with a government that is opposition.”
It’s an interesting argument, and one that fits the classic caricatures of Rome, Wittenburg and Geneva. It also relates fairly closely to a focus of my own recent work, which is the rapid spread of Calvinism during the 1550s and 1560s in Catholic France. A number of leading Reformation scholars have recently argued that Calvinism was equipped to thrive in countries with a hostile magistracy in a way that other forms of Protestantism – such as Lutheranism or the Zwinglian Reformed – could not. Why? Not because Calvinism developed a theory of resistance. That largely came later (after the 1572 St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre), and in fact, Lutheranism and medieval Christianity had their own versions of resistance theory.
Rather, the real cause of Calvinist expansion during its heyday, these scholars argue, was the distinctive Calvinist understanding of the church as an autonomous, self-governing institution distinct (though ideally coterminous) from the state. In contrast to Luther, Melanchthon, Zwingli, Bullinger, and almost all of the other magisterial reformers, Calvin insisted that the church was to maintain its own spiritual government of pastors and elders responsible for the administration of church discipline and, if necessary, excommunication. Less controversially, but not less distinctively, Calvin argued that the church had to maintain an ecclesiastical diaconate in order to administer care for the poor.
While other Protestants encouraged the civil magistrate to handle the functions of discipline and poor relief because they viewed church and commonwealth as essentially one society, Calvin and his followers insisted that even in the context of a Christian society the government of church and state were to be kept distinct. One of the main arguments of my dissertation is that it was Calvin’s unique version of the two kingdoms doctrine that made the Calvinist tradition so distinctive on this point.
What does this have to do with success in a hostile environment such as France, let alone China? Calvinism provided its followers with a model of the church that could easily be translated to any context, friendly or hostile. It did not matter if the French government rejected the true gospel, or even if it persecuted evangelicals, because the Reformed churches possessed all of the theological resources necessary to govern themselves and even to thrive without state support.
In fact, even the later development of Calvinist resistance theory presupposed this basic two kingdoms distinction. While Calvin and most of the other Reformed pastors insisted on the basis of Romans 13, the Sermon on the Mount, and other passages that churches and individual Christians must submit even to unjust civil authorities, the distinction between the two kingdoms enabled these same theologians to argue that different ethical principles applied to lesser civil magistrates. These subsidiary authorities, such as the Estates or the French Princes of the Blood, had the right to oppose tyranny on the part of the crown or its ministers precisely because they were authorities within the political kingdom rather than the spiritual.
The French Wars of Religion that occurred before the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre were therefore led by Huguenot nobility rather than by pastors or popular rebels. The pastors supported the Huguenot cause but always ensured that the governing bodies of the church were kept distinct from the Huguenot political or military authorities. The justification for war in these early years was always secular (i.e., the pro-Catholic regency established during the reign of the immature Charles IX was in violation of French legal tradition and therefore should be opposed by appropriate princes and nobility) rather than theological.
Are we seeing a repeat of these developments in China today? Despite Brown’s article, I doubt the Chinese are turning to Calvinism because of its theories of political resistance. If anything, I suspect that the Chinese, like the early French Reformed, want to avoid associations with subversive tendencies that would turn the government against them. Brown may well be on to something, however, when he emphasizes the Calvinist tendency to emphasize the autonomy of the church in a way that is appropriate for hostile contexts and therefore subversive of government tyranny. No doubt the theological and ecclesiological depth of Calvinism is compelling to those young, intellectual Chinese men and women so willing to break with their government and its officially tolerated institutions. In any case, this is a story worth following.
Reformed churches have made the characteristics that distinguish them from one another into idols that divide the church. Although he does not put it in such terms, that, essentially, is Daniel Hyde’s charge in his important recent address at the 38th meeting of the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council. Hyde, the pastor of Oceanside United Reformed Church in California and the author of numerous books, points out that according to the New Testament the whole church is, in fact, one in Christ. He also points out that already during Paul’s life he had to exhort the church to walk in a spirit of peace and unity. In Hyde’s words:
Paul’s exhortation is evidence that we do not do this anywhere near the level to which God demands and desires and that we need. Simul iustus et peccator is a living reality for the church. The problem of unity in the Reformed churches, then, is sin. That’s why on a bad day I would say that the Reformed churches are hopelessly divided in the spirit of Corinth: “’I follow Paul,’” or ’I follow Apollos,’ or ‘I follow Cephas,’ or ‘I follow Christ’” (1 Cor. 1:12).
“The problem of unity in the Reformed churches, then, is sin.” I appreciate it that Hyde came out and said what I believe many among us would actually deny. He goes on to speak in terms that should be as challenging to conservative Reformed believers as they are mystifying to the majority of Christians (who have never even heard of these moments in Reformed history, these concepts and practices that are at the core of our self-understanding):
Let me press this deep into your hearts by saying something that I trust shocks you. We are so divided that we cannot have a Synod of Dort or a Westminster Assembly today. Not shocking enough? Here is why I believe this: we are too carnal and insufficiently spiritual for such an assembly. We are too carnal in holding up “distinctives” as virtually inerrant. We revel in famous dates in our respective histories, as if they are a direct line from the apostles through the Reformation to us. We hold up our church polity issues as being passed down from the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15).
All of this, I might add, in the context of an age in which Reformed believers make up an infinitesimal fraction of the “holy catholic church” in which we profess to believe (NAPARC makes up about 0.18% of the U.S/Canadian population), in which the gospel is routinely misrepresented or ignored in so many of those organizations that call themselves churches, and therefore in which very few of the people who live around us even know what genuine Christianity (i.e., the Gospel) is.
Family Tree of Christian Denominations
(Incomplete, but even so, notice how small the Reformed/Presbyterian wing is)
Back to Hyde:
We are too carnal with so much infighting over preaching. We cluster in our respective corners and raise our flags: biblical-theological, redemptive-historical, grammatical-historical, experiential, evangelistic, fallen-condition focus, and everything in between. We do this as if preaching methodology trumps what we all confess is the first and primary mark of the true church: preaching the gospel of God’s grace in Jesus Christ.
I do not want to be disrespectful of anyone’s work or concerns, but you do wonder when bright, sincere Christian people devote their energies to writing ruthlessly polemical tracts (or articles or blogs or speeches) against other equally thoughtful, sincere Christian people, on differences that are rarely as crucial or clear as the authors’ seem to imagine. To be sure, it is much easier to devote oneself to solving relatively manageable problems that are relevant to small numbers of people than it is to insert oneself meaningfully (i.e., in such a way that people will listen to you) into efforts and debates that concern millions of people quite different from yourself. And in a sense, of course, it is appropriate to have a sense of vocation about the people and issues within your realm of concern and influence. But that does not explain the tendency to approach these matters in ways that are divisive and destructive. As Hyde writes,
[W]e are insufficiently spiritual. We do not evidence the fruits of the Holy Spirit that reflect the high calling to which we are called (Eph 4:1). Therefore I believe our once legitimate historical, cultural, circumstantial divisions are now a discipline from the Lord upon our movement. Will we fall on our faces together in repentance? Will we arise and with open arms embrace in charity and humility our brothers who differ with us on lesser matters? Can we not follow the example of our forefathers? Are our distinctives and differences any more important than those that existed at the Synod of Dort?
One example should suffice. On the issue of how to express the extent and intent of Christ’s satisfaction, there was diversity. Some said Christ died for the elect—period—and that the ancient sufficiency/efficiency distinction was useless. Others said that this distinction was useful since Christ’s intent was not to save the whole world, however, his death has an infinite and intrinsic value sufficient in extent to save the whole world. And there were even a few who affirmed an even broader sufficiency, saying that Christ died efficiently with intent to save the elect, but that he also died sufficiently for the whole world, with the intention of establishing a conditional covenant of grace such that everyone who believes will be saved. And as you read the Minutes of the Westminster Assembly what you learn is that in virtually every chapter of its Confession, there was a serious and significant debate.
Hyde gives examples from a work by the Reformation historical theologian Richard Muller.
[Muller] chronicles debates of non or sub-confessional issues such as supralapsarian-infralapsarian debates, non-Amyraldian hypothetical universalism, the imputation mediate or immediate of Adam’s sin posterity, the imputation of Christ’s active obedience, the nature of the keys of the kingdom, the millennial kingdom, the nature of Adam’s reward, the organization of covenant theology, justification from eternity, and elements of Cocceian theology.
If you are an outsider to the Reformed world reading this blog, these issues are precisely the sort of things that often consume Reformed people in their disputes with one another. This is not a list of obscure matters that are irrelevant or that no one should care about. And yet within the confessional unity that Reformed believers once maintained, unanimity on these issues was not required. Even in the age in which the concern for confessional orthodoxy was at its height (and when most people in the countries involved were members of Reformed churches, Reformed theology being a concern of state politics), our Reformed forbears often had a better sense of what issues are genuinely worth dividing over than we do.
This is a lot to think about. Most of Hyde’s essay is not as critical or provocative as the quotations I’ve highlighted here suggest, but the whole is well worth reading. You can find it at the Aquila Report here.
Although we usually think of the Pilgrims when it comes to Thanksgiving, the actual holiday as we know it was given to us by Abraham Lincoln in the midst of the dark days of the Civil War. Lincoln proclaimed a day of thanksgiving for the fourth Thursday in November in a proclamation of October 3, 1863, only a couple weeks after a Confederate army commanded by General Braxton Bragg had routed a large Union army at the Battle of Chickamauga, in Georgia. Bragg’s army was now moving against the crucial railroad hub of Chattanooga, Tennessee. Union armies were bogged down facing the wily Robert E. Lee in Virginia as well, and the direction the war would take in the future was by no means sure.
Lincoln’s proclamation, actually written by Secretary of State William Seward, outlined the various aspects of prosperity and order the (northern) United States continued to enjoy even in a time of war. It then declared,
They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and voice by the whole American people…
And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.
Abraham Lincoln was by no means an orthodox Christian, as Mark Noll demonstrates in a fascinating piece on Lincoln’s faith and religious practices in Christianity Today, but the proclamation reflects a fairly substantive public theology at work. We still hear that public theology from our presidents today, but I don’t recall contemporary presidents speaking of our sins in this way, let alone of divine judgment. As I believe Noll has written elsewhere, Abraham Lincoln does not seem to have been a believing Christian, but the theology of his public statements often maintained a far more theologically accurate view of the war than did that of the most prominent pastors and theologians of the day. Interesting stuff.
Anyway, I wish you all a happy Thanksgiving.
In a thought-provoking article at Christianity Today my professor and dissertation adviser John Witte, Jr., defends the intent of the Oklahoma legislation that prohibited the use of Shari’a law in state courts, legislation that has thus far been rejected on religious liberty grounds by federal courts. Witte describes three arguments generally used to defend the limited legitimacy of Shari’a law in the United States, rejecting each in turn.
The first reason has to do with religious liberty:
Both Western constitutional laws and international human rights norms give robust protection to the religious freedom of individuals and groups. Why deny peaceful Muslim citizens the freedom to opt out of state laws on sex, marriage, and family that run afoul of central faith commandments?
This argument, however, falsely assumes that claims of conscience and religious free exercise must always trump. But this is hardly the case in modern democracies, even though religious freedom is cherished… Even the most devout religious believer enjoys no immunity from criminal laws against activities like polygamy, child marriage, female genital mutilation, or corporal discipline of wives. Religious freedom is not a license to engage in crime…. Most Western democracies readily allow religious officials to officiate at weddings, testify in divorce cases, assist in the adoption of a child, facilitate the rescue of a distressed family member, and the like. Some democracies also will uphold religious arbitration awards and mediation settlements over domestic issues. But that is a long way from delegating full legal power to religious bodies for governing the domestic affairs of their voluntary faithful
The second argument is essentially libertarian. It follows John Locke in asserting that marriage and the family are pre-political institutions that the state is bound to recognize but not meddle with. Why not, as some conservatives have suggested in response to the spreading phenomena of same-sex marriage, simply privatize the whole institution?
Witte’s response to this argument is an excellent explanation of why the state must be involved in the institution of marriage, both in terms of protection and regulation:
A comprehensive system of marriage and family law—let alone the many related legal systems of inheritance, trusts, family property, children’s rights, education, social welfare, and more—cannot long operate without coercive power. It needs police, prosecutors, and prisons; subpoenas, fines, and contempt orders; material, physical, and corporal sanctions. Moral suasion and example, coupled with communal approbation and censure, can certainly do part of the work. But a properly functioning marriage and family law system requires all these coercive instruments of government. And no religious authority can wield coercive power.
The third argument is based on the value of religious equality. As Witte affirms, federal and state courts permit deference to religious rules and tribunals on various points when it comes to Judaism and Christianity. Why should Islam be any different? Witte acknowledges that this argument is the most difficult to overcome. His basic response is to appeal to history. The exceptions granted to Jews and Christians have come about over a long process and for valid, particular reasons. Islam has not yet worked through that process. What’s more, by virtue of their embrace of democratic rights and freedoms Christians and Jews have earned a certain degree of deference that is not yet clearly due to Muslim communities:
[R]eligious communities, in turn, have to accommodate—or at least tolerate—the core constitutional and cultural values of their secular host nations. No Western nation will readily grant concessions to a religious community that rejects liberty, equality, and fraternity, or human rights, democracy, and rule of law.
Witte’s argument is spot-on in many respects, but Matthew Schmitz is not convinced. In a post at First Thoughts entitled “Christianity Today’s Dead-Wrong Defence of Anti-Sharia Laws” he argues that the Oklahoma law was less a rejection of special accommodation to Shari’a law than it was a restriction of religious freedom currently enjoyed by all religious groups.
If a marriage contract doesn’t run afoul of our laws or our Constitution, what does it matter whether or not it references Sharia? Should it be ruled out? If so, what about an otherwise identical contract that doesn’t reference reference Sharia? Witte’s argument is, at its best, an argument for inaction—not for the measures passed by states like Oklahoma and Kansas.
In a fuller statement of his argument in National Review, back in June, Schmitz made a persuasive case that laws targeted at Muslims accomplish nothing in the way of preserving the sovereignty of American law, and that, in fact, they do much to weaken religious liberty, alienate Muslims, and even threaten national security. His most important point is that there is no need for the sort of law Oklahoma wants, or that Witte defends.
Sharia, of course, does not grant all the rights that the U.S. Constitution does; neither does Christian canon law or Jewish Halakhic law (or English or French law, for that matter). But why should this fact prevent a court from honoring a contract made under the provisions of one of these “foreign” legal systems if the contract does not itself violate any U.S. or state regulations, laws, or constitutional provisions? Under one reading of the Kansas law, a contract that makes reference to canon law or sharia — but is otherwise perfectly legal — would be thrown out, while an identical one that makes no such reference would be upheld. The other possible reading of the law is that it only bars rulings based on foreign legal systems when the rulings themselves would violate constitutional rights. But in that case, as Professor Douglas Laycock of the University of Virginia Law School has argued, the law is meaningless, for courts will not tolerate or enforce violations of constitutional rights in any case.
In short, even if courts were to recognize the limited relevance of Shari’a law for members of Muslim communities, that would not prevent any particular individual from claiming and receiving the full protection of the rights and freedoms all Americans are afforded under the Constitution and the law of the land.
Of course, Witte knows this. As he writes in his article, the current accommodations made to Jewish courts do not offer the latter any form of coercion. Constitutional rights and freedoms always trump religious authority full stop. Thus Jewish courts “do not claim authority over all of Jewish sex, marriage, and family life. Having abandoned physical coercion and sanctions, they claim no authority beyond persuasion to stop a disputant from walking out of court and out of the Jewish community altogether.”
But the issue is complex. In theory an individual may be able to walk out of her religious community at any time, but in reality the threat of social and religious ostracism is far too great, especially for ethnic and religious communities not well integrated into American society. This seems to be the assumption underlying Witte’s reference to history. So while Schmitz thinks the fears of “creeping Shari’a” are overblown and worries about the more fundamental cause of religious liberty, a valid fear given the events of the last few years, Witte fears that the Islamic community has not yet clearly embraced American values with sufficient enthusiasm to warrant the sort of deference given to other communities, a seemingly equally valid fear given the reality on the ground.
It’s a difficult tension, and it’s by no means clear to me that there is an easy answer. I’ll be paying close attention to how it all plays out.
Yesterday at South Point Presbyterian Church in McDonough, Georgia, I preached on Colossians 1:24-29, the stunning passage in which the Apostle Paul writes, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” In the course of the sermon I show how Paul and his fellow apostles viewed their ministry to the nations as the fulfillment of the incomplete task of Isaiah’s suffering servant, who would bring good news to the “ends of the earth” (Acts 13:47; [Isaiah 49:6] Cf. Acts 1:1,8).
It is a theme that is shot through the entire New Testament canon. The fundamental call of the church – and of Christians – is to witness to the good news of Jesus Christ in word and in deed, and the basic context in which that necessarily occurs – a world that is fallen and hostile – is suffering. When Christians are repeatedly exhorted to be conformed to the image of Christ the point is not simply to conform to his righteousness but to conform to his willingness to be a suffering servant: to take up your cross and follow him (Matthew 16:24; Mark 3:34; Luke 9:23). No doubt one of the classic passages pointing in this direction is Philippians 2:5-8:
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
It’s sobering stuff. The life of Christian discipleship is not the American Dream and we should never, ever, fall into the mindset of thinking we can somehow follow Jesus and yet avoid the path of the cross.
It is understandable that many Christians would find this emphasis troubling. There is a reason why Jesus tells us to “count the cost” before we imagine that we are capable of following him. And so in some ways it is not surprising that a good number of people – even orthodox, Bible-believing Christians – find this perspective to be unduly pessimistic or defeatist. They see all the prophecies of victory and conquest in Scripture and think, this emphasis on suffering can’t really be what the faith is all about. And of course in an important sense they are right. Nearly all of the biblical passages that talk about the path of suffering do so while reminding us that in the end that path leads to victory and triumph. The only question is, when?
But while classic Christian theology has always read the great works of prophecy through the gospel of Jesus, interpreting the Old Testament by the New, many Christians decide instead to read the New Testament from the perspective of the Old. If the New Testament talks about the way of suffering and the cross, they reason, it must be speaking primarily in terms of a temporary state of affairs, one that by and large will end when Christianity spreads across the globe and Christians take dominion for the Lord Jesus in every area of life. At that point, surely Israel must once again be our model – albeit one that we need to apply globally and in a way suitable to modern times. They urge Christians not to resign themselves to the way of the cross, suggesting that this amounts to a failure to believe, to trust in God’s promises that the cause of Christ will triumph, that his kingdom will come on earth as it is in heaven, even before Jesus’ return. Sometimes they even go so far as to call those who resign themselves to the path of suffering “cowardly.”
Of course, this sort of criticism rises not simply from the right. on the contrary, it is one of the basic motifs of feminism to claim that Christianity has encouraged a passive approach to suffering that has been particularly destructive for women and racial minorities. The way of the cross is a disastrous model for the Christian life, they insist, because it becomes a tool in the hands of oppressors, preventing the oppressed from being more assertive.
The problem with all of this is that despite all of the objections, the New Testament witness is still quite clear. While the kingdom will come in its fullness one day, its arrival is contingent on that great event the apostles constantly tell Christians to fix their hopes on – the return of Jesus. In the meantime one, of the most fundamental principles of Scripture – without which one cannot understand the Christian life – is that Christians live in conformity to Christ’s image, which means that they walk in the way of the cross before receiving the gift of glory. Christian obedience, therefore, is not the same thing as the fullness of the kingdom. That’s why Jesus broke up into two petitions what so many Christians misleadingly paraphrase as one (eliminating what I here italicize): Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
But what bothers me more than anything else is the assumption that Christians who recognize the call of the cross are somehow pessimistic, cowardly, or embracing a mindset of capitulation. Because we are talking about the cross of Jesus here, in fact, I am going to say outright that I think this borderlines on blasphemy. There is nothing – absolutely nothing – cowardly about going to the cross. As Revelation teaches us so clearly, it is the Lamb who was slain who conquers, and it is by his blood and suffering that he does so. Just as importantly, Christians conquer with the Lamb just to the extent that they live as faithful witnesses, martyrs, for the truth. As Revelation 12:10-11 declares,
Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers and sisters has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death.
For all the debates about various millennial views in the book of Revelation, New Testament scholars are strikingly agreed on this point. What the world derides as defeat and passivity is from the perspective of heaven (the perspective offered John in Revelation) the faithful testimony of Christ’s absolute victory, a victory that will be consummated with the new heavens and the new earth. As Scott Swanson writes in his excellent chapter on the book of Revelation in the volume Kingdoms Apart:
Revelation’s messages should also warn us against any triumphalistic overconfidence in Christian cultural transformation of the world. Nor does it encourage us to see our cultural engagements as in themselves advancing Christ’s kingdom. They can and must aim to be expressions of our faithful witness to that kingdom… However, Revelation makes absolutely clear that the beast, in all his embodiments, will not finally be defeated, nor will Babylon finally fall, before the end. Christ has ‘begun to reign,’ but we wait with perseverance in our testimony and commandment-keeping for God’s climactic intervention in history to finally bring in the new heaven and new earth…. We must recognize that our testimony in the world involves us in a life-or-death spiritual struggle, which can be won only as we conquer by the power and blood of Jesus (225-226).
In the meantime we refuse to consider the servant greater than his master (John 15:20). If Christ had to go to the cross before earning the crown, so will we, despising the devil’s temptation (Matthew 4:8-9) to view the way of Christ as the way of cowardice, capitulation, or defeat:
Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets (Luke 6:22-23)