Monthly Archives: March 2013

Russell Moore to Lead Southern Baptists’ Social Witness: A New Era?

Russell D. Moore has been elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), replacing the outgoing Richard Land. Of course, in so many ways Land, perhaps the leading voice of the Christian Right in recent decades, is irreplaceable. It’s hard to imagine Moore maintaining the same political clout as his forbear, who firmly believed that if American Christians would simply repent and pour themselves out in faith towards God, he would revive and bless the United States.

Moore is no less conservative than Land, but he is a much better theologian. Under Moore, the ERLC is likely to be humbler, more nuanced, and less ideological about the implications of Christianity for American politics. He understands that the fundamental social implications of the gospel are expressed primarily in the church and only secondarily (and indirectly) through the state. He realizes that the church must now take up its social witness as a minority voice in a secular culture rather than seek hegemonic power as some sort of ‘Moral Majority.’

I was first introduced to Russell Moore through his excellent book, The Kingdom of Christ: The New Evangelical Perspective. A must-read for anyone interested in covenant theology, kingdom theology, or Christian ethics, Moore carefully explains the growing convergence between the two great strands of Evangelical theology – Reformed covenant theology and dispensationalism – based on an emerging consensus about the nature of the kingdom of God. The convergence is not the result of ecumenical compromise, he demonstrates, but of hard exegetical work and clear theological progress. Untenable versions of dispensationalism and covenant theology – more shaped by dogmatic rationality than by the New Testament – are being replaced by models with deeper roots in Scripture, a process that is leading Evangelical theologians closer to one another, rather than further apart.

Moore’s own convictions about the nature of the kingdom of Christ are broadly in line with Reformed two kingdoms theology. In particular, Moore believes that the kingdom’s primary expression in this age is the church, not the political order, even as its implications for the Christian life extend to all of life.

The move toward a Kingdom ecclesiology maintains rightly that the definition of the ‘already’ reign of Christ is the church. This means that the righteousness and justice of the messianic order cannot be found, in the present age, in the arenas of the political, social, economic, or academic orders. Instead, the reign of Christ is focused in this age solely on His reign as Messiah over the people called into the Kingdom, namely, those who make up the church (Kingdom of Christ, 152).

To be sure, the kingdom is much greater than the church, and when Jesus returns it will encompass all things. But in the meantime, Christians need to avoid the temptation of the social gospel of identifying the kingdom with a broader movement of social transformation. Yet as Moore points out, even prominent Evangelicals like Carl F. H. Henry, who shaped an era of Evangelical social engagement, failed to resist such temptations. Comparing Henry, Harold J. Ockenga, and other Evangelical theologians with Walter Rauschenbusch, Moore writes,

While evangelicals would never have equated the church with the ‘industrial organization’ and so forth, they committed a very similar error by subsuming the emphasis on the church and its biblical prerogatives and distinctives to an amorphous ‘movement,’ which was clearly of first importance to them. Despite all their best efforts to oppose the Social Gospel liberals, at the point of ecclesiology Henry and the postwar evangelical movement fell into precisely the same error as Rauschenbusch – namely, the tendency to replace the church with ‘Kingdom priorities'” (Kingdom of Christ, 159).

The kingdom of God is manifest in the church rather than in the secular order, Moore insists, and the primary audience for the social imperative of the gospel found in Scripture is the church, not America. To be sure, this does not mean that the gospel is not fundamentally social, or that the church has nothing to say to the state. Rather,

As the church deals internally with matters of justice, it witnesses to the political powers-that-be of the kind of Kingdom righteousness the gospel demands, not only of individuals but also of communities… The development of a Kingdom theology therefore can inform evangelical public theology not only by reminding evangelicals that the call for sociopolitical righteousness is biblical, but also by reminding the church that such righteousness begins in the internal structures and relationships of the people of God (1 Pet. 4:17) (Kingdom of Christ, 169).

What does it mean for politics? Moore doesn’t put it in these terms, but it would seem that it means that Evangelicals should avoid the sort of politicization of the church that took place when the Southern Baptist Convention publicly aligned itself with Jerry Falwell.

When the primary outlet of evangelical engagement with social and political matters is a political action committee rather than the community of the church, the shaping authority on matters of social and political outlook all too often becomes polling data or party platforms, rather than an authoritative text. Political solutions are then grounded in the social contract of a ‘moral majority’ rather than by the righteousness of the coming Kingdom of God in Christ. In such a situation, when the ‘silent majority’ is culturally marginalized, so is the witness of evangelical Christianity” (Kingdom of Christ, 166).

These are welcome words, coming from the successor of Richard Land. Christians should follow Moore’s work on behalf of Southern Baptists at the ERLC with interest. His task is by no means an easy one, and it is doubtful that it will become much easier in coming years. Both Moore and the Southern Baptist Convention will need our prayers.

Christian Political Witness: Thinking of Ourselves as a Minority

Evangelical Protestants have done very little thinking about what it means faithfully to engage in a democratic process when you are a religious minority. Indeed, Evangelicals are not used to thinking about themselves as a minority at all. To be sure, many have become comfortable claiming victim status when the opportunity presented itself. There is no shortage of voices proclaiming the decline of America and the imminent specter of religious persecution.

But all of that is quite different from the more level-headed, thoughtful reflection on what it means to be a faithful minority – a loyal opposition, so to speak – that has been second-nature for Jews and various Anabaptist groups for centuries. When it comes to public controversies over matters like abortion, marriage, and even immigration or care for the needy, we are still arguing over whether or not we should base our public appeals on Scripture, or whether we should come up with some other sort of argument.

You would think that the New Testament would be a fruitful basis for reflection on what it means to be a faithful Christian in a pluralistic and often immoral world. But again, for centuries Protestants have been so used to thinking about their public responsibilities in terms of Christendom (for which the scriptures of theocratic Israel have always seemed to be a much simpler analogy than the suffering, serving, and witnessing New Testament Church), that they have developed only the thinnest of traditions of reflection on the new covenant scriptures.

At the First Things blog John Turner writes,

After 2008, I thought obituaries of the Religious Right were very, very premature. Come on, Republican Party. If you want to win an election, you may as well try to ride that horse one more time. I know Romney performed better than McCain among evangelicals, but I still think it’s much easier for the Republican Party to win a presidential election with a candidate with fervent evangelical support (this requires the rather delicate trick of not scaring the daylights out of everyone else in the country).

But in the long run, I tend to agree with Albert Mohler that evangelicals had better get ready for a sojourn in the political wilderness. I remember (but could not find to link) a splendid editorial by the Christian Century’s David Heim (some uncertainty about the author) from quite a few years ago (presumably before the 2008 election) wryly encouraging evangelicals to enjoy their moment in the political and cultural limelight because it would prove fleeting. In a short time, they’d be with their erstwhile liberal Protestant bedfellows in the scrapheap of political history. Very prescient.

It’s time to stop focusing on the theoretical question of whether or not America should be a Christian nation, and time to face up to the fact that it is most obviously not one right now. We need to stop arguing over whether or not religious and moral pluralism is a good thing, and to start thinking hard about how we might be faithful in a nation where religious and moral pluralism is a fact. We need to imagine our political responsibilities not by identifying with those in control, but through solidarity with the vulnerable. And then, of course, we have to continue to stand for justice and mercy, in faithful witness to Christ.

Bitter complaints about decline and gloomy prognostications about future persecution do not satisfy this obligation. The changes in American culture and politics do not mean the world is in decline or that Christ’s kingdom has suffered some sort of defeat, as if premillennial eschatology is being confirmed. Only if we’ve made the mistake of identifying America or the West with the kingdom of God in the first place will we assume that our political fortunes in America have anything like this much significance (see the above figures). Our witness to Christ – even in politics – has to be marked by joyful confidence (theological optimism) grounded in the gospel, not by political despair (cultural pessimism) grounded in worldly assumptions about power. That might involve recognizing that despite our tremendous disappointments about certain matters of basic justice, our country remains the embodiment of some of the greatest achievements in political liberty, equality, and prosperity the world has ever known. I would rather live in this place and time than in any other.

A thoughtful Christian approach to democratic engagement in a pluralistic context has to include careful reflection on the relation between Christian morality and human flourishing, and on how we might bring the wisdom of the Christian tradition to bear in a way that is helpful for people who are suspicious of Christianity. It has to work out the implications of under-appreciated virtues like love, service, and self-sacrifice, using them to counter our own older assumptions about power, piety, and paternalism. And of course, like the New Testament church, the guiding light for our own transformed political witness must be not so much the Law of theocratic Israel but the example of the one who came to fulfill it. Romans 13 finds its place towards the end of Romans, in the midst of Paul’s discussion of our sanctification by the Spirit, not in the middle of Deuteronomy, towards the end of the old written code.

The Limits of Law: Cathleen Kaveny on Law’s Virtues

In past posts on this blog I’ve presented Calvin’s argument that the government cannot simply punish all forms of immorality. The civil law cannot directly correspond to the moral law. The government’s toleration of a particular action does not imply its approval of that action. The classic example for this argument, which Calvin discusses in multiple places, is Jesus’ interpretation of the Jewish Torah’s law of divorce. The Torah permits divorce but as Jesus points out, “In the beginning it was not so.” Although divorce is unjust, the Law permitted it due to the hardness of men’s hearts, and regulated it to ensure that men treated their wives with at least a modicum of justice.

In her recent book Law’s Virtues, Cathleen Kaveny, a professor at Notre Dame Law School, tries to work out the implications of this principle as it is articulated by Thomas Aquinas. She argues that it is not sufficient to say that a good law must promote virtue in the persons whom it is seeking to regulate. We must also recognize that law itself must conform to certain virtues, or principles. She presents this point through a statement of Isidore of Seville, as quoted by Thomas Aquinas:

Law shall be virtuous, just, possible to nature, according to the custom of the country, suitable to place and time, necessary, useful; clearly expressed, lest by its obscurity it lead to misunderstanding; framed for no private benefit, but for the common good.

Kaveny emphasizes in particular the principles, which she thinks cultural warriors on both ends of the political spectrum often ignore, “possible to nature” and “according to the custom of the country.” Of course, she doesn’t think custom is the sole standard for civil law. As Thomas Aquinas argued quite clearly, civil law must be at least consistent with natural law or it becomes simply a perversion of law, even no law at all. Nevertheless, Kaveny thinks we need to take the customs and potentialities of a society much more seriously than we do.

She explains the limits of law in terms of four principles. First, enacting and enforcing laws costs money. Governments must always take into account whether the financial cost of a particular law outweighs its benefits to society.

Second, a law is unjust if its enforcement requires unjust action on the part of the government. As Aquinas says, government cannot prohibit and punish all evil, because to do so would require it to trample upon much that is good. In Kaveny’s words, “In some instances, the concrete steps a state would need to take to enforce a particular law are themselves morally repugnant.”

Third, we must remember that civil law has to be designed for ordinary persons (sinners), not for saints. It needs to be realistic or the impossibility of obeying it will lead to the collapse of the credibility of law itself.

Finally, Kaveny points out, we need to remember that criminal law is only “a small sliver of the legal framework necessary to promote the common good.” There are many more ways in which a state can express approval or disapproval of a particular action, in which it can encourage or discourage a certain practice, than through criminal law. And again, to stress the fundamental principle, permission does not imply sanction.

It’s a helpful argument, and overall, I really like Kaveny’s approach. But of course, the question arises, what about fundamental human rights, like the right to life? Can a government ever permit the unjust taking of innocent life based on the principles of law Kaveny articulates? Kaveny does an excellent job demonstrating that there are indeed circumstances in which a government has to tolerate certain immoral practices, including unjust killing, simply because it is impossible for the government to enforce a prohibition of those practices. Her main example here comes from the Wild West, in which no civil authority had a sufficient monopoly over the use of force to prevent settlers from having the right to protect themselves and their property, despite the violent abuses to which that right led.

I think Kaveny is correct on the basis of the above cited principles that sometimes it is wise and even virtuous for government to leave certain actions, including sometimes killing, unpunished, and that this does not implicate the government in sanctioning such murder. At the same time, I worry that Kaveny places too much emphasis on the authority of custom.

Kaveny writes,

In the end, however, custom has the last word. ‘Custom has the force of a law, abolishes law, and is the interpreter of the law.’ Aquinas recognizes that even if the purpose of a law is sound, it cannot prevail if it ‘is not possible according to the custom of the country…. For it is not easy to set aside the custom of a whole people.’

It appears that Kaveny is talking about more here than simply the physical impossibility of a government enforcing the right to life, or even than the fact that in some cases a government would have to be unjustly invasive into people’s lives to enforce its prohibition of murder. She is talking about what is deemed acceptable according to the relative customs of a people. Does this include racially oppressive custom, the custom of economic exploitation, or permissive custom relative to sexuality and privacy? Perhaps I’m misunderstanding Kaveny here (I haven’t yet read the whole book). I hope so. But I’m not satisfied with her argument that criminal law should not always seek to secure fundamental rights.

Perhaps I’ve simply been too immersed in the lecture I gave yesterday on the German Protestant Church’s response to the Holocaust. But I’m inclined to think that when we are talking about rights as fundamental as the right to life, only the principles of possibility and justice should constrain a government in its responsibility to protect the weak. A government that tolerates the custom of a society when it permits the murder of those human beings it refuses to recognize as persons (whether on the basis of race, health, age, slave status, or birth) has forgotten that its fundamental obligation is not to the people but to God, from whom the right to life is derived.

That Lutheran Two Kingdoms Doctrine and its Church-State Establishment

As I’ve said before on this blog, one of the oddities of contemporary discussions about the two kingdoms doctrine is the assumption that it entails the radical separation of church and state, with the latter rendered autonomous before God’s law. Even more odd is the sometimes stated claim that this radical two kingdoms doctrine is characteristic of Lutheranism and a supposed Lutheran political passivity (in contrast to an allegedly culturally transformative Calvinism).

In part this confusion goes back to early 20th Century works by prominent theologians like Ernst Troeltsch and H. Richard Niebuhr, whose caricatures of Lutheran and Calvinist social teachings have been authoritatively rehashed in a myriad of scholarly and popular works. In part it stems from confusion about why so many Lutherans supported Hitler’s regime in Nazi Germany. Calvinists like to ignore their own record of theologically justified complicity with racism and oppression in places like South Africa and the United States. They also seem oblivious to early Lutheran teachings about justified resistance to tyrants, teachings that helped spark the first great religious war after the Reformation and that by no means rendered Lutheranism politically passive during those early centuries.

In his Law and Protestantism John Witte describes at length how Lutheran jurists and theologians built on the two kingdoms theology of Martin Luther to lay the foundations for the Christian state. According to these Lutheran scholars, magistrates were to ensure material provision for the church, overseeing its care for the poor, education, teaching, discipline and ministry. Princes were to govern as Christian princes, and where they went against God’s law they were not to expect the cooperation or obedience of Christians. They were to govern society according to the Ten Commandments and the guidance of Scripture, under the careful influence of the clergy.

“For the Ten Commandments,” as Witte puts it, “were best interpreted by the Church and its theologians, not by the state and the Obrigkeit. The magistrate was thus obligated to draw on theologians and clergy in order to understand the moral and religious dimensions of the law.” As he summarizes his conclusions, “the jurists emphasized the need to establish an overtly Evangelical order of law, society, and politics in the earthly kingdom.”

Of course, many contemporary two kingdoms advocates, like their neo-Calvinist or neo-Anabaptist cousins, reject old assumptions about the obligation of civil governments to enforce true religion by punishing idolatry, false teaching, and blasphemy. As a result, they reformulate old doctrines, seeking to draw upon the wisdom of the past while avoiding its mistakes. Darryl Hart and David VanDrunen are no more interested in slavishly aping the reformers than were Abraham Kuyper or Herman Bavinck (or is Stanley Hauerwas in imitating Menno Simons).

Some have taken to describing contemporary Reformed two kingdoms advocates according to the epithet “Radical Two Kingdoms (R2K).” Perhaps a better (and more respectful) descriptive term for such efforts would be “neo-two kingdoms.” Of course, the prefix ‘neo’ should by no means be seen as denigrating. All of us are trying to work out the implications of the Christian faith for our public life and witness, drawing on the theological insights of men who held very different assumptions and lived in very different times. We should be careful not to reduce the giants on whose shoulders we stand to mere proxies for our own cultural, political, and theological debates. We need to learn from them, not simply to use them; to build on their work in faithfulness to the demands of our own times, not nostalgically to yearn for some “golden age” of the past.

When cultural conflict skews your theology …

At his blog Bill Evans writes a follow up post to his earlier article on Presbyterian squabbling. Evans worries that Reformed pastors are losing the ability to distinguish between primary, secondary, and even tertiary issues. He also worries that some are coming to view the confessions as substitutes for (or as the source of) doctrinal consensus, rather than as expressions of genuine consensus grounded in Scripture, a phenomena he calls “confessional fundamentalism.”

On the way he makes a poignant argument about the way in which obsession with the culture wars contributes to a skewed view of theological priorities:

[T]he ever-present context of cultural conflict has become the lens through which many theological issues are viewed.  Whether it be odd speculation about an “eternal subordination of the Son,” or the rise of the so-called “Biblical Patriarchy” recently and properly critiqued by Rachel Miller, or opposition to the ordination of women even to an office of service like the Presbyterian diaconate, a lot of conservative theology is being driven the desire not to give an inch to the feminists.  Likewise, the recent trend in conservative Reformed circles toward literal six-day young-earth creationism is certainly not driven by any new exegetical insights into the meaning of Genesis 1 or any new scientific evidence, but rather by the desire to exclude Darwinism and its cultural implications a priori.

Unfortunately, what has emerged is theology that is often just as “political” as anything on the left, and from this political polarization flows an approach to theological controversy in which there is increasingly little room for complexity and interpretation.  Nuance, judgments of charity, the recognition that reality is often more complex than we might wish, and necessary shades of gray have been replaced by the binary logic of black and white, truth and error, faithfulness and compromise.  Little wonder, then, that the Balkanized conservative Reformed theological landscape looks more and more like an exercise in Manichaean politics.  Little wonder that positions long regarded as acceptable are now suspect and even unwelcome in some presbyteries, or that a view almost extinct in 1960 (except among Seventh-Day Adventists) has become a touchstone of orthodoxy.

As I wrote in an earlier response to Evans, we need to learn that the conservative position is not necessarily the biblical, or Christian position. ‘Liberal’ is not a bad word, and as its usage by an older theologian like John Calvin demonstrates, orthodox Christians used to think of liberality as a virtue. Jesus and his apostles, like the reformers, were as liberal as they were conservative because they understood that their obligation was to the word of God, not to the status quo. Our allegiance is to Christ and his kingdom, not to the way things once were.

Read Evans’s whole post here.

Pope Francis: A Step in the Right Direction?

Pundits, journalists, and even most generally well-informed Catholics are scrambling to find information that might tip them off to the significance of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, for the future of the Roman Catholic Church. Some of the basic facts are immediately obvious. Born in 1936, Francis is a theologian whose understanding of the Christian faith and its moral implications is quite similar to that of Benedict XVI. As one of my liberal Catholic friends noted, many Catholics will find this pope to be too conservative.

But while Bergoglio has a clear appreciation for orthodox Christian teachings on marriage and the sanctity of life, his choice of the name Francis, invoking the great patron of the poor Francis of Assisi, highlights his embrace of the church’s fundamental obligation to serve Christ by ministering to the needy. He is the first Jesuit pope, and of course, he is an American, in the broad “New World” sense of the term. Though he hails from Argentina, it is important to note that Bergoglio studied in Germany and his parents were immigrants from Italy. His ties to Europe are deep. Ross Douthat helpfully explains the significance of the choice of a pope from Argentina.

Latin America is in many ways the place where the different experiences of global Catholicism converge. The region shares a New World experience with North America, a long record of church-state entanglements with Western Europe, a history of colonial exploitation and stark extremes of wealth and poverty with sub-Saharan Africa. The Latin church faces the same challenges from secularism and sexual liberation as the church in the developed world, and the same explosive growth of Pentecostalist and prosperity-oriented Christian alternatives as the church elsewhere in the global South. A pontiff from the region is thus a natural choice, in ways that an African or Asian pope might not have been, to move the church’s focus away from Europe and North America (and especially Europe) in some ways without cutting the Vatican off from the trends, issues and crises facing the church in a secularizing West.

Newly elected Pope Francis I, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina, appears on the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica after being elected by the conclave of cardinals, at the Vatican, March 13, 2013. White smoke rose from the Sistine Chapel chimney and the bells of St. Peter's Basilica rang out on Wednesday, signaling that Roman Catholic cardinals had elected a pope to succeed Benedict XVI. Photo: Reuters/Dylan Martinez

R.R. Reno, editor of First Things, comments on the choice of a Jesuit, finding a significance in the fact that might be counter-intuitive to those aware of the history of the order during the turbulent centuries following the Reformation:

I  worked with Jesuits  for twenty years. They break the rules. So far Pope Francis is true to form. He took an unprecedented name, which is the name of the most severe critic of the papacy before Martin Luther. He bowed to receive the crowd’s blessing.

At Via Meadia Walter Russell Mead reminds us of a story told by G.K. Chesterton:

G.K. Chesterton tells the story of the time that St. Francis of Assisi visited Rome and the pope of the day proudly showed him all the wondrous treasures of the Vatican. Referring to a story in the Biblical Book of Acts in which St. Peter spoke with a beggar in Jerusalem and told him he had no money, the pope pointed to the treasures around him and said, “Peter can no longer say ‘Silver and gold have I none.’”

St. Francis’ response: “Neither can he say, ‘Rise up and walk.’”

[Francis is] a symbol of the opposition between Christian values and the tinselly values of the secular world. Materialism and the quest for prestige and power are the chief ends of life for many of our contemporaries. The contemporary world admires the virtues of St. Francis, but it cannot live up to them. That gap is where Christians must speak if they are to gain a hearing in these difficult times.

Mead, who is not Catholic, also notes that like Benedict XVI, who was a young man in Nazi Germany, Francis has had to work through what it means to be a Christian bishop in a non-democratic context.

Cuba’s bishops must somehow work with the Castros; the bishops of Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, Rwanda and many other countries have had to make choices that people from stable and democratic places know little about. In Pope Francis’s case, he lived under the horrible Argentine military government of the 1970s when disappearances and torture were business as usual. Those of us who haven’t had to navigate those treacherous waters should be careful how we judge those whose experience has taken them through trials we cannot comprehend.

On First Thoughts Matthew Schmitz notes that the new pope’s concern for the poor does not make him a liberation theologian:

This is a humble man, a prince of the church born into a working-class family who’s noted for riding public transportation and cooking his own meals…. But the new pope is also a veteran of old battles. When many of his brother Jesuits sought to move away from parishes and embrace liberation theology, he insisted on traditional forms of work, and his order’s beloved Ignatian spirituality.

Perhaps most significantly, at National Review George Weigel celebrates the fact that the new pope is committed to the “New Evangelization,” a salutary movement within the church on which I have written before. Weigel writes,

The election of Pope Francis completes the Church’s turn from the Counter-Reformation Catholicism that brought the Gospel to America — and eventually produced Catholicism’s first American pope — to the Evangelical Catholicism that must replant the Gospel in those parts of the world that have grown spiritually bored, while planting it afresh in new fields of mission around the globe.

Weigel quotes from a document that as a cardinal Bergoglio had a significant part in drafting:

The Church is called to a deep and profound rethinking of its mission. . . . It cannot retreat in response to those who see only confusion, dangers, and threats. . . . What is required is confirming, renewing, and revitalizing the newness of the Gospel . . . out of a personal and community encounter with Jesus Christ that raises up disciples and missionaries. . . .

A Catholic faith reduced to mere baggage, to a collection of rules and prohibitions, to fragmented devotional practices, to selective and partial adherence to the truths of faith, to occasional participation in some sacraments, to the repetition of doctrinal principles, to bland or nervous moralizing, that does not convert the life of the baptized would not withstand the trials of time. . . . We must all start again from Christ, recognizing [with Pope Benedict XVI] that “being Christian is . . . the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”

These events should remind Protestants just how important the papacy is for the witness of Christianity in the world. If Rome is to recover a consistent witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ, movements like the “New Evangelization” will play an important part in that recovery. But these events also remind Protestants just how different Catholic piety is from their own. Having addressed the crowd in Rome and having called the faithful to prayer after being chosen as the new pope, Francis closed with these words,

“Brothers and sisters, I will be leaving. Thank you for your welcome. Pray for me and we will see one another soon. Tomorrow I want to go and pray to the Madonna that she may protect Rome. Good night and rest well.”

Does the Two Kingdoms Doctrine Require the Church to Be Silent on Politics?

There is a distorted version of the two kingdoms doctrine out there that claims that if an issue is political, the church should not address it. The separation between the kingdom of God and earthly politics is absolute. God has given authority over the latter to the state, and the church should not question it.

Now I should say up front that I’m not aware of any major theologian who has actually advocated this version of the two kingdoms doctrine, except perhaps Emmanuel Hirsch. Luther clearly believed that a prince has the obligation to act justly and to protect the preaching of the gospel against fiendish opponents like the pope. He did not hesitate to preach the law or the gospel to earthly magistrates, nor did he hesitate to draw specific conclusions about the implications of the law and the gospel for the way in which those magistrates were to rule. And later Lutheran theologians and jurists if anything only tightened the relationship between state and church. The state was to rule according to God’s law, establishing and protecting the true church, guided by the instruction of pastors.

Many modern two kingdoms advocates, of course, challenge the old assumptions about the necessary ties between church and state, and about the responsibility of the state to enforce the first table of the law (i.e., prohibitions against idolatry, false teaching, blasphemy, etc.). But they do not challenge the idea that the church should preach the whole counsel of God – even when that counsel pertains to politics – so much as they challenge old assumptions about what Scripture actually says about politics. The central factor underlying this shift in emphasis is a clearer understanding of the differences between modern political states and Old Testament Israel. If the present form of Israel and the Davidic kingdom is the kingdom of Christ, manifest in the body of Christ (i.e., the church), then we should not be too hasty in drawing direct lines between the Old Testament civil law and modern politics.

That said, it is important to distinguish between two lines of argument, one legitimate, the other problematic. According to the first, the statement that the church should avoid speaking to matters that are political means that the church has to distinguish between God’s moral law and its application in civil law. For instance, the church should proclaim that the state must protect innocent life, but the church has no right to advocate its own ideas about how to organize a police force, or about how to try and punish murderers. The church must call the state to govern consistent with God’s moral law (and in fulfillment of its obligation to protect the weak), but it may not dictate to the state the myriad of ways in which it might act consistent with that law. This distinction is absolutely necessary if the church is to avoid politicization and preserve its moral authority.

According to the second line of argument, the statement that the church should avoid speaking to matters that are political means that the church cannot speak on matters that are politically controversial. According to this mindset, the church might ordinarily have the right to proclaim that the state should protect the life of the unborn, or that it should prevent a person from violently destroying another person’s property, but in the context of national debates over abortion (i.e., the United States in 2013) or state authorized pogroms against Jews designed for the good of Volk and Fatherland (i.e., Nazi Germany in 1938), the church should remain silent. One would not want to alienate people from the gospel, or to give the wrong impression about one’s motives.

Now I’m sure that there are some readers who will think that I have just violated Godwin’s Law, the law which warns against bringing up the Nazis in an ethical, political, or theological debate. Some people chided me in recent weeks for my bringing up the Nazis and the Holocaust on this blog at all. And to be sure, we should be very, very careful about how we use such history, or the lessons we attempt to draw from it.

But this history is relevant here for a very important reason. The German church often attempted to justify its silence before Hitler precisely on the basis of its two kingdoms doctrine. Anyone arguing that the church should maintain the two kingdoms doctrine needs to explain why this happened and why it was wrong. As a scholar writing my dissertation on the two kingdoms doctrine and associate teaching a course on the Holocaust, I have particular reasons to address the issue. In the next few weeks, therefore, you should expect more articles from me wrestling with the use of the two kingdoms under Hitler. If you don’t like them, you are warned. You don’t have to read them.

For now I want simply to emphasize that the two kingdoms doctrine teaches not that the church should avoid matters of public or political controversy, but that the church should limit its proclamation to what the word of God actually teaches. The two kingdoms doctrine warns not against the church speaking about politics, but against the church moving beyond the word in the name of politics. And I want to emphasize that those who say the church should refrain from addressing any issue that has been deemed by others to be political are not freeing the church from politicization. On the contrary, they are subjecting it to the very politicization they claim to fear. For if the church’s proclamation of God’s word can be muzzled by a regime or a democratic constituency, the church can be manipulated by that constituency. The kingdom of Christ has been made subject to the political kingdom.

Calvin warns repeatedly against this mindset in his commentaries on the prophets. Here I simply want to quote from his commentary on Micah:

Since then the prophets were the organs of the Holy Spirit, whoever attempted to silence them usurped to himself an authority over God himself, and in a manner tried to make captive his Spirit. For what power can belong to the Spirit, except he be at liberty to reprove the vices of men, and condemn whatever is opposed to God’s justice? When this is taken away, there is no more any jurisdiction left to the Holy Spirit. (Commentary on Micah 2:7)

We now see that the word of God is not bound, but that it puts forth its power against the highest as well as the lowest; for it is the Spirit’s office to arraign the whole world, and not a part only. ‘When the Spirit shall come,’ says Christ, ‘it will convince the world.’ He speaks not there of the common people only, but of the whole world, of which princes and magistrates form a prominent part. Let us then know, that though we ought to show respect to judges (as the Lord has honored them with dignified titles, calling them his vicegerents and also gods), yet the mouths of prophets ought not to be closed; but they ought, without making any difference, to correct whatever is deserving of reproof, and not to spare even the chief men themselves. (Commentary on Micah 3:10)

If the two kingdoms are genuinely to be distinguished, the ministers of Christ must be free to proclaim his word.

The Catholic Church in Turmoil

The Roman Catholic Church needs a new pope and rarely has the choice of a the next pontiff come at a more delicate time in the church’s history. Reports suggest the Roman Curia is in turmoil, Pope Benedict XVI having failed to exercise the most practical form of oversight. Across Europe and America clergy sexual-abuse scandals have thoroughly darkened the church’s reputation among insiders and outsiders alike, with many suspicious that we have only seen the tip of the iceberg. In both continents cultural Catholics are abandoning the church in large numbers, a decline offset in America only because of large scale Hispanic immigration. Shortages of clergy are becoming more acute as priests age and fewer young men rise to fill their ranks. And as the Catholic hierarchy has been growing ever more assertive and conservative in recent decades, the gap with a much more liberal laity is becoming wider.

According to recent polls roughly 70% of Catholics support women’s ordination and the marriage of priests, while even greater numbers reject the church’s teachings against contraception. Most Catholics support the church’s firm rejection of abortion, but the laity are divided evenly when it comes to the recent conflict between the church and the Obama administration on contraception and health care. Paradoxically, slight majorities believe both that the administration should allow employers to opt out of its requirement that they provide free birth control to female employees, and that the issue is more about women’s rights than about religious liberty.

In the meantime conservative lay American Catholics like George Weigel are arguing that the church needs to continue to evolve in a more evangelical direction, maintaining traditional church teachings while reemphasizing the centrality of Christ for salvation. The laity in particular has to understand its role in the “New Evangelization.”

The primary lay mission in the church is to be the presence of Christ in the world: family, neighborhood, business, culture, public life. The challenge here is to get every Catholic thinking of himself or herself as a missionary: someone who enters “mission territory” every day. Getting a paycheck from the church isn’t what Vatican II meant by “lay mission,” or what John Paul II meant by everyone in the church putting out “into the deep” [Luke 5:4] of the New Evangelization. The Council and Blessed John Paul meant us all to be witnesses, inviting others into friendship with Jesus Christ.

The future of the Catholic Church, which makes up well over half of Christians worldwide, is of obvious importance both to Catholics and to other Christians. Evangelical Protestants will laud any sort of increased emphasis in proclamation on faith in Jesus Christ and his work of salvation. And while many Evangelicals do not share the church’s teaching on women’s ordination, the marriage of priests, or contraception, they should take seriously the church’s social teaching on matters like natural law, sexuality, concern for the poor, and abortion, most of which is based on the tradition they hold in common with Protestants.

We should be watching the developing story with interest. We should be praying for the Catholic Church too.

VanDrunen’s Response to Kingdoms Apart

At Ordained Servant David VanDrunen has written a helpful response to Ryan McIlhenny’s multi-authored Kingdoms Apart. You should definitely go and read the whole thing, but I want to draw your attention to a few points here.

First, like me (here and here), VanDrunen is disappointed with Venema’s chapter on Calvin and the two kingdoms, going so far as to call it “very polemical and tendentious.” This is in contrast to Gene Haas’s chapter on Calvin, which is much more measured and which largely agrees with VanDrunen’s work on Calvin. VanDrunen responds in particular to Venema’s charge (made by others as well) that he has turned the two kingdoms into two “hermetically separated domains or realms” and that he has identified the kingdom of God with the church “simpliciter.” He notes his own statement “that for Calvin ‘no area of life can be completely slotted as civil and not at all as spiritual'” and rightly denies that he identifies the church with Christ’s kingdom in this way, but he also reaffirms a crucial point affirmed by Haas and readily evident from much of the Genevan reformer’s work: Calvin does closely tie the two kingdoms to the institutional work of church and state.

Second, after mentioning that Kingdoms Apart focuses almost exclusively on Calvin and a few modern Dutch theologians, VanDrunen notes that McIlhenny and his co-authors (strategically? unintentionally?) sidestep the issue of the place of the two kingdoms doctrine in Reformed history.

Kingdoms Apart does not resolve a question that would seem to be absolutely crucial to its purposes: is the two kingdoms doctrine part of our Reformed heritage? Since Kingdoms Apart aims to engage the “two kingdoms perspective” critically, one might think that the book would answer no. One of the endorsers (Charles Dunahoo) indeed states that Kingdoms Apart “compares and contrasts the one-kingdom view and the Two Kingdoms view.” But who actually holds a “one-kingdom view?” Venema and Haas clearly affirm that Calvin taught a two kingdoms doctrine, Wood explicitly presents Kuyper as a two kingdoms theologian (confirmed by Parler in a later chapter), and even Kloosterman admits that Bavinck “recognized the twofold kingship of Christ” and “the so-called two kingdoms” (72). For all of the negative comments against me in these chapters (Wood’s excluded), it seems as though all of these contributors to Kingdoms Apart agree with my basic thesis that the earlier Reformed tradition—including Kuyper and Bavinck—affirmed the two kingdoms.

It seems so, but unfortunately the authors fail to make this point. VanDrunen may be justified if he feels that the authors avoided affirming the extent to which they actually agree with his work. If the purpose of Kingdoms Apart is to promote cordial conversation and theological consensus, why the reticence?

VanDrunen goes on,

But what then of neo-Calvinism? My historical claim is that contemporary neo-Calvinism (post Kuyper and Bavinck) is different from the earlier Reformed tradition in ignoring and even denying the two kingdoms doctrine in favor of a one-kingdom perspective. If the contributors to Kingdoms Apart believe this is wrong (yet agree that Calvin, Kuyper and Bavinck affirmed two kingdoms categories), then presumably they believe that neo-Calvinism itself adheres to a two kingdoms doctrine. This would be quite a remarkable claim. But even McIlhenny’s Introduction (which seeks to define neo-Calvinism) doesn’t make this claim or clarify the issue.

As I suggested in my review of Kingdoms Apart (at Mere Orthodoxy, here and here), this is a major weakness of the book, one that obscures the extent to which most of the authors are actually in agreement with VanDrunen’s arguments about the two kingdoms doctrine. In my view, this is a classic example of the extent to which polemics and controversy can obscure truth.

Third, VanDrunen observes that McIlhenny, who once sought a third way between the two kingdoms and neo-Calvinism, now characterizes his own perspective as more firmly entrenched in neo-Calvinism. Yet it’s unclear just how McIlhenny’s position has changed. Indeed, VanDrunen writes,

I find his discussion here helpful, especially in its emphasis upon culture not simply as a thing that humans create but as at root language, which involves community practices and interpretations. And though he makes some critical comments directed toward advocates of the two kingdoms in the second part of the chapter, it is still not clear whether his broad proposal is really so at odds with the two kingdoms idea, at least how I understand it.

After describing one of McIlhenny’s arguments VanDrunen then writes,

At this point he states: “Interestingly, VanDrunen seems to agree with this” (270). Indeed, but why does he find this surprising? Does McIlhenny believe, deep down, that no two kingdoms proponent really thinks that no aspect of life is religiously/morally neutral or that the antithesis rears its head in all human activity, no matter how often some of us affirm such things? At the end of the day, McIlhenny’s interest in a redeemed cultural ethos seems to approach the subject at a different angle from me, but I hold out hope that our approaches may not be ultimately incompatible.

As I argued in my review, the disagreements here are really not as substantive as they sometimes seem. We need to keep working hard to tone down the rhetoric.

Finally, VanDrunen legitimately complains that Kingdoms Apart makes little effort to engage his own constructive exegetical work relative to the two kingdoms. In particular, the authors almost entirely ignore the significance of VanDrunen’s arguments regarding the Noahic Covenant, a fact which contributes to the book’s incorrect suggestion that he rejects the cultural mandate. VanDrunen explains,

A key aspect of my biblical-theological case for the two kingdoms is my interpretation of the continuing applicability of the cultural mandate in light of Paul’s Two Adams paradigm and the Noahic covenant…. It is not as if Christians have no cultural mandate (as Kingdoms Apart suggests I claim), but that the cultural mandate comes to the human race only as refracted through the covenant with Noah after the flood. It comes thereby to the human race as a whole (not to Christians uniquely) and is geared for life in a fallen world and holds out no eschatological hope of reward.

This is a helpful point. Recognizing that God has given the cultural mandate to believers in common with unbelievers would go a long way in helping Christians to avoid the sense of entitlement and even arrogance that nonbelievers often detect in our political and cultural engagement.

I do think VanDrunen could say more about the significance of the fact that “all things” are now tied up with Christ, and therefore about the relation of the Noahic Covenant to the witness of Christians to Christ’s lordship in all of life. What much of this conversation revolves around is the relationship between four theological realities:

1) the definitive reconciliation of the world that has taken place in Christ’s death and resurrection (the neo-Calvinist emphasis)

2) the full transformation of the world that will take place at Christ’s return, but not before (the orthodox Christian belief, undermined by the social gospel and certain forms of theological liberalism)

3) the in-breaking of the kingdom in the ministry of the church and in the sanctification of believers (the key affirmation for the discovery of common ground?)

4) the “already-but-not-yet” tension of a Christian life of sanctification and witness in an untransformed world (the two kingdoms emphasis)

More work needs to be done clarifying the relation between these points. I hope VanDrunen’s response to Kingdoms Apart can help to move the discussion forward.

The Two Kingdoms Doctrine Gone Awry: The Case of Paul Althaus

One of the most prominent German theologians who used the two kingdoms doctrine to justify the church’s support for Hitler was Paul Althaus. Althaus was a  leading critic of the Barmen Declaration because he believed that it rejected the orthodox Christian teaching on general revelation. He publicly supported the Nazi regime at least through 1937, at which point he became silent. Though he never turned publicly against Hitler, in private comments during the war he condemned Germany’s genocide of the Jews. Later he admitted that Germany had fallen under the judgment of God.

As most scholars recognize, Althaus significantly revised Luther’s two kingdoms doctrine in order to justify the church’s support for Hitler. The orthodox two kingdoms doctrine had declared that the state is called to use its authority to preserve basic justice and to uphold the created order, including the institutions of family and church. When the volkisch movement (ethnic and cultural German nationalism) began to gain influence during the early 20th Century, a 1905 regional synod of Protestant pastors declared, on the basis of the two kingdoms doctrine, that the church may not place its authority behind such ideas.

The pastor … has to place himself above nationalities. He is not a politician but a pastor of souls. His task is neither Germanization or Polandization, but the faithful proclamation of the gospel, in which he must as far as possible do justice to each nationality. (Scholder, The Churches and the Third Reich, 100)

This statement approximated the appropriate interpretation of a political movement from the perspective of the classic two kingdoms doctrine: healthy distance from a political trend, accompanied by a clear affirmation of the truth of the Word of God in relation to that political trend.

Based on his experience of the volkisch movement during World War I, which had a radical impact on him, Althaus began to challenge the statement of the 1905 synod in lectures during 1916. He argued that the church could no longer be indifferent to the volkisch question because such neutrality was damaging the relationship between German pastors and their communities. In 1919 Althaus called the church publicly to reject the Treaty of Versailles. In the following years he revised the two kingdoms doctrine so as to make it conducive of church support for the great political movement of the day.

Althaus revised the two kingdoms doctrine in two crucial ways. First he argued that the Volk (ethnic and national culture) is a law of God, part of the created order, revealed in history. Indeed, Althaus insisted that the Volk was the primary law of God for modern Germany, the loyalty that trumped all other earthly loyalties.  As he put it in a lecture of 1937,

The belief that God has created me includes also my Volk. Whatever I am and have, God has given me out of the wellspring of my Volk: the inheritance of blood, the corporeality, the soul, the spirit. God has determined my life from its outermost to its innermost elements through my Volk, through its blood, through its spiritual style, which above all endows and stamps me in the language, and through its history… The special style of a Volk is his creation, and as such it is for us holy…. We are unconditionally bound to faithfulness, to responsibility, so that the life of the Volk as it has come down to us not be contaminated or weakened through our fault. (Ericksen, Theologians Under Hitler, 103)

Second, Althaus carefully revised Luther’s two kingdoms doctrine in order to justify a greater political role on the part of the church, in support of the Volk. As he argued in 1935,

As a Christian church we bestow no political report card. But in knowledge of the mandate of the state, we may express our thanks to God and our joyful preparedness when we see a state which after a time of depletion and paralysis has broken through to a new knowledge of sovereign authority, of service to the life of the Volk, of responsibility for the freedom, legitimacy, and justice of volkisch existence…. We Christians know ourselves bound by God’s will to the promotion of National Socialism. (Ericksen, 86)

Althaus feared that the classic Lutheran two kingdoms doctrine rendered the church too passive in the context of the political malaise of the Weimar years. That the Weimar government was so contrary to God’s will, and that the volkisch political movements were in accord with that will, was obvious to him. He therefore argued that while Paul and Luther may not have been aware of the volkisch principle, it was now the task of theologians to revise the relation of church and state in its light. A crucial part of the church’s responsibility was to provide the Volk with leadership, organization, education, and spiritual consciousness, in close cooperation with the state. In taking this position, Robert P. Ericksen argues, Althaus turned the classic Lutheran view of the state on its head.

Althaus insisted that a biblical antisemitism was compatible with this new Christian mission. True, in Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither male nor female. Christians must therefore treat the Jewish Volk in accord with love. But the church has always recognized distinctions in terms of male and female, and therefore there is nothing inconsistent with the gospel about recognizing distinctions of race as well, while at the same time affirming equality in Christ.

Like many German Christians, Althaus came to see that Nazi antisemitism went far beyond the sort of “biblical antisemitism” he thought was appropriate. But by that point it was too late. The politicization of the church in its seduction by the volkisch movement, which entailed the rejection of the orthodox Lutheran two kingdoms doctrine, rendered the church incapable of maintaining its prophetic perspective towards the state until it was too late.

It’s important to emphasize that it was by revising the two kingdoms doctrine so as to enable the church to take a position on the most important political movement of the day that Althaus and others made the church vulnerable to this politicization. Despite the fears of its critics, it is precisely because the two kingdoms doctrine distinguishes the nature and mission of the church from that of the state that the church can maintain a prophetic stance towards the state. This is why Barth’s Barmen Declaration remains a fundamentally two kingdoms document.

To be sure, two kingdoms advocates should not be smug, as some contemporary Christians appear genuinely to believe that the doctrine requires pastors to be silent on any matter that has been deemed by others to be political. It is urgent that we emphasize that the church must preach the Word of God in all faithfulness regardless of what its critics may say. But that was not Althaus’s mistake. Althaus’s mistake was to believe that the church had to get more involved in politics. And it was by getting more involved that the church surrendered its allegiance to Christ.

%d bloggers like this: