Monthly Archives: September 2013

What does a Christian politician look like?

One of the popular caricatures of Protestant two kingdoms theology often bandied about – both by some of its critics and by some of its proponents – is that it separates Christianity from politics. The fact that some two kingdoms proponents in the modern era have presented the doctrine as if it does separate the authority of Christ or of scripture from politics gives some of these critics a certain measure of plausibility. However, anyone familiar with the writings of Martin Luther and John Calvin will be aware that this does not represent the classic two kingdoms position. Luther and Calvin both followed their mentor Augustine in insisting that a faithful Christian prince would look quite different from the rank and file of his (or her) fellow politicians.

In his classic The City of God Augustine paints a colorful picture of the ideal Christian emperor:

We claim that they [Christian emperors] are happy if they make their power the servant of God’s majesty by using it for the greatest possible extension of his worship; if they fear and love and worship God; if they love that kingdom in which they are not afraid to share power more than their earthly kingdom; if they are slow to punish and ready to pardon; if they apply that punishment as necessary to govern and defend the republic and not in order to indulge their own hatred; if they grant pardon, not so that crime should be unpunished, but in the hope of correction; if they compensate with the gentleness of mercy and the liberality of benevolence for whatever severe measure they may be compelled to decree; if their extravagance is as much restrained as it might have been unrestrained; if they prefer to rule evil desires rather than any people one might name; and if they do all these things from love of eternal happiness rather than ardor for empty glory; and if they do not fail to offer to the true God who is their God the sacrifices of humility, contrition, and prayer for their sins. Such Christian emperors, we claim, are happy in the present through hope, and are happy afterwards, in the future, in the enjoyment of happiness itself, when what we wait for will have come. (Book V, Chapter 24)

During the late middle ages Augustine’s two cities model was gradually transformed by the papal two swords doctrine. The popes began to claim that as the vicars of Christ, all temporal and spiritual authority alike had been given to them. When seeking to rally Christendom in support of the crusades, Bernard of Clairvaux praised “a new kind of knighthood and one unknown to the ages gone by. It ceaselessly wages a twofold war both against flesh and blood and against a spiritual army of evil in the heavens.” Temporal soldiers are worthy of honor, he admitted, and spiritual soldiers (monks and priests) are worthy of even greater honor. “But when the one sees a soldier powerfully girding himself with both swords and nobly marking his belt, who would not consider it worthy of all wonder, the more so since it has been hitherto unknown?” (In Praise of the New Knighthood)

It was to this horribly distorted version of Augustine’s theology that Luther was responding when he articulated the two kingdoms doctrine. Luther’s point, however, was not to say that politicians could not or should not conduct themselves as Christians. Rather, Luther’s point was that the vocation of a politician is secular and must be kept quite distinct from that of a pastor or priest. In his Temporal Authority: To What Extent It Should Be Obeyed Luther wrote,

Now that we know the limits of temporal authority, it is time to inquire also how a prince should use it. We do this for the sake of those very few who would also like very much to be Christian princes and lords, and who desire to enter into the life of heaven….

First, he must give consideration and attention to his subjects, and really devote himself to it. This he does when he directs his every though to making himself useful and beneficial to them … He should picture Christ to himself, and say, ‘Behold, Christ, the supreme ruler, came to serve me; he did not seek to gain power, estate, and honor from me, but considered only my need, and directed all things to the end that I should gain power, estate, and honor from him and through him. I will do likewise, seeking from my subjects not my own advantage but theirs…’ In such a manner should a prince in his heart empty himself of his power and authority, and take unto himself the needs of his subjects, dealing with them as though they were his own needs. For this is what Christ did to us; and these are the proper works of Christian love….

Fourth, here we come to what should really have been placed first, and of which we spoke above. A prince must act in a Christian way toward his God also; that is, he must subject himself to him in entire confidence and pray for wisdom to rule well, as Solomon did…. Then the prince’s job will be done right, both outwardly and inwardly; it will be pleasing to God and to the people. But he will have to expect much envy and sorrow on account of it; the cross will soon rest on the shoulders of such a prince.

At least early in his career, Luther was of course much more critical than Augustine had been of the involvement of politicians in the defense of the gospel or the discipline of the church. His early theological opposition to the use of the sword to coerce heretics, like that of Calvin, anticipated the modern separation of church and state, without relying on modern assumptions about the separation of politics and religion. But the point is that neither Luther nor Calvin ever imagined that a Christian politician would separate his (or her) politics from fidelity and obedience to Christ. Such a view owes more to the Enlightenment than it does to Christianity.

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Calvin and Culture: A Response to Venema and Helm

My blogging has been light during the past few weeks and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future for several very good reasons. Last week my wife and I welcomed a new daughter into our family, and this little girl has in her own gentle ways nudged our priorities around a bit. I’m also on the stretch run for my dissertation ( I need to defend it this spring), teaching three classes at two different universities, and preparing to enter the job market.

Writing the dissertation on John Calvin’s two kingdoms theology has continued to give me the opportunity to think through some of the arguments and counter-arguments that rage across the Protestant community about whether or not Christians should be seeking to transform culture. In particular, I’ve been able to reflect on a comment by Cornel Venema in his chapter on Kingdoms Apart that has always somewhat befuddled me.

Towards the end of his chapter Venema writes that, according to VanDrunen’s interpretation of Calvin, “the future fullness of the redemptive kingdom” does not entail “the enrichment of the final state by the fruits and artifacts of the believer’s present service to God in society and culture” (26). Venema agrees that “Calvin suffered no illusions regarding the renovation of human life and the restoration of all things to proper order prior to the consummation of all things at Christ’s second advent” (31), but he worries that VanDrunen “fails to do justice to the way Calvin explicitly emphasizes the positive and integral relation between creation and redemption” (27).

I think that’s a fair criticism as far as it goes. Calvin is quite clear throughout his writings that Jesus will in fact restore and renovate the entire creation.

But then Venema goes on – in a footnote – to push a more neo-Calvinist claim about the restoration of human culture. Noting VanDrunen’s claim that the “artifacts and fruits of human culture in general” belong to the “non-redemptive kingdom of this world that is passing away,” Venema writes, “For a different interpretation of Calvin at this point, and one with which I tend to concur, see Paul Helm, Calvin: A Guide for the Perplexed” (26-27).

If you follow Venema’s suggestion and read the relevant passage in Helm’s book, you will find Helm making the fairly obvious – yet welcome – point that Calvin “certainly thinks of the renewed creation as carrying through to the world to come.” Like Venema, overall Helm gets Calvin right. But then he seeks to push the point further. On the basis of Calvin’s declaration in light of Romans 8 that even animals, trees, and stones long for the redemption of the world, Helm writes,

“Is it too fanciful to suppose that Calvin would be receptive to a parallel ‘releasing from emptiness’ of some of the artifacts of human culture, the products of the Holy Spirit of beauty and truth?” (Helm, 135)

To be honest, I am not entirely sure what Helm is proposing here. But he raises the question as if Calvin doesn’t address the matter. Venema’s endorsement is somewhat surprising here, given his own awareness that Calvin used Aristotelian logic to distinguish the the ‘substance’ of the creation, which the reformer argued will be renewed and restored, and its ‘accidents,’ which will pass away. In any case, Helm’s question seems to be answered by Calvin in his commentary on 1 Corinthians 13. The context is the Apostle Paul’s contrast of love, which is eternal, with other virtues and gifts, including knowledge, that will “pass away.”

For Calvin the contrast between love and knowledge raises a “question of no small importance – whether those who in this world excel either in learning, or in other gifts, will be on a level with idiots in the kingdom of God?” Calvin’s response, in contrast to that of Helm, is immediately to reject undue speculation. “Let them rather seek the way by which the kingdom of God is arrived at than curiously inquire what is to be our condition there, for the Lord himself has, by his silence, called us back from curiosity.”

Calvin goes on to argue, however, that Paul’s teaching does indeed suggest that the gifts of knowledge and learning are temporal and will pass away with the present life.

So far as I can conjecture, and am able even to gather in part from this passage – inasmuch as learning, knowledge of languages, and similar gifts are subservient to the necessity of this life, I do not think that there will be any of them remaining.

All of these blessings of culture were designed to direct human beings upward and forward to the kingdom of God, Calvin argues. That is their ‘fruit’. Once that kingdom has been fully established, the artifacts of culture will pass away. “That perfection, therefore, which will be in a manner a maturity of spiritual age, will put an end to education and its accompaniments.”

This statement of the point is less than dogmatic, but it hardly encourages the sort of speculation entertained by Helm and Venema. Calvin was always worried that Christians would get too caught up in the hope of a temporal kingdom. This would, in turn, soften the church and distract it from the more basic call to righteousness. He constantly stressed that God’s purposes for the church necessarily involve conflict, opposition, and suffering, as believers are called to be conformed to Christ through the way of the cross. And it was to that end that he pointed Christians forward to the second coming of Christ as the time when their labors would be blessed with triumph, peace, and the restoration of the world.

Should the United States Attack Syria?

A week ago I received a report from the International Crisis Group that began with the following warning:

Assuming the U.S. Congress authorises them, Washington (together with some allies) soon will launch military strikes against Syrian regime targets. If so, it will have taken such action for reasons largely divorced from the interests of the Syrian people.

The report goes on to identify the various arguments in favor of the attack – and then to refute them.

  1. The United States wants to punish, deter, and prevent the use of chemical weapons. Response: But the use of chemical weapons account for perhaps 1% of the 100,000+ deaths the Syrian people have suffered during the past few years, many of them (but not all) at the hands of the Assad regime.
  2. The United States needs to attack in order to preserve its credibility, President Barack Obama having declared that the use of chemical weapons would be the crossing of a red line that would not be tolerated. Response: such an argument would hardly persuade the skeptical Syrian people who have the most to lose from the escalation of the current war.
  3. U.S. attacks would be contained and would not lead to “boots on the ground.” Response: Rule Number One about war is that you can never predict consequences. There is no such thing as a carefully controlled war. If Syria or one of its allies retaliates, will the United States decline to defend itself? Not likely. Furthermore, if landing troops on the ground might secure chemical weapons against further use, as Secretary of State John Kerry argued before Congress, such a move must not be ruled out.

This week President Obama and Secretary Kerry continue their vigorous effort to persuade Congress (and the American people) that it should authorize an attack on Syria. President Obama is set to address the American people tomorrow. Although the administration has its supporters – including influential Republicans like Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham as well as the Republican House leadership – it faces much stronger opposition from across the political spectrum. Strong arguments against an attack have been raised by individuals and groups as diverse as the New York Times Editorial Board, Slate, the Cato Institute, National Review, Pope Francis, R.R. Reno, and Jim Wallis.

If there is a Christian view of the current crisis, it may be Syria’s Christians who can best articulate it. As Mark Mouvsesian writes at First Thoughts,

This group, which numbers in the millions, has consistently opposed outside military action against Assad. Not only do Christians deplore the suffering an American missile strike would bring, they also worry about anything that would tend to benefit Islamists in the opposition. Assad is a brutal dictator, but most Syrian Christians would rather take their chances with him than risk Islamist government.

This perspective doesn’t seem particularly distinctively Christian, but it’s not clear to me that it needs to be. Civil government is by its very nature a messy business, and Syria’s Christians can hardly be blamed for taking a strong Romans 13 line on this one.

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment… for he is God’s servant for your good.

Richard Land, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, has for some time supported American intervention in Syria. When I had the chance to ask him about it a few months ago, his argument boiled down to this: the United States can’t let Iran win in Syria.

Is that the best that just war theory can do?

To be sure, some of the arguments against intervention seem to prove too much. The papacy always promotes peace as its official policy, as it probably should. Yet Catholic First Things editor R.R. Reno writes,

Claims that military action is necessary to deter future uses of chemical weapons are empty. This goal–and indeed any just outcome in Syria at this juncture–requires decisively defeating the Assad regime… We would be killing them so that. . . .  the world will know that the United States is serious about the fact that using chemical weapons is a bad thing.

Put simply: Just war-making requires clearly articulated and substantive goals. Launching cruise missiles or air strikes simply to “show resolve” or “send a message” cannot be justified. At the end of the day, these rationales authorize symbolic killing, which is fundamentally immoral.

I disagree with this argument. Frankly, I find it absurd to claim that in order for a war – any war – to be just, it requires decisive victory. I find Reno’s claim just as troubling that waging war in order to send a message – “symbolic killing” – is “fundamentally immoral.” Pressed to its logical conclusions, this seems to imply that if there is ever just cause for the use of military force, it has to be all or nothing.

A glance over human history suggests otherwise. There are many instances in which nations have gone to war with very limited objectives, often simply to “send a message,” and been eminently successful. The whole balance of power that preserved early modern Europe (from the most part) from the cataclysmic wars of the later 20th Century was based on an understanding of the use of force that involved a highly symbolic framework, as well as codes of respect for civilians and the rules of war.

What’s more, Oliver O’Donovan has made a powerful argument that war can only be justified as an instance of judgment, and that all judgment, but especially the death penalty, is fundamentally symbolic. Considered in these terms, it is not so absurd for the Obama administration to claim that the use of chemical weapons violates international law, and therefore deserves punishment, a punishment that may be more symbolic than absolute.

Given this, John Kerry’s argument for an attack on Syria needs to be taken seriously. There will be painful repercussions of an erosion of the international ban on chemical weapons. This case does have fearful implications for the proliferation of nuclear weapons. And no nation can afford to take such concerns lightly. As Kerry warns,

For nearly 100 years, the world has stood up for an international norm against the use of chemical weapons

Are we willing to abandon that position now?

But of course, the actual situation in which we find ourselves is much more complicated than this simple calculus implies. It is true that international law – including a treaty signed by Syria itself – condemns the use of chemical weapons. It is equally true that the same international law offers no clear justification for unilateral enforcement by one nation. President Obama is arguing that America should go to war without the authorization of the United Nations Security Council, without the support of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and without the cooperation of our oldest and best ally, Great Britain. And this despite the fact that Syria has not attacked the United States, nor is it threatening to attack the United States. As the New York Times suggests, there is no precedent for this in international law.

The United States has used its armed forces abroad dozens of times without Security Council approval, but typically has invoked self-defense … The most notable precedent for the Syria crisis was Mr. Clinton’s 1999 bombing of Kosovo, but that was undertaken as part of NATO and in response to a time-urgent problem: stopping a massacre of civilians.

By contrast, the United States would carry out strikes on Syria largely alone, and to punish an offense that has already occurred. That crime, moreover, is defined by two treaties banning chemical weapons, only one of which Syria signed, that contain no enforcement provisions. Such a strike has never happened before.

In addition to the objection rooted in international law, there is the objection rooted in the American Constitution. It seems more and more likely that President Obama will not receive the authorization of Congress. If so, the enforcement of international law not only depends on the unilateral use of power by the United States, but the unilateral use of power by the executive branch of the US. government, without the support of the American people. Is that really international law at work?

To be sure, there are emergency situations where the President has the constitutional authority to commit American troops to war without congressional authorization. But this situation is no emergency. President Obama is not arguing that American interests are at stake, or that the United States is in danger. He claims that we have time, plenty of time, to make the right decision. So why act alone? Again the New York Times reports,

The move [to seek authorization from Congress] is right, said Walter Dellinger, who led the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel in the Clinton administration, because the proposed attack is not “covered by any of the previous precedents for the unilateral use of executive power.”

“That doesn’t mean it couldn’t become another precedent,” Mr. Dellinger added. “But when the president is going beyond where any previous president has gone, it seems appropriate to determine whether Congress concurs.”

It also seems appropriate to judge that if Congress does not concur, the President may want to hold back.

There is no doubt that the United States needs to do whatever it can to persuade the international community to enforce its prohibition against the use of chemical weapons, and I laud President Obama for making that effort. But where such efforts at persuasion fail, it makes little sense to claim that one president – against his country and against the international community – can single-handedly uphold this standard. No matter how personally convinced Obama is that his cause is just and that he can represent the interests of the world, he is no more convinced than Woodrow Wilson was in 1917 or George W. Bush was in 2003. Our neighbors (and enemies) around the world get that, and they will not hesitate to use it against us.

Yet we should not be naive about the consequences of such a rebuff to the White House. Walter Russell Mead notes that President Obama has said so much, relative to Syria and Iran, about red lines, about regimes having to go, and about his determination to bomb Syria, that for Congress to pull the rug out from under him would be to destroy the credibility of the only President of the United States we will have for the next three years. This crisis may have been a crisis of President Obama’s own making (the President should have secured the necessary support before he said what he was going to do), but that does not make its consequences any less serious. In a Middle East that is already so volatile, in a situation where the big crisis (Iran) is still coming, for the region’s leading power and the guarantor of the current world order to be AWOL is a potentially cataclysmic scenario. As Mead puts it, “We hate to say it, but that is so dangerous that there’s a strong argument for Congress to back the Syria resolution simply to avoid trashing the credibility of the only President we’ve got.”

Mead summarizes the dilemma perfectly. Congress only has two very bad possible courses of action, and the best we can hope for is that it chooses the least bad option.

Given the screwy diplomacy and inept political management that has characterized the administration’s approach to this whole unhappy mess, Congress admittedly faces an unappetizing choice. It can reject the request for an authorization, thereby dealing US prestige and power a serious blow (hugely weakening the international authority of the only president we will have for another three plus years) or it can back the president’s ill-considered bluff, opening the door to goodness knows what and committing US forces to yet another Middle East war.

Of course, I’m no Syria expert, nor am I a scholar of international affairs. But at a very basic level, it seems to me that if we have two very bad options, war and peace, neither obviously better than the other, we should default to peace. That’s where just war theory places the burden, and that’s where Jesus pointed Christians, at least as a general rule:

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called Sons of God.

Should Christians love their country?

In a provocative article published on Reformation 21 on July 2, Rick Phillips offered some thoughts on the meaning of Christian patriotism in an America that is changing rapidly. Phillips eschewed any identification of America with the kingdom of God, framing his reflections within the context of the two kingdoms doctrine.

Not long after Phillips’s piece appeared Matt Holst wrote a response raising several pertinent questions. Holst seems to share Phillips’s general two kingdoms outlook, as well as his judgment that America is in serious moral decline (though Holst rightly clarifies that America has never been the godly Christian nation it is often thought to have been). Yet he questions Phillips’s call for Christians to love their country.

Then Darryl Hart chimed in here.

Reformation21 has now graciously published my friendly engagement with Matt Holst. Here is a key part of my argument:

This conclusion surprises me because it seems to me that scripture commands us to love our country, in at least some sense (i.e., as a people), in precisely the same place that it commands us “to submit, yield obedience, give honor …” In Romans 13:7-8, toward the end of the classic New Testament text on Christians’ obligations toward governing authorities, the Apostle Paul writes,

“Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed. Owe no one anything, except to love each other; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”

We often stop reading at verse 7 and don’t read verse 8 because many of our Bibles place a subtitle there, as if a new section is beginning. But given Paul’s repeated and intentional use of the verb ‘to owe’ it is obvious that this is a mistake. What Paul is telling us is that we owe taxes, revenue, respect, honor, and obedience precisely because this is what love demands. Indeed, if love did not call us to fulfill these obligations, we would not owe them at all. Paul is teaching us to view our obligations toward government and (as Holst seems willing to extend the scope of the passage) country as the expression of Christian love appropriate to this context. Even as we serve our country, in other words, we demonstrate the love of Christ.

There’s much more of course, and you can read the whole thing here.

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