Monthly Archives: June 2014

John Calvin and the Restoration of the Cosmos

I am grateful to the Davenant Trust for the opportunity to present a paper entitled “The Kingdom of Christ is Spiritual: John Calvin and the Redemption of the Cosmos” a few weeks ago at the 2014 Convivium Calvinisticum in South Carolina. Thanks to the Trust and to all who attended for some good papers and stimulating conversation. Political Theology Today has kindly published my short summary of the paper. Here are the first few paragraphs:

One of the great paradoxes of John Calvin’s political theology can be captured in terms of two of the phrases the reformer used over and over throughout his writings. On the one hand, he emphasized, “the kingdom of Christ is spiritual.” On the other hand, through the kingdom of Christ God is bringing about the “restoration of the world.” Various scholars highlight different sides of this paradox, often for their own ideological or critical purposes. Critics claim that Calvin was captive to neo-platonic dualisms of body and soul, earth and heaven, the outward and the inward, so denigrating the significance of the material creation. More appreciatively, some claim that Calvin envisioned the future of Christ’s kingdom, and the purpose of the church, in purely spiritual or “other-worldly” terms. On the other extreme, many influential scholars have characterized Calvin as calling Christians to bring about the transformation of the world into the kingdom of God, or at least as the inspiration for the elite saints who could bring transformation through their zealous activism.

In fact, none of these perspectives are wholly accurate. The key to making sense of the disparate strands in Calvin’s thought is interpreting them through the lens of his two kingdoms eschatological framework. Calvin understands the kingdom of Christ to entail the restoration of the world that will fully take place only at the return of Christ. Creation was always designed for the purpose of attaining this future as the heavenly kingdom of God, Calvin argues. “Truly the first man would have passed to a better life, had he remained upright, but there would have been no separation of the soul from the body, no corruption, no kind of destruction, and, in short, no violent change.”[1] Thus when Calvin talks about the restoration of the world, or about human beings’ restoration to their original state, he is not referring to this original state in a static sense, but in the sense of its eschatological purpose (2.1.3).

You can read the rest here.

Imperial Calvinism: Transforming the World

It has long been standard in scholarly circles to claim that whereas Lutheran Protestantism tends to be passive and pietistic due to its emphasis on justification by faith alone and on the difference between the two kingdoms, Calvinism is active and vigorous in every area of life due to its emphasis on sanctification and the lordship of Christ. No matter how hard historical theologians work to show that this contrast is seriously exaggerated, the invention of modern theological controversies (not to mention Calvinists’ proclivities toward a certain Whiggish interpretation of history), it remains influential, enduring in the widely quoted statements of prominent scholars like Ernst Troeltsch, H. Richard Niebuhr, and Jurgen Moltmann.

Take, for instance, Troeltsch’s famous study, The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches, now more than one hundred years old. Troeltsch agrees that Calvin used the language of Luther’s two kingdoms, but he claims that, spurred by the doctrines of predestination and the absolute sovereignty and glory of God, Calvin’s social theory turned in a radically different direction.

“In his teaching on the independence and secular character of the State Calvin used exactly the same language as Luther; since, however, at the same time he created a strong independent Church … through which he desired to effect a Christian and ethical transformation of the whole of Society and civilization, in practice he made the State subordinate to the Church.” (2:627)

Troeltsch, like so many early twentieth century scholars, erroneously believed that Calvinism is a system of thought “logically constructed” on “the idea of predestination, the famous central doctrine of Calvinism.” (2:579, 581) In this system, according to Troeltsch, the gospel was no longer a means to the salvation of sinners rooted in the God who is love, but a means to the greater end of the glory of God who is majesty. The purpose of the doctrine of justification was not the joy of the forgiveness of sins that results in loving service to one’s neighbors, but the sovereign calling of an individual to serve as an instrument of the divine will. The gospel thus became “a spur to action” and the “spirit of active energy” in the heroic elect, who in turn became “Christ’s warriors and champions.” (2:584) Certain of their salvation, Christians were free to look outward and to devote themselves to the transformation of society into the holy community of Christ.

The doctrine of predestination thus gave rise to Calvinism’s second distinctive characteristic, which was its heroic religious individualism. Protestantism is inherently individualistic, Troeltsch admitted, but Calvin directed that spirit toward the purpose of “the glorification of God in action, [which] is the real test of individual personal reality in religion.” Whereas the Lutheran Christian satisfies himself with the quiet loving service amid the providentially arranged circumstances of life, for the Calvinist

“the whole meaning of life consists precisely in entering into these circumstances, and, while inwardly rising above them, in shaping them into an expression of the Divine Will. In conflict and in labour the individual takes up the task of the sanctification of the world … The Calvinist knows that his calling and election are sure, and that therefore he is free to give all his attention to the effort to mold the world and society according to the Will of God.” (2:588, 589)

The result is the establishment of a sort of “spiritual aristocracy.” (2:590) The lordship of Christ bestows upon Calvinists a “high sense of a Divine mission to the world,” an “immeasurable responsibility.” (2:617) “Predestination means that the  minority, consisting of the best and the holiest souls, is called to bear rule over the majority of mankind, who are sinners.” (2:618)

The third distinctive characteristic of Calvinism is “the central significance of the idea of a society, and the task of the restoration of a holy community, of a Christocracy in which God is glorified in all its activity, both sacred and secular.” (2:590-591) Here the church is not merely the organ of justification but “the means of sanctification: it ought to prove itself effective in the Christianizing of the community, by placing the whole range of life under the control of Christian regulations and Christian purposes.” This is to take place “in every aspect of life: in Church and State, in family and in society, in economic life, and in all personal relationships, both public and private.” (2:591) Calvin thus made “an ethic of sanctification the underlying basis of Church discipline and of the development of the State.” (2:601) Calvinism “sought to make the whole of Society, down to the smallest detail, a real expression of the royal dominion of Christ.” (2:622)

Calvin’s tool for this transformation, Troeltsch argued, was the Bible, which Calvin turned into the blueprint of the holy community, “a law, whose aim and nature were of equal value in every part.” (2:586) To be sure, Calvin recognized that parts of the law were no longer binding on Christians, and in that sense he did not seek to revive “Jewish legalism.” (2:601) But in contrast to the Lutherans, Calvinism “extended the authority of the Bible over a wider field, and in the process it transformed the whole conception of the Bible into an infallible authority for all the problems and needs of the Church.” (2:587) Based on the premise that the Bible could speak to all of life, Calvinists seeking the political and legal transformation of society inevitably found lessons in the example of Israel, its kings and its prophets. Calvin dismissed the immediate significance of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, Troeltsch claims, in favor of the more relevant Old Testament.

I reject Troeltsch’s interpretation of Calvin’s theology, of course, though I will not refute it at length in this blog post, but there is a reason why it has been so influential. It rings true, I believe, for a significant strand of Calvinism, which takes as its raison d’etre the vindication and assertion of the absolute sovereignty of God. Far too often this has bred what Max Stackhouse has called “imperial Calvinism,” or what Nicholas Wolterstorff describes as “that most insufferable of all human beings, the triumphalist Calvinist.” Take, for instance, the following quote from Troeltsch:

This peculiar combination of ideas produces a keen interest in politics, but not for the sake of the State; it produces active industry within the economic sphere, but not for the sake of wealth; it produces an eager social organization, but its aim is not material happiness; it produces unceasing labour, even disciplining the senses, but none of this effort is for the sake of the object of all this industry. The one main controlling idea and purpose of this ethic is to glorify God, to produce the Holy Community, to attain that salvation which in election is held up as the aim; to this one idea all the other formal peculiarities of Calvinism are subordinate.” (2:607)

In short, what we have here are highly activist, enormously confident individuals, whose devotion is to exerting power over other human beings in order to assert the sovereignty of God. This is in sharp contrast to the proper emphasis of the Christian ethic, which is on conforming to the image of Christ in self-sacrificial service toward others.

Thankfully, Troeltsch’s characterization is not accurate for many Reformed people on the ground. Many of us were reared on the Heidelberg Catechism, which says precious little about the themes Troeltsch believes are so central to Calvinism. And however later Calvinists might have conceived of the implications of their faith, John Calvin himself took the distinction between the two kingdoms seriously, stressing that the kingdom of Christ is manifest in the church and its ministry, and that during the present age its witness is characterized by the suffering of the cross (a means of conformity to Christ, Calvin stressed in light of Romans 8, that has been predestined by God!). Calvin well understood the difference between sanctification and politics, between spiritual righteousness and civil righteousness, between the church and the commonwealth. He was no “Imperial Calvinist.”

Pontius Pilate and the Trial of Jesus: Politics 101 According to Karl Barth

On Wednesday I challenged Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth’s criticism of Calvin’s two kingdoms doctrine as a failure to understand the 16th Century reformer’s political theology. But I do not want to obscure the value of Barth’s constructive point. It is necessary for Christians to understand not just how the two kingdoms are different and separate from one another, but how they are connected under the lordship of Christ.

Here Barth does offer some helpful reflection.

He begins (in his essay “Church and State”) by suggesting that we begin not with Romans 13, as is traditionally done, but with the confrontation between Jesus and Pontius Pilate as recorded in John 18-19. Here we see the state in demonic form, Barth argues, in contrast to the homelessness of the church in Christ. And yet, Jesus “expressly confirms Pilate’s claim to have ‘power’ over Him, and not, indeed, an accidental or presumptuous power, but one given to him ‘from above.'” Barth interprets this power not as that of the devil but as that of God. (109)

Pilate’s power gave him several options at Jesus’ trial. First, he could have acquitted Jesus, recognizing him to be the King he claimed to be, the one sent into the world to bear witness to the truth. Barth, in stark contrast to Calvin, declares that “Such ‘recognition’ cannot be and is not Pilate’s business. To the question of truth, the State is neutral. ‘What is truth?'” (110)

Second, Pilate could have released Jesus and offered legal protection to the proclamation of Jesus’ kingship, “the legal granting of the right to preach justification.” (110) This is what Christians who embrace political liberalism would desire. It is appropriate for the state to protect the ministry of Christ’s kingdom without it therefore being appropriate for the state to punish heretics or the adherents of other religions.

But Pilate rejected both of these options for a third. He used his power, the power given to him by God, to crucify Jesus. And as heinous as this act was from the perspective of justice,

“what actually took place in this use of the statesman’s power was the only possible thing that could take place in the fulfilment of the gracious will of the Father of Jesus Christ! Even at the moment when Pilate (still in the garb of justice! and in the exercise of the power given him by God) allowed injustice to run its course, he was the human created instrument of that justification of sinful man that was completed once for all time through that very crucifixion.” (110)

In this act of flagrant injustice the pagan state allied itself with the “sin of Israel,” only to secure “the inheritance of the promise made to Israel.” (111)

This leads Barth to an important conclusion, one that contemporary Christians would do well to consider in the midst of all their angst about the supposed dangers to religious liberty in America.

“What would be the worth of all the legal protection which the State could and should have granted the Church at that moment, compared with this act in which, humanly speaking, the Roman governor became the virtual founder of the Church? … [T]he very State which is ‘demonic’ may will evil, and yet, in an outstanding way, may be constrained to do good. The State, even in this ‘demonic’ form, cannot help rendering the service it is meant to render.” (111)

Barth’s point is worth reflecting on. Where would the Church be today if Pilate had released Barabbas instead of Jesus? (112)

This, of course, is not all that needs to be said on the subject, and this is not all that Barth says. But it is striking that this is where he starts. I do not know how many times I have heard evangelical Christians – admittedly they are typically older Christians – respond to stories about American politics in the following way: “Things are really going badly. We are clearly in the end times.” What is implied in such claims, of course, is that the conservative political agenda in America is a bellwether of the progress of Christ’s kingdom. It is a sentiment that Barth, like Calvin, would have vigorously rejected.

But Barth presses the point a step forward, and here he continues to follow Calvin as well as Luther. Because the state is ordained by God, because God uses it in his purposes in ways that Christians cannot understand, “the State” – and remember Barth writes in the shadow of Nazi Germany here, just as Paul wrote under the shadow of Imperial Rome – “cannot lose the honour that is its due. For that very reason the New Testament ordains that in all circumstances honour must be shown to its representatives (Romans 13:1-8; 1 Peter 2:17).” (111)

I would suggest that the implications of this point extend not only to the individuals who exercise government at the federal, state, and local levels, but also to the institutions through which they govern. The apostles wrote in a time when political power was intrinsically personal; we live in an era in which political power is subject to the rule of written law, bound to concrete rules that channel the use of power through institutions and offices that reflect fundamental principles of justice. This system, which we might refer to in short hand as political liberalism, is for us that which has been established by God, the authority that “exists.” It is worth defending on so many levels, but even for its critics this is an important fact that must be taken into account.

But Barth offers one further point of reflection on Jesus’ encounter with Pilate. He observes that despite the travesty of justice through which Pilate empowered the crucifixion of Jesus, he proclaimed Jesus innocent. In the very act of overthrowing justice “he is fulfilling his specific function.” (112) Had Pilate done what he should have done, had he acquitted Jesus, “the State would have had to grant legal protection to the Church! The fact that this did not actually happen is clearly regarded by the Evangelists as a deviation from the line of duty on the part of Pilate, as a failure on the part of the State.” (113) In other words, “In this encounter of Pilate and Jesus the ‘demonic’ State does not assert itself too much but too little; it is a State which at the decisive moment fails to be true to itself.” (113)

Barth concludes,

“Certainly, in deflecting the course of justice he became the involuntary agent and herald of divine justification; yet at the same time he makes it clear that real human justice, a real exposure of the true face of the State, would inevitably have meant the recognition of the right to proclaim divine justification, the Kingdom of Christ which is not of this world, freely and deliberately.” (113-114)

In other words, the legal administration does have something to do with the order of redemption. Calvin went so far as to claim that the Christian state’s responsibility to defend the ministry of Christ’s kingdom includes the duty to suppress and punish those who polluted its certain truth through their false teaching, at least in a society where that truth was widely embraced as certain. He was surely wrong about this. Yet Barth is correct to characterize the responsibility more narrowly, in a manner reflective of the values of political liberalism. At the heart of the state’s responsibility under the lordship of Christ is the responsibility to protect the freedom to speak the truth.

Karl Barth’s Criticism of Calvin’s Two Kingdoms Doctrine

In his 1938 essay “Church and State,” written on the eve of World War II, the Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth offered a sharp criticism of the ‘two realms’ doctrine taught by Calvin and the other reformers. Barth lauded the reformers for distinguishing divine justification, the gospel, faith, and the mission of the church from human justice, the duties of citizenship, and the state. He praised them for showing, in contrast to the Anabaptists, “that the two are not in conflict, but that they can very well exist side by side, each being competent in its own sphere.”

But Barth criticized the reformers for not going beyond that. “Clearly we need to know not only that the two are not in conflict, but, first and foremost, to what extent they are connected.” Barth claimed that Calvin offered insufficient explanation of the degree to which civil government belongs to the external means by which God invites human beings and retains them within the society of Christ. He alleged that Calvin failed to develop the implications of his claim that all earthly rulers are subject to Christ, and consequently of his embrace of a Christian political order. In short, he accused the reformers of failing to develop a gospel foundation, a “Christological foundation,” for the state.

The result of this failure, Barth believed, was that Christians had constantly been tempted toward too great a separation of church and state. It had become all too easy, based on the distinction between true justice and civil justice, to construct “a highly spiritual message and a very spiritual Church.” On the other hand, as events in Germany made all too clear, it had led to the construction of “a secular gospel of human law and a secular church.”

The two kingdoms distinction was legitimate as far as it goes, therefore, but it had failed to answer the vital question: “is there an actual, and therefore inward and vital, connection between the two realms?” Or as Barth puts it in the first paragraph of the work, “is there a connection between justification of the sinner through faith alone … and the problem of justice, the problem of human law?” How does the order, peace, and freedom of the kingdom of God relate to the political order.

“Is there, in spite of all differences, an inner and vital connection between the service of God in Christian living … and another form of service, what may be described as a ‘political’ service of God, a service of God which, in general terms, would consist in the careful examination of all those problems which are raised by the existence of human justice, of law, or, rather, which would consist in the recognition, support, defence, and extension of this law – and all this, not in spite of but because of divine justification?”

Barth’s answer, of course, is that there is a fuller connection, and that it is clearly taught in scripture. But his own political theology turns out to be highly dialectical (and paradoxical). The doctrine of the state is to be understood in the context of Christology, he argues, with the state being called to respond obediently to the preaching of the gospel and the law on the part of the church (though without appeal being made to the word or the Spirit in the running of its affairs, given that the state encompasses nonbelievers and is therefore broader than the community of faith!). The state is an allegory of the kingdom of God (though it never becomes the kingdom of God!). It is the outward circle of the reign of Christ (though not to be confused with its inward circle, the church!).

But what is most striking about Barth’s argument is his complete failure, as Reformed critics like Emil Brunner pointed out, to grasp what was the real political theological teaching of the Reformation. For at the heart of Barth’s criticism of the reformers was his absolute rejection of natural revelation or natural law (although even here he granted the useful functioning of a “so-called natural law”). This rejection led him to confuse the reformers’ embrace of the temporal and secular nature of civil government under the natural law with a practical denial of the sovereignty of Christ.

In fact, contrary to Barth’s claims, Calvin’s two kingdoms doctrine was thoroughly Christological from start to finish. Calvin recognized that, having ascended to God’s right hand, Jesus holds sovereignty over all authorities, both in this age and in the age to come. In fact, Calvin claimed that Christ is the heir of all things and that human beings only enjoy the legitimate use of material things insofar as they are in Christ. Thus all civil government properly belongs to Christ, is obligated to honor Christ, and must enforce his law insofar as that is possible. Indeed, Calvin even argued that civil government is obligated to establish, defend, and maintain the ministry of Christ’s kingdom (a position whose first and third tenants – establish and maintain – Barth was right to reject)!

At the same time, Calvin recognized that although all legitimate justice, law, and government is subservient to Christ and his purposes, and therefore is an outward reflection of true justice, law, and government, these categories cannot be collapsed into one because through the power of the gospel Christ accomplishes something different from anything that the state can accomplish. By his word and Spirit Christ creates true justice rather than mere civil justice, he fosters the spiritual use of the law rather than the mere civil use of the law, and he establishes his spiritual government rather than mere civil government.

Barth was right to call for a clear understanding of the relationship and connection between the two kingdoms in the context of Christology, one that would help Christians to see that the righteousness created by the gospel is the righteousness that takes concrete form in this world. But he was wrong in claiming that Calvin failed to offer this in his two kingdoms theology.

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