Search Results for poverty calvin

Good News for the Poor: John Calvin and Social Justice

When John Calvin became pastor in Geneva most Protestant churches didn’t have deacons responsible for caring for the poor. In the medieval church the diaconate had become an office with largely liturgical responsibilities. Most Reformed churches, following Ulrich Zwingli and Heinrich Bullinger, assumed it was the state’s responsibility—not the church’s—to care for the poor.

Calvin decisively rejected all of these views. Identifying the church as Christ’s spiritual kingdom, Calvin insisted that the church must witness to the justice and righteousness of Christ’s kingdom in its own way, in accordance with Christ’s commands. This meant that, as one of the church’s essential ministries, it had to call men and women to serve in the spiritual office of deacon.

Image result for good news for the poor getty

Calvin, like other Christians before him, believed God has given the earth and its resources to human beings. As those made in the image of God, we’re called to share our resources and serve one another. Calvin often used the language of rights to describe this principle. A person is defrauded, he argued, when a need is left unmet by someone with the power to meet it.

Caring for the poor, then, isn’t a requirement of charity but of justice, a basic demand of natural law. God is the “protector and patron of the poor,” Calvin says, the one who hears their cries and “feels himself injured in their persons.” Therefore, he won’t let their afflictions remain unavenged.

Read the rest of this article at The Gospel Coalition.

What does Scripture say about government’s responsibility to the poor? Thoughts from John Calvin.

Given my travels today, and as a follow up to my recent post reminding Christians that government does have a responsibility to ensure that the poor receive justice, I thought I’d re-post an earlier piece I wrote on the same subject. The following originally appeared on this blog on July 11, 2012.

—————

There are some conservative Christians who think that if pastors faithfully preached the Bible they would demonstrate from Scripture that government should not tax people for the purpose of providing for the needs of the poor, and that government should not insure health care for those same poor. The argument here is not that solid political philosophy or even wisdom lead to these conclusions; it is that Scripture authoritatively teaches them.

It is helpful to pay attention to the reality that many orthodox Christian denominations (including most notably the Roman Catholic Church) teach precisely the opposite from Scripture, and it is even more helpful to note that leading Christian theologians throughout the ages have held quite different views of the nature of property and liberty than do many contemporary Christians. That does not mean contemporary Christian conservatives are wrong economically or politically, but it may suggest that their views do not exactly derive from Scripture.

Given that many of these Evangelicals are Reformed, it is worth considering what Calvin taught was the obligation of government towards the poor.

Calvin believed that the civil magistrate is appointed as God’s servant to use the sword to ensure that the poor receive at least a modicum of equity. In fact, because they receive their authority from God magistrates must imitate God by providing special protection for the poor above and beyond that of their other subjects (see Calvin’s commentary on Isaiah 10:1). Writing on Psalm 72, which he views in part as a description of “the end and fruit of a righteous government,” Calvin notes that “God takes a more special care of the poor than of others, since they are most exposed to injuries and violence… David, therefore, particularly mentions that the king will be the defender of those who can only be safe under the protection of the magistrate” (Comm. Ps 72:4).

Commenting on Psalm 82, a psalm of prophetic judgment on unjust rulers, Calvin writes that “a just and well-regulated government will be distinguished for maintaining the rights of the poor and afflicted.” The reason for this is that it is the poor and afflicted who tend to need the magistrate, not those who are rich and prosperous. Calvin suggests that if magistrates grasped this truth, “that they are appointed to be the guardians of the poor, and that a special part of this duty lies in resisting the wrongs which are done to them, and in repressing all unrighteous violence, perfect righteousness would become triumphant through the whole world” (Comm. Ps 82:1-4).

In a sermon on 2 Samuel 1:21-27 Calvin declared that although it is very rare, “it is praiseworthy for a good prince to relieve his subjects’ poverty.” Indeed, it should be considered to be the virtue of a king or prince if he keeps his subjects in comfort and promotes their wealth. “Then they can grow richer as they run their households, and each one can have enough for himself and his descendents. When, I say, a prince maintains these conditions, he will be valued far more highly.”

In another sermon (on 2 Samuel 5:1-5 Calvin compared a good king to a good shepherd. “Now two things are required of a shepherd. The first is that he provide his animals with good pasture, and then that he keep them safe from all thieves and wolves and trouble. Now that I say is what princes must do. If they think that they will render an account to God for the charge that is committed to them, they must see to it that their subjects live in peace and that they are maintained; and then, in the second place, that they defend them against all troubles.

When it comes to the details of how magistrates should succor the poor, of course, Calvin gives few details (he did not preach political sermons per say), but the details he does give are significant. He indicates at one point that magistrates should provide for the poor by building poor-houses, hospitals, and even schools (Comm. Is 49:23). He is harshly critical of forms of usury in which the poor are taken advantage of, and yet he insists that the alternative to usury is not refusing to lend to the poor, but ensuring that the needs of the poor are met (Serm. Deut 23:18-20). In his sermon on Deuteronomy 15:11-15 he defended a prohibition of begging for the sake of “common order and honesty” and on the basis of “nature”, but then insisted that such a prohibition is only just if the government ensures that the poor do not need to beg. Part of “keep[ing] order and policy,” he suggests, is establishing “hospitals … for such needs.”

From this it is evident that Calvin did not view the generous acts of individuals or even the organized operations of groups as sufficient for meeting the needs of the poor. For the civil government to enforce a ban on begging it was responsible to ensure that poor relief was sufficiently funded, organized, and regulated. Calvin’s judgments therefore suggest that he believed the state did have a role in providing for the poor (or at least in ensuring their provision), and he grounded that belief in Scripture.

Of course, Calvin may have been wrong. But it is worth remembering that if there was anything he was absolutely committed to in his preaching and in his teaching it was only to declare what Scripture itself declares. Calvin was rigidly careful about this. To be sure, nothing Calvin wrote or said suggests anything one way or another about the wisdom of a particular program or policy in our own day and age. But Calvin’s words do suggest that if we are going to declare the teaching of Scripture regarding government’s obligation for the poor we had better be sure that we are not spouting off our own political or economic opinions. And if we actually pay attention to preachers who do faithfully teach Scripture to us we might discover that it is our own views that are out of line with the will of God.

What did Calvin think the government should do for the poor?

There are many conservative Christians who think that if pastors faithfully preached the Bible they would demonstrate from Scripture that government should not tax people for the purpose of providing for the needs of the poor, and that government should not insure health care for those same poor. The argument here is not that solid political philosophy or even wisdom lead to these conclusions; it is that Scripture authoritatively teaches them.

It is helpful to pay attention to the reality that many orthodox Christian denominations (including most notably the Roman Catholic Church) teach precisely the opposite from Scripture, and it is even more helpful to note that leading Christian theologians throughout the ages have held quite different views of the nature of property and liberty than do many contemporary Christians. That does not mean contemporary Christian conservatives are wrong economically or politically, but it may suggest that their views do not exactly derive from Scripture.

Given that many of these Evangelicals are Reformed, it is worth considering what Calvin taught was the obligation of government towards the poor.

Calvin believed that the civil magistrate is appointed as God’s servant to use the sword to ensure that the poor receive at least a modicum of equity. In fact, because they receive their authority from God magistrates must imitate God by providing special protection for the poor above and beyond that of their other subjects (see Calvin’s commentary on Isaiah 10:1). Writing on Psalm 72, which he views in part as a description of “the end and fruit of a righteous government,” Calvin notes that “God takes a more special care of the poor than of others, since they are most exposed to injuries and violence… David, therefore, particularly mentions that the king will be the defender of those who can only be safe under the protection of the magistrate” (Comm. Ps 72:4).

Commenting on Psalm 82, a psalm of prophetic judgment on unjust rulers, Calvin writes that “a just and well-regulated government will be distinguished for maintaining the rights of the poor and afflicted.” The reason for this is that it is the poor and afflicted who tend to need the magistrate, not those who are rich and prosperous. Calvin suggests that if magistrates grasped this truth, “that they are appointed to be the guardians of the poor, and that a special part of this duty lies in resisting the wrongs which are done to them, and in repressing all unrighteous violence, perfect righteousness would become triumphant through the whole world” (Comm. Ps 82:1-4).

In a sermon on 2 Samuel 1:21-27 Calvin declared that although it is very rare, “it is praiseworthy for a good prince to relieve his subjects’ poverty.” Indeed, it should be considered to be the virtue of a king or prince if he keeps his subjects in comfort and promotes their wealth. “Then they can grow richer as they run their households, and each one can have enough for himself and his descendents. When, I say, a prince maintains these conditions, he will be valued far more highly.”

In another sermon (on 2 Samuel 5:1-5 Calvin compared a good king to a good shepherd. “Now two things are required of a shepherd. The first is that he provide his animals with good pasture, and then that he keep them safe from all thieves and wolves and trouble. Now that I say is what princes must do. If they think that they will render an account to God for the charge that is committed to them, they must see to it that their subjects live in peace and that they are maintained; and then, in the second place, that they defend them against all troubles.

When it comes to the details of how magistrates should succor the poor, of course, Calvin gives few details (he did not preach political sermons per say), but the details he does give are significant. He indicates at one point that magistrates should provide for the poor by building poor-houses, hospitals, and even schools (Comm. Is 49:23). He is harshly critical of forms of usury in which the poor are taken advantage of, and yet he insists that the alternative to usury is not refusing to lend to the poor, but ensuring that the needs of the poor are met (Serm. Deut 23:18-20). In his sermon on Deuteronomy 15:11-15 he defended a prohibition of begging for the sake of “common order and honesty” and on the basis of “nature”, but then insisted that such a prohibition is only just if the government ensures that the poor do not need to beg. Part of “keep[ing] order and policy,” he suggests, is establishing “hospitals … for such needs.”

From this it is evident that Calvin did not view the generous acts of individuals or even the organized operations of groups as sufficient for meeting the needs of the poor. For the civil government to enforce a ban on begging it was responsible to ensure that poor relief was sufficiently funded, organized, and regulated. Calvin’s judgments therefore suggest that he believed the state did have a role in providing for the poor (or at least in ensuring their provision), and he grounded that belief in Scripture.

Of course, Calvin may have been wrong. But it is worth remembering that if there was anything he was absolutely committed to in his preaching and in his teaching it was only to declare what Scripture itself declares. Calvin was rigidly careful about this. To be sure, nothing Calvin wrote or said suggests anything one way or another about the wisdom of a particular program or policy in our own day and age. But Calvin’s words do suggest that if we are going to declare the teaching of Scripture regarding government’s obligation for the poor we had better be sure that we are not spouting off our own political or economic opinions. And if we actually pay attention to preachers who do faithfully teach Scripture to us we might discover that it is our own views that are out of line with the will of God.

Is Health Care for the Poor a Requirement of Justice?

It just so happens that as Congress considers dismantling Medicaid as we know it – as well as an end to the law that requires health insurers to cover people with pre-existing conditions – I am preparing to explore the theme of “Good News for the Poor” with my seminary ethics class. One of the things I do with my students is to walk through the New Testament to show them just how continuously and emphatically Christ and the apostles call Christians to take responsibility for the poor. Care for the poor is so central to the kingdom and its justice that it became the basis for an entire office of the church: the diaconate.

I also point my students to the history of theological reflection on poverty in the Christian tradition. In particular, we discuss the general Christian consensus that God gave the earth and its resources to human beings in common and that property rights are always subject to the rights of all human beings to the basic resources necessary for life.

Thus the church father Ambrose argued that the possessions of the church belong to the poor. Thomas Aquinas argued that it is not theft when a starving person takes what she needs from a rich person because every person has a right to have her basic needs met. And John Calvin argued that those who do not share with the poor when they are in need are guilty of theft – and potentially of murder. Basic provisions are not owed to the poor as a matter of charity but as a matter of justice. Indeed, Calvin regularly stated that the poor have a “right” to such resources.

That’s why Calvin took the work of Geneva’s General Hospital so seriously. He believed it was the responsibility of government to provide funds for poor relief and medical care, and that it was the responsibility of the church to care for the poor through the diaconate.

Free stock photo of landscape, mountains, man, love

I’ve written a fair bit on Calvin’s views of poor relief, here on my blog (including on Calvin’s view of the distinct responsibility of government with respect to the poor), for the Gospel Coalition, and for the Calvin Theological Journal.

I realize that Christians differ on just how it is that government should most effectively secure justice for the poor – whether with respect to poverty in general or health care in particular. Neither the church nor its clergy have any authority – let alone expertise – to dictate health care policy to the state. But where I think Christians ought not disagree is that we owe the poor their rights – to basic sustenance and to basic health care – as a matter of justice.

That’s why, for instance, the catechisms of the Reformation (Heidelberg, Westminster) declare that the commandments You shall not murder and You shall not steal require us to care for the needs of the poor. To put it in classic theological terms, it is a requirement of the moral law of God. It is part of the natural law written on our hearts as image-bearers. We are, scripture teaches us, our brothers’ keepers.

If we believe that failing to secure the poor their rights constitutes theft – or even murder – then it goes without saying that it is well within the responsibility of government to protect the poor from such injustice. Indeed, if government can be best evaluated based on how well it protects the poor from injustice – as Calvin thought – than how proposed health laws will affect the poor should be the primary concern of legislators and citizens alike.

Whatever conclusions we come to with respect to particular policy approaches (and we should be humble here), we should be agreed that health care for the poor is not merely a matter of charity. It is a matter of justice. Our representatives should know that this is where the Christian tradition stands.

Does Planned Parenthood Fit Within the Bounds of Principled Pluralism?

My (sort of) colleague at Calvin College, Micah Watson, has written an excellent piece at Public Discourse reminding pro-life human rights supporters why they should never support federal funding for Planned Parenthood. Watson explains why certain practices should never be accepted or promoted based on the values of principled pluralism, even though principled pluralism is good and necessary for liberal democracy. As he puts it,

Any morally acceptable pluralism will have to draw lines somewhere, excluding some groups while including others…. Our pluralism is broad indeed in the legal sense, as our commitments to freedom of association and freedom of speech extend to a host of groups with which no morally decent person should associate. Government funding, however, is a different matter. Government funding sends a positive message that the government’s partner in this or that venture is a reliable organization promoting the public good. Whatever complexity abides in some gray areas of public policy, as Ryan T. Anderson and Robert P. George write in the Harvard Health Policy Review, there simply is no understanding of the public good that can include funding organizations that perform and profit from the deliberate taking of innocent human life.

It’s an excellent piece, and one that will help us think more carefully about what we try to justify on the basis of principled pluralism. For instance, a growing number of Christians argue that the church should accept same-sex civil marriage as a legitimate expression of principled pluralism (see one report soon to be discussed by the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church here).

As Watson demonstrates, however, if pluralism is to remain principled, it must have its limits. Ever since the Apostle Peter declared that “we must obey God rather than men,” (Acts 5:29), Christians have maintained that government’s authority ends precisely where it actively promotes injustice or immorality. It is one thing for government to tolerate slavery, abortion, adultery, poverty, or same-sex sexual relationships, for instance; it is another thing entirely for government to promote such phenomena. And whatever the government does, the church must continue to proclaim the justice and righteousness of the kingdom.

Watson is not writing about the church, per se, but he makes a strong argument that those who support the human right to life should insist that federal funding for abortion is outside the bounds of principled pluralism. You can read his whole piece here.

Natural Law in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights

[Note, this post originally appeared on this blog on April 26, 2013.]

One of the common truisms I regularly come across in banter emanating from across the political and religious spectrum is that natural law is a theoretical concept devoid of any practical substance or significance. Natural law, its critics claim, produces no certain knowledge. It is more often merely the rhetorical projection of whatever a person firmly believes but finds herself unable to prove. Appeals to natural law never solve moral conflict. On the basis of natural law people on the right and the left come to radically contradictory conclusions about matters as fundamental as marriage, human life, and property. Better to find a clearer, more widely accepted basis for morality.

What is that alternative basis? Ask many conservative Christians and they will tell you it is the Bible. To be sure, the authority of the Bible is not as widely accepted as it once was, but it is still more widely accepted than any other “objective” standard. What’s more, these conservative Christians will tell you, it has the advantage of clarity. It may not answer every moral question that we have but it certainly settles the most important ones.

Really? Dig a little deeper into the blogosphere or media of any particular religious tradition and you will find that even among those who embrace the authority of Scripture there is a lot less agreement about the practical implications of what Scripture teaches than these broad appeals to the Bible would suggest. Look back into the history of Christianity and you will find even more disagreement. There is no uncontested conservative Christian consensus on moral issues as basic as slavery, war, women’s rights, poverty, or freedom of religion.

What’s more, when one takes into account different assumptions about the political implications of Scripture’s clear moral teaching the field gets even more complicated. Libertarians and theonomists, liberals and conservatives, democrats and authoritarians, nationalists and universalists all find a place under the broad Christian tent. Among these there is no consensus about the political implications of a myriad of moral subjects addressed with  more or less clarity in Scripture.

And to remind you, this is just to highlight disagreements among theologically conservative Christians. The political usefulness of the Bible as a public authority is seriously limited even before we take into account the fact that most members of our society do not accept it as a decisive authority in their lives at all.

But does that leave us without any basis for a shared public morality? No it does not, despite the apparent widespread cynicism about natural law. Step back from the more controversial political disputes of our time and you will discover much more of a public moral consensus than you might at first expect. Read the writings of almost any prominent ethicist or political theorists and you will discover appeals to broadly shared principles such as the golden rule, basic human rights, or principles of reciprocity and fairness. They might not like the term natural law and they might adamantly reject particular versions of natural law theory, but they still find themselves assuming its reality and even its concrete principles. Even the pagans know, as Calvin often said, that there are basic human values to be protected with laws backed up by coercive institutions.

In fact, in our own time there is even greater basis for confidence in the value of natural law than there was in the time of Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, or John Locke. We actually have a developing system of international law recognized throughout the world. We have the United Nations, which, problematic as it is, is still a political body in which all nations are represented. Perhaps most obviously, we have the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document that comes as close to being a statement of shared universal morality as the world has ever known. Natural Law is at work. Consider these articles:

  • Article 1: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
  • Article 3: Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.
  • Article 6: Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.
  • Article 12: No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.
  • Article 16:
    • (1) Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.
    • (2) Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.
    • (3) The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.
  • Article 18: Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.
  • Article 25
    • (1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.
    • (2) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.
  • Article 26
    • Everyone has the right to education …
    • (3) Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.

Of course there are still major disagreements. Many people despise the UN Declaration of Human Rights, while even those who embrace it disagree with it at various points. Others reject common assumptions about what enforcing the rights enumerated in the Declaration requires on a political level. Just as importantly, the Declaration sets out only the broadest of frameworks for justice. It is tragically short on duties. It leaves tremendous room for conflict, abuse, or rationalized injustice. In so many ways, like any morality, it is  more a statement of unrealized ideals than of practical political reality.

Still, it remains a widely shared statement of universal morality, embraced by people of all sorts of religions and creeds. It remains precisely the sort of evidence for natural law to which theologians like Aquinas and Calvin pointed in their own times. I would argue that conservative Christians have avoided formulating their political convictions about abortion, marriage, child-rearing, education, and sexuality in terms consistent with the Declaration at their own peril.

There is a much stronger foundation for a public morality shared between Christians and nonbelievers, liberals and conservatives, than we are often willing to admit. Truth, thanks to common grace, still has tremendous power. If you are in doubt about what our society would really look like were this shared morality to evaporate you don’t know history very well. What we have is far from perfect, but it’s far from useless as well. Natural law is at work.

If Natural Law is Useless, Why Do So Many People Embrace It?

One of the common truisms I regularly come across in banter emanating from across the political and religious spectrum is that natural law is a theoretical concept devoid of any practical substance or significance. Natural law, its critics claim, produces no certain knowledge. It is more often merely the rhetorical projection of whatever a person firmly believes but finds herself unable to prove. Appeals to natural law never solve moral conflict. On the basis of natural law people on the right and the left come to radically contradictory conclusions about matters as fundamental as marriage, human life, and property. Better to find a clearer, more widely accepted basis for morality.

What is that alternative basis? Ask many conservative Christians and they will tell you it is the Bible. To be sure, the authority of the Bible is not as widely accepted as it once was, but it is still more widely accepted than any other “objective” standard. What’s more, these conservative Christians will tell you, it has the advantage of clarity. It may not answer every moral question that we have but it certainly settles the most important ones.

Really? Dig a little deeper into the blogosphere or media of any particular religious tradition and you will find that even among those who embrace the authority of Scripture there is a lot less agreement about the practical implications of what Scripture teaches than these broad appeals to the Bible would suggest. Look back into the history of Christianity and you will find even more disagreement. There is no uncontested conservative Christian consensus on moral issues as basic as slavery, war, women’s rights, poverty, or freedom of religion.

What’s more, when one takes into account different assumptions about the political implications of Scripture’s clear moral teaching the field gets even more complicated. Libertarians and theonomists, liberals and conservatives, democrats and authoritarians, nationalists and universalists all find a place under the broad Christian tent. Among these there is no consensus about the political implications of a myriad of moral subjects addressed with  more or less clarity in Scripture.

And to remind you, this is just to highlight disagreements among theologically conservative Christians. The political usefulness of the Bible as a public authority is seriously limited even before we take into account the fact that most members of our society do not accept it as a decisive authority in their lives at all.

But does that leave us without any basis for a shared public morality? No it does not, despite the apparent widespread cynicism about natural law. Step back from the more controversial political disputes of our time and you will discover much more of a public moral consensus than you might at first expect. Read the writings of almost any prominent ethicist or political theorists and you will discover appeals to broadly shared principles such as the golden rule, basic human rights, or principles of reciprocity and fairness. They might not like the term natural law and they might adamantly reject particular versions of natural law theory, but they still find themselves assuming its reality and even its concrete principles. Even the pagans know, as Calvin often said, that there are basic human values to be protected with laws backed up by coercive institutions.

In fact, in our own time there is even greater basis for confidence in the value of natural law than there was in the time of Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, or John Locke. We actually have a developing system of international law recognized throughout the world. We have the United Nations, which, problematic as it is, is still a political body in which all nations are represented. Perhaps most obviously, we have the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document that comes as close to being a statement of shared universal morality as the world has ever known. Natural Law is at work. Consider these articles:

  • Article 1: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
  • Article 3: Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.
  • Article 6: Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.
  • Article 12: No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.
  • Article 16:
    • (1) Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.
    • (2) Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.
    • (3) The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.
  • Article 18: Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.
  • Article 25
    • (1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.
    • (2) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.
  • Article 26
    • Everyone has the right to education …
    • (3) Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.

Of course there are still major disagreements. Many people despise the UN Declaration of Human Rights, while even those who embrace it disagree with it at various points. Others reject common assumptions about what enforcing the rights enumerated in the Declaration requires on a political level. Just as importantly, the Declaration sets out only the broadest of frameworks for justice. It is tragically short on duties. It leaves tremendous room for conflict, abuse, or rationalized injustice. In so many ways, like any morality, it is  more a statement of unrealized ideals than of practical political reality.

Still, it remains a widely shared statement of universal morality, embraced by people of all sorts of religions and creeds. It remains precisely the sort of evidence for natural law to which theologians like Aquinas and Calvin pointed in their own times. I would argue that conservative Christians have avoided formulating their political convictions about abortion, marriage, child-rearing, education, and sexuality in terms consistent with the Declaration at their own peril.

There is a much stronger foundation for a public morality shared between Christians and nonbelievers, liberals and conservatives, than we are often willing to admit. Truth, thanks to common grace, still has tremendous power. If you are in doubt about what our society would really look like were this shared morality to evaporate you don’t know history very well. What we have is far from perfect, but it’s far from useless as well. Natural law is at work.

Is this a way forward on the two kingdoms doctrine?

I’m grateful to Reformation 21 for publishing my three articles on the two kingdoms doctrine, the third of which is now up. For those who haven’t been keeping track, the first article sought to introduce readers to the idea of the two kingdoms and some of the controversy surrounding it. The second presented what I consider to be the “classic” Reformed two kingdoms doctrine – that of Calvin. In those two articles I raised some questions and concerns about both Calvin and contemporary versions of the two kingdoms doctrine. In this final article I set forth what I think Scripture teaches on the issue, and why I think it’s important to affirm biblical two kingdoms theology (whether you like the phrase ‘two kingdoms’ or not is largely irrelevant to me).

I get the sense most Christians, especially Reformed Christians, would affirm the doctrine as I outline it here. So I’ll throw it out there, and feel free to respond in the comments or to write me via the ‘contact’ feature on this blog. Do you think this is the way forward on the two kingdoms doctrine?

The Two Kingdoms Doctrine, Part Three: The Teaching of Scripture

The fundamental biblical truth that is expressed in the two kingdoms doctrine is that the Christian’s hope is to be fixed not on the things of this life that we see and experience all around us – our families, our work, politics – but on the Lord Jesus Christ, in whom we are promised a kingdom that will transform and transcend all of these things. This conviction, in turn, arises out of Christ’s teaching in the Sermon on the Mount that though believers’ lives are often characterized by poverty, mourning, an unsatisfied hunger and thirst for justice, and humiliating persecution, they are nevertheless said to possess the “kingdom of heaven,” a kingdom in which they will be comforted, satisfied, and granted the inheritance of the earth (Matthew 5:1-12). It expresses Jesus’s command to his disciples to pray that God’s kingdom would come and his will be done, for even as the things of this earth are destroyed or lost, Christians must live so as to store up treasures in heaven, where nothing is destroyed or lost (Matthew 5:10, 19-21). It seeks to take seriously Jesus’ exhortation to his disciples not to worry about the matters of this life, the things after which the nations seek. It is not that they are unimportant, but that if believers seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness “all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 5:25-33).

The Two Kingdoms in Scripture: “Not only in this age, but also in the one to come.”

The New Testament continually highlights the tension between the kingdom that is coming and the affairs of this age. Although Jesus declared that “the kingdom is within you” (Luke 17:21), his disciples were constantly wondering when he would actually restore all things. In fact, when Jesus arrived in Jerusalem in the days before his crucifixion, the Jewish leaders tried to trap him by forcing him openly to declare the revolutionary implications of his kingdom for marriage and politics. Jesus responded by describing the difference between the present age (in which men and women marry) and the age to come (in which there will be no marriage), between Caesar (to whom Christians are to give his due) and God (to whom is believers’ ultimate allegiance (Luke 20). Jesus’s trial before Pilate likewise revolved, in part, around whether or not his kingship challenged that of Caesar. Yet Jesus declared that his kingdom is not of, or from, this world (John 18:36). His point was not that the kingdom does not pertain to material things (it will transform all things!) but that it is not of or from this age (i.e., secular). (1) In terms of politics, that means the kingdom of Christ is not like a secular kingdom : “If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting” (18:36). Instead, Jesus’s kingdom rules through the proclamation of the truth, to which those who are of the truth listen (18:37).

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Do Christians believe in equality? Should we?

In his classic work The Three Orders: Feudal Society Imagined Georges Duby describes the way in which the medieval church understood the inequality of earthly society as a divinely ordained reflection of the heavenly hierarchy. “The harmony of God’s creation results from a hierarchized exchange of respectful submission and condescending affection” (p. 34). Like the angels, divided into ordinary angels and archangels, so human beings are divided into those that submit and those that serve. In addition, human society is organized according to three functional orders: those who pray (the priests, at the top of the hierarchy); those who fight (the kings and princes); and those who labor (the peasants).

To be sure, medieval theologians recognized that God had created all people equal. But they insisted that he did not expect them to live in functional or hierarchical equality. Duby quotes one famous statement by Gerard, an 11th Century Bishop of Cambrai: “Although nature creates all men equal, error subordinates some to others in accordance with the variable order of merits; this diversity arising from vice is established by divine judgment so that, since man is not intended to live in equality, one may be ruled by another” (p. 35, emphasis added).

There were egalitarians in those days, Duby points out. For instance, in 1024 Gerard was confronted with one campaign by a bishop who claimed he had received a letter from heaven calling for the restoration of peace in the world in anticipation with the millennium, expected by many on the 1,000th anniversary of Christ’s death. The letter called for human society to be renewed according to three forms of equality: equality in agreements (society should be grounded in egalitarian oaths); equality in grace (fasting as the only basis for the forgiveness of sins); and equality in peace (an end to vengeance and war).

For bishops like Gerard, of course, such a vision was horrifying, a heresy that threatened the equilibrium of the universe. Gerard argued, and his arguments were representative of the views of the church of his day, that the kingdom of heaven is not expressed or realized in terms of equality. God imposes certain rules and commands on some that he does not impose upon others.

There were distinctions between men, an essential inequality which could be compensated only by charity, mercy, and mutual service, service which everyone was obliged to give and entitled to expect from his fellow man…. This reciprocity was the source of peace on earth. Others spoke of heaven. Heaven was exactly the same. There were several abodes in the house of the Lord. It was God’s wish that even in paradise a certain inequalitas prevail, reduced to nought only by charity, collective communication in the glory of God, common participation in the ineffable joy of salvation. This is the cornerstone of Gerard’s ideology: a generous redistribution of the available wealth within an inevitable framework of inequality. (38)

Redistribution of wealth is the right way to think about it. The power and prestige of the church (those who pray) and of the magistracy (those who bear the sword) was built on the labor and taxation of the peasantry (those who grew the food). Life expectancy for a peasant throughout much of the middle ages was somewhere in the thirties. The peasants were expected neither to understand the teaching of their faith nor to rise out of their poverty to any sort of mobility or prosperity. For all the emphasis on the need for superiors to serve their inferiors (after the example of Christ), we all know what usually happened.

The Reformation was one of the great catalysts that destroyed this system. The reformers rejected the church’s claim that believers had to draw near to God through the sacramental system controlled by the clergy, replacing it with the priesthood of all believers in response to the preaching of the gospel. Although Calvin and others insisted that the liberty of the spiritual kingdom had no obvious implications for liberty in the political kingdom, the flow of history dictated otherwise. As Charles Taylor and others have demonstrated, the rejection of a hierarchical order in the church was gradually followed by the rejection of hierarchy in government (i.e., the divine right of kings), the prohibition of radical economic inequality (i.e., slavery), and eventually the abandonment of hierarchy in the family (i.e., male headship).

We American Christians now find ourselves in an interesting scenario. We would all affirm, with the medieval church, that God created human beings equal, but most of us would be terribly uneasy about the way in which the church assumed the legitimacy of a hierarchy of orders (and of hierarchy within orders) that permitted no mobility, no avenue of ascent for those of talent. We don’t like Calvin’s declarations that ordinary Christians shouldn’t concern themselves with changing their day-jobs or with judging political affairs. We are uneasy about the way in which many of our forbears described or treated women.

To be sure, we recognize that there is a need for leadership in the church and in society. Not everyone can hold the same vocation, nor should everyone possess the same wealth and the same honor. But we like being able to hold our leaders accountable to us through elections, and we have a strong, visceral reaction against those leaders who would claim the right to confiscate our property through taxation, even if that property is directed to the lower ranks of society rather than to the elites. We expect that if we are willing to study and work hard we should be able to pursue a vocation suitable to our interests and talents, and even to change vocations if we feel so inclined. Most of us, while rejecting radical feminism, have no desire to force women back under the social and legal constraints within which they have lived for most of western history.

The rhetoric of equality is thrown around loosely by politicians and believers on the left and right. For some equality is the reigning norm that trumps all norms in all circumstances. The only differences that should be tolerated are those that are consensual and absolutely necessary (i.e., that we cannot possibly eliminate). For others equality is a great evil, a Trojan Horse that enables ideologists to exercise their tyranny over the rest of us. But most of us recognize that the truth lies somewhere between these extremes.

In that sense we have a lot in common with the medieval church. We believe that God created human beings equal even though we don’t think human beings are made equal in all respects. But what do we affirm beyond that? Is there a Christian teaching on equality? Should the liberty and equality of the spiritual kingdom have any implications at all for life in the political kingdom? How do we evaluate various claims to equality: legal, political, economic, gender? How do we justify defending equality in one area but not in another?

I’m curious to hear how many of you would answer these questions. Let me know your thoughts in the comments section or feel free to send me a reply through the contact page.

If you care about traditional marriage, stop fighting a culture war over it

A few weeks ago I commented on a post written over at First Thoughts by Greg Forster arguing that Christians need to stop thinking of their public engagement in terms of a culture war. Now Forster has written an equally provocative and helpful post explaining his opposition to the culture war model further. Forster argues that it is the culture war mentality itself that may be the greatest obstacle to actually achieving the goals of that war. He points out that while the term culture war was once merely a descriptive term, it has been turned into a normative term used to rally citizens and activists for conflict and for the defeat of the enemy.

I believe this normative use of martial language has actually become the key obstacle to victory in our fight for life, marriage and even religious liberty. We have identified the success of these policies as a victory of our religious subculture over other subcultures. If you vote for marriage, you not just voting for marriage; you are voting in favor of being ruled by the conservative religious subculture. So people have to make a choice. What do I value more, marriage or my right not to be ruled by the conservative religious subculture? That’s a fight we will lose in the long run. And the main reason we will lose it is because we ought to. Our religion gives us no right to rule our neighbors.

Just for clarity, I think the problem is not specifically with the use of martial language in any context, but with the identification of the battle for life, marriage, etc. as a battle for the victory of our religious subculture over others. So I’m not asking advocates to stop talking about “victory” for marriage, etc. I’m asking them to stop framing victory for marriage as victory for our side in a culture war.

In other words, preserving traditional marriage is not about preserving the establishment of Christianity. It is about serving our neighbors by doing what is best for them. As Glenn T. Stanton writes in Christianity Today, even in academic circles marriage is increasingly viewed as a basic component necessary to human health and prosperity. There is much common ground between Christians and nonbelievers to which we can appeal in seeking to resolve this issue.

For the past 20 years or more … the unexpected factor in whether our neighbors and their children rise from poverty is marital status. Isabel Sawhill, co-director of the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institute, explains: “The proliferation of single-parent households accounts for virtually all of the increase in child poverty since the early 1970s.”

The Christian’s attention to the well-being of marriage among the various strata of society is about far more than mere traditionalism or empty moralism. Marriage is unarguably a central love of neighbor issue.

The key issue for Forster is not whether or not we should fight to preserve traditional marriage (he is adamant that we should) but whether or not we do this in a spirit of enmity and conflict or a spirit in love and comity.

America is defined by its commitment to be a society where people of diverse religious and moral convictions can live together as civic equals. George Washington expressed this beautifully in his letter to the Hebrew Congregation at Newport: in Europe Jews are tolerated – they are permitted to be Jews – but in America Jews are, for civic purposes, interchangeable with their Christian neighbors. As I once heard a prominent American pastor put it, the survival of the American experiment depends on Christians cultivating strong and deep ties of civic solidarity with their spiritual enemies.

It’s not hard to find an analogy for this. If I have a common problem with my Muslim neighbors – let’s say they are not taking adequate measures to prevent their chickens from defecating in my yard – it makes no sense for me to confront this neighbor with the all-or-nothing claims of a culture or religious war. It would be absurd for me to start quoting Scripture to my neighbor, or to confront him with the Christian claim about Christ’s lordship over all of life – including his chickens – in order to persuade him to exercise better restraint over his chickens. It would make no sense for me to tell him that unless he becomes a Christian we will never be able to resolve our neighborly conflicts with one another. He is my neighbor. He has a common interest with me in staying on good terms and in treating each other with justice and respect. He will ordinarily be won over to right conduct by appeals on this basis.

Forster appeals to us as Americans, but an even stronger appeal could be made to those who consider themselves Christians. Our task is not to domineer and lord ourselves over the world. Our calling is to serve our neighbors and our communities in the passing affairs of this age, even as we point them to the gospel and its promises (and warnings) about the age to come. As human beings made in the image of God, as Calvin constantly argued, we are united as brothers and sisters even with those who are not believers in Christ. We should serve them with the love and respect they deserve.

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