Category Archives: Calvinism

Trump, Cruz, and the Politicization of the Gospel

At First Things Richard Mouw joins in on the criticism of Jerry Falwell, Jr., who praised Donald Trump as “one of the greatest visionaries of our time” who “lives a life of helping others . . . as Jesus taught in the New Testament.” Mouw agrees with Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore that Falwell’s comments about Trump politicize the gospel. As Moore tweeted, “Politics driving the gospel rather than the other way around is the third temptation of Christ. He overcame it. Will we?”

What is interesting about Mouw’s piece is that he admits that in the past Calvinists have sometimes failed to overcome that third temptation of Christ. Even more interesting is that he points to Abraham Kuyper as a helpful corrective to this tendency. For those who are used to placing Kuyper in stark opposition to Reformed two kingdoms theology, Mouw’s brief description might begin to free them of that misguided tendency. Kuyper believed all of life falls under the lordship of Christ, of course, as did the classic Reformed two kingdoms tradition, but he also argued that Christ’s lordship calls for the sort of politics that embrace a democratic religious pluralism, as have some more recent Reformed two kingdoms advocates.

Mouw writes,

Mr. Trump promised his Liberty audience that if elected he will “protect Christianity.” People who love the Christian faith certainly could do with some protection these days. But the religious freedom we long for has to come as part of a larger movement for justice that generates a more comprehensive vision for a pluralistic society. It is in the service of that broader vision that we can avoid, as Russell Moore nicely put it, a pattern of “politics driving the gospel rather than the other way around.” If Jerry Falwell, Jr. wants some theological help in understanding that vision, I have a 19th century Calvinist whom I can recommend on the subject.

Falwell is not the only conservative Mouw might have criticized for politicizing the faith. Senator Ted Cruz apparently declared to his followers, “If we awaken and energize the body of Christ – if Christians and people of faith come out and vote their values – we will win and we will turn the country around.” “I want to tell everyone to get ready, strap on the full armor of God, get ready for the attacks that are coming.”

Christians should be very wary of candidates who identify their campaigns so closely with the purposes of God and the gospel faith, just as they should be wary of candidates who needlessly alienate Muslims and those who practice other faiths. Mouw is correct. Justice is nothing if not comprehensive in its vision for a pluralistic society.

You can read the rest of Mouw’s piece 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.”

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.

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.

If Jesus Is Lord, Can Unbelievers Own Property?

In his commentary on 1 Timothy 4:5 Calvin makes one of his most provocative claims about the significance of the lordship of Christ over all things.

God has appointed to his children alone the whole world and all that is in the world. For this reason, they are also called the heirs of the world, for at the beginning Adam was appointed to be lord of all, on this condition, that he should continue in obedience to God. Accordingly, his rebellion against God deprived of the right, which had been bestowed on him, not only himself but his posterity. And since all things are subject to Christ, we are fully restored by his mediation, and that through faith, and therefore all that unbelievers enjoy may be regarded as the property of others, which they rob or steal.

Calvin makes the same point in numerous other places. When Adam sinned humanity forfeited not only its hope of eternal life, but its very right to the blessings of God’s creation. Jesus’ work as the second Adam has regained the creation, which is now destined for complete restoration at Christ’s return. Yet only those who hold fast to Christ in faith can participate in this legitimate lordship, let alone in its future restoration. All other possession is unjust.

Continuing in his commentary on 1 Timothy 4:5, Calvin writes,

And which of us would venture to claim for himself a single grain of wheat, if he were not taught by the word of God that he is the heir of the world? Common sense, indeed, pronounces that the wealth of the world is naturally intended for our use, but since dominion over the world was taken from us in Adam, everything that we touch of the gifts of God is defiled by our pollution, and on the other hand, it is unclean to us, till God graciously come to our aid, and by ingrafting us into his Son, constitutes us anew to be lords of the world, that we may lawfully use as our own all the wealth with which he supplies us.

Some contemporary Reformed Christians, wary of Neo-Calvinist claims about the progressive transformation of the world into the kingdom of Christ, have insisted that the New Testament teaches a redemption of persons but not of creation itself. Whether or not this is the case (and I believe the New Testament is quite clear that Christ reconciles creation itself), there is no doubt that Calvin is on the side of the Neo-Calvinists here. Jesus’ lordship over all things is exhaustive, and no one has any right to use or enjoy the blessings of creation without dedicating it to the glory and service of God. As he puts it in his commentary on Hebrews 2:8, “nothing is ours except through the bounty of God and our union with Christ.” This includes “not only things needful for eternal blessedness, but also such inferior things as serve to supply the wants of the body.”

But does that mean non-Christians have no rights to property or political power? In the medieval era a number of Christian theologians, as well as some popes, claimed just that. A king might forfeit his authority over his subjects, for instance, if he was excommunicated. We might find a parallel to this view among contemporary Christians who speak and act as if unbelievers should not be placed in positions of political leadership, or as if political power justified on any other basis than Christian scripture is illegitimate.

Yet Calvin does not go there. He carefully distinguishes between right and legitimate use. Because of his sin, he argues, Adam was denied the good things of creation, “not that he was denied the use of them, but that he could have had no right to them” (Commentary on Hebrews 2:5). Nowhere in his massive corpus of writings does Calvin question the practical right of unbelievers to hold property or to exercise political power.

But if Jesus is lord over all things, how is this consistent? For many of us it seems intuitive that if Jesus is lord his authority must be asserted with energy and power. We are quite confident that we understand what lordship looks like and what its implications should be. If we’re serious about following him, we need confidently to conquer and defend every square inch of creation.

“Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war, with the cross of Jesus, going on before.”

This is where it is crucial to understand Calvin’s understanding of the eschatological nature of Christ’s kingdom. To put it in ordinary terms, while Calvin affirms that Jesus is lord over all things in heaven and on earth, he insists that until he returns to judge the living and the dead, this lordship is exercised in the context of mercy, service, and suffering. Just as Jesus, in other words, declined to exercise his judicial authority during his earthly ministry, taking instead the form of a servant and going the way of the cross, so believers are to live in the same way. This is true even though Jesus has ascended to God’s right hand and holds all authority in heaven and on earth. Today is the day of salvation.

As Calvin explains in the commentary on Hebrews 2, following his comments on Adam’s having forfeited his rights over creation, it is God’s will that believers “spend their whole life under the cross,” just as Christ did before them. “This is the conforming of the head with the members, of which Paul speaks in Romans 8:29.”

If we are serious about Christ’s lordship, then, we are going to have to give up our intuitions about what that must mean and start to pay attention to what our lord has actually told us to do. The calling of Christians in this age is not militantly to assert and defend Christ’s lordship, as real as that lordship is, but to proclaim and witness to that lordship by conforming to the image of Christ in service and suffering.

And it is here that much of the Protestant tradition after Calvin went wrong. Whether due to an idealistic Puritan postmillennialism or to Whig theories of liberal progress, leading theologians, both conservative and liberal, became convinced that the kingdom of Christ will be realized progressively in this world, transforming all political and social structures in its wake. They even claimed Calvin’s authority for this view, despite the reformer’s constant insistence that the Christian life this side of Christ’s return is marked by the experience of the cross.

To be sure, Calvin taught adamantly that society is to be regulated in accord with the word of God, and he was confident that the kingdom of Christ would expand progressively up to Christ’s return. But the primary expression of this expansion is the preaching of the gospel by Christ’s ambassadors, empowered by the Spirit, and the consequent gathering of repentant sinners. And Calvin never wavered from insisting that this expansion takes place under the cross.

Thus it is a most apt conclusion – that whatever the gospel promises respecting the glory of the resurrection vanishes away, except we spend our present life in patiently bearing the cross and tribulations….

He then shows by the very order of election that the afflictions of the faithful are nothing else than the manner by which they are conformed to the image of Christ, and that this was necessary, as he had before declared… [G]ratuitous adoption, in which our salvation consists, is inseparable from the other decree, which determines that we are to bear the cross, for no one can be an heir of heaven without being conformed to the image of the only begotten son of God… [H]e will have all those whom he adopts to be the heirs of his kingdom to be conformed to his example. (Commentary on Romans 8:25,29)

So often in contemporary debates among Christians one side insists that because Jesus is lord Christians need to be more assertive in the culture wars, while the other side insists that because Jesus’ kingdom is spiritual Christians shouldn’t worry about or even engage the culture wars. Yet Calvin’s theology points us in a different direction. Because Jesus is lord over all things, whether on earth or in heaven, Christians should imitate their lord and conform to his example, taking up their cross and serving their neighbors in love. Clearly Christians need to be engaged in the issues of our time, but the manner of our engagement matters just as much as the engagement itself. Because we testify that apart from Christ no one has any right to political authority or property, including ourselves, we must approach the things of this world as Christ did, in humility and service.

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15).

Why is the Reformed tradition in decline?

On his blog The Ecclesial Calvinist (HT: Aquila Report) Bill Evans offers some insightful reflections on the declining influence of conservative Presbyterianism (or of the confessional Reformed tradition) in America. I don’t agree with every word Evans says, but I do agree with his general perspective. What Evans captures especially well is the way in which Presbyterians have increasingly turned inward, becoming more and more obsessed with intramural squabbles over secondary and even tertiary points of doctrine, and even with turf wars between ever shrinking (proportionally) seminaries and denominations.

Presbyterian and Reformed Christians seem to view unity and solidarity as a luxury or utopian dream rather than as a command of Christ. They tragically underestimate the way in which this division and intramural conflict is destroying their credibility – and therefore their survival.

As Evans writes,

There has been a decided turn to intramural theological squabbles in conservative Presbyterian circles since the 1970s—the Shepherd controversy, theonomy, Federal Vision, the Pete Enns controversy, literal six-day young-earth creationism, 2K.  The list goes on and on.  Some of these issues reflect historic fissures in the tradition, while others are evidence of the breakdown of earlier theological consensus and the loss of a sense of proportionality.  Not every issue requires that one go to the mat… when such issues consume us it is both a distraction to those inside and off-putting to those outside.

Evans isn’t arguing that none of these issues are important. He is suggesting, rather, that they have inappropriately become all-consuming. What helps blow the various controversies out of proportion is the way in which they become tied to institutional turf wars.

Not surprisingly, some institutions have looked for something distinctive—a particular view of confessionalism, or grace, or ministry, or being “missional,” or biblical theology, or whatever—to give them a leg up in the market.  But this has, in turn, contributed to the theological “Balkanization” of the conservative Reformed community and it has also, on occasion, led to unseemly and snarky internet squabbles.

Evans is talking about seminaries here but he later extends the point to denominations as well. Far too many of us are concerned about our denominational identity and traditions, rather than about the gospel and church of Christ.

Perhaps Evans’ most insightful point, however, is not the pervasiveness of narrowing vision and consequent intramural squabbling. Perhaps his most penetrating suggestion is that Reformed and Presbyterian Christians have had their sense of mission and faithfulness distorted by their impulsive conservatism. Evans doesn’t say it this way (and I don’t think he would want to), but have theological liberalism and the cultural turn away from Christendom confused far too many Reformed Christians into thinking that their calling is to be conservative, rather than to be Scriptural?

To be sure, most Reformed conservatives would insist that those are one and the same thing. But that, it seems to me, is precisely the problem. The legitimate recognition that theological liberalism has seriously undermined the orthodox Christian faith, and the determination to defend that faith, has evolved into the assumption that the conservative position is always the biblical position. No longer do we confidently witness to the liberal (i.e., generous and earth-shattering), powerful and transforming work of the resurrected Christ; now we batten down the hatches, bolster the fortress, and try to hang on to our posts for dear life. As Evans writes,

What we have said above suggests that the prevailing theological impulse in conservative Presbyterian circles is, well, “conservative”; it is oriented toward the conserving of a tradition, and theological discussions sometimes seem like exercises in historic preservation.  To be sure, we have a goodly heritage and one that I embrace, but are there areas where further work is needed?

Evans describes the commitment of many Presbyterians to an increasingly rigid, or fundamentalist understanding of the authority of Scripture. He also worries about an exaggerated confidence in the ability of confessions to productively shape (or leverage?) Scriptural interpretation. When our obsession is with preserving our own micro-traditions, pale imitations of a once great theological and ecclesiastical stream, the temptation is overwhelming to manipulate Scripture for our own purposes, ignoring the difference between the Word and human interpretation of that Word. When we have an exaggerated understanding of the exhaustive significance of 16th and 17th century confessions designed with 16th and 17th century problems in mind, our theology, preaching, and church life quickly become more like artifacts in a museum than like the faithful witness of Christ’s church in 21st century America.

No doubt things are not quite as bleak as this blog post might suggest. And neither Evans nor I are suggesting that Reformed believers abandon the authority of Scripture or vigorous allegiance to our confessions. The problem is not with historic Reformed theology at all, per se. But what Evans seems to be suggesting, and if so, I agree with him, is that the church needs to reexamine whether a tragic preoccupation with tradition and with the forms, practices, and controversies of the past is actually undermining the authority of Scripture, the role for which our confessions were historically intended, and our faithful witness in the present. One thing seems clear. In terms of size, influence, and prospects, the Reformed tradition is, and has been for quite some time, in serious decline. We have a lot of soul-searching to do.

Calvin’s two kingdoms doctrine – between overconfidence and despair

At the heart of the controversy within Reformed circles over the two kingdoms doctrine is the assertion of two kingdoms advocates that not all of life’s activities or institutions should be identified with the kingdom of God. Although neo-Calvinism is by no means monolithic on this point, many neo-Calvinists, especially those writing the programmatic rhetoric at formative institutions like high schools and colleges, tend to speak of the creation in general as the kingdom of God, and of all Christian activity as kingdom work. The kingdom, in this view, is simply the realm of God’s authority. Barack Obama’s office as president is just as much a part of that kingdom as is the work of your local pastor because both are under the lordship of Christ. Within this universal kingdom the only legitimate distinction is between those whose work is loyal to the king and those who support the rebellion.

While we can debate the teaching of Scripture on this point, there should be little doubt that these claims are indeed neo-Calvinist, that is, that they break with the two kingdoms emphasis of the great theologian John Calvin. Although Calvin affirms, of course, that having ascended into heaven Christ is supreme over all things, both in heaven and on earth, he consistently clarifies that the kingdom of Christ proper only exists where human beings have voluntarily yielded themselves in subjection to Christ. He also emphasizes – over and over – that while the kingdom is spiritual (i.e., eternal, though not immaterial), the affairs and institutions of this age, including marriage, government, and yes, even cultural knowledge (see his commentary on 1 Corinthians 13) is temporal, transient, and will pass away.

That doesn’t mean Calvin thinks the kingdom isn’t present, or even that all that Christians do in this life should not be a testimony to the coming of that kingdom. On the contrary, Calvin insists that every Christian, whatever her vocation, should channel her efforts towards the cause of Christ. Even government should do all that it can to protect and promote the kingdom, while recognizing that the real work of that kingdom is accomplished through the preaching of the gospel and the ministry of the church.

In his 1560 dedication of his commentary on Acts to Lord Nicolas Radziwill, the chief marshal and head chancellor of Lithuania, Calvin carefully explained the two senses in which the kingdom is present in this age. While affirming that Christ decisively established his kingdom when he ascended into heaven, he acknowledges that the ordinary state of affairs this side of Christ’s return will be one of conflict, persecution, and suffering. He then writes,

When we speak of the kingdom of Christ, we must respect two things: the teaching of the gospel, whereby Christ gathers to himself a church and whereby he governs the same, being gathered together; second, the society of the godly, who being coupled together by the sincere faith of the gospel, are truly accounted the people of God…

This kingdom must always be distinguished from Christ’s broader kingship, which includes what two kingdoms advocates remind us is the temporal, or political kingdom.

For although the Son of God has always reigned, even from the first beginning of the world, yet after that, being revealed in the flesh, he published his gospel, and he began to erect a more famous tribunal seat than before, from which he now appears most plainly and is most glorious.

It is that “tribunal seat” that is represented in the ministry of the church, and it is in the society of Christians that its power is expressed.

But Calvin never suggests that the task of Christians is to somehow turn this world into the kingdom. For Calvin the restoration or renewal of the world begins to take place in the church, through the regeneration of believers, who then testify to their loyalty to that kingdom – and to its imminent transformation of all things – in their lives. Yet the restoration of “outward” or “external” matters, the transformation of all that is fallen and transient, awaits Jesus’ return.

In the late 19th and early 20th Centuries Protestant theologians began to claim Calvin’s theology as warrant and precedent for their attempts to bring the kingdom of God to expression in this age through the social gospel. Everything that the reformer said about obeying God’s law in government, family, or economics was taken as evidence that Calvin himself believed the task of Christians was to transform all of life into the kingdom. To this day some neo-Calvinists make the same claims, failing to recognize the significant extent to which their attitude towards culture and politics breaks with that of Calvin. Yet today there is little excuse for maintaining the naive optimism of the early 20th Century social gospel, though some are deceived by the spirit of our times; most transformationalists therefore tend to be pessimistic culture warriors on the verge of despair.

But if Calvin is our guide, such pessimism and despair is as unwarranted as was the naive cultural confidence that made such despair inevitable. Calvin saw the present manifestation of Christ’s transformation of the world in the church, its government and its society, and he constantly warned his readers and hearers that this side of Jesus’ return, the context for that manifestation would be one of suffering witness. In an age when the West is increasingly turning away from the legacy of Christianity, we would do well to reconsider the wisdom of that warning.

Who cares about unity anyway? The Significance of the PCA

The Presbyterian Church in America is by far the largest conservative Reformed denomination in the United States. Totaling approximately 300,000 members, it represents a powerful proportion of the combined population of the United States and Canada: approximately 0.09%. If you are confused by the combination of decimals and percentages, take it simply as a decimal: 0.0009. Or if you find fractions more helpful, members of the PCA represent approximately one out of every 1,111 Americans and Canadians.

Perhaps with such staggering statistics in mind, PCA pastor Sam DeSocio suggests that the PCA might be too large and should consider splitting. The PCA is simply too big, containing within itself too many factions, none of which can win control of the denomination, with the result that it has no clear identity. In addition, the PCA’s size makes it hard for the various confessional Reformed denominations to unite together without being dominated by the PCA.

Part of the problem is that presently the PCA is so large that it has decided that it will invite other denominations to join with us, and be received, but that we will not merge with others to form a new organization. If instead of one larger theologically conservative Presbyterian church we were three such smaller groups, it might make it possible for us to better cooperate with many other denominations. What I’m suggesting is that maybe for the sake of framing a larger church we first need to do some demo.

The sort of split DeSocio proposes is therefore not the kind of split that is required when Christians have to defend the gospel, or expel heresy. Rather, it is the sort of split that is needed for better functioning. It’s all for the cause of greater peace and harmony – even unity. Never mind the fact that once denominations split the likelihood of success in getting them back together is about as high as is that of dismantling a federal program or bureaucracy. It’s happened once or twice, but I wouldn’t bet my spending money on it.

To be clear, I’m not trying to pick on DeSocio here, although it might seem like it. I take him at his word that his long-term objective is indeed greater unity. But I’m less concerned with what one person thinks than I am with the general assumptions an increasing number of Reformed leaders appear to hold when conducting these debates. It seems that there is little left of John Calvin’s conviction that unity in the gospel is one of the most fundamental obligations of the church. More precisely, there is little left of the old Reformed consensus that various churches are called by Christ to come together in assemblies of churches called presbyteries, synods, and ultimately national (if not international) assemblies. Our synods and general assemblies today are much more like voluntary associations, parties of like-minded churches, if you will, than like anything representing a confessional, territorial church. In short, we seem to believe that while there are biblical, Reformed principles of church government at the congregational level, these principles are not binding on any broader level.

Note that I’m not even talking about organizational unity with the vast majority of Christians in the world – that would be unthinkable – folks like Baptists, Methodists, Anglicans, Pentecostals, or, obviously, Roman Catholics. I’m not talking about unity with “Reformed” denominations whose allegiance to the orthodox Christian creeds has significantly faltered. I’m talking about unity with Reformed denominations who hold to the Reformed and Presbyterian confessions.

What DeSocio is suggesting is that because the PCA is divided into various factions unified by their respective approaches to church and ministry, the common confessional allegiance is no longer sufficient to warrant organizational unity. Yet as Scott Clark writes in his excellent response to DeSocio’s argument:

What unites the Reformed and Presbyterian churches is not a philosophy of ministry but the Word of God as confessed by the churches. There’s no denying that real differences do develop in the life of a denomination but as these surface the first response should not be to divide but to re-form around God’s Word as confessed by the churches.

This is hard. Remaining united with people with whom you hold significant practical disagreements requires immense patience and humility. It requires the willingness to abandon unrealistic or inappropriate objectives of uniformity or power. As one Reformed elder, who is by no means happy with much of what he sees in the PCA, wrote to me,

Unity takes a lot of humility. I think it is of utmost important for denominations to know what is the basis of their unity and with Scott Clark it is our Confession. So we have to guard the confessions and swallow our pride when things are not as we like, but are not contrary to our confessions.

If unity takes humility, then its opposite is pride, or ambition. And as John Calvin never tires of observing, the main reason why Christians divide from one another – the vice that lies at the heart of virtually every heresy and schism – is ambition. It is often ambition for power, control, or influence that drives one faction against another at a church assembly. It is ambition for worldly success that frequently drives pastors and churches to abandon their more conservative brothers and sisters in order to forge some new path ahead. It is ambition for an unrealistically pure or perfect church that consistently leads others to insist that fidelity with the few is more important than unity with Christ’s whole body, if such unity requires toleration of its flaws and weaknesses.

One of Rome’s major apologetic arguments during the Reformation was that the Protestant logic of sola Scriptura would – rather than unifying the church under the true gospel – turn every church and every Christian into its own pope. Calvin may have been right to retort that fidelity to the gospel and to Scripture – in short, allegiance to Christ – is a sufficient bond for the maintenance of unity. But, ironically, he seems to have overestimated the interest of his followers in actually maintaining that unity.

Do Reformed Christians still believe that ecclesiastical unity is an obligation, or have we embraced the ethos of American Evangelicalism on this point, more interested in our freedom and independence than in solidarity. When it’s all said and done, the very important question underlying all of this is, Do we care? Does unity matter?

Wilson Was a Calvinist, but He Got Calvin Wrong

I’ve written a short piece over at Patheos about the relation between President Woodrow Wilson and Reformed theologians like Abraham Kuyper, J. Gresham Machen, and John Calvin. Here are the first couple paragraphs:

In a fascinating essay at Patheos, Dean Curry describes Malcolm Magee’s argument in What the World Should Be that President Woodrow Wilson’s foreign policy was decisively shaped by his Presbyterian Reformed theology.

“It is well known that Woodrow Wilson was a foreign policy idealist and that his approach to it was moralistic. After all, it was Wilson who famously promised that America’s participation in World War I would not be about selfish national interest—or realpolitik — but about the altruism of making the world “safe for democracy.” What is not well known about Wilson, and what Magee explains in fascinating detail, is how Wilson’s personal and political worldview was profoundly shaped by Reformed Protestant theology. Challenging the prevailing historiography of Wilson that has all but ignored Wilson’s theology, it is Magee’s thesis that Wilson was a “Presbyterian in politics, a twentieth century John Knox, a Christian statesman whose overriding motivation was his determination to do God’s work in a fallen world.””

Curry goes on to describe Wilson’s relationship with his father, a very prominent Southern Presbyterian pastor, and the influence on Wilson’s thinking of Princeton theologians like Charles Hodge, A. A. Hodge, and Benjamin B. Warfield. Curry also outlines Wilson’s friendship with J. Gresham Machen, as well as similarities between Wilson’s understanding of the relation between Reformed faith and politics, and that of Abraham Kuyper.

Read the rest, including my judgment of Wilson’s connection to Calvin’s thought, here.

Reformed pastors are invoking Reformed resistance theory to justify disobedience to the Obama administration: Do they have a case?

Since starting up this blog about six months ago I have repeatedly encountered Reformed writers – many of them pastors – who are invoking 16th Century Reformed resistance theory to justify rejection of the Obama administration, whether in the form of civil disobedience or more open forms of resistance. The argument starts, of course, with the assertion that the federal government has become tyrannical. It then claims, supposedly on the basis of the old theory of resistance, that tyrannical governments have no claim on the obedience of Christians. It finally turns to propose that Christians take up active resistance in various ways, such as by refusing to pay taxes. Here are some examples of rhetoric I have heard or read:

  • One Presbyterian pastor whose church I visited proclaimed from his pulpit that Americans face worse oppression than the Hebrew slaves did in the land of Israel because we have higher tax rates. His audience seemed to agree with him.
  • A Reformed pastor wrote on his blog that because of its policy on immigration and health care the Obama administration has forfeited its moral authority. Christians no longer owe it any obedience.
  • A Presbyterian pastor wrote on his blog that if the government uses federal money to fund abortions, or even if it simply raises income taxes too much, Christians might legitimately refuse to pay taxes.

None of these pastors were advocating particular acts of violence, but all of them invoked Reformed resistance theory when pressed, at least asserting that violent resistance is a legitimate option.

The question is, do any of these statements actually reflect continuity with classic Reformed resistance theory? To answer this question I have to point out that there is really not one authoritative version of that theory. Over time persecution, religious war, and atrocities such as the St. Bartholomew Day Massacre clearly radicalized Reformed polemicists. Eventually some Reformed thinkers argued what would have been unthinkable to a theologian like John Calvin, that if a government fails to promote the true Reformed religion believers may seek to overthrow it.

Here, however, I want to focus on the more moderate version of Reformed resistance theory, the version famously articulated by Calvin in his 1559 Institutes. This version, I think it is fair to say, has a lot in common with the sorts of resistance theories appealed to by America’s Founding Fathers, as well as by the South in the Civil War era. But it has little in common with the sorts of arguments made by contemporary Reformed pastors as I highlighted above.

In the last chapter of the Institutes Calvin explicitly argues that Christian believers must obey the governing authorities, no matter how tyrannical they may be, in everything that does not force them to sin. He makes himself quite clear that tyranny on the part of the government does not justify disobedience, whether in the form of a refusal to obey a law or pay taxes, or in the form of seditious or violent activity.

We are not only subject to the authority of princes who perform their office toward us uprightly and faithfully as they ought, but also to the authority of all who, by whatever means, have got control of affairs, even though they perform not a whit of the princes’ office. (4.20.25)

There are many things, he goes on to explain, that a tyrant does that he has no right to do from the perspective of the law, but they nevertheless retain their rights in relation to the people. For instance, relative to the tyranny of a future king described by the prophet Samuel in 1 Samuel 8 Calvin writes,

Surely, the king would not do this by legal right, since the law trained them to all restraint. But it was called a right in relation to the people, for they had to obey it and were not allowed to resist. (4.20.26)

That is Calvin’s basic rule for ordinary Christians when it comes to tyrannical government. But in the second last section of the Institutes Calvin offers one significant exception, an exception that presupposes his two kingdoms distinction. He clarifies that everything he has been saying refers to Christians in their roles as private persons. It does not refer to persons who hold magisterial office within the civil government.

For if there are now any magistrates of the people, appointed to restrain the willfulness of kings (… perhaps, as things now are, such power as the three estates exercise in every realm when they hold their chief assemblies), I am so far from forbidding them to withstand, in accordance with their duty, the fierce licentiousness of kings, that, if they wink at kings who violently fall upon and assault the lowly common folk, I declare that their dissimulation involves nefarious perfidy, because they dishonestly betray the freedom of the people, of which they know that they have been appointed protectors by God’s ordinance. (4.20.31)

Note that Calvin’s explicit reference is to the estates in their assemblies. Here there is clear precedent for the sorts of arguments made by the Founding Fathers (i.e., that the colonial governments had the authority to resist the tyranny of Parliament) or the Southern secessionists (i.e., that the states had the authority to resist the unjust policies of the federal government), whether or not either of those cases were in fact instances of tyranny or injustice.

How did Calvin apply his theory in practice? In 1560 a French nobleman came to Geneva seeking the support of Calvin and the other pastors for a military coup against the French government. In 1559 the powerful French monarch Henri II had tragically died in a jousting accident. His oldest son, Francis II, though fifteen years of age, was neither physically nor mentally able to be King. As a result the stridently anti-Protestant House of Guise established an unofficial regency that was inevitably threatening to the Reformed churches in France. Yet the House of Guise had little right to take this step. For it was the Bourbon family, which was sympathetic to Protestantism, that was most closely related to the monarchical line. Thus it was the Princes of the Blood, Anthony of Navarre and his younger brother Louis, Prince of Conde, who should have had the primary role in the establishment of a regency.

Calvin rejected what became known as the Conspiracy of Amboise because it was not led by the Princes of the Blood. And the conspiracy ended catastrophically for the Protestant cause. Within a few years, however, Francis II also died, and the ascent to the throne of his younger brother Charles IX, too young legally to exercise the full power of the  monarchy, required the establishment of an official regency. The refusal of the House of Guise to allow the Bourbons to exercise their own legal rights in the process turned many of the French nobility against them. Although Anthony of Navarre was always indecisive, his brother Conde came to lead a political party known as the Huguenots, made up largely though not exclusively of Protestants, that challenged the Guise hold on power. War broke out in 1562 as Conde launched a failed effort to secure the King and his mother, Catherine de Midici, under his own Bourbon-led government.

In this case Calvin was entirely supportive of the cause because he, like so many other Protestant pastors and leaders, deemed it to be led by the appropriate lesser magistrates and in defense of the actual law of the land, indeed, of the monarchy itself. But what is striking is that the Huguenots emphasized just how secular and political was the nature of their cause. In his Declaration of Protestation Conde declared,

Firstly, therefore, he protests that no selfish passion leads him, but that his sole consideration is of what he owes God, with the duty he has particularly to the crown of France, under the government of the Queen, and finally the affection he bears to this kingdom, constrain him to look for all methods legitimate according to God and men, and according to the rank and degree which he holds in this kingdom, to return to full liberty the person of the King, the Queen and messieurs her children, and to maintain the observation of the edicts and ordinances of his Majesty, and namely the last edict issued concerning religion.

The document went on to list matters of taxation and debt, the intimidation of the King by his councilors, Conde’s loyalty to the King, and his willingness to lay down his arms if his opponents did so as well. The war ended indecisively in 1563 and Calvin died before the next war of religion broke out.

It should be obvious that the sort of resistance theory presupposed by Conde and articulated by Calvin has nothing in common with the claims of contemporary Reformed clergymen that Christians have a right to disobey or resist the federal government. Calvin understood that if Christians were to pay taxes and honor to a regime as tyrannical as that of Rome, the same had to be said of a regime as Catholic as that of France. It doesn’t matter if tax money is going towards unjust purposes or even towards murder (the French government was killing hundreds of Protestants). The authorities that exist have been appointed by God.

Of course, if lesser magisterial authorities determine that the federal government is practicing tyranny, and that it is their duty to resist such action, then matters change somewhat. But in the contemporary United States we are not in that position. As long as it is just a bunch of disgruntled conservative pastors who are calling us to disobey our government, we should utterly reject their arguments, take up our cross, and follow Christ.

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