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How (Not) to Have a Foot in Both Kingdoms: Protestant Models for Christian Citizenship

The following is the full text of a presentation delivered at Wheaton College on September 23, 2016, for an event co-sponsored by The Davenant Trust and the Center for Applied Christian Ethics. I am very grateful to Drs. Vincent Bacote and Bryan McGraw for their hospitality and engagement. The full video of the event, including their responses and the extended discussion time following, can be viewed here. Much of this presentation is taken from chapter 1 of my forthcoming book The Peril and Promise of Christian Liberty: Richard Hooker, the Puritans, and Protestant Political Theology (Eerdmans, May 2017).


Life Between Two Loyalties

From the moment that Christ enigmatically rebuffed Herod’s political theologians with the words “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” his followers have had to grapple with the challenge of living under “different kings and different laws.” At various times and places, some have been so bold as to imagine they had removed the sting from Christ’s statement, whether by bringing God and Caesar into alliance, by restricting their kingdoms to different worlds, or by ensuring that Caesar would adopt pluralistic policies that would grant free rein to any religious conscience. Each such solution has in due course been exposed as an over-optimistic illusion, leaving Christians to grapple anew with the tensions of their dual citizenship. Whatever the failures of Reformation political thought, it must at least be credited with its refusal to blithely dismiss the problem; indeed, fewer questions, as I hope this study will show, were more central to early Protestant theology and churchmanship.

Let us begin, then, by tracing the legacy of Protestantism’s proclamation of freedom in relation to Western political order. Certainly, few deny that a central contribution of Protestantism, what Alister McGrath calls its “dangerous idea,” was an epistemological revolution: the insistence on the freedom of individual Christian consciences to determine Scripture’s meaning for themselves.[1] Luther’s famous words at Worms offer a memorable summary of this freedom:

Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason—I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other—my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.[2]

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The Past for Honesty’s Sake: A Rejoinder to Peter Leithart

In a cheery response to my ponderous (and as-yet unfinished, I am sorry) review of his Delivered from the Elements of the World, Peter Leithart counters my charge of an “addiction to novelty” with a declaration of his commitment to “the past for future’s sake.” It is hard to quibble with the substance of his response; indeed, my organization, the Davenant Trust (which Leithart is kind enough to plug in his post) could almost adopt as its motto “The past for the future’s sake”— maybe it should, come to think of it; Leithart always has had a better flair for marketing than I. Of course we should return to the treasures of the past, beginning with Scripture, “to find resources to edify the church of the present, which is, even while you’re reading this, rapidly becoming the church of the future.” Of course we should seek to “to reach back and rocket forward at the same time,” rather than treating the church’s past as a tunnel to crawl into where we can huddle for safety so as not to face the myriad new challenges that the present assails us with. It should go without saying that there is no disagreement here.

Leithart manages to imply that this is the point of disagreement by omitting the last clause of the sentence which he takes as the summary of my objection: “[novelty theology works by] somehow simultaneously putting us back in touch the original primitive Christianity even while rocketing us into the Christian future by refusing to take its start in the conventional categories that theological discourse has refined over the centuries.” Now admittedly this clause is one that might make my marketing consultant wince, and so perhaps Leithart thought he was doing me a favor by omitting it—“conventional categories” are pretty thoroughly out of style, and “refined over the centuries” sounds like a pretty tedious business. But my complaint is not an antiquarian one; rather, it is a very practical one: the past keeps us honest. Read More


What Does it Mean to be Human? Leithart on the Nature of Natures (Delivered from the Elements Review, Pt. IV)

(See previous installments of this review here, here, and here).

In this installment, we turn to what is perhaps the most puzzling, but also perhaps one of the most consequential, features of Leithart’s book: his treatments of the notion of “nature.” It is, I must confess, far from clear just how much Leithart is trying to do with his reconceptualization of this basic metaphysical and theological category. On the one hand, we might be dealing with little more than rhetorical flourishes or shifts of emphasis away from a category that Leithart thinks has too often preoccupied the attention of Christian theologians. On the other hand, we might be dealing with a fundamental reconception of the status of the human person and its relations to God and to other persons along radically voluntarist lines, a reconception that cannot help but have far-reaching consequences for much of Christian theology and ethics, consequences which could not but be largely harmful in my view. I wish to tread carefully, for fear of either being an alarmist on the one hand or a naively charitable reader on the other.

Similarly to my approach in the previous post, I will first state in a nutshell what I take to be the salient features of Leithart’s exposition on this point, and then list my main points of concern/critique. I will then expound these points at considerably greater length (though thankfully shorter than my last post), with accompanying quotations from the text, before concluding by suggesting a better way forward. Read More


Does Justification Sola Fide Need an Upgrade? (Delivered from the Elements Review, Pt. III)

In this third installment of my review, I want to turn to consider what is, perhaps more than anything else, at the heart of Leithart’s argument in this remarkable book: his notion of the “deliverdict.” In the last installment of this review (and see here for the opening summary), I argued that in places, Leithart’s commitment to offering an essentially new (or at least long-forgotten) way of talking about Christ’s saving work led him at times to claim to be saying something new when he wasn’t really, lapsing into imprecision at key points where the traditional formulations are really quite clear and perhaps not in great need of being improved upon. So it is also here in his discussion of the meaning of justification.

Now many Protestants, rightly or wrongly (and I am inclined to think rightly), can get awfully nervous when it comes to tinkering with the material principle of the Reformation, justification sola fide. Thus you would think that if what you had to say on the topic was in fact substantially in continuity with Reformational doctrine, that you would be at pains to emphasize that fact, and to present your position where possible in traditional terms. This is particularly the case in a day and age when many Protestants, unschooled in and insecure about the basic principles of their Protestant heritage, are tempted to jump ship to unreformed traditions in response to polemics which caricature key Protestant teachings (particularly justification by faith). So I find it surprising and concerning that Leithart at many points seems to do the opposite, seeking to unnecessarily accentuate differences between his own views and those of the Reformers, and to blur rather than clarify traditional Protestant doctrine.

Indeed, for those who want to cut to the chase (for this will, I am afraid, be a very long post, given the need for some quite long quotations to accurately state Leithart’s argument and illustrate its discontinuities with the tradition), I will state up front what I will argue in this post. Read More


On Theological Novelty and Atonement Theory (Delivered from the Elements Review, Pt. II)


In this second installment of this review of Leithart’s Delivered from the Elements of the World, we turn from mere synopsis to critique, or at least to pointed queries about some of Leithart’s more provocative claims. In this post I will be considering one of my general methodological concerns—the addiction to novelty—and then turning to consider Leithart’s revisions (or not?) to classic penal substitution theories of the atonement.

First, then, the question of novelty. Newness seems to be a big selling point of this book. Consider the breathless melodrama of James K.A. Smith’s back cover endorsement: “Leithart is like a lightning strike from a more ancient, more courageous Christian past, his flaming pen fueled by biblical acuity and scholarly rigor.” Back cover blurbs in this day and age have become something of a joke, but still Smith’s is a bit over-the-top. I single it out not primarily to pick on Smith (not primarily) but because the virtue of the book that Smith singles out—its claim to newness-through-oldness—is one that we would do well to interrogate. Smith contrasts theologians who “tepidly offer us a few ‘insights’ to edify our comfort with the status quo” with Leithart’s lightning-strike from the past. In other words, bad theology is theology that builds on what we already know, good theology is totally new and yet old, somehow simultaneously putting us back in touch the original primitive Christianity even while rocketing us into the Christian future by refusing to take its start in the conventional categories that theological discourse has refined over the centuries. But of course, nothing is so tired and familiar by now as this revolutionary turn to the “more ancient, more courageous Christian past.”

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