Coming in for a Landing (VanDrunen Review X-end)

At long last, I am ready to bring this marathon review of VanDrunen towards its conclusion.  On the whole, these final sections left a rather more favorable impression than I would’ve expected them to, and a more favorable impression than I’d had for most of the previous chapters.  

Chapter 10 was devoted to a discussion of Van Til and his followers, and I had expected the crescendo of criticism against neo-Calvinism to reach its climax here.  However, VanDrunen was surprisingly reserved, having expended his critical energies in chapter 9’s sketch of the antithesis between the Dutch neo-Calvinists and Calvin.  Van Til himself, concedes VanDrunen, was essentially an apologist, not a social theorist, and so we must not attribute to him views things he did not actually say about the way believers and unbelievers live together in society.  Yes, his view of common grace is problematic, and reacts unnecessarily against an exclusively Catholic conception of natural law, but his ideas are not necessarily at odds with a kind of two kingdoms theory.  

We can see the diverse possibilities of Van Tillianism for social theory, says VanDrunen, by looking at the different routes taken by two of his disciples, Greg Bahnsen and Meredith Kline.  At the mention of Bahnsen, I thought that perhaps VanDrunen was showing his last cards–perhaps the whole book had been building toward a refutation of the hated theonomist, so adamntly opposed by the Westminster Seminary crowd.  After all, it was rather remarkable that in a book ostensibly aimed at a wide audience of ethicists and political theologians, such an obscure and peripheral figure as Bahnsen should receive focused attention.  But VanDrunen didn’t do this–the discussion was brief and the criticism measured.  Perhaps VanDrunen felt (understandably) that Bahnsen’s position was sufficiently marginal that forceful criticism was unnecessary.  And frankly, it is certainly true that, once you do much study at all in ethics and political theology, Bahnsen-esque theonomy seems like a pretty untenable position.  

I am not so sure what I think of the inclusion of Meredith Kline under the Van Tillian heading.  Merely because he was taught by Van Til, and perhaps claimed Van Til as a mentor does not make him genuinely a disciple of Van Til.  VanDrunen does very little to demonstrate any real continuity between the two, but simply asserts the connection.  Most modern Van Tillians, at least, have about as much respect for Kline as they do for Charles Darwin.  But by including Kline as a Van Tillian, VanDrunen is able to to give some respect to Van Tillianism as a standpoint capable of generating valuable social thought, so I guess I won’t complain.   

It is worth pausing to take note of just one of Kline’s comments, since I think it illustrates as well as anything the incoherence into which strong spirituality of the Church/two kingdoms doctrines seem to lead.  VanDrunen summarizes Kline, “Even as Christians follow this model and engage in common cultural activities, however, the church itself is to limit its work to the holy ministry entrusted to it in Scripture and not take up these common cultural activities as part of its own task,” and to this sentence, has a footnote attached: “E.g., see Kline’s opposition to providing medical care on the foriegn mission field for those outside of the church as an ecclesiastical ministry, as articulated in a minority report of his denomination’s Committee on Foreign Missions.” (416)

Are you serious?  In doing missionary work, the Church is only supposed to teach the gospel, not administer actual medical aid or other physical assistance?  But what is the Gospel?  “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)  Or how about, “This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: ‘He took our illnesses and bore our diseases.”  Imagine if we were to tell Christ that as part of his redemptive, spiritual ministry he must only preace the gospel and not heal those who were outside of the Church–we’d have to excise half the Gospels!  If someone’s political theology is leading them to this kind of reductio ad absurdum (as, I think, VanDrunen’s does lead), then I submit that something is wrong with that political theology.  

Having thus dealt quite briefly with chapter 10, let me turn to consider VanDrunen’s Conclusion: “The Survival and Revival of Reformed Natural Law and Two Kingdoms Doctrine.”  As I mentioned above, there were actually some good signs in this conclusion—VanDrunen finally shows that he is able to critically evaluate the position he has been advancing, and to identify its possible weak points, that will need to be defended if it is to stand.  I was surprised to see him being so candid and perceptive about these; my only objection is that I think these weaknesses are far more fatal to the position than VanDrunen seems to think.  Before turning to these, though, I can’t help but poke a bit of fun at the section just before this, where VanDrunen describes “The Survival of Reformed Natural Law and Two Kingdoms Doctrine.”

He begins this by noting how remarkable it is that the year 2006 alone “saw the publication of three books by Reformed authors designed to retrieve their tradition’s natural law and/or two kingdom’s doctrines”–those by Stephen Grabill, by Darryl Hart, and by VanDrunen himself.  Now, given that this amounts to a “me and my buddies” trio, it is hardly an impressive coincidence and hardly suggests that some wide and deep revival of these doctrines is underway.  The rest of the “survival” sketch is not particularly impressive, consisting of a handful of monographs (most of them article length) by historians or theologians in the past century who were retrieving or employing some kind of Reformed natural law and/or two kingdoms paradigms, some of whom (e.g., J. Gresham Machen) do not bear quite as much resemblance to VanDrunen’s understanding of these paradigms as he thinks. 

Having said this, let us turn to look at what VanDrunen has to say about “The Revival of Reformed Natural Law and Two Kingdoms Doctrine,” which is rather more interesting.  He first describes two attractions that this doctrine offers.  First, it helps us draw the kind of clear dichotomy between the violence of the state and the peacefulness of the Church that many contemporary theologians and ethicists, preeminent among them Stanley Hauerwas, have tried to point out.  This seems, I confess, a rather disingenous point to make, because VanDrunen’s doctrine achieves this feat by destroying what for Hauerwas and most contemporary ethicists is the whole point–namely, that the Church’s peacefulness stands as a challenge, condemnation, and call to repentance toward the state’s violence, not as a ratification of it.  However, inasmuch as this is simply a critique of the tendency in neo-Calvinism and theonomy to baptize the violence of the state and co-opt it to the Church’s purposes, I am at sympathy with VanDrunen.  

The other attraction, he says, is that it “also gives theological rationale for affirming the genuine, God-ordained legitimacy of the state and other cultural institutions”; it provides a way for Christians to function comfortably within the state and to work for justice through it.  For many, of course, this hardly comprises an “attraction,” especially as, for VanDrunen, such positive Christian involvement in the state is bought only at the price of having Christians leave their Christianity entirely out of such involvement. 

Now VanDrunen moves to list the challenges facing the Reformed two kingdoms doctrine.  The first concerns the doctrine of the two mediatorships of Christ: “Can future proponents of the two kingdoms doctrine make a compelling defense of this older Reformed doctrine?”  The answer, I would suggest, is no; or rather, certainly they cannot defend it in the form that VanDrunen wants to advance it, not without abandoning Trinitarian orthodoxy.  Second, it must offer a coherent account of common grace as an organizing category for social thought, something that has thus far remained vague.  Ok, very well.  Third, “assertion of the two kingdoms doctrine raises the question as to what, if anything, has changed about the state and its authority and legitimacy with the death and resurrection of Christ.”  At this point, he says, Reformed two kingdoms doctrine parts ways with a Oliver O’Donovan, who VanDrunen incredibly describes as “one important contemporary moral theologian whose thought is in many ways very congenial to a two kingdoms perspective.”  Um, excuse me?  As VanDrunen goes on to sketch the divergence, it is hard to see where exactly this congeniality lies.  Needless to say, I am on the side of O’Donovan on this issue–the resurrection of Christ does make a difference, and it is hard for me to see how it couldn’t.  

Fourth, says VanDrunen, “the two kingdoms doctrine raises some very difficult questions regarding the holistic character of the Chrisitan life.  For example, what exactly does it mean for Christians to live non-violent lives as citizens of the kingdom of Christ and simultaneously participate in the activities of the state that rest upon the threat of coercion.  How can Christians live both of these very different ways of life with integrity and without slipping into a de facto confinement of their Christianity to certain narrow aspects of their lives?”  I’m glad to see that VanDrunen admits these to be “very difficult questions”–indeed, in my view, they are insurmountable from the standpoint of the paradigm VanDrunen has advanced in this book.  

Finally, the Reformed two kingdoms doctrine needs to resolve the point of unclarity about how exactly we are to distinguish between “spiritual” and “temporal” things, and whether this distinction is the same as “internal” and “external,” which VanDrunen isn’t sure that it is.  Of course, I happen to think that this is no minor problem; rather, until R2K doctrine can offer some coherent account of what it intends by this distinction, it has no claim to be taken seriously as ecclesiology or political theology.  

Nevertheless, I do appreciate VanDrunen’s honesty in acknowledging and justly summarizing these potential objections.  It would have been better if he had not merely relegated them to an epilogue, but late is better than never.

Where’s the Resurrection? (VanDrunen Review IX.2)

Let me then come back to my bold claim that VanDrunen’s gospel doesn’t seem to include the Resurrection.  Toward the end, analyzing Bartholomew and Goheen, he says (I’ve quoted a bit of this already): “[They] describe God’s redemptive work as comprehensive and fundamentally restorative: in Christ human beings work to restore the creation that was marred and work again toward the positive cultural development of this world.  After the fall, God set out on a ‘salvage mission.’  They write: ‘We stress the comprehensive scope of God’s redemptive work in creation.  The biblical story does not move toward the destruction of the world and our own ‘rescue’ to heaven.  Instead, it culminates in the restoration of the entire creation to its original goodness.’”  

 Now, basically, this sounds like exactly what the resurrection was about.  Of course, I want to also make sure we insist that the resurrection is not merely a restoration, but gets us ultimately much further than the first Adam ever got.  But, if the purpose of Christ’s work was to be obedient unto death, and thus to purchase for himself a people who could join him in his spiritual kingdom in heaven, until such time as he should choose to chuck the old creation in the bin, then it seems like his work was done at the cross.  The resurrection, it would seem, served only an epistemic purpose–sorta a divine, “See, I told you so, he really was God.”  But of course, if that was the point, it seems like something better could’ve been managed, since we still have to accept the resurrection on faith.  

However, if the resurrection is what I understand it to have been, the destruction of death and Christ’s taking on a body that was the glorified form of creation–not a mere spirit, but his same body from earth, brought to perfection–as a firstfruits of all mankind and all creation, which from that Easter morning is set on course to receiving that same glorification, then we are in this age charged with the task, and strengthened by the Spirit, to participate in Christ’s making all things new.  Again, N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope says all this much more clearly than I can.  


Now, having stated rather forcefully my disagreement with VanDrunen here, let me acknowledge a couple points where I am in sympathy with his concern.  He speaks repeatedly of the problem with the neo-Calvinists’ “eschatological burdening of the cultural task”–they so connect the redemption and perfection of the world with our work of culturally embodying the Gospel that they run the risk of making the consummation dependent on our work.  This is a sort of cosmological Pelagianism: Christ set us back on the right track, and charged us to bring his world to perfection.  No doubt these thinkers would insist that this is not what they mean–they are Calvinists after all–they would insist that we are dependent on Christ for everything, and the victory is his alone.  Nevertheless, but insisting too forcefully on a correlation between the triumph of the kingdom and the visible evidence of that triumph, they risk two errors, common to all Pelagianism.  On the one hand, there is a risk of a triumphalistic pride, confident that we will simply move from victory to victory till we reach perfection, refusing to look at evidence of our failures; on the other hand, a temptation to despair when we cast ourselves on the wheel of history and it refuses to turn, when the powers of this world do not seem to be collapsing before the onslaught of the kingdom as we would expect them to.  

Moreover, this attitude creates an urgency to go out there in the world and start making the Kingdom visible, and this impatience leads to a tendency to favor those pursuits that will produce the quickest, most visible results.  Hence, there is a tremendous push to Christianize the political realm, to capture positions of power and make them bastions of the Gospel.  But of course, the true progress of the Kingdom is in the Church, and it is humble and lowly in the eyes of the world; it comes through repudiating the positions of power in which the world puts so much stock.  It is no coincidence that neo-Calvinists tend to have low ecclesiologies, because the growth of the Church to maturity is a painfully slow process, and so does not present to our eyes the sense of glorious accomplishment that the short-lived cultural and political conquests of the Gospel might.  VanDrunen’s concern for the marginalization of the Church in these thinkers comes out repeatedly, and here, I am in great sympathy with him.  

 Finally, I should very briefly note a fundamental problem with the way he repeatedly tries to contrast these thinkers with the Reformers–it is again a failure to reckon with history.  All thought is developed in a context, and geared toward answering a set of questions and problems posed by that context–it may be adaptable in some way to later situations, but such adaptation will have to be done carefully, and with a willingness to recognize some major shifts.  These neo-Calvinists are working in the context of post-Enlightenment secularism: to assert that Christ is king over all, and his Gospel needs to affect everything, is a way of resisting the claim that there are supposed to be large tracts of life completely insulated from the claims of Scripture or of any religion, the claim of a secular realm.  For the Reformers, there was no concept of secular in the same way.  There was a temporal realm, but even this was deeply shaped by religion, and deeply concerned with religion.  Of course, we have already noted that VanDrunen tries to marginalize this–he tries to minimize the Reformers’ concern for a Protestant magistracy and a Protestant society–but there is simply no way to make the historical case that the early Reformed tradition had anything like our modern concept of sacred vs. secular realms.  However, VanDrunen seems to think they did: “This rejection of a sacred-secular realm distinction in which only the former is redeemed is certainly consistent with Plantinga’s kingdom theology, though this distinction is arguably exactly what the earlier Reformed two kingdoms doctrine was meant to uphold.”  That statement manifests a serious historical anachronism, and suggests a serious methodological flaw in VanDrunen’s attempt, throughout this chapter, to simply line up what the neo-Calvinists say, on one hand, and what the Calvinists say on the other hand.  Two people can say very different things in different contexts, without necessarily having fundamentally different goals.  I’m not sure what Calvin would’ve said if he’d been writing in the 20th or 21st century; to be sure, it wouldn’t have been the same as Cornelius Plantinga, but I’m quite sure it wouldn’t have been anything close to David VanDrunen either.  

Giving Our Enemies Blood to Drink

How are we to think about violence in the New Covenant?  What does it mean to love our enemies?  In a recent exchange with some friends on Facebook, they argued (Biblically) in defense of the idea that we can take pleasure in the killing of our enemies, at least, assuming those enemies are actually wicked, and thus deserve to be killed.  I sought to emphasize that, whether or not this was appropriate in the Old Covenant, Christ’s command to love our enemies, and his example of sacrificing himself for them, demonstrates that we are to grow up out of such attitudes.  Even if killing enemies is something that must sometimes be done, for the protection of the helpless, it must be done in a spirit of regret and grief, always desiring the best, not the worst, for the one who is slain.  This was part of the response I received:

“First, Jesus makes himself out to be pretty ruthless in his own parables. In the Luke’s version of the parable of the talents, he calls himself a hard master and ends by commanding the execution of his political enemies before his face. No shyness there.

Second, Revelation makes him out to be the same way and tells us how his martyrs see their martyrdom. In chapter 6 the martyred saints cry out impatiently to God for justice. “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” They are told to wait just a little while longer. Their blood is then soon avenged and God’s praises are sung for it. There is no remorse or pity or hesitation when it comes. See 11:17-18, 15:3-4, 16:5-7, and 19:1-4. I will quote from chapter 16: “Just are you, O Holy One, who is and who was, for you brought these judgments. For they have shed the blood of saints and prophets, and you have given them blood to drink. It is what they deserve!”

That’s new covenant stuff. What Jesus does, when he comes back in all his glory, is akin, mechanically speaking, to what the Marine Corps does. He sheds blood. Lots of it. We shouldn’t be ashamed of it. Jesus isn’t that nice. We don’t need to be, either.”

This problem is not quite as simple as we would like it to be.  In involves reconciling two clear and seemingly contradictory pictures we have in the New Testament.  On the one hand, we have a clear picture of Jesus as coming to die on behalf of those who are his enemies, to receive all the evil they can throw at him and to overcome in love, and teaching his followers to do the same.  On the other hand, another picture, more familiar from the Old Testament, clearly remains: that of a righteous God who must judge His enemies, and whose righteous judgment we are to hail and rejoice in.  The saints in Revelation have done both: they have followed Christ and received martyrdom for witnessing to their foes, and yet now they call for Christ to come and judge these foes, and rejoice in that judgment.  How can we love our enemies and desire their salvation, while also desiring or at any rate rejoicing in their destruction?

Ultimately, this comes down to very fundamental theological questions about we reconcile God’s justice with his mercy.  When we look at only one side of the matter, they can appear to work well together–God’s justice consists in his merciful intervention on behalf of the oppressed.  But then we find that this means being very unmerciful to the oppressors, which bothers us…and even if that’s necessary, it doesn’t seem like something we should be happy about. 

I won’t try to answer the fundamental theological questions about how justice and mercy relate in God himself, but I’ll try to make sense of the question about how we’re to respond to and imitate both.  First of all, we could argue this way: there is a difference between on the one hand, accepting the righteous judgments of God as in fact righteous and praising Him for them, and other the other hand desiring and rejoicing in them before they happen.  Indeed, on one level, we are to learn to praise God for all that happens, even, for instance, the death of a loved one, trusting that His will is right; on the other hand, we do not thereby take joy in the prospect, and we pray that God’s will might be otherwise.  To praise God’s justice once it has manifested itself in the destruction of the wicked is to accept that God’s will is always right; but to desire to see the wicked destroyed and to rejoice in the prospect of that destruction seems contrary to Christ’s commands that we are to love our enemies, and seek their good and their conversion.  Could we distinguish this way–we don’t desire the deaths of the wicked, but if they are slain, we rejoice that God’s will is done?

It would be nice if we could solve the problem this simply, but I don’t know that it is that simple.  Certainly in the Old Testament, there is plenty of praying for the destruction of the wicked, and as my friend pointed out, this does not disappear entirely in the New Testament–the martyrs in Revelation do not merely praise the judgment that has already happened, but actively call upon God to enact His vengeance in Rev. 6:9-11.  Does the Sermon on the Mount then merely mean that we are not to take vengeance ourselves, but we are still to secretly desire vengeance against our enemies, and call upon God to enact it?  This interpretation, however, runs counter to the standard interpretation which tries to rescue the legitimacy of self-defense from the Sermon on the Mount–”Jesus doesn’t really mean not to resist evil, or to accept the violence of the wicked against us, only that we should be willing in our hearts to do so, free from all malice and vindictiveness.”  Is Jesus talking about heart, outward actions, or both?  To me, it seems it must be both.

The tension we are wrestling with also appears in Romans 12:19-21: “Beloved, do not avenge yourselvesm but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord.  Therefore, ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him: If he is thirsty, give him a drink; For in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.’  Do not be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good.”  Interpreters have been deeply divided on this passage for centuries, and the hinge is what we understand by “coals of fire.”  The majority of interpreters have understood this as a metaphor for “burning shame” or something along those lines (and there are good reasons for such a reading); others, however, have insisted that it must be divine judgment, as the most natural reading of the image would suggest.   The latter then read the passage as saying, more or less, “Do not take vengeance on your own account, rather, do good to your enemies so that you may heap up more judgment against them, so that God can let loose on them in his wrath.”  The former, however, insist that such an attitude turns the doing good into a wicked hypocrisy, and doesn’t sound like overcoming evil with good at all; the reminder to leave vengeance to God is not then to be understood as desiring that vengeance upon the foe, but rather, of leaving the matter to God’s vengeance in confidence that He will be more merciful than we would be inclined to be.  

Perhaps we could settle things with a distinction like this: we must seek the good of our own enemies, not seeking vengeance upon them and instead desiring their good, but we may and should desire the destruction of God’s enemies.  It is not for their own sake that the martyrs in Revelation desire vengeance, but for the vindication of God himself.  I think we certainly want to affirm something like this, however, this still leaves us unsatisfied.  Shouldn’t we desire the conversion of even God’s enemies before we desire their destruction, and aren’t we to lament if destruction is left as the only alternative?

Such appears to be the attitude of Jesus.  My friend pointed me to the example of Jesus harshly commanding the destruction of his enemies in several parables, and while clearly this is present, we must not forget the grief with which Jesus anticipates this destruction.  We musn’t forget powerful passages such as these: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her!  How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you were not willing!” (Luke 13:34) or “Now as He drew near, He saw the city and wept over it, saying, ‘If you had known, even you, especially in this your day, the things that make for your peace!  But now they are hidden from your eyes.  For days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment around you, surround you and close you in on every side, and level you and your children within you, to the ground; and they will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not know the time of your visitation” (Luke 19:41-44).  Jesus brings judgment upon those that will not repent, but hopes for another outcome, prays for another outcome, and grieves that they will be slain, even though He himself will be the agent of that slaying. 

Our attitude, it seems, cannot be any different from this.  We desire the death of the wicked only as a we desire the amputation of a diseased limb; we would much rather that the limb be healed, and we grieve at the prospect of amputation.  But if it will not be healed, we accept the amputation, and in a sense, rejoice in it.  Living this out in practice seems difficult, but it seems that we must seek a mindset something like this.


There is a related question on this whole subject that deserves some investigation, and through which we can perhaps draw closer to an answer to this first question: to what extent can we see ourselves as agents of God’s wrath?  (The original question on Facebook, I should clarify, was whether we could rejoice not merely in the death of enemies, but in our own slaying of them.)   In the past, I have drawn something like the following distinction: there are pacifists who say that we shouldn’t kill because God is a God of peace, and there are pacifists who say that we shouldn’t kill because God reserves that right to Himself.  I don’t really see how to reconcile the former with the Bible.  I have tended to lean toward something like the latter, although never absolutely.  I have argued something like this: the reason we can accept things like the purge of the Canaanites in the Old Covenant but can insist that we can no longer kill in this way is because we no longer are delegated with the task of exercising God’s judgment.  The wicked deserve God’s wrath (although he often shows mercy), and in the Old Covenant, God calls upon the people of Israel to be instruments of that wrath.  However, when Christ came, God as man, the Judge judged in our place, he took upon himself the task of judgment, and inaugurated the final judgment.  Henceforth, God no longer delegates to us men the task of executing His wrath, but calls on us to leave that to him.  

But I’ve always been somewhat uncomfortable with this paradigm, because it suggests that we have been demoted, rather than promoted, in the New Covenant.  Rather than maturing and being given more responsibility, we hand back to God responsibility which He has entrusted to us.  Peter Leithart suggests the opposite paradigm in the final chapter of his forthcoming book, Defending Constantine:

“The first covenant, the covenant with angels, was a childhood covenant.  Swords are sharp, and fire burns, and so long as human beings were in their minority, the Lord restricted access to dangerous implements….With the coming of the conquering Seed of the Woman, the sword and fire of angels are given back to a man, to Jesus.  In union with her husband and head, the church is a warrior bride, called to carry out his wars in and with him….In fact, we receive weapons even more powerful than the weapons of a Samson or a David.  We have the Spirit of the risen and exalted Jesus, the Last Adam who has eaten from the tree of knowledge, and our weapons are not fleshly but Spiritual, powerful for demolishing fortresses and destroying speculations raised up against the knowledge of God.  Our armor is righteousness, truth, faith, salvation, the Word of God and the gospel of peace.”

Perhaps this points us towards a solution.  We still fight Yahweh’s wars for him against his enemies, but love is stronger than death, and now that Yahweh fights against his enemies by sending his Son to die for them, so we fight them by dying for them.  We overcome them by loving them, and their overcoming is their conversion, not their death.  These lines get blurred even in Revelation, where the sword that proceeds out of the mouth of the Son (19:15) tantalizingly suggests the Word that is sharper than any two-edged sword, and where the blood from the chalice given to the wicked to drink seems to recall the shed blood of the Eucharist.  Of course, there is still vengeance; I don’t think we can get around that.  But this vengeance still falls first of all on the Son who bears it for his enemies, and who laments when it rebounds back upon them.

 If we ever do find ourselves having to slay the enemies of our God, first of all, we’d best make sure that they really are his enemies, and not just our enemies.  And second, we must recognize this as a failure in some sense, a failure to have brought them to reconciliation before the final wrath of God’s judgment comes.  When that day of judgment comes, we welcome it as a display of God’s righteousness, but in the meantime, we try to make sure that as few opponents of God as possible remain to fall under it.

This is not a complete answer, of course, but it seems to me to help us get in the right direction.  I welcome any input or challenges anyone has on these questions.

Different Gospels? (VanDrunen Review IX.1)

(for previous posts on VanDrunen, see here)

In chapter 9, VanDrunen turns to consider another form of the rejection of the “classical Reformed position”–that of Herman Dooyeweerd and his “Neo-Calvinist” heirs.  As with the previous chapter, I will not try to engage in any detail with VanDrunen’s reconstruction of his interlocutors here.  I know almost nothing about Dooyeweerd, nor have I read any of his five popularizers that VanDrunen considers: Henry Stob, Craig Bartholomew, Michael Goneen, Al Wolters, and Cornelius Plantinga.  I have known a number of people working in that general milieu and influenced by its ideas, and VanDrunen’s portrayal is roughly accurate–indeed, some of his concerns are very legitimate ones. 

This chapter is very interesting, because here VanDrunen starts becoming much more explicit about his polemical target, the target that has been lurking in the shadows all along.  The latter four figures that VanDrunen considers are contemporaries of his, and you can sense the concealed urgency in his tone when he starts trying to show us just how wrong they are.  Not, of course, that he says it quite like that; he has consistently maintained that he is making historical, rather than theological arguments.  However, it is clear that when he starts showing all the ways in which they differ from the classical Reformed standpoint (which he does quite a lot in this chapter), he intends us to agree with him that this is a kind of apostasy, not an advance.  Of course, these sketches are plagued by the fact that he never established an adequate historical case that the “classical Reformed position” was anything like he said it was, and so in his summaries of it in this chapter, he waffles between making defensible historical generalizations that are in tension with his claims from earlier in the book, or making indefensible generalizations along the lines of those he has made earlier.

However, my interest here is not in revisiting more than necessary his questionable historical claims–I have already beaten that dead horse more than enough.  I am intrigued because VanDrunen finally sets out in clear opposition what he sees as the two basic alternatives of Reformed political theology today, and thus reveals to us much more clearly the theological engine that has been driving this study of his.  Whether or not it is Calvin’s theology is beside the point; clearly there are those today who think it is, and who want to promote it themselves, and this chapter helps us understand just what they’re trying to say and why.  And what they are trying to say, it seems to me, is a different gospel than the one I have understood that we are called to follow.  Now, don’t freak out there–I know that schismatic Reformed people love to throw around the phrase “a different gospel,” along with such choice epithets as “heretic” and “Papist.”  I don’t mean anything like that; I don’t even mean to prejudge the question of who’s got the right gospel (though, clearly, I hope that the balance of truth is with mine).  I simply mean it as a sober judgment of the chasm between our assumptions.  If VanDrunen were to say, “God Jesus Christ is Lord and he has come to redeem the world”  he would not mean anything remotely close to what I would mean by that same statement–in fact, I’m not even sure if he would be willing to accept that as an accurate summary of the Gospel, since he prefers to think, it seems, that Jesus came to redeem us out of the world.  

(Before I go any further, I should perhaps make clear again that I am not in great sympathy with the neo-Calvinists on many of these issues–VanDrunen is right to call them on their carelessness at many points and their weak ecclesiology.  But, if there are only two sides, I would rather be on their side.)

If we were to define the fundamental difference in traditional categories, it might come down to saying that VanDrunen is an amillenialist and I (and most neo-Calvinists) are post-millenialists.  But that doesn’t really get to the root of it.  A better way of summarizing the difference would be that in my understanding, the resurrection is fundamental to the Gospel, whereas in VanDrunen’s it seems to play little or no role.  An even simpler way of summarizing it, and one that doesn’t seem to unduly prejudice the matter against VanDrunen, would be to say, I think N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope is spot-on, and I’m sure VanDrunen does not…in fact, I doubt he’s read it.  


I will try to flesh all this out, by looking at how he puts things in this chapter, but it will take a little while. 

The first thing that caught my attention was how VanDrunen kept saying that Dooyeweerd and his disciples all manifested a tendency to use a “creation-fall-redemption motif” in their theology.  Now, forgive me if this is a dumb question, but what other kind of motif is there?  I’m sure that by asking that, I’m showing that I’m hopelessly provincial and ignorant of key streams of Christian theology, but I really thought that a creation-fall-redemption pattern was the basic narrative of the Bible, and the basic pattern of Christian theology.  VanDrunen, however, seems to prefer a pattern something like “creation | fall-redemption” or perhaps “creation-fall | redemption”–I’m not entirely sure.  What VanDrunen resists is the idea that somehow, redemption means a restoration of humanity to be able to fulfill again its created potential, indeed, to fulfill it better than it could have in the first place.  He explains Dooyeweerd’s position on this: “Dooyeweerd…saw the natural, creational laws as the universally governing laws that, thanks to redemption in Christ, Christians are now once again enabled to pursue rightly.  Redemption restores human beings in accomplishing the task that they were meant to accomplish from the beginning, prior to the fall into sin: to obey the creational laws and thereby to develop the potentialities of creation in the unfolding of human culture.”  Now, all this rings rather true for me–why does it not for VanDrunen?  

We could summarize the difference thus: for the “neo-Calvinist” narrative, creation is Plan A, and once sin enters the picture, God introduces some new elements into the plan to put it back on track and to reach the endpoint intended in Plan A by a different route.  In VanDrunen’s narrative, however, God created the world, man fell and ruined His plans, and so he devised a Plan B–to bring mankind to a very different kind of fulfillment on a spiritual plane–while the rest of creation limped along somewhat pointlessly, unable to fulfill its original destiny, but still able to do some temporarily worthwhile things.  VanDrunen sketches out the difference thus:

“For Dooyeweerd, human beings from the beginning were to develop the creational laws toward the full flowering of the cultural potentialities that God had placed within them.  This same eschatologically oriented task is restored in redemption and thus constitues the Christian program of the present day.  For the earlier tradition…the original creation was given an eschatological destiny, a conviction expressed through the doctrine of the covenant of works.  It also ascribed a role to natural law in this covenant, for this law written on the heart constituted part of the original obedience that Adam was to render to God.  Upon the breaking of this covenant, human beings became unable to achieve their eschatological destiny, but Christ has achieved it for them.  That eschatological destiny–the spiritual kingdom of Christ–is reserved in heaven for believers, and present participation in this kingdom occurs only in the (visible) church.  Heeding the laws of nature is still required of every person and is decisive for the health of the civil kingdom, but it does not manifest the spiritual kingdom of Chirst and therefore it has no eschatological goal.”

So the original creation originally had an eschatological destiny, but it lost it because of sin and God has never given it back (I’m not quite sure how Rom. 8:18-23 fits into this), and now the only eschatological destiny is in the “spiritual kingdom of Christ” which is up in heaven, not here on earth.  Will it ever be here on earth?  It is hard to say, because if so, how could it still be “spiritual”? What does a “spiritual kingdom” mean anyway, in VanDrunen’s sense?  Later, VanDrunen quotes neo-Calvinists.  Bartholomew and Goheen as saying “The biblical story does not move toward the destruction of the world and our own ‘rescue’ to heaven.  Instead, it culminates in the restoration of the entire creation to its original goodness.”  VanDrunen, however, seems to think that the gospel is just that–a cosmic rescue plan to whisk us away to another place.  

Of course, this quote gives us some interesting insight into VanDrunen’s concern: “Upon the breaking of this covenant, human beings became unable to achieve their eschatological destiny, but Christ has achieved it for them.”  He is concerned that, in the neo-Calvinist paradigm, Christ’s work simply sets us back on our feet to carry out the work of creating the kingdom, and makes us co-redeemers with Christ.  This kind of anthropocentrism and triumphalism is a real problem, and we must insist that all that we do is utterly dependent on Christ and is simply a realization of what he has already accomplished.  But if we live in Christ, and Christ in us, if He is the head that animates the body, then his work is carried out by his members; we are called to participate in the inbreaking of his kingdom, and are given now, already, a foretaste of the restored humanity that will be fully ours at the resurrection.  In any case, there is a gaping hole in VanDrunen’s narrative.  According to the covenant of works, Adam was supposed to be the king over a perfect creation.  Adam failed and we cannot accomplish his end anymore–only Christ can. So Christ comes and fulfills the covenant of works in place of Adam, and then receives the promised reward of kingship over a perfect creation, in which we participate by union with Him.  No, wait, stop, that isn’t right!  No, Christ fulfills the covenant of works in place of Adam and then receives something totally different than that which was promised to Adam; he does not receive creation, but rather, a spiritual kingdom up in heaven.  Gosh, that’s a raw deal!  

I’m serious though–why is it that in VanDrunen’s paradigm, Christ fulfills the covenant that Adam failed to keep toward God, but then God does not reciprocate in the way he had promised to for Adam? 

VanDrunen returns to the same points later, in discussing Cornelius Plantinga, and I’ll go back over it with him briefly, to make sure we get as clear a picture as possible:

“Plantinga, resembling Dooyeweerd, speaks of cultural work as the task of developing the potentialities imparted to human beings in creation.  Cultural work now, after the fall, is a project of restoration, in that redemption re-enables people to do the cultural tasks to which they were called before the entrance into sin.  This cultural work, furthermore, not only builds the kingdom of God here and now but also builds the new earth.  In fact, ‘we may think of the holy city as the garden of Eden plus the fullness of the centuries.’”

Now, what exactly is wrong with this, I want to ask?  Let me try putting this into natural law categories, which VanDrunen would be happier with.  At creation, we are designed to live in a certain way, to fulfill our true calling, glorify the world that God has made, and glorify God Himself; what we were designed to do could be described as natural law.  When we fell, we lost proper sight of this true calling, of exactly what natural law was, and of how to obey it.  We could not live in the world the way we were supposed to.  When Christ redeems us and gives us new hearts and minds, makes us participators in His perfect humanity, we are able again (not perfectly, but to an important extent) to see again what we were made for, to understand the “natural law” and to live in accord with it.  We are thus able to start building the world again as God intended it, though all our works will be imperfect until perfected by Christ the true man.  In other words, something like what Plantinga’s saying seems to me to actually be the most coherent form of natural law thinking, unlike whatever VanDrunen thinks he’s doing with the concept.

For VanDrunen, it again seems to come down to the uniqueness of Christ’s work, but I think he forces false dichotomies:

“Whereas the earlier Reformed tradition taught, in its doctrine of the covenant of works at creation, that human obedience in its cultural mandate would have resulted in eschatological consummation, but that after the fall into sin only the obedience of Jesus Christ could bring such a result, Plantinga speaks as though the original eschatologically-driven cultural task is reestablished in redemption for all believers.  Whereas much of the earlier Reformed tradition placed post-fall cultural work within the civil kingdom, a temporal and provisional realm originating in creation, preserved by God but not redeemed by Christ, Plantinga places it within the one, redemptive kigndom of God such that Christians are called to produce things that will carry over into the age to come.” 

Leaving the historical issues aside for the time being, I must ask as a theological point why there is a contradiction between insisting that only the obedience of Jesus Christ himself can bring eschatological consummation, and claiming that we are to be caught up in that task, and participate with Christ in its realization?  The New Testament, I would argue, while it is insistent on the uniqueness of Christ, is equally insistent on the unity of the Head with the Body, and our calling as the Body to live out what we already are through our communion with the Head.  VanDrunen seems to envision a passive Body that just sits there, content that the Head has already done and will do all the work.  It’s hard to see how that paradigm leaves much room for a concept of Christian ethics.

The Grass is Always Greener

It’s very easy for Christians today, appalled at the rampant economic injustice and violence that is being perpetrated, and appalled above all at the indifference of most Christians to it, to get themselves worked up into a rage of righteous indignation.  How could we get into such a mess?  How could Christians let such horrible things happen?  There must be some profound heresy at work here, or some deep structural sin; it’s all the fault of capitalist ideology, perhaps.  I speak, of course, of myself as much as of anyone.  And of course, I don’t want to retract one word of it–we are surrounded by appalling injustice, appalling injustice that Christians should be addressing rather than abetting, and it is important that we analyze the underlying causes, historical and ideological, and repent of them.  Nevertheless, it is helpful to keep a bit of historical perspective, perspective that might lead us to give up in despair because we are such a wicked people, but which may have the more salutary effect of helping us see hope and even progress amidst our current wickedness. 

Some of our current problems have been recurrent features of every age, and so there is no need for apocalyptic gloom at the singular depravity of our age; rather, a call to ordinary (though still radical) repentance, sanctification, and waiting upon the Lord.  Some of our past injustices, including some very profound ones indeed, we have since overcome, so much so that it now seems self-evident to us that they are unacceptable, just as self-evident as it seemed to our ancestors that they were perfectly acceptable.  This spiritual progress can give us great encouragement when faced by our current besetting sins, because we can recognize that they are not insurmountable–Christ is sanctifying history, and will sanctify it.

I’ve had all this brought home to me in a bit of “light reading” I’ve been doing lately: The House of Rothschild, by Niall Ferguson–an exhaustive history of the family-run banking behemoth that dominated European finance–indeed, world finance–for nearly a century.  Ferguson is a maddeningly amoral historian, seeming to admire anyone who contributes to the cause of progress, and caring very little for the means by which they did it (see my review of his book Empire for more on this).  He clearly admires the Rothschilds a great deal, as financial geniuses, and is untroubled by the fact that most of their activities would’ve made Goldman Sachs look like Saint Francis.  Indeed, it is somewhat amusing–he at times goes to considerable lengths to exonerate them from various fictitious accusations against them that were popularized in their time, but in the course of doing so, manages to unearth a seedy underbelly of bribery, manipulation, and trickery that was simply the norm for their activities.  These folks thought nothing of bribing public officials to gain lucrative financial contracts, and then turning around and using their position of strength in the market to make huge additional under-the-table profits off the participating governments.  They thought nothing of using their inside political information to outmaneuver all their competitors and establish an unbeatable monopoly position, or of encouraging misinformation to create panics or buying frenzies in the market off of which they could profit.  War profiteering was their specialty, and they sometimes helped encourage the continuation of wars to ensure a continuation of profits.  In other words, all the charges that books like Confessions of an Economic Hit-Man or The Shock Doctrine level against modern multinationals, these guys were guilty of thrice over.  These guys were the quintessential disaster capitalists, economic hit men, Wall Street fat cats. 

Of course, I wouldn’t quite take this as a parable of “there’s nothing new under the sun” because the Rothschilds were, in many ways, a novelty, the first of these financial mighty men to walk the earth.  They were the originals of the decadent species that has now proliferated around the earth.  But, we can learn from them that things now are perhaps not quite so bad as they seem.  At worst, corruption now is comparable to the corruption that characterized European courts in the 19th century.  At best, we have actually improved a bit.  Like I said, these guys make Goldman Sachs look like Saint Francis, and although you can be sure that the seediest of Goldman’s dealings are buried deep beyond the reach of any Congressional Investigation, I think it would be fair that N.M. Rothschild and Sons would never be able to do now, with the laws and accountability structures we have now (deeply flawed as they are) what they could do then. 

There is a second lesson also from the story of the Rothschilds.  As I said above, there are two ways in which we may take encouragement from the past–there are injustices we see around us now that we can discern as age-old enemies, and there are injustices from the past that we have now overcome.  What I just mentioned was an example of the first, but I was struck by an example of the second when reading about the Rothschilds.  

It is, of course, silly to have to mention it, absurd that it should even have been striking to me; after all, it is cliched by now to say it: Christians were terrible to Jews.  But I don’t know how many of us really want to own up to the fact.  We’re so tired of liberals using the Holocaust as a weapon against Christianity that we barricade ourselves against the charges altogether, we sweep all that injustice under the rug.  The Holocaust, we say, was an aberration–it can’t be chalked up to the legacy of Christianity, but to a bunch of mad Darwinian Germans.  Very well, but the longer legacy remains.

The Rothschilds, unsurprisingly, were Jews, and grew up in the Frankfurt Jewish ghetto.  Ferguson’s point is not to dwell on this background, but bits of it couldn’t help emerging from the narrative, and it was shocking to confront the fact of just how discriminated against and repressed the Jews in 17th and 18th-century Germany were.  And of course, the reason Ferguson doesn’t dwell on it was because there was nothing unusual about the Frankfurt situation–this was simply how Jews had to live in most Christian countries–cramped into tiny houses, with their movements restricted, mocked by passersby, without citizenship rights.  And what’s striking about all this from my perspective is that this was not happening in modernity like the Holocaust–when we can chalk it all up to loss of faith, but in a deeply pious age in Lutheran Germany.  There were godly Christian ministers preaching faith and love from their pulpits, even while endorsing (or at the very least turning a blind eye to) the cruel repression of the Jews, and this went on for centuries.  

By comparison, the astonishing ability of modern Christians to blind themselves to the oppression they are supporting in the Third World no longer appears so astonishing.  After all, most of our victims are out of sight, out of mind, but the harsh treatment of the Jews was going on in every city in Christendom, right outside the churches.  So perhaps when we are tempted to extol the virtues of our medieval and Reformation past, and lament our modern apostasy, we should remember that there are a few moral advances to be thankful for the in the modern age.