Religious Freedom in the New Israel

In a discussion regarding the 9/11 Mosque madness, my friend Alex recently challenged me on my advocacy of relative religious freedom within a hypothetical Christian nation, arguing that this stance was incompatible with the Old Testament witness.  His challenge was, “You seem to have developed a sharp, revolutionary dichotomy between the economy of the covenants. I am baffled that you have arrived at such and would like to know how you make it work.”  He asked me to blog about it here, so I will try and make a stab at it.   

(Since I haven’t had all that much time to spend on this, this is painted in rather broad brush-strokes, rather than being argued through careful exegesis.  I’m interested to see where you (Alex) disagree with this picture, and then we can argue those points in a nitty-gritty, my-verses-versus-your-verses way. 

First, I think a little historical perspective is in order.  It has been fairly standard for Christian theology, particularly when it comes to political theology, to draw a pretty sharp distinction between the economies of Israel and of the Church.  Although this is a dramatic oversimplification, I think it would be fair to say that only during the Carolingian period and in certain sectors of the Reformed tradition from around 1540 to 1790 was it normal to see Israel’s political experience as significantly normative for a Christian nation.  So if in fact I have “developed a sharp, revolutionary dichotomy between the economy of the covenants” on these issues, that hardly makes me an odd innovator.  

Also, at face value, it seems that there are some pretty dramatic shifts between the two covenants, spelled out quite clearly and forcefully by Paul and other New Testament writers.  The key difference for our purposes concerns the nature and identity of the people of God.  What was Old Testament Israel?  It is a theonomist fantasy to imagine that it consisted of an Israelite “state” and an Israelite “church.”  Of course, there were certain distinctions between civil and religious institutions and authorities, but Israel as the people of God, as a religious community, was inseparable from Israel as a political body, a nation with certain lands, certain loyalties, certain markers of national citizenship.  It was not so much that civil authorities were charged with the task of punishing “religious” sins, but that idolatry was a threat to the nation, a tear in the social fabric of Israel, and hence had to be punished, had to be rooted out, by the king, if need be.   

Given this inseparability of religious and political, it seems clear to me that if the Church is the New Israel, then the Church is the new political and religious body; the shift of the covenants is not one in which a Christian Church replaces the Israelite “church” and a Christian state replaces the Israelite state; rather, the Church is a complete upgrade package.  Nowhere in the New Testament do I find a hint that the Church only partially replaces Israel (this would be a dispensationalist notion).  If the Church then is not merely a new religious body, but also a new political body, does this mean the Church imposes political order in the same legal, coercive way that Israel did?  Hardly.  Because Jesus didn’t just come to change the names of the players, but to change the rules of the game.  This much seems fairly obvious and straightforward, and in my mind throws the burden of proof on any who want to suggest that religious coercion of the Old Testament type continues.  But let’s try to explore a couple reasons in particular why it does not.


First, Christ comes as the judge judged in our place, the judgment to end all judgment.  The cross is God’s verdict of justice against all his enemies, and strangely, it is a verdict that falls not upon them, but upon Himself.  Judgment has been rendered upon mankind, and it is a judgment, shockingly, of mercy.  All who will not receive this mercy will at the last receive a final judgment of destruction, the only possibility left after they have rejected God’s penultimate verdict of mercy.  Now, this earth-shaking event–the entrance of the Judge himself onto the stage of human history, and pronouncement of a verdict of judgment that fell on Himself, would seem to have a dramatic effect on human judgment.  Before Christ, Yahweh was judge, and as judge, he pronounced a guilty verdict on those who remained in rebellion against Him.  His people were called upon to carry out this verdict from time to time, executing the most egregious rebels, particularly those who led His people astray into idolatry.  Now what about now that Christ has come?  The verdict he has rendered is a verdict of mercy, a verdict we are to preach and to carry out in all the world.  Of course, this verdict carries with it the promise that those who reject it will be subject to everlasting destruction, but this final verdict is in the hands of Christ alone, at the end of history.  We are not to preempt it, though we may warn of it.  In the meantime, we are to announce the verdict of mercy, and not only that, but we are to imitate it, like Christ interceding for the world and taking its sins upon ourselves.  All this seems to me to decisively overturn any idea that we are to carry out decisive temporal judgment against idolaters; to do this would be to preempt Christ’s eternal judgment.


Second, Christ comes as the sacrifice to end all sacrifice.  This may seem irrelevant to political matters, but I’m increasingly convinced that it’s not.  We have become accustomed to sharply distinguishing between civil, moral, and ceremonial laws in the Old Covenant, and making all kinds of neat categorical distinctions about which ones carry over into the New Covenant and how, but it seems clear to me that it’s not that simple in the Old Covenant.  Take the death penalty, for instance: it seems to be more a matter of purging the land of the defilement that has come upon it, than a matter of retributive justice as we would conceive it; it is more a cultic act than a civil act.  We see the same thing with the conquest of the land and the elimination of peoples who are to be “devoted to destruction.”  The evil of paganism defiles the land and the people of God must cleanse it.  All sins must be atoned for, usually by the sacrifice of an animal, sometimes by the sacrifice of the guilty.  Achan is punished not for a straightforwardly civil offense, but as a matter of purging the camp of the defilement that his sin brings.  Before Christ, idolatry could not be permitted in Israel because it polluted the land, and this pollution had to be cleansed by sacrifice; the idolators had to be devoted to the Lord, devoured in His presence.  

But Christ comes as the ultimate sacrifice to end sacrifice, the sacrifice whose power to make clean and whole never wears out.  Before Christ, uncleanness was infectious, and holiness had to be aggressively guarded against the profane and unclean.  If God’s holy presence was to remain with his people, all uncleanness had to be constantly purged by sacrifice.  But no more.  Christ’s sacrifice tears the veil of the temple and signifies a reversal–now holiness is contagious, and uncleanness is under assault.  We do not have to fear the defilement of idols anymore, since we can now see their powerlessness.  We do not need to atone for such defilement by sacrifice, or to devote the defilers to destruction, because Christ has already allowed himself to be devoted to destruction, that he might make the foulest clean.  

What does this mean for us?  It means that if a Muslim wants to build a mosque in the land, we do not freak out and try to cleanse our land of its defilement, but rather rest in the confidence that, if we continue to dedicate ourselves to holiness, it is that holiness and not the mosque’s defilement that shall prove contagious.  God’s offering up of Himself as a sacrifice for the evildoers means we no longer need to offer up the evildoers as a sacrifice to God.

6 thoughts on “Religious Freedom in the New Israel

  1. Alexander Garden

    Your argument from the new infectiousness of holiness is interesting and carries some weight. That observation has been taking away in my mind for some years now. But just what it means I haven't figured. Rot still spreads from bad apples to good ones, both literally and metaphorically. Paul still tells Timothy that if a man wants to be an honorable vessel in God's house he must separate himself from all the dishonorable ones."Judgment has been rendered upon mankind, and it is a judgment, shockingly, of mercy." I disagree. Rather vehemently. This statement amounts to universal redemption. But more than that, it just doesn't fit the scriptures.Christ did not come proclaiming mercy. He came just like every other prophet, proclaiming judgement and repentance. He did not come telling people God loves them. He came telling people to repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. He carried this harsh message all the way through to the end, was killed for his "arrogance", and then justified by God, who reversed the death penalty on appeal, as it were. He then sent his disciples out to proclaim the good news and tell everyone else to repent and they would be forgiven. Or not and they would perish.And that is the form the gospel takes during the acts of the Apostles. Jesus Christ has ascended into heaven and is Lord. But he offers amnesty to those who repent, bow the knee to him, and submit. On the other hand, resist his rule and he will crush you.And that's what we find in Revelation. The wrath of God poured out on the disobedient while the faithful look on in gratitude and awe, justifying the Lamb who was slain.Which shouldn't surprise us. Because that's what Jesus told us things would be like. How many parables does he tell warning people to invest their talents, stay diligent, keep their lamps full, not be late, show up when invited, etc, or they would remain without where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth? How often does he tell people that if they are going to get into the kingdom, they must *do* *what* *he* *says*? (Emphasis not exactly in the original.) How strongly does he stress the point that if they want to save their soul, they must stake all that they have on him?As for the rest, you made the better part of my argument for me. The law is not divvied up into distinct categories. There is not a church/state separation or distinction in Israel. And the Church is not a fractional continuation of Israel, but a total and more glorious continuation, authorized to give out the death penalty for those who lie to the Holy Ghost.


  2. Bradley

    Great discussion. This unearths an issue that I've been thinking about for a long while now. I've been swaying back and forth, between Bradford's position and Alex's position (though I'm mostly sympathetic to the former, I confess)…So then, we agree that the civil/religious distinction is a bit silly. The Church has been given all power and authority and dominion. Good. Nice to be over that hurdle. Now the only remaining question is, how should the church wield its civil authority? What the heck would that even look like? For example, what should be done to murderers? As far as I can tell, there are only two options: either the Church should execute them, or nobody should. Forgive the dichotomy, but ideally speaking those *do* appear to be the only two options.Bradford's view implies that murderers should *not* be executed. (Forgive me if I'm putting words in your mouth Bradford; that's not my intention. I only wish to carry the idea to its conclusion.) The purpose of execution has always been to cleanse the land, to silence the ground that cries out for blood. But Jesus already silenced the ground. His blood is sufficient. To execute a criminal is tantamount to saying that Christ's atonement wasn't enough; it is to continue under the old sacrificial system.Alex's view implies that murderers *should* be executed, and therefore, presumably, that the Church should carry out those executions. Yikes. That proposition deeply disturbs me, but then again, so does the idea of murder. Christ's atonement didn't "cleanse" all of creation; rather, it was specifically aimed at accomplishing the purchase and redemption of His chosen people. In other words, Christ's death doesn't change the fact that thieves should make recompensation, or the fact that murderers are guilty of murder. They should still be executed. The land still gets dirty. It all comes down to the atonement. What did Christ's atonement actually do? Does the kosmos stand in a basically redeemed position now (still awaiting final redemption), or does the kosmos stand in a basically condemned position (still awaiting final condemnation)?


  3. Bradley

    I should clarify my own view a bit. As it stands, I'm not completely satisfied with either view of the atonement. Alex, I think of your view as the traditional Calvinist view (not in the John-Calvin-himself sense, but in the couple-generations-removed-from-John-Calvin sense). I find it unsatisfactory because it doesn't fit the way the Bible speaks about the atonement or the New Covenant in general. Bradford, I think of your view as the New Monastic view, or the Liberation Theology view, or something like that. I think it's much more consistent with biblical narrative and biblical teachings (especially in the NT), but I want to see it more well-developed. I want the details. What exactly did Christ do? Apparently, whatever it was, it was merciful and it was big. But what does that really mean? What are the implications? Bradford's view is my own view, by default, but I want to develop it more and "iron out the kinks", so to speak.Input, anybody?


  4. Brad Littlejohn

    Thanks Brad B., for shedding some light on all this. I had been puzzling for a couple days over how to respond because I was frankly quite surprised by what a wide gulf there seemed to be between Alex and I on a pretty darn foundational question, like "What is the Gospel?" or at the very least, "What was the atonement?" Was I out in left field, or was he? Brad B. is right, though, that what Alex is saying seems to fit pretty well with a standard Dordtian view of the "Limited Atonement." I suppose I haven't held that view in quite a long time. Not that I've simply rejected it for its Arminian counterpart–rather, I became convinced that that whole debate had been couched in quite the wrong terms, viewing the atonement more in mathematical than in theological and cosmological terms. Nevin was the guy who put me, I think, on the right track, understanding the universal significance of the atonement (which, again, is not necessarily the same thing as an Arminian "unlimited atonement") and then I think from there my perspective was increasingly shaped by Karl Barth, both by reading him directly and because pretty much everyone I read was increasingly shaped by him. But this was all a rather gradual development, so I can't exactly justify each step to you. Now that Bradley has pointed out the difference, though, I will try to go back and brush up on some of this stuff, so that I can come back and explain just why I think that the atonement was all about Christ pronouncing a verdict of mercy upon creation, something that seems self-evidently true to me now, but self-evidently false to Alex.For now, though, I will say a few points in response to Alex. The picture I have painted is not one of universalism–as I said, if you refuse to accept the merciful verdict and continue to turn your back on God, then His love continues to pursue you, but it becomes a consuming fire of judgment to you. (For some reason, Till We Have Faces keeps coming to me as I try to make sense of this…perhaps that's helpful for you too, perhaps not.) Moreover, to say that Christ comes proclaiming good news and mercy does not mean that there is no demand attached to do what he says, which is what you want to emphasize. I cannot do better here than to quote Oliver O'Donovan: "There is no Christian ethics that is not 'evangelical,' i.e., good news. There can be no change of voice, no shift of mood, between God's word of forgiveness and his word of demand, no obedience-without-gift, no gift-without obedience. The gift and the obedience are in fact one and the same….The righteousness of Jesus Christ is not comfort without demand, any more than it is demand without comfort. It is never less than that demanding comfort by which God makes more of us than we thought it possible to become."Also, Alex, you said, "Christ came just like any other prophet." In rebuttal, I would say that although Christ is in certain respects like the Old Testament prophets, he is not one of them. John the Baptist is the last of the prophets, and Christ is something different. They all pointed to Christ, Christ points to himself. They proclaim the coming judgment, Christ himself brings it. But again, he brings it upon himself. Christ does not simply come proclaiming judgment like them, because unlike them, he is also the priest and the sacrifice, who intercedes for the people with God and succeeds. To simply carry over the Old Testament prophet paradigm as a way of understanding Jesus's ministry leaves out the most important parts. As far as the Church inflicting capital punishment and other civil punishments, Alex, are you really advocating that? What would that look like? Only at the height of medieval papalism, if even then, was such a doctrine advanced, and most of the ages of the church have repudiated that kind of thinking. In any case, Brad B., I don't think it's quite as simple as you say, when you say that after Christ, only the Church is left to pronounce or to not pronounce judgment–there is no other civil authority. I've wanted to say something like that at various points, but it is somewhat more complicated–in principle, perhaps that is true, but not quite in practice. Exactly how it all works, I'm not 100% sure, but I think O'Donovan's Desire of the Nations gets about as close as anything I've yet seen, and I think I'm going to be going back to it for a third read-through soon to get a better handle on it.


  5. Alexander Garden

    Belschner> What did Christ's atonement actually do? Does the kosmos stand in a basically redeemed position now (still awaiting final redemption), or does the kosmos stand in a basically condemned position (still awaiting final condemnation)?The cosmos has been redeemed. Christ is Lord of heaven and earth. It's all his. And in consequence, those upon the earth who reject their new master will be destroyed. And those who refuse to keep his commandments will receive their due punishment. For God, having saved a people, always destroys those who do not believe. It's his M.O. Save a people, destroy the unbelievers. Save Israel, destroy the idolaters in the wilderness. Save some Corinthians, destroy those who persist in idolatry. Save the earth, destroy those who don't believe.Belschner> I find it unsatisfactory because it doesn't fit the way the Bible speaks about the atonement or the New Covenant in general.Please, Brad, elaborate for me. Spell it out. This is what I want to hear. We can argue about theories of atonement but what I really want to know is how people who think like you and Littlejohn are squaring their views with the text and how they can make exegetical sense of the kind of antithesis they have between the old and new economies.I don't see that it fits the text. Jesus just doesn't go around proclaiming grace and mercy to everybody. He does talk about forgiveness, and there is mercy, but it's not front and central. Front and central is repent or perish. Front and central is the judgement to come. Front and central is what he is going to do later on to those who don't listen now.Earlier this week I was reading from Jeremiah. I read about Jeremiah's confrontation with the false prophet Hananiah; about Jeremiah writing to those already deported to Babylon that they ought to seek Babylon's peace, because Babylon's peace was their prosperity; and how the people sought Jeremiah's life because he prophesied against Jerusalem. His life was spared but that of another true prophet was taken. And it made me realize, again, that dying as a martyr is not new.When Jesus comes preaching repentance, angering the powers that were, and submitting to the death of the cross in consequence, he isn't doing something entirely new. He is doing what the prophets have always done, and he says as much. He portrays his death as parallel to theirs by asking, "How could it be that a prophet would perish outside Jerusalem?" He tells the parables of the tenants who would not return the fruits of the vineyard to its master, but beat the one servant and killed another and so on until the master sent his son, the last in a long line of messengers. He even declared that his death and that of the Christian martyrs would culminate the line of the prophets, that the blood of Abel to Zacharias, whom "you slew between the temple and the altar", would come on that generation. Yes, Brad L., Jesus is more than just a prophet. But up to and including his death, 'prophet' was the office he held and the role he played. So he died the death of a martyr prophet, as many had done before him, submitting to the violence of unjust rulers, receiving the punishment he did not deserve. But God justified him, overturning the ruling on his case; and raising him from the dead, exalted him to sit at his right hand and have all authority and power in heaven and on earth. Then, when he came again in Revelation, he came as King, riding a white stallion and reeking revenge on all his enemies, just as he told them he would.It really isn't pacifism versus violence. It's what role you have been assigned. Peter tells us to submit to those in authority even when they punish us unjustly, because they are in authority and Christ did that same thing. And this pleases God. But those in authority are not told to suffer wicked men to parade their wickedness through the streets. Rather, righteous rulers have always killed such. That's why they have been given the sword.Brad L. asked what it would look like for the church to mete out jusice.The church under the old economy is composite, with one law governing sacrifices and tort infractions. But it was administered by different agents and office-holders. Israel was, totus corpus, the church. It wasn't like the Levites were always the ones judging cases. Elders and kings judged cases most of the time, Levites kept God's house in order. I would expect the same to hold true in our age.So I point you to history. We have had Christian kings and nations. We have had, but recently, Christendom. In those days, the kings were Christian kings and they, as office-holders in the church, meted out justice. The church qua church did, too, and you might look at that. But I would suggest that if we do not want to make a sharp distinction between church and state under the old economy, we should neither make one under the new. A man need not be a priest to be an office-holder in the church of God. He might be a king, or a governor, or a mayor, or a judge.And do you not know that we shall judge angels? How much more then are we fit to judge earthly matters? Shoot, Paul says, if you have a mere question of theft or fraud, put the least-esteemed in charge of judging that one. Because it is not fit that Christians should seek out the judgment of the unrighteous to sort out their questions of property. Let the church do its job. She is seated at the right hand of God in Christ.


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