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.