Around the same time as I was working through my review of David Van Drunen’s Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms, you may recall that Steven Wedgeworth also reviewed the book in Credenda/Agenda, setting off a fiery controversy with Darryl Hart over at Wedgewords. Add some authentic ultramontane Catholics to the mix, shake vigorously, and you end up with Wedgeworth and Co’s three-part manifesto, “Apostolic Succession and Civic Freedom.” I must confess that I have followed all this only rather intermittently, due to the enormous volume of writing being churned out in the discussion, and more importantly, because I determined that I don’t have a dog in that fight, so to speak. I have little sympathy with the clerocratic Catholic viewpoint, and still less with the Hart/VanDrunen radically separate doctrine of the Two Kingdoms, but neither could I feel any hint of sympathy with the assumptions that drove Wedgeworth and Escalante to posit the classical Protestant, semi-Erastian model as a solution.
Rather to my surprise, however, Davey Henreckson at Theopolitical has offered what appears as an only-slightly-qualified endorsement of Wedgeworth’s view, which he labels “decretist,” and given that he asked for my reaction and that I just recently posted my own (skeletal and oversimplified) theopolitical manifesto, I figured I would try to weigh in briefly. (Earlier this summer, I interacted extensively about all this with two of Wedgeworth’s allies, Peter Escalante and Tim Enloe, and the following reflects some of that discussion as well.)
However, I feel a bit confused in doing so, as if I must be missing something big and obvious (quite possible, since I’ve only followed the discussion intermittently), since I have trouble making sense of several of the “decretists’” assumptions, and can’t see why, given these assumptions, their model would generate any enthusiasm in our circles. As I made clear in my “A Primer on Christian Citizenship,” my basic starting point is Augustinian (though this of course requires a great deal of further development and clarification), and I am puzzled to find in Wedgeworth’s manifesto no attention to the Augustinian paradigm as a solution. We are confronted with two typical Christian errors–a separatist impulse to withdraw the Church away from the civil realm, and a clerocratic impulse to try to make the Church lord it over the civil realm, and then the classical Protestant paradigm is ushered in with great fanfare as the solution. But whoa, wait a minute…isn’t there another alternative?
Now of course I grant that certain ways of developing the Augustinian paradigm (which is notoriously pliable and susceptible to varying interpretations) would end up not too far from the “decretist” standpoint (e.g., certain trajectories in the O’Donovan’s work would seem to resonate with at least substantial bits of Wedgeworth’s picture), this is not at all an obvious equation and would need to be unpacked a great deal more. In a fantastic recent lecture called “Reforming Public Theology: Two Kingdoms, or Two Cities?” Jamie Smith argued that the two-kingdoms “supplement” to the Two Cities paradigm in fact overthrows that paradigm completely, and he offers a powerful argument of what a consistently Augustinian model would look like. I’m very sympathetic to his project, and indebted to this lecture in what follows.
The key assumption in Wedgeworth’s manifesto that rings hollow to me is his contention that “the Church is not a worldly-temporal entity and thus is in no real ‘competition’ with the State”; throughout the post he pooh-poohs any notion that the Church is an “alternative city” or “alternative society.” The Church, he tells us “though always embodied, is designed to deal with hearts”; thus it only rules “the spiritual realm.” Now, again I feel like I must be missing something obvious, but I find it difficult to make sense of such claims. What would it mean for the Church to deal only with hearts? What is this supposed “spiritual realm” that is not concerned with physical actions in human society? I for one am not conscious of a “spiritual realm” within me that is separable from how the Spirit exhorts my body to live in relation to those around me. And how does this separation work given that about half of the New Testament is ethics?
As I understand it, the proper distinction is that the Church deals with bodies through hearts, and thus is able to reckon with the whole man, whereas the State can only deal with bodies as bodies. This, I take it, is what Bucer is trying to say in the opening chapters of the De Regno Christi. When I look at what the Church is actually called to do in Scripture, it’s hard for me to see how it is not in “competition” with the State.
Let’s look at some responsibilities of the State, or of political society. The State seeks to organize men into a community of shared identity and mutual responsibility. The Church does this too. The State seeks to guide this community in pursuit of the common good of human flourishing. The Church does this too. The State seeks to establish norms of social behaviour among its members. The Church does this too. The State seeks to bring about a just relationship between its members, restraining the strong and protecting the weak. The Church does this too. The State seeks to overcome the threat of external enemies. The Church does this too. The State seeks to remedy the injustice wrought by evil men in its midst. The Church does this too. The State seeks to ensure that all its members have their needs cared for. The Church does this too.
The Church is a visible body of people gathered out from among other people, united by various signs, rituals, texts, codes, ways of life, by mutual commitment to one another, in pursuit of a common end (an end that incorporates all of human existence). It is, in short, undeniably (to my mind) a “political society,” an “alternative city” in a very important sense. Of course, it is much more. It is not just this. This is just like the tip of an iceberg–its foundation and source of life is deeper and hidden. It is a city that lives by the presence of God himself in its midst. Moreover, although the Church is political, it is of course with a different kind of politics. Just because it is in a kind of competition with the State doesn’t mean it’s just another state. For instance, the end which it seeks, though it includes the flourishing of human life here on earth, transcends that and includes a higher end that no State can pursue. The Church too overcomes the threat of enemies, but it does so through self-sacrificing love, not violence. The Church too seeks to remedy injustice done in its midst, but by means of exhortation, penance, and reconciliation, not outward punishment. The Church too cares for the needs of its members, but it also goes beyond and serves those who are outside, to an extent that few states do.
Wedgeworth is convinced that the Church is non-coercive, and consistently talks as if making the Church an “alternative City” has to mean giving it coercive power over its own members and/or over other cities. Perhaps I am missing something, but I don’t see why. (For the record, I am not yet convinced that church discipline is non-coercive in nature, or should be, for reasons that may be partially disclosed in my forthcoming essay on coercion; but as I certainly agree that coercion is at most a marginal part of the Church’s work, I will leave that aside.) Criticize Hauerwas, Yoder, Cavanaugh, etc. all you want, but I certainly think that you have to interact with their claims that it is possible to have a different kind of politics that does not rely on coercion–the Church is inescapably political, and thus inevitably challenges other political structures, but it practices a qualitatively different kind of politics. This basic claim rings very true with my reading of the New Testament. It seems that whenever anything like this line of argument is brought up, Wedgeworth and Escalante dismiss this as “Anabaptist utopianism.” But name-calling is not the same as a refutation.
Now, none of this means that, because the Church is in some sense in competition with the State, that it must be in every sense in competition with the State. One may legitimately criticize Hauerwas and Co. for failing to allow for the nuances and tensions of an Augustinian model, which affirms that the Church is a city, but allows for some kind of uneasy co-existence, or “selective collaboration” as Jamie Smith puts it. I am very open to a conception in which, should the civil authorities recognize Christ’s lordship, they will use their position to encourage the work of his kingdom (without coercing Christianity). But the differences between this kind of Christendom and the “decretist” model, as I understand it, are manifold. For one, the Church will view this Christian magistrate as something valuable and appreciated, but non-essential. The Church may still do its work of transforming the world without the aid of the magistrate. For another, the magistrate’s role is one of self-abnegation, deferring to the presence of the true City within the midst of his city, and seeking to empower it to do its work better, and to make his task increasingly superfluous (Leithart’s Defending Constantine is a must-read on this way of understanding the relationship). In the decretist model, the two rules exist in a kind of permanent, static relationship of complementarity. This, I think, is a crucial point of difference. I do not see a static arrangement, but a dynamic one, an eschatologically maturing one. As I understand it, the two rules may at times achieve a certain complementarity, but it will always be one fraught with tension. I think, for instance, of Augustine’s interaction with the Roman magistrate Macedonius, where Augustine famously urges leniency toward criminals and a cessation of capital punishment, that the Church might do its work of bringing about true repentance and reconciliation, though Augustine recognizes that this is at odds with part of the calling of the magistrate. The magistrate’s calling is, as much as possible, to be rendered obsolete by the work of the Church, though this may take a very long time, and in the meantime an uneasy dynamic tension will have to be maintained.
Wedgeworth and Co. will call this “utopianism”–I call it postmillenialism, although a very tempered and patient postmillenialism. I am not sure how to persuade those who are determined to see this as “utopian,” except to point to the fact that the New Testament’s vision of Christian ethics and Christian community looks very utopian to us, and also to the fact that many ethical and political developments that would have seemed “utopian” centuries ago have actually come to pass: the end of widespread slavery, the extent to which racism has been overcome, the growth of genuine (though never unproblematic) religious freedom, equal treatment for women (fraught with problems today, but genuine progress nonetheless), the commitment to peace and cooperation among many nations that used to be at constant war (the European Union, particularly). So many of the dramatic social improvements and advances in ethical sensibility in Western society owe themselves to the work of the Christian Church, and so I would like to trust in the Spirit to bring new marvels to pass as the Church works faithfully to enact the City of God among us.
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