The Church’s Gag Order (Christian Liberty in the Reformation, Pt. 1)

At several points in his Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms, David VanDrunen states that the Protestant doctrine of Christian liberty was foundational to the Reformed understanding of natural law and the two kingdoms, and hence to his own two-kingdoms project.  But has he rightly characterized that foundational doctrine?  Whose liberty, after all, are we talking about? 

One person’s liberty is always asserted over against another person or entity, conditioning their liberty in some way.  That I have a liberty not to be assaulted means that you do not have the liberty to assault me.  So whose liberty are we talking about when we talk about Christian liberty?  Is this liberty corporate or is it individual?  It makes rather a difference, you see, since if it’s the former, then it is the liberty of the Church body over against its individual members, but if it’s the latter, then its the liberty of the individuals over against the Church body, which has quite the opposite effect.  Which is the true Protestant doctrine? 


The dilemma is neatly illustrated by an example that VanDrunen himself examines–a rather bizarre debate in 1860 that could only have happened between two Presbyterians, and two particularly prickly ones at that: Charles Hodge and James H. Thornwell.  The question was: “Is it legitimate for the denomination to create a mission board?”  (Not, mind you, “Is it a good idea?” but “Is it even allowed?”)  Charles Hodge argued a resounding “Yes,” appealing to the doctrine of Christian liberty.  As VanDrunen tells it, “He claimed that Thornwell’s idea ‘ties down’ the government and action of the church to what is prescribed in the New Testament and, toward the end of his article, he writes: ‘There is as much difference between this extreme doctrine of divine right, this idea that everything is forbidden which is not commanded, as there is between this free, exultant Church of ours, and the mummified forms of mediaeval Christianity’” (NLTK 258).  In other words, if the Church is not free to do things neither commanded nor forbidden in Scripture, then we are back to a new legalism as bad as that of the Papacy.

VanDrunen immediately lets us know what he thinks about this:

“The Reformed doctrine of Christian liberty was never about the church being freed to to things (such as create boards to which it could delegate the work of missions) about which Scripture was silent.  Instead, with direct reference to the two kingdoms doctrine, Reformed theologians and confessions spoke of Christian liberty in regard to the justified individual, who was freed in the civil kingdom from any obligation to do things contrary to the teaching of Scripture and in the spiritual kingdom from any obligation to do things beside the teaching of Scripture….Thus, when Hodge taught, as the Presbyterian’s doctrine of Christian liberty, that the church is permitted to do what is not forbidden in Scripture, he was in fact transferring the traditional Reformed standard for the civil kingdom to the spiritual kingdom and thus giving the church precisely the power (speaking and acting beyond the teaching of Scripture) that the Reformed tradition had tried to take from it” (NLTK 258-59).

This, he said, was Thornwell’s contention, who responded with, we are told “an incisive, biting, and at times humorous response” which “lamented on the one hand the lack of candor and honor in his [Hodge’s] article and, on the other hand, his ineptness in regard to ecclesiology.”  Hodge, he said, had it backward–his “principle that the church is permitted to do all that Scripture does not forbid it to do was not the Reformed principle of Christian liberty over against Rome but the principle of Rome which the Reformed doctrine of Christian liberty sought to overthrow” (NLTK 259).  In short, “Thornwell sought to limit the government and action of the church to the prescriptions of the Bible only, and did so with reference to historic Reformed convictions about the church’s ministerial authority and about Christian liberty” (260).

VanDrunen is in no doubt what the proper Protestant doctrine is–Christian liberty means the individual believer is freed from having to do anything not directly commanded in Scripture, and therefore the Church is bound not to authorize anything that is not directly commanded in Scripture.  (There is already a tension, mind you–one could understand how this construal of Christian liberty would mean that the Church could not require individual believers to serve on church boards, etc.; but it is a bit harder to see why it would mean that the Church could not authorize them in any way as an option for its members.  But more on this anon.)  Believer free, Church bound.  This dialectic is even further intensified in Thornwell’s doctrine of the spirituality of the Church, which is much more relevant to VanDrunen’s own project: the liberty of the individual Christian means that he is free from having to receive any guidance from the Church on anything not directly contained in Scripture (e.g., political issues like, say, slavery)–the Church is bound not to speak on any such matters.  

Now, Hodge’s concern seems justified here–surely this is not freedom but legalism!  Surely this cannot be the traditional Protestant doctrine.  But earlier in the book, VanDrunen has already shown that it is, hasn’t he?  Let’s follow the trail backwards.  He sprinkles the appeal to Christian liberty throughout his narrative, but a significant focus of the discussion comes near the end of chapter 5.  

 

Thornwell’s legalism may be understood as an application of the “regulative principle of worship” (or RPW), which, says VanDrunen, “states that the public worship of the church may consist only of those elements that the New Testament itself teaches are proper elements of worship” (191).  This comes from the doctrine of Christian liberty: “Because the church has no power to impose anything beyond the teaching of Scripture upon the consciences of believers, it has no power to demand that believers worship God in any other way than what Scripture ordains” (191-2).  This is again all wrapped up in the two kingdoms doctrine:

“In the spiritual kingdom of the church, ecclesiastical authorities, dealing only with spiritual things, have no power to bind consciences beyond the declaration of what Scripture itself teaches (a ‘ministerial’ authority) and believers have no conscientious obligation to believe or do anything that the church says otherwise.  Believers are free from anything ‘beside’ the word of God.  In the civil kingdom and with respect to civil matters, however, believers are free only from commands ‘contrary’ to Scripture, meaning that they are conscientiously bound to do all things that the magistrate commands (however disagreeable) so long as they do not contradict some biblical teaching” (191). 

In fact, this is all in Calvin, VanDrunen tells us on the previous page: “in Institutes 3.19, alongside 4.11 and 4.20, Calvin lays down the principle that while ecclesiastical authorities cannot bind the conscience of believers in anything beyond what Scripture teaches, civil authorities do in fact bind consciences when they command anything that is not contrary to biblical teaching” (190). 

Well, by Jove, there you have it.  Calvin said it, in the Institutes no less, so it must be the proper Christian doctrine.  Following the narrative back further, we come to chapter 3, where Calvin is dealt with in great detail.  So let’s look at this closely.

For Calvin, christian liberty consists in 1) “having one’s conscience assured of justification and no longer seeking justification by the law,” 2) “being obedient to the law voluntarily rather than under legal compulsion,” and 3) “being freed from obligation to do or not to do external things that are in themselves morally indifferent” (NLTK 73).

However, this last point is immediately qualified by the two kingdoms doctrine–since “Christian liberty is in all its parts a spiritual matter,” this freedom from obligation to things indifferent does not apply in the civil sphere: “By attending to this distinction, we will not erroneously transfer the doctrine of the gospel concerning spiritual liberty to civil order, as if in regard to external government Christians were less subject to human laws, because their consciences are unbound before God…” (Inst. 3.19.15).

The redemptive doctrine of Christian liberty, VanDrunen explains,“applies to life in the spiritual kingdom but not to life in the civil kingdom.  No human authority can bind the believer’s conscience in regard to participation in the spiritual kingdom of Christ.  Over against Roman Catholic claims, Calvin teaches that Scripture is the only authority in this realm.  Hence, as he explains in Institutes 4.10-11, the church can minister the word of God alone and never its own opinions, and it can prescribe for worship only those things that Scripture provides….In other words, the officers of the church have authority to do and command only those things prescribed in Scripture, and Christians in the spiritual kingdom are thus free in conscience from anything beyond this”; on the other hand, “civil magistrates have a broader discretion to promote justice and order in the civil kingdom, and Christians are bound to obey them except if their commands contradict their biblical obligations” (NLTK 74).

Was this, then, the Protestant doctrine of Christian liberty–the believer’s freedom from any command outside Scripture in the visible Church, and the Church’s corresponding gag order not to say, do, or command anything besides what is specifically laid down in Scripture?  I have already argued in a recent post that such a notion of sola Scriptura is simply impossible and incoherent–no church could function if it took VanDrunen’s rhetoric seriously.  So was Protestantism really so incoherent at such a key point?

 

I would suggest that the answer is a resolute “No,” and that VanDrunen has in fact distorted the teaching of the magisterial Reformers almost beyond recognition at this point.  He has done so by equivocating at the exact point where Calvin is so careful to be absolutely precise–the notion of “conscience.”  VanDrunen slides carelessly from saying “the Church cannot bind the conscience beyond Scripture” to “the Church cannot command anything beyond Scripture” to “the Church cannot do anything beyond Scripture.”  Not only are the last two quite different statements (as I already pointed out parenthetically above with regard to church boards), but for Calvin, the first two are quite different statements.  Indeed, because of this, VanDrunen has in fact gotten Calvin wrong on the other side of the duality as well–magistrates cannot bind the conscience in the civil kingdom, for Calvin, because in fact there is no one but God himself who can bind the conscience. 

In a series of posts over the coming weeks, preparatory to a chapter draft for my Ph.D., I will be exploring this question in Calvin, but also in several of his contemporaries, in the Puritans who claimed to follow him, and of course in Hooker.  VanDrunen’s construal is not, I will argue, completely alien to the Reformation–it was certainly there, and popped up from time to time in incendiary outbursts, but it was always resisted by the magisterial Reformers–Luther, Melanchthon, Bullinger, Bucer, Vermigli, Calvin.  Hooker, I hope to argue, helped resolve some of the tensions thus raised that his predecessors had not quite been able to deal with satisfactorily.  

 

(For some of my initial critiques of VanDrunen on some the chapters quoted above when I read them last year, see here and here–take all with a grain of salt, however.)

(For an initial sketch of my Ph.D thesis, or what I aspire to be my thesis, covering a lot of the ground discussed above, see here.)

(For an excellent review of VanDrunen that exposes the category confusion that lies at the heart of this problem, see this article by Steven Wedgworth.)

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