Why I Won’t Convert

In the wake of my post “Honouring Mary as Protestants,” I found myself drawn into an amicable Reformed-Orthodox dialogue of sorts on Orthodox-Reformed Bridge.  In the discussion, I was challenged to explain my rejection of the idea that any tradition preserved intact and entire the timeless essence of true Christianity–did this not make me postmodernist, rejecting the objectivity of truth?  Was this not just an excuse for Protestant subjectivism, picking and choosing my own little mix of traditions as I saw fit?  In my replies, I summarized my view on the relationship of Protestantism and tradition, and why I see the call to “submit” to “the Church” as a cop-out, fuelled by a desire for easy solutions to doctrinal corruption and division.  The following is adapted from those comments: 

I am not a “postmodernist”–I do not think that all we have are “fragments of the Gospel.” I believe that the Gospel once delivered to the saints is a rock upon which the Church is built, and from which it can never depart. I believe that the heart of that faith remains constant over the millennia, but as history moves forward, the Church grows (and occasionally backslides) in its understanding of that faith, and that, so profound is the truth to which we are called to witness that no single formulation of it can claim to have captured it fully; on the contrary, all we can claim is to have testified to an aspect of it, and must be ready to consider that other Christians, or other eras of the Church, may have testified to another aspect, which we should not immediately rule out simply because it doesn’t line up exactly with our own. I also believe that under the guidance of the Spirit, the Church is advancing, and that we can be confident that on the whole, our grasp of the truth of God in Christ will grow rather than shrink.

There is, in short, an objective truth to the Christian faith. but it is an object so great, so large, so multi-faceted that each of us can only see certain parts of it at any given time, so we must always be ready to compare what we have grasped of it with what others have grasped, seeking to gradually put together a mosaic that will capture more and more of the whole picture. This is not postmodernism, because it presupposes that we all are actually looking at the same object, and seeing something real there outside ourselves. But it is not naive objectivism, which assumes that the object simply is what we have perceived–no more, no less.

You may be right in being concerned that this seems to give no simple, straightforward basis of combating “liberalism.” I believe that the search for some kind of magic weapon that will level all forms of liberalism with one well-placed blow, leaving only orthodox forms of the faith standing, is a fool’s errand. I believe that the kind of patient and humble submission to Scripture that I have described does give us the ability to identify and defeat inauthentic forms of the faith, false testimonies to Christ, but it will always have to be a patient and careful struggle. The magic weapons of the Magisterium or the Seven Ecumenical Councils are illusory–they are themselves embedded in the ambiguities and vicissitudes of history from which they claim to rescue us. The latter may provide a reliable guide to the issues that confronted the Church in that time, but new issues are always confronting the Church. The former may promise an authoritative answer to all of these new issues, but at the cost of its own consistency over the centuries, and without escaping the problem of interpretation–think of how many contradictory forms of Catholicism right now claim to be in submission to Vatican II.


The alternative is a commitment to semper reformanda.  This need not mean, as critics will say, opting for a self-indulgent “continual smorgasbord” and “convenient selectivity.” Rather, it’s about a constant wrestling with the voice of Scripture, and the voice of its interpreters through all the ages of the Church, a willingness to never rest satisfied that we have all the answers, and instead to always allow ourselves to be interrogated by the Word. In this, we must always be open to the possibility that our understanding will grow and lead us to new theological insights, but in confidence that God does not change, and he has been faithful in leading his Church into truth in the past. Therefore, we may rest confidently upon the historic creeds of the Church, determined that even as our growing comprehension of the truth of the Gospel may shed new light on these foundations, it must never lead us to contradict them. 

It’s hard to see how this can be dismissed as “convenient selectivity.” To my mind, this posture is a far more difficult and uncomfortable one than that which seeks the comfort of some ossified and de-historicized tradition that will decide in advance all questions, so that we can simply rest on, say, the determinations of the first 700 years of the Church (or some idealised compendium of them), without having to wrestle with the Scriptures ourselves.

The critic may respond that this makes us each into our own popes, listening to no authority but ourselves. I would suggest, on the contrary, that it requires us to listen to authority even more. Instead of simply taking one set of authorities from one period of the Church, we have to take seriously the authority of Augustine, of Athanasius, of Gregory Nazianzen, of Anselm, of Gregory Palamas, of Aquinas, of Luther, of Hooker, of Newman, of Schmemann, of John Paul II, of our own parents and pastors and all those that God has put into our lives. We have to do our best to listen respectfully to all these voices, instead of just one or two, and to submit our own judgments to their greater wisdom, seeking to find harmony when they disagree with one another, and when we cannot harmonise, making painful decisions about who to follow. And let me tell you, this is a hard thing to do. It cannot, in any case, be rightly done in an individualist, me-and-my-Bible way, but only in constant dialogue with other Christians, waiting patiently for the Spirit to guide us through the wisdom of our communities.

I should add, moreover, that this should always be done from a standpoint of submission to a particular tradition in which one has been called, using the language and categories of that tradition as one’s starting point and interpretive grid. For me, that’s the Reformed tradition. I have all kinds of problems with that tradition, but that’s where God has put me, and I believe therefore that I am called to, as much as possible, critique and revise that tradition where necessary from within itself (while listening attentively, as I have said above, to other voices from Church history), not by constructing a personal postmodern smorgasbord that contains pieces of all traditions but the heart of none.

Two Kingdoms in the Old Testament

(Continuing at last with my review of Living in God’s Two Kingdoms

One of the greatest weakness of the theological paradigm that VanDrunen advances as a basis for his Reformed two kingdoms theology, is that it leaves him ill-equipped to make sense of the Biblical narrative.  The dogmatic theology, as discussed in the previous post, is problematic enough, but at least there VanDrunen can tie it all together into a coherent, though perhaps not persuasive, package.  But when it comes to the Biblical theology, he is essentially forced to openly excise large portions of Scripture as having little or no meaning for us today, renouncing any aspiration to a unified Biblical narrative.  

Although the New Testament certainly provides plenty of narrative, and offers, I think, glimpses of a prospective narrative, whereby we may understand the Church age and the eschaton, the lion’s share of Biblical narrative of course falls in the Old Testament, and it is here that VanDrunen’s most obvious problems appear.  After all, 90% of the Old Testament narrative tells the story of Israel, a covenanted people who receive laws from God to regulate every area of their religious, social, economic, and civil life, who exist as a holy nation, a priestly kingdom, under their King Yahweh and those whom he appoints.  This is hardly a promising place to look for a two-kingdoms paradigm, in which divine law addresses only otherworldly matters, and affairs of this life are part of the “common kingdom,” ruled by natural law.  And so, VanDrunen sheepishly admits, this whole section of the story (90% of it) is just an interlude–a side-show–not something we should rest too much weight on.


But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.  Let’s look back at how VanDrunen sets up the Old Testament narrative in terms of his two-kingdoms theology.  After his somewhat idiosyncratic account of Adam’s commission (covered in the previous post), he begins with the Noahic covenant, which, he tells us, establishes the “common kingdom”:

“Several important features characterise this common kingdom established by the Noahic covenant: it concerns ordinary cultural activities (rather than special acts of worship or religious devotion), it embraces the human race in common (rather than a holy people that are distinguished from the rest of the human race), it ensures the preservation of the natural and social order (rather than the redemption of this order), and it is established temporarily (rather than permanently)” (79).  

With this, he contrasts the redemptive Abrahamic covenant:

“it concerns religious faith and worship (rather than ordinary cultural activities), it embraces a holy people that is distinguished from the rest of the human race (rather than the human race in common), it bestows the benefits of salvation upon this holy people (rather than preserving the natural and social order), and it is established forever and ever” (82-3) 

Now this kind of distinction is nothing terribly novel, and thus far, I’m more or less fine with it.  But two covenants do not equal two kingdoms, in VanDrunen’s sense; rather, I would suggest that the Biblical picture is one in which the Abrahamic covenant is the means to the realisation of the Noahic covenant.  The Noahic covenant is, after all, a reaffirmation of the Adamic covenant–that much is clear (it begins with “Be fruitful and multiply”).  After Adam’s failure to carry out his God-ordained task, the world was plunged into the chaos of sin and required devastating divine judgment.  After this judgment, God confronts Noah as the new Adam, reaffirming his task, and pledging that this time, the world will not have to be destroyed again.  Now, why not?  How is the fallen earth and the fallen race to be prevented from requiring judgment again?  Already within two chapters, things seem to be going to pot again.  The Abrahamic covenant is the answer.  God covenants with Israel as the representative of the human race, called upon to be the bearers of his promises and the witnesses to him in a fallen world, so that through them, the earth might be preserved and the race redeemed.  In other words, redemption and preservation are not so separate as VanDrunen suggests, but are interdependent.  

Now, as VanDrunen continues, his categories begin to look increasingly strained: “Here [in the Abrahamic covenant] God sets apart a people who, because of their faith and obedience toward him, are radically distinguished from their neighbours and given a different eternal destiny (life with Christ in the world-to-come).  Genesis teaches these things about the Abrahamic covenant” (83)  What?  Genesis teaches that Abraham is going to be given life with Christ in the world-to-come?  Hardly.  Dogmatic theology might teach that on the basis of the whole Scriptural revelation, but Genesis says no such thing.  VanDrunen’s insistence on supplanting biblical theology with systematic theology (on the next page, VanDrunen says “Unlike the Noahic covenant, this covenant is not about preserving this present world but about opening up the gates of the world-to-come” and then goes on to read the imputation of Christ’s righteousness into the passage!) blinds him to the incongruities in the categories he is applying to the text.  The promise to Abraham is first and foremost for a people, and for a land–for this-worldly benefits.  Now, we might want to jump forward to the New Testament and spiritualize all this, but the very this-worldly nature of these promises means that, in the Old Testament at least, this “spiritual kingdom” seems to transgress a lot on the territory assigned to the “civil kingdom.”  

But there’s a more serious incongruity.  What does God say to Abraham about the purpose of the covenant? “And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”  As VanDrunen has described it, the purpose of the covenant is to separate out a people for a different eternal destiny, to bracket them off from their neighbours and save them out of the world, giving them blessings in the world to come.  But as God describes it, the purpose is to commission a people to bless the whole rest of the world.  Needless to say, this difference has huge ramifications, since, as N.T. Wright never tires of pointing out, this is Paul’s whole point in Romans–Israel has failed to be the blessing to the world, and so God has fulfilled Israel’s task himself through the faithful Israel Christ, in whom we all are called to be the new Israel, bringing God’s blessing to the world.  

VanDrunen goes on to explain how Abraham, while covenanted to dwell in the spiritual kingdom by faith, simultaneously lived in the common kingdom: “As he sojourned in the land, Abraham did not set up his own cultural ghetto but freely participated in his neighbours’ cultural activities” (86).  There is a little problem with this picture, though–this land is the very thing that Abraham is going to acquire according to the terms of the redemptive covenant–this is the inheritance of his “spiritual kingdom”!  His “sojourning” in it is a temporary matter, as he patiently waits on God for the day when he and his descendants can take it over, at which time these “neighbours” will be killed, expelled, or converted.  This is hardly the kind of two-kingdoms mentality VanDrunen wants to recommend–one in which we inhabit the common kingdom only as long as we have to, waiting until we can take it over and make it into the spiritual kingdom–indeed, it sounds more like the theonomic mindset VanDrunen is keen to oppose.  


So how does VanDrunen get around this?  Apparently, by deftly inverting the narrative of the Old Testament so that the inheritance of the Promised Land is, ironically, not the fulfilment of the promise to Abraham, but a weird, 800-year-long hiatus in the Biblical narrative: “For present purposes it is also crucial to note that Israel’s experience under the law of Moses in the Promised Land of Canaan was not meant to exemplify life under the two kingdoms.  The cultural commonality among believers and unbelievers ordained in the Noahic covenant was suspended for Israel within the borders of the Promised Land” (90).  After describing the many ways in which the Mosaic law violates the two-kingdoms paradigm, he concludes, “Under the Mosaic covenant God evidently suspended the provisions of the Noahic covenant that ordained that ordinary cultural activities should be a common enterprise among believers and unbelievers alike.”  So in the Mosaic covenant–the covenant that dominates the Old Testament, we have a covenant that doesn’t really fit with either of the two previous covenants that are supposed to provide a blueprint for the life of God’s people.  In another strange inversion, it is not until things go horribly wrong, and God’s people are completely unfaithful, that they are again given the opportunity to live according to the original blueprint: “In Israel’s long history between the giving of the law to Moses and the coming of Christ, they nevertheless had one corporate experience which did exemplify the life of the two kingdoms: the Babylonian exile” (91).  But before moving on to the end of the narrative, let’s pause and look at a couple other remarks about the period in the Promised Land.

While admitting that the two-kingdoms principle seems basically suspended during this time, VanDrunen argues that it did still apply “outside the borders of the Promised Land”–here, Israelites were still supposed to live as citizens of a common kingdom, free to “make alliances and trade in common with the world.”  This claim is problematic because, in fact, Israel is condemned by God for pretty much every alliance they make with another kingdom, and the Solomonic period, to which VanDrunen appeals for his proof-texts, is the time when Israel is shown to have be violating God’s commands not to be like other kingdoms–the multiplying wives, horses, chariots, etc.  The trading alliance with Hiram is not explicitly condemned, but in context, it is hardly warmly affirmed.  In any case, again, this paradigm would underwrite a kind of two-kingdoms relationship that VanDrunen eschews–one in which Christians hang out in their “spiritual kingdom” ghetto of the Church, living isolated lives and only venturing out to mingle with unbelievers when pragmatic necessity calls for it.  


Now what about the Babylonian captivity?  Sure.  Here we do have a “two-kingdoms” relationship, in which faithful Jews are supposed to serve God as he requires, while also serving Nebuchadnezzar and Babylon.  But without delving into the details of how VanDrunen explicates this phase, we must note, as VanDrunen himself is forced to, that this is a temporary anomaly.  The Israelites are waiting for Babylon’s destruction; they are longing to get back to the Promised Land.  And as soon as they can, they do.  


VanDrunen’s entire retelling of the Old Testament, then, inverts its own self-presentation.  The state of affairs it envisions as proper for God’s people, which all of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy are dedicated to laying the groundwork for, is one that he considers an anomaly, not to be followed, not to be used as an example.  But whenever things are not as they should be in the Old Testament, whenever they are out of whack, then, on VanDrunen’s reading, they are just as they should be–because they’re exhibiting a two-kingdoms paradigm.

Now of course, VanDrunen will retort that we are not living in a state of fulfilment, but we’re living in a time out of joint.  We have not received our Promised Land, and so the state of Abrahamic sojourn or of exile is the fitting image.  Unsurprisingly, he lays great stress on the New Testament language of “sojourners” and “exiles.”  However, obviously, this is not the only New Testament language.  The Church is the New Israel, the New Jerusalem.  We have already “come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God” (Heb. 13:22).  Redemption is already taking hold.  The New Testament church is in a state of already/not yet, of partial fulfilment, but also expectation, of being sojourners but also citizens.  This means that we must hold in balance both Old Testament paradigms as offering a valuable hermeneutic for our own situation.  We cannot simply choose the one and chuck the other.  Especially, we cannot choose the one that is minimised in the Old Testament and chuck the one that is at the centre of the Old Testament vision.  Otherwise, Marcionism is lurking at the door, as I’m afraid it is in VanDrunen’s wholesale dismissal of the Mosaic covenant.

Some Ramblings on Sola Scriptura

In a blog post a week and a half ago, Peter Leithart addressed the issue of Sola Scriptura in relation to Christian Smith’s recent book How to Go from Being a Good Evangelical to a Committed Catholic in Ninety-Five Difficult Steps.  His defence there of sola Scriptura rightly understood was solid stuff, emphasising the importance of distinguishing between Scripture as sole authority and sole final authority.  Tradition may be a very important authority, may even be a guide to the interpretation of Scripture, but when the chips are down, tradition must always be revisable by Scripture, in a way that cannot be vice versa.  This line of argument is a reasonably familiar one, and yet it seems to me that there are really two distinct issues that have to be addressed when we are talking about sola Scriptura–the “intensive” question and the “extensive” question.  

The first concerns the “strength” of the sola–just how alone is Scripture, and how much is it aided by tradition?  What respective roles do the two play in establishing the rule of belief, and how much can each one do taken by itself?  The second concerns the scope of the sola–just how broadly does it reach?  On just how many issues are we claiming Scripture’s authority?  Is Scripture the authority over, say, mathematics?  This is the sort of idea that gets R2Kers all worked up.  Leithart’s notion of “final authority” is of course of some help here, for this allows that other authorities can command our respect in this field as much as they want, so long as they do not contradict Scripture, which, given how little Scripture has to say on the subject of mathematics, will be pretty rarely, if ever.  

This was of course how the Reformers explained the doctrine, according to their distinction between “things necessary for salvation” and “things indifferent.”  In things necessary, Scripture is the only authority; in things indifferent, it is the final authority.  Which means that, if Scripture is silent on a subject, you can believe whatever you want to, so long as you don’t say that it is necessary for anyone to believe thusly.  (At least, in theory that was the doctrine; pretty soon Protestants were saying that it was necessary not to believe in or do any number of things about which Scripture was silent.)  

This qualification also applied to the Reformation’s notion of the “perspicuity of Scripture,” a concept that has been much misunderstood and misused today.  The perspicuity of Scripture meant that God did not leave us so little guidance in His Word about the path of salvation that we needed other authorities and other information to repent and believe and be saved.  All the essentials, the bare necessities, were there in Scripture clear enough for the lowliest peasant to comprehend and act upon.  Of course, there were many matters in Scripture not so clear, and open to dispute; but the fact that they were so, according to the doctrine of perspicuity, was conclusive evidence that these were not matters necessary and essential.  


This, I take it, is the point on which Protestantism (or the varieties of it with which I am familiar), has veered so dangerously off-track, inciting a reaction away from its fractious dogmatism that often takes the form of a rejection of sola Scriptura altogether.  For, if one applies the doctrine of perspicuity too broadly, then potentially any doctrine can become the article of a standing or falling faith, potentially any doctrine can be a legitimate occasion for schism, since “it’s a matter of the authority of Scripture.”  If, for instance, I am convinced of Calvinism, and I am convinced it is demonstrated in Scripture, and I am convinced that Scripture is perspicuous, then if you reject Calvinism, this must be a rejection of the authority of Scripture.  It couldn’t be a difference of interpretation or application, since Scripture is clear.  Therefore, it must be because you refuse to accept Scripture’s authority.  Therefore, you have abandoned the material principle of the faith, and are on the brink of apostasy.  So the argument could run (although I’m not sure that’s how it has generally run in the case of church splits over Calvinism, which have usually proceeded on even more dubious theological logic).  

It is this theological breakdown that has contributed to the vitriol of recent debates between “liberals” and “conservatives,” and that distinguishes such recent debates from their counterparts a century ago.  Back when Machen left the PCUSA, it was, ostensibly at least, because the deity, resurrection and exclusivity of Christ were being rejected or at least quietly abandoned.  Nowadays, our great church splits and controversies occur over issues like Young Earth (or even Six-Day) Creation, women’s ordination, and homosexuality.  Now clearly none of these issues concern in themselves the essentials, the Gospel (although if one is Catholic, women’s ordination raises extremely serious issues about the apostolic succession, validity of the priesthood, and therefore ability to receive the means of grace–and so, presumably, affects salvation; and on the Creation issue, one can argue that the evolutionary narrative would have domino effects on key Christian doctrines that would ultimately undermine the Gospel).  And yet in many quarters, one, two, or all of these are considered make-or-break issues?  Why?

The rhetoric is clear enough most of the time–“It’s a matter of the authority of Scripture!”  Perhaps these “liberals” don’t reject the deity or resurrection of Christ, but they’re rejecting the Bible, and these other doctrines are thus sure to fall by the wayside soon.  Scripture, we are told, is clear on these points, and therefore, there is no way to deviate on these points without openly flaunting Scripture.  By this means, each of these issues, and potentially any number of others, can become automatically just cause for a breaking of fellowship.  


But of course, we can’t be so quick to dismiss this as a failure to distinguish between things necessary and things secondary.  Because that distinction does not map straightforwardly on to “things clear in Scripture” vs. “things not clear in Scripture” (as Hooker sometimes seems to imply). Obviously, there are plenty of secondary, indeed, plenty of completely unimportant things that are quite clear in Scripture.  For instance, that Paul spent three years in Ephesus.  Does it matter?  Well, not really.  But since Scripture seems clear on the subject, then how do we respond if someone were inclined to deny this fact?  Presumably this denial (or pick your own crystal-clear example) would be a matter of great concern.

So then, I suppose, what this distinction forces us to do is ask again whether the matters debated really are so crystal clear that to reject them is to reject Scripture, instead of simply assuming that they are.


Of course, it is also worth noting that some issues currently under debate, particularly the Creation issue, also pertain to what I have called the intensive authority of Scripture, and perhaps raise similar questions to those of the relationship of Scripture and tradition that proved so crucial at the Reformation.  For what we are now forced to ask is whether Scripture can stand on its own, or whether we need to listen to the testimony of Scripture and science (or, Scripture and historical studies) together in order to find truth, whether science must function as the interpreter of Scripture on certain points in the way that tradition once claimed to.  For many, yielding an inch to science to science seems like a rejection of sola Scriptura.  But could we apply Leithart’s same logic here–science may exercise authority over our interpretations, so long as Scripture remains the final authority, in light of which, if push comes to shove, science must be revised and not vice versa?


All of these are but musings, thinking aloud, so to speak.  How they all fit together, and cash out in practice, I’m not at all sure, and I’d welcome any input.

A Two Kingdoms Hart Attack

Over at Old Life Theological Society, Darryl Hart has been vigilantly policing the web for any criticism of Reformed two kingdoms theology, so I knew it was only a matter of time before my incessant provocations warranted a full-post response.  That response came on Monday, and although I hate the petty squabbling that so often characterizes blog debates, this may be a useful opportunity to clarify some of my critiques of VanDrunen and get a better idea of where R2K folks are coming from.  My main reply proved rather bulky for the comments section, so I’ve opted to post it here–Darryl’s excerpts in italics, mine in regular font:

“1) Christ has fulfilled Adam’s original task.

2) Therefore [Latin, ergo], Christians are not called to fulfil that task.

3) Christians do not need to earn eternal life by cultural labours; they already possess the eternal life that Christ has won for them.

4) Our work does not participate in the coming of the new creation–it has already been attained once and for all by Christ.

5) Our cultural activity is important but temporary, since it will all be wiped away when Christ returns to destroy this present world.”

Sounds pretty good to me (except for number 5 which is a bit of a caricature), but it also makes sense theologically since you wouldn’t want to argue the opposite of these deductions, would you? Do you really want to be on the side of affirming that Christians earn eternal life through cultural labours? 

First, I would ask how #5 a caricature?  This is certainly what VanDrunen appears to be saying in LGTK, but if not, I am glad to hear that, and would like to get a clearer explanation of what R2K eschatology looks like.

Second, why wouldn’t some want to argue the opposite of these deductions?  I would certainly dispute 2, as well as, in certain important senses at any rate, 4 and 5.  The only one that you really wouldn’t want to dispute is 3.  

But more fundamentally, my objection was that these do not constitute “deductions” but a string of assertions.  (3) simply does not follow from (1) and (2)–except on an idiosyncratic and unbiblical understanding of “Adam’s original task”, nor do any of the others follow from (3).  (3) is the odd man out here.   How does the statement “we do not merit redemption by our cultural labours” entail “redemption has nothing to do with our cultural labours”?  We are not justified by our cultural labours, of course.  But our sanctification does flow over into those cultural labours, as I will get to in a moment. 


We are united with Christ, ergo, we take part in redeeming the world? How exactly does that follow?

How does it not follow? We are united with Christ, therefore we reign even now with with him; we are made kings and priests, sharing in his dominion and intercession over all creation.  He is even now putting all his enemies under his feet, thus redeeming the world from the bondage of sin.  And by our union with him, we are made sharers in this task.  Lest this sound too triumphalistic, we must of course remember that we are united with him in his death, and called to share in his cross, which is how he overcomes the world.  I suppose it does not follow for the R2Ker because they insist that Christ is not enthroned over creation, but only over the Church; therefore, even if we do somehow share in his kingship, this means nothing for redeeming the world.  This is a whole ‘nother discussion, I suppose, though I have touched on it in previous posts on R2K Christology.


But to turn cultural activity into a part of redemption does take away from the all sufficiency of Christ or misunderstands the nature of his redeeming work.  You may understand the sole sufficiency of the work of Christ for saving sinners, but if you then add redeeming culture or word and deed ministries to the mix of redemption, you are taking away from Christ’s sufficiency, both for the salvation of sinners and to determine what his kingdom is going to be and how it will be established. Maybe you could possibly think about cultural activity as a part of sanctification where God works and we work when creating a pot of clay.

There’s vagueness going on here in the term “redemption.”  Redemption involves, if I learned my ordo salutis correctly in Catechism class, both justification and sanctification…not to mention glorification.  So yes, cultural activity is a part of sanctification–and therefore it is a part of redemption.  Redemption takes effect in a sanctification which lays hold of our entire lives, including culture.  Now here’s the cool part.  Although this cultural activity is an effect, not a cause, of our own personal redemption, it is a cause of the redemption of the world more broadly.  This of course gives VanDrunen and Hart the heebie-jeebies, so let me explain.  The fall, by warping our relationship with God, also warped our relationships to one another.  As we are sanctified, we are again enabled to live out these relationships rightly.  Our redemption thus takes effect (slow and ambiguous effect, to be sure) in the healing of distorted social structures, and indeed of creation itself (Romans 8:20-23).  And here is where my “not a zero-sum game” comes in.  Christ is the sole lord of the universe, the sole captain of salvation, the only one with power to redeem.  But he accomplishes the redemption of his creation through his people–by his grace, he redeems for himself a people, and in transforming them, enables them to work together with him in accomplishing the healing of his world.

But as I’ve said before, the fruit of the Spirit is not Bach, Shakespeare, or Sargent; if you turn cultural activity into redeemed work you need to account for the superior cultural products of non-believers compared to believers.

There are actually three categories to be considered, and you and VanDrunen collapse the latter two. First, there are actions carried out in relation to God–here, obviously, only believers saved by grace through faith are able to do what is good.  Then there are actions carried out in relation to other humans–this is the domain of ethics and politics.  Then there are actions carried out in relation to the creation–this is the domain of art, mathematics, technology, etc.   These are of course not iron-clad spheres (at least not the latter two), but useful distinctions.  Now, while in the third category, natural reason is sufficient for unbelievers to discover the laws of geometry or write glorious symphonies just as well as believers (although it is probably not a coincidence that music has developed so much further in the Christian West than anywhere else; if we were being really precise, we would treat humane arts here differently than physical sciences), it’s not quite this simple in the second category.  Unbelievers are not going to have the same insight into justice, into how husbands and wives should treat one another, how rulers should treat their subjects, how economic exchange should be carried out justly, as Christians.  They will have a lot of insight, sure (this is natural law, common grace, etc.), but do we really want to say that salvation doesn’t affect how you treat other people, and the Bible gives no instruction on how to treat other people?  I think not.  It is careless to lump together politics and music as “culture” and say that in all “cultural activities” believers have nothing distinctive to offer, and that the Bible doesn’t give us instruction about cultural activities.


Actually, VanDrunen supplies plenty of theological justification for his view of Christ and culture since he sees important layers of discontinuity between Israel and the church 

Sure, of course there are important layers of discontinuity, but there are also important layers of continuity, and I can’t find those in his account (more on this in an upcoming post).

It does not take much imagination to see that the Israelites, even the ones who trusted in Christ during his earthly ministry, were completely unprepared for the new order that was going to emerge after the resurrection…. But the new order of the church was completely unprecedented in the history of redemption to that point in time.

Well, yes and no.  I think N.T. Wright supplies very helpful categories for understanding this.  The gospel only makes sense as an unforeseen fulfilment of God’s promises to Israel.  It is unforeseen in advance, but it is a fulfilment, and thus is in continuity that can be readily traced in hindsight.  I don’t see where those points of continuity are for VanDrunen–the history of Israel remains isolated and unintegrated into the sequence of redemptive history (again, more on this in an upcoming post). 

I see no reason why the next age of redemptive history will [not] similarly exceed any expectation that we have based on our experience of this world.

Absolutely.  But it will nonetheless be in continuity.  When I was a young child, I couldn’t begin to imagine what I would be like as a fully grown man (heh, I still can’t :-p)… but this is different from not being able to imagine what it would be like to be a peacock.  Again, I’m sure VanDrunen would claim that there is some kind of continuity between this creation and the new creation, but I’m not sure where it is, and his theology appears to repeatedly undermine it.

The Ambiguities of a Christian President

Although I’ve been planning to write up a fairly critical review of Darryl Hart’s A Secular Faith, that would perhaps not be the most politic thing to do when he is busy trying to critique me (on my review of VanDrunen) over at his blog right now.  So, in a spirit of camaraderie, let me voice an odd point of sympathy with Hart’s book.  

In it, he is chiefly concerned to argue (among other things) that we should not be voting for our political candidates on the basis of their Christian faith or values, and in fact should be very leery of them trying to bring those convictions into office with them.  Their Christianity simply does not have anything relevant to contribute to rightly governing our country, and we should vote simply based upon political considerations.  While I dramatically disagree with him on the larger issues, being convinced of the relevance of Christianity to public life, the importance of governing a country in submission to Christ, etc., I find myself oddly in sympathy with him when it comes down to practical questions like, “Who do you want to win in 2012?”


Last week, I finally decided to try and educate myself a bit on the 2012 contenders, and I was reading an essay about how Republican contender Michele Bachmann is apparently a zealous conservative Christian.  And not just a generic evangelical, but someone influenced by Reformed writers in the remote little neck of the ecclesiastical woods in which I was brought up–people like Francis Schaeffer and even R.J. Rushdoony and Steve Wilkins, if this article was telling the truth.  Now, even if I may have some significant differences with these Christian thinkers, they’re minor in the grand scheme of things.  So here is a legitimate presidential candidate who is about as closely-aligned with me theologically as anyone I could ever expect to run (at least, given what I gleaned from this one article…I am still largely ignorant of Bachmann’s background).  Shouldn’t I be cheering her on?  

On the contrary, I’ve found myself instinctively repulsed by her, despite (perhaps even because of?) her explicit invocation of Christianity.  This may well be quite unfair, but if I were to vote strictly on feelings (and don’t worry, all you conservative readers out there–I wouldn’t vote strictly on feelings, and my reason might well end up somewhere rather different), I’d be more comfortable voting for Obama than for Bachmann.  Weird, huh?  


Is Darryl Hart right then?  Does theology have nothing to do with politics?  Well, not quite.  Certainly, with Hooker we could acknowledge that theology may not map onto politics in any clear and straightforward way, and such are the complexities of political life, the silences of Scripture, and the limitations of our ability to apply it, that Christian commitment might be able to manifest itself in any number of varying political commitments.  Perhaps this is part of what’s going on. 

I’d like to think, though, that my objection actually arises more from my fear that Bachmann, like most other Christian conservatives I’ve encountered, actually is not nearly Christian enough in the way she approaches politics.  If you read her statements on “Issues” on her campaign website, it’s hard to find anything beyond a tired old regurgitation of the same old neo-conservative slogans about the importance of protecting the free market and helping business grow, and the importance of looking out for America’s interests in the world and standing up to its enemies.  I’d rather vote for a candidate who doesn’t know Christ (though Obama sincerely claims to and I will take that at face value) but who nonetheless applies some of his warnings against the danger of wealth and his admonitions to love our enemies (not that Obama necessarily has done that very well), than a candidate who claims to make Christ central to their politics, but shows no sign of having ever really listened to some of these central teachings.  

This is, of course, over-hasty as an indictment of the religious Right–I recognise that issues of economics and national security are quite complicated, and you can’t just wave the Sermon on the Mount at them (many of my bloggings here over the past year have been focused on trying to think how some of these Christian teachings ought to intersect with the practical issues of modern politics).  But this is an attempt to explain in a nutshell my gut aversion to candidates like Bachmann.

 Of course, there is another, more pragmatic dimension, and on this point I probably am closer to Hart–there’s something to be said for voting for someone you disagree with, but consider competent, than someone you agree with, but who’s likely to run the ship of state into an iceberg.  When electing someone to government, one must first and foremost have faith in their ability to govern, not merely in their good intentions.  And most of the current Republican front-runners seem committed to radical ideologies that seemed doomed to disaster.  So, ironically, the conservative in me might rather vote for someone more liberal.


In any case, if you’re reading this, and know more about the current candidates than I do (which probably describes pretty much everyone who might be reading this), by all means jump in and clear up my false impressions and conclusions.  Even if I don’t vote (which I have trouble imagining I will), it would be helpful to know what’s the landscape’s really like back there in my troubled homeland.   


PS: I just realized that having singled out Palin for criticism a couple months ago and Bachmann now, and no other Republican candidates, I may be coming across as somehow misogynist.  I certainly hope that’s not the reason; rather, the main reason, i think, is that I seem to encounter their names much more frequently in the media than any other Republican contenders (and because Christian conservatives seem particularly enthused about them).