Two Kingdoms Smackdown

As promised, it has arrived.  In a two-part essay of gargantuan proportions, “John Calvin and the Two Kingdoms” (Part I and Part II), Peter and Steven have tackled the “Reformed two-kingdoms” partisans to the ground, bundled them into a coffin, and nailed it shut.  Or so it would appear, at any rate.  No doubt there will be plenty of debates yet to come, but this essay marks the most complete refutation to date of the Westminster West thesis that seeks to identify historic Reformed two kingdoms theology with de jure divino Presbyterianism and on this basis calls for an evacuation of Christian claims from the public square and a retreat into the rigidly-policed four walls of the Church.  Although there are certainly points calling for further clarification, and there is something in this mammoth essay that will trample on most everyone’s toes, it ought to provide a touchstone for any future discussions of the historical issues involved.  

Also worth seeing is Davey Henreckson’s round-up of the recent debates at Reforming Virtue, where he poses questions to all of the interlocutors, including, last and least, myself.

Updates, Interlocutions, and a Hiatus

As of today, I will be taking off for a couple weeks for some long-awaited time with friends and family in London, Wales, Yorkshire, and sundry places, and blogging should be quite limited during this period—though I do hope to finally put up a review of John Perry’s excellent book Pretenses of Loyalty (thanks to Davey Henreckson at Reforming Virtue for putting me onto it).

Meanwhile, though, there are a number of exciting things to which I can direct your attention.  First (and perhaps not quite so exciting), I have made long-overdue updates to the other pages here at the S&P—About Me, What is the S&P?, Projects, and Writings.  The most significant changes: I have tried to bring the “What is the S&P?” description more into line with what I actually write about here these days, and I have mercilessly purged excess projects from the Projects page, reflecting my real-life purge as I try to focus more of my attentions and energies on my thesis and related work.

Second, and rather more exciting, the Two Kingdoms debates go on.  Oh yes—and on, and on, and on, no doubt.  Matt Tuininga, not content with one rebuttal to my original post, posted five (here, here, here, here, and here), with which I interacted in a few comments, though whether any clarification was thereby achieved, I leave it to you to judge.  This impending trip has not left me leisure for a full-blown response, chock full of big bloc quotes and footnotes, but fortunately, Peter and Steven at The Calvinist International have happily stepped in to provide such a response, which will be forthcoming any day now—I recommend you check in on TCI every ten minutes or so this weekend. 😉

As if Tuininga’s responses were not enough, Darryl Hart has now kindly jumped into the fray with a post at Old Life, “Speaking of Ecclesiastical Authority.”  Although Hart displays again his odd obsession with trying to somehow link everything he disagrees with to Moscow, ID, I am grateful to him for highlighting in his post what I think is the key issue in this whole two-kingdoms debate—namely, the Protestant doctrine of Christian liberty and its occlusion by ecclesiastical legalism.  Hart insists that the modern R2K view is “an effort to recover Christian liberty from the pious intentions and historical circumstances of some in the Reformed world eager to assert the Lordship of Christ without sufficient qualification.”  The problem, of course, from my perspective, is that the modern R2K view achieves this liberty in its civil kingdom at the cost of banishing it from the Church, ruled as it is with a strictly enforced biblical absolutism.  Hart asks, “how the church as a temporal authority, ruled by an earthly monarch, is going to be any less tyrannical, even if its reach only goes to externals,” which is, one might say, just the question my thesis aims to address.  I hope, therefore, to have the opportunity for a full engagement with this line of challenge after my traveling hiatus is finished; we shall see.

Suspending Judgment: Hooker the Anti-Tweeter

While reading an essay by Georges Edelen this week, “Hooker’s Style,” I came across a more prosaic explanation of my instinctive antipathy to Twitter and its ilk (expounded in recent posts here and here); perhaps Hooker is just rubbing off on me.  Hooker, of course, is notoriously the Anti-Tweeter, occasionally indulging in sentences than can run up to a page in length, and which might take a week to diagram.  His Puritan opponents accused him of “cunningly framed sentences, to blind and entangle the simple”; Thomas Fuller famously described it as “long and pithy, drawing on a whole flock of several clauses before he came to the close of a sentence.”  Indeed, Edelen’s survey of Book I reveals that half his sentences are longer than 40 words, and fully a tenth are longer than 80 words.  However, Edelen suggests that there may be a method to his madness—that in his sentence style we see the key to his thinking as a whole.   

For Hooker’s sentences are not merely remarkable for their length, but quite often for their suspension.  That is to say, rather than stringing together a number of independent clauses, or stating a thesis and then elaborating on it, Hooker often prefers to hold the main clause for many lines, introducing a whole labyrinthine series of dependent clauses first.  Tension builds throughout, as elements of thought are assembled but the meaning of the whole is withheld, until finally, with a triumphant click, the decisive clause snaps into place, concluding the thought.  “The suspension,” says Edelen, “forces the reader ahead into the distinctions and concessions that are necessary to an understanding of the proposition.  The structure of the sentence demands, as in the previous case, that all relevant information be absorbed before a grammatical or logical stopping-place is reached.”  Hooker, in short, does not want you to understand the main point he wishes to convey until you have understood the basis for it and the relevant qualifications, for premature or inadequate understanding can be worse than no understanding at all.  This sort of writing, says Edelen, “is a natural vehicle for the mind that insists that no conclusions can be validly reached prior to a discursive and open-minded examination of all the relevant premises, causes, evidence, arguments, distinctions, or effects. . . . Extended suspensions reflect the methodological tentativeness of a rational process whose conclusions are finally validated by their position in a logical pattern.”

A sample of one of Hooker’s suspended sentences (a comparatively brief one) may be a helpful illustration (divided out into clauses by Edelen; spelling modernized for ease of reading):

1     “Now whether it be that through an earnest longing desire

2     to see things brought to a peaceable end,

3     I do but imagine the matters, whereof we contend,

4     to be fewer then indeed they are,

5     or else for that in truth they are fewer

6     when they come to be discussed by reason,

7     then otherwise they seem, when by heat of contention

8     they are divided into many slips,

9     and of every branch a heap is made:

10   surely, as now we have drawn them together,

11   choosing out those things which are requisite

12   to be severally all discussed,

13   and omitting such mean specialties as are likely

14   (without any great labour)

15   to fall afterwards of themselves;

16   I know no cause why either the number or the length of these controversies should diminish our hope

17   of seeing them end with concord and love on all sides;

18   which of his infinite love and goodness the father of all peace and unity grant.”


Of course, once one draws attention to this tendency to hold in logical unity all the relevant premises and qualifications before a conclusion is reached, it is obvious that this is simply Hooker’s whole method in the Lawes in microcosm.  Hooker insists on patiently working through first principles in Books I-IV before attempting to form any conclusions about the particular matters of dispute in V-VIII, and even in these books, he repeatedly draws us back from a narrow focus on the particular to understand the wider context of what is at stake before offering his answers.  The suspension of a conclusion in individual sentences reflects Hooker’s repeated call to his opponents to “suspend” their judgments until they had grasped everything that bears upon the question.  Edelen again:

“Periodicity is, therefore, not simply a favorite grammatical construction for Hooker, but a cast of mind which is reflected everywhere in the Laws.  Not only the syntax of individual sentences but the plan of the entire word is periodic. . . . [quoting Hooker:] ‘So that if the judgments of men do but hold themselves in suspense as touching these first more general meditations, till in order they have perused the rest that ensue: what may seem dark at the first will afterwards be found more plain, even as the later particular decisions will appear, I doubt not more strong, when the other have been read before.’ . . . Suspension is thus to be understood not simply as a syntactical or organizational principle in the Laws but as an expressive embodiment of Hooker’s understanding of the rational processes by which men must seek truth.  The entire force of his attack upon the Puritans lies in his conviction that they have failed to suspending their judgments, that they have leapt to conclusions that are not rationally tenable, precisely because they have failed to take into previous account all of the relevant considerations.”


Later in the article, Edelen looks also at the teleological orientation of Hooker’s sentences, in which it is the final few clauses they contain and orient the meaning of the whole, drawing us inexorably forward.  This too, suggests Edelen, reflects deeper philosophical commitments.  

“The concept of final cause dominates the Laws: ‘the nature of every law must be judged of by the end for which it was made, and by the aptness of things therein prescribed unto the same end.’ . . . The flux of the world is, in reality, an orderly pattern of movement toward divinely known and appointed ends, a pattern hierarchically arranged in a chain of causality reaching ultimately to the Final Cause, God Himself. . . . The periodic sentence is itself a syntactical embodiment of this same teleological pattern.  The ‘final cause’ of the grammatical structure is the terminal resolution which exerts an attractive force on the preceding elements, rationally ordering and justifying them as means to a preconceived end.”


Although Edelen acknowledges that modern English usage can no longer sustain sentences like Hooker’s, we may still honor the principle that lay behind it—the conviction that there is a complex but coherent rational order to the world, from which no truth, if it is to be rightly understood as truth, can be wantonly snatched out on its own and flung about willy-nilly.

Tetzel on Craigslist: Commodification and the Demise of the Commons

In his incisive and thought-provoking new book, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, renowned political philosopher Michael Sandel invites us to step back and take stock of the results of the rapid expansion of market logic into every area of life that the last generation has witnessed.  Economics has transformed itself from a discipline concerned with the production, exchange, and allocation of material goods and services to a master-science claiming to describe the logic of all human social relations in terms of cost-benefit analyses.  In tandem with this theoretical shift has come the increasing subjection of areas of life once governed by non-market norms to the logic of free exchange driven by supply and demand.  Many today, including (perhaps especially?) many Christians may have difficulty in seeing what is wrong with this trajectory—after all, doesn’t this represent the triumph of free, voluntary social relations over against coercive, top-down ones (for a critique of this gross oversimplification, see here)? 

 Inasmuch as the logic of the market, though, is amoral and nonjudgmental—it doesn’t matter what you want and why as long as you’re willing to pay for it—Christians should be deeply concerned, and should heed Sandel’s call to bring morality back into the picture, asking about the moral consequences of subjecting more and more of our lives to the logic of exchange (especially as Sandel himself does not provide a theological basis for this moral concern).  Accordingly, I want to reflect here on the first set of phenomena he examines, “Jumping the Queue,” from a more explicitly theological standpoint.


In his first chapter, Sandel surveys at a variety of cases, around the world, in which the “ethic of the queue”—first come, first served—has been replaced by the “ethic of the market.”  The examples range from the relatively innocuous (the option to pay extra for a “fast track” pass at an amusement park) to the somewhat more troubling (the option for solo drivers to pay extra to use the carpool fast lane in crowded cities) to the downright dirty (lobbyists paying homeless people to stand in line for them overnight so they can be assured a place in Congressional hearings).  

From the standpoint of the Christian ethical tradition, these developments might be described as a “demise of the commons.”  As I have discussed at length on this blog before, the Christian ethical tradition long insisted on the priority of common use over private property.  That didn’t mean that private property was unjustified, but it meant that it did have to be justified.  It wasn’t a self-evident, self-justifying fixture of the natural order.  For the Christian, God has created the world for the use of all his creatures, and above all, for the use of mankind.  Since all men are created equal, the world’s resources are intended to provide equally for the needs of all.  As an institution, then, private property is to be justified on the basis that it can most effectively facilitate the use of the earth to meet the needs of all.  This being the case, any given holder of private property possesses his title on the moral condition that it be used not for his mere private benefit, but for the community at large.  The ongoing commitment to common use may be demonstrated in a private property economy in at least three ways: 1) by the use of private property in such a way that its fruits accrue to the benefits of others—preeminently employees and customers; that is to say, if I am the proud possessor of an apple orchard, I can ensure that the orchard serves common use by paying the apple-pickers a good wage and by selling the produce on to customers at a just price—but not, say, by intentionally allowing half the apples to rot so as to drive up the price of the others and make a better profit; 2) by the redistribution of the profits of private property to society at large, or to the needy—this can occur through taxation, or through voluntary giving to charity, or both; 3) by the preservation of certain areas—whether physical spaces, particular resources or services, or kinds of social relations—from private appropriation, maintaining them as common resources which everyone can use within the constraints of certain rules of fairness (rivers and oceans, for instance, are generally treated this way).  

 A good economy will combine all three.  The second, I would suggest, is the worst, because it does not necessarily challenge the logic of private right—you can do whatever you want with your property, and make as much money as you want, just share a little of your plunder with the rest of us when you’re done, will you?  When voluntary charity is the form of redistribution, the selfish logic can in fact be reinforced, as the giver thinks of himself as a magnanimous benefactor sharing from what is rightfully his alone, rather than someone recognizing the claims of others on the fruits of the earth.  Nonetheless, society today favors the second most of all, whether in its coercive forms (as the left prefers) or its voluntary (as the right prefers), because it is the least intrusive on the logic of private possession.  The third used to be recognized in many ways and institutions throughout society, but these are being steadily eroded.  Sandel’s examples draw particular attention to this phenomenon, particularly notable in the practice of ticket scalping for free public events or services (in China, scalpers wait in line for $2 doctor-appointment tickets, and then sell them to the desperately ill for much higher prices; in New York, free Shakespeare in the Park community theatre tickets are resold on Craigslist for $125).  Deeming such public services inefficient, we increasingly prefer to withdraw them from the sphere of common use and auction them off to the highest bidder.  Perhaps this tendency is an inevitable result of the Lockean logic within which we have long justified private property.  For Locke, private property exists not as a means to common use, but as an extension of our right of self-possession.  We have an inalienable right to ourselves and our own actions; therefore, why not to those things with which we have “mixed” ourselves in the form of our labor?  A free community theatre presents itself as the possession of the whole public, which we are free to come and share in, but which we cannot simply appropriate and make it our own.  But if Locke is right, why not?  My money, as the product of my labor, is the extension of myself, and there is no reason to appropriate to my own exclusive use whatever my money can buy, whether it be the fast lane or a ticket to a papal Mass ($200 on Craigslist for Benedict XVI’s first visit to the States).


In embracing this logic, and asking, “Where’s the harm?” Protestants are forgetting their theological heritage.  After all, more than anything else, the Reformation was a rejection of the commodification of religion, the subjection of God’s grace to the logic of exchange and private acquisition.  Late medieval Catholicism, after all, did a booming trade in souls and spiritual benefits.  Indeed, the phenomena of “jumping the queue” which Sandel documents has its precise complement in the indulgence trade which sprung up in the late Middle Ages, and the many other ways by which those willing to pay could speed their souls to heaven—almsgiving, funding private masses, even hiring surrogates to fight in a crusade.  The rich were able to buy a fast-pass to heaven, to “jump the queue” of purgatory.  Why does this trouble us?  Well, the issue of inequality, as I have just hinted, is obviously part of the problem, and Luther’s war against indulgences was motivated in large part by his anger at the oppression of the poor it entailed.  The rich nobleman, with a modest outlay, could pave his golden highway to heaven without great difficulty, while the mass of poor peasants felt shut out of the kingdom, scrimping and saving their meager resources to purchase indulgences.  Sandel, of course, draws attention to the same problem of inequality in the phenomena he looks at.  The queue is the great equalizer.  The richest must wait as long as the poorest to go through security at the airport.  The poorest has just as much opportunity to see Shakespeare in the Park as the richest.  Where the ethic of the queue dominates, income inequality is not a major issue, because the poor man’s lower income does not bar him from access.  He has rights of common use.  But the more the ethic of the queue is replaced with the ethic of the market, the greater the benefits of the rich.

To apply this logic to salvation, as the late medieval Church did, was to utterly corrupt the grace of God.  The Christian faith is not a private possession to be bought and sold.  God is not a marketable commodity.  In response, Luther preached a spiritual economy of free grace, of a great common spiritual possession that we were invited to enter into and share in.  Just as the physical world was created for the common use of mankind, not for the purpose of being parceled off to the highest bidder, so our heavenly inheritance was a shared possession to which we were given a birthright by the grace of Jesus Christ, not a store of merit to be purchased by those who could afford it.  

But as this picture shows, the problem is not just inequality.  Conservatives, indeed, would reject Sandel’s concern about inequality and would defend the onward march of commodification on the basis that we live in a meritocracy, that the rich are rich because they’ve earned it, and the poor are poor because they haven’t.  Everyone has, in principle, an equal chance to get those Shakespeare in the Park tickets even if they cost $125, because everyone has an equal chance to make that money, if they’re just willing to sweat and toil enough for their slice of the pie.  Let’s ignore for now how little this picture resembles reality.  The problem is, as Sandel argues, that more than just inequality is at stake.  Even if everyone had equal opportunity to buy and sell children, for example, doesn’t mean they should.  Some things simply shouldn’t be treated as commodities, because this flies in the face of their proper nature, corrupting the way we view them.  Children are an obvious and extreme example, but perhaps, he suggests, the same concern applies even to community theatre or papal masses.  Some things lose their real value when we try to put an exchange value on them.

Again, the case of Luther’s protest is instructive.  Inequality was not the only problem with the late medieval religious economy.  After all, you didn’t have to be rich.  It was handy to be rich, because then you could get the benefits without working; but if you were poor, you could still get in the fast lane to heaven too—if you worked hard enough: fasting, praying, pilgrimage, deeds of charity, rituals, etc.  Ultimately, the Church could counter, it was a meritocracy, not an aristocracy.  But that was precisely the problem.  Luther understood that this corrupted the whole nature of what was on offer.  The favor of God wasn’t something you worked for, but something you were freely given.  It was something that belonged to you by virtue of being in the family of God—in Christ, we are sons and fellow-heirs, not hired laborers trying to earn our keep.  


Perhaps by thinking through the theological implications of how the logic of exchange corrupts our relationship with God, privatizing us into self-interested agents, we may gain insight into how the logic of exchange, when extended beyond its proper boundaries can tend to corrupt our human relationships, substituting the agenda of acquisition for the agenda of participation.  


Addendum: An additional thought—lurking behind all this is the question of plenitude vs. scarcity.  That, of course, is the major disanalogy between what Sandel is talking about and what Luther was dealing with.  God’s grace really is infinite, which is why it’s so wrong to treat it as a finite commodity to be apportioned out, whereas Chinese medical appointment tickets are genuinely finite.  Not only do you not have to pay for Jesus, you don’t have to stand in line for him either.  There is no limit on how many people can participate in the common good that is God’ s grace, but there is a limit to how many people can participate in the common good that is Shakespeare in the Park. It is the scarcity of something that convinces economists that it should be apportioned by market mechanisms.  Of course, I think that it is precisely our sense that certain things should not be scarce, should be treated as unlimited goods, that in many cases informs our sense that it is wrong to pay for them.  Is this just self-delusion, trying to pretend that things aren’t scarce when they are?  Or ought we to cultivate such an attitude?  To what extent is the perception of scarcity self-fulfilling?  All such questions I shall merely raise for now, not attempt to answer.

Calvin the Capitalist?

In his Calvin, Geneva, and the Reformation, Ronald Wallace shoots the tired old hypothesis full of holes.  After first surveying Calvin’s teaching on usury, and pointing out just how restrictive his “permission” of it was, he tells us: 

“Though he believed in the necessity of some distinctions remaining, he believed that the appearance of extreme differences in wealth and poverty within a community was inexcusably evil.  His comment on Paul’s ideal that ‘through giving there should be equality’ is illuminating.  ‘Equality’, in Paul’s mind, he thinks means a ‘fair proportioning of our resources that we may, so far as funds allow, help those in difficulties that there may not be some in affluence and others in want’.  The vision given in Christ’s parable of Lazarus in heaven lying at the bosom of Abraham implies that riches do not shut against any man the gate of the Kingdom of Heaven but that it is open alike to all who have either made a sober use of riches, or patiently endured the want of them. 

“Calvin believed that Christ’s command to us to ‘sell your possessions and give alms’ might under certain circumstances demand the giving away of capital as well as current income.  It enjoined that ‘we must not be satisfied with bestowing on the poor what we can easily spare, but that we must not refuse to part with our estates, if their revenue does not supply the wants of the poor.  His meaning is ‘Let your liberality go so far as to lessen your patrimony and dispose of your lands.’ . . . The answer the Lord gives to the greedy who argue too much about their rights to keep their own is, ‘It is indeed thine, but on this condition, that thou share it with the hungry and thirsty, not that thou eat it thyself alone.’ . . . This teaching tends to have more in common with medieval thought than that which lay behind the vigorous growth of Capitalism.”

In short, Calvin appears to have held back to the traditional Christian teaching that private right to property must serve the end of common use, otherwise this “right” degenerated into a wrong against the neighbor, and that the persistence of significant inequality in resources was therefore immoral insofar as it was avoidable.  But it gets even more interesting.  Wallace suggests that Calvin challenged the ethos that is perhaps the chief pillar of capitalism and of modern life, an ethos that few even think to question, so deep is our faith in its benefits—competition:

“It must be noted at this point that Calvin could never have approved of the idea of a competitive society.  Rivalry and struggle of one member with another is impossible within a true Christian body.  No member is living in full health while competing with another.  It is interesting to find how closely on this mater Calvin’s thought comes to that of Kropotkin the anarchist.  In contrast to Hobbes, and to all thinkers who look back to the natural state of man in society as being one of continuous struggle, Kropotkin believed that ‘the law of nature was the law of cooperation, of mutual aid rather than struggle.  Within each species mutual support was the rule. . . .’

“Moreover, Calvin was always warning about the deadly effects of covetousness—an unquenchable and irresistible fire in the soul destructive of all individual and social good.  He called those who extorted cheap labour from the poor, blood-suckers, murderers of a worse type than any street thug.  He was never weary of castigating those who used their financial power to draw money from others to themselves.  He expreses his dismay that when prices were so high wealthy merchants could keep their granaries closed in order to raise the price even higher and thus to cut the throat of poor people’.  Nothing in the commercial world, he believed, could be lawful which was hurtful to other people, and ‘all bargains in which the one party unrighteously strives to make gain by the loss of the other party’ are condemned.  The idea that any form of rivalry in commercial enterprise could help society or tht self-seeking could further the common interest could never have entered his mind.  He believed in restraining rather than in setting free the competitive spirit.  

“The spirit of Calvin has therefore nothing in common with the ‘Spirit of Capitalism’.”

To be sure, so insistently does Wallace press his case here that it seems that he has an anti-capitalist axe of his own to grind.  Nonetheless, most our modern cheery capitalist-cum-Calvinists would do well to consider these points of rivalry between the two creeds.