Once More Into the Breach, Pt. 1: Manners and Methods

I was at last undertaking to offer a long-promised engagement with Matthew Tuininga’s post from last month entitled, “Friendly Chatter About the Two Kingdoms” (which was a response to my “Two Kingdoms Redivivus: Is there Still a Fuss?”, an analysis of his Reformation21 piece, “The Two Kingdoms Doctrine: What’s the Fuss About?”), when I was interrupted by his very recent post, “Two Kingdoms Myths: How the Critics Get VanDrunen (and Calvin) Wrong” (which was an engagement with my recent TCI engagement with Cornel Venema’s essay on VanDrunen and John Calvin in the forthcoming volume Kingdoms Apart), which seemed to require an answer first. 

If you weren’t altogether lost amidst that chaos of links and counter-links (and if you were, perhaps you will want to just keep an eye on the Political Theology blog in the coming weeks for a short series, “The Two Kingdoms: A Guide for the Perplexed”), you may have noticed a curious discordance between Mr. Tuininga’s two post titles.  On the one hand I am invited to a “Friendly Chatter,” in which he considers that the remaining differences between us are few and perhaps relatively insignificant, and is eager to continue to sort through them in a spirit of mutual respect and iron sharpening iron—an impression Mr. Tuininga has created in private correspondence as well.  On the other hand, I am accused of perpetrating “myths” that fly in the face of “the consensus of Calvin scholars,” without “offering evidence,” and of making claims about VanDrunen that are contradicted by his own words.  (Admittedly, these accusations are not only or perhaps not even primarily aimed at me, but I seem to be one target of them.)  This curious two-facedness appeared in my earlier exchange with Tuininga in May, in which I and my friends were, by turns, treated as respectable interlocutors with whom a valuable conversation could be had, as damnably wrong and irresponsible villains needing to be summarily refuted, and as hotheads so absurdly off-base as not even to merit mention or refutation.  

The charitable judgment (and my own belief) is that the latter representations are inadvertent on Mr. Tuininga’s part and he really does want “friendly chatter.”  The internet is a particularly slippery medium when it comes to confusing bad impressions with bad intentions, as I myself have often experienced.  Of course, this merely means that we must redouble our efforts at careful and charitable rhetoric.  To that end, I want in this post to offer the following four observations about about good manners in debate, in which I shall be so bold as to address Mr. Tuininga in the second person, since at the end of the day, personal relationship is more important and more decisive than illusory scholarly detachment.  I will then offer some preliminary methodological reflections about how to adjudicate the kind of interpretative differences that have been log-jamming this discussion.  Only after all this will I, in a second post later this week, address some particular points of agreement and disagreement arising from his two posts.


Good Manners

First, let me reiterate the caveat that in what follows, I make no hasty judgments about your intentions, only about the impressions that have sometimes been created by your statements.  

(1) The term “myth” is a strong one indeed, as it carries connotations not merely of falsity but of deliberate fabrication or culpable credulity.  It is a tempting term to use, to be sure, as it is a short, punchy way of saying, “seriously flawed narrative that bears little relation to the historical facts so far as I can see,” and I plead guilty of reaching hastily for the same term in my initial critique of yourself and VanDrunen back in April.  But I think on reflection that it is a term best avoided in such discussions, given how readily it creates the impression (even if unintended) that one’s opponents are fundamentally dishonest, and thus morally degraded, not worthy of one’s own time or anyone else’s.  There are times perhaps when such a weighty charge is apropos, but one should be very slow to make that assumption in debates over historical scholarship, and hopefully it is not apropos in the present case. 

(2) Naming one’s opponents is way of showing respect.  Leaving them unnamed, by contrast, is often perceived as a deliberate slight—if, that is, their identity is likely to be known by many readers (if not, then leaving them unnamed may be a laudable attempt to avoid causing strife or offense).  This is all the more so if there is a recent history of direct public interaction with them, in which they have always taken care to address you by name and in detail.  When you respond to such careful critiques merely by alluding vaguely to nameless myth-propagating “critics,” you give the impression that they are simply so absurd or irresponsible as to be scarcely worth your time or attention.  Moreover, it deprives these opponents of the opportunity to vindicate themselves, whereas if you name them, your readers may at least check their writings to ensure that your complaints are valid.  Indeed, given that in this recent post, your complaint is precisely that critics are not carefully reading Dr. VanDrunen, it seems a bit hypocritical to dispense with the need to carefully read those critics.  Notably, right after making various insinuations against these unnamed opponents, you do, in addressing the second “myth,” in fact address Venema and Smith by name, making the previous omission all the more glaring.  Indeed, this is not the first time you have done so; on the contrary, in the interlocution in May and in following posts, it became your standard practice to dismissively attack these nameless opponents and their myths about Calvin.  In fact, we do have names—Peter Escalante, Steven Wedgeworth, and Brad Littlejohn—and given the time and attention we have devoted toward engaging your arguments with specificity, it seems that you owe us the same courtesy.  (Of course, I note that in fact, your name omission has been primarily confined to the first two, and you have often addressed me courteously by name.  Perhaps this is the way of reconciling your two different rhetorical postures—I am, for whatever reason, deserving of a respect and friendliness that Pastor Wedgeworth and Mr Escalante are not.  But it is hard to see why this should be the case, given that my posts interacting with you have been edited and hosted by them, and their own post interacting with you was far more thorough and learned than anything to which I could yet aspire.)

(3) Related to the foregoing—if your opponents have directly responded to your earlier requests for clarification and “evidence,” it is gentlemanly to at least note the fact, even if you find their response inadequate, rather than leaving your readers with the impression that they have never bothered to supply evidence.  While we scholars are tempted to treat evidence that we consider inadequate or unpersuasive as “no evidence,” we must resist the temptation to equate the two, at least when the evidence presented has been offered in good faith.  To say that one’s opponents have made claims without supplying evidence, like accusing them of propagating “myths,” implies that they have no interest in the truth, but in mere propaganda, and hence are morally degraded.  Wedgeworth and Escalante, in particular, supplied a mountainous, 80-page essay in response to your call for evidence.  To say that you found their arguments unpersuasive, their evidence inadequate, their ideas confused, is all quite alright.  But to instead just say, “Pay close attention when the critics are propagating this myth. Do they actually offer evidence for their views? Do they make sense of the many places in which Calvin clearly identifies the spiritual kingdom with the visible church?” is fundamentally misleading to your readers, and again comes across as hypocritical when your complaint in the post is that critics are failing to engage with what VanDrunen has actually said.

(4) Your appeal to the authority of scholarly consensus comes off as pretty cheap rhetoric and brash posturing—“There is no point in my quoting scholar after scholar – although I could do that.”  A bit more humility would actually look considerably more impressive, showing that you’re able to think for yourself, rather than leaving the impression that your own research project is simply to reassert what everyone who’s anyone already knows.  In any case, when your opponents have actually gone to the trouble to point to quite a bit of scholarly support for many of their arguments, it is ungentlemanly, to say the least, to simply confidently reassert that they have none, without actually engaging those arguments.  I recognize of course that you can’t be expected to engage every argument in every post, and this was supposed to be a rather quick overview post.  But in that case, don’t fall into trap of simply ratcheting up the rhetoric of your claims to compensate for the lack of space to substantiate them.

 Now I admit that I may have been guilty of many of these same bad manners at times in past engagements with yourself, VanDrunen, etc.  For these, I freely apologize, but two wrongs don’t make a right.  Real progress in these discussions, by which we can all make a real contribution to the task of Reformed historiography and Reformed ethics, as we both urgently desire, can only come if we all commit to such principles of charity and respect.  Now, I shall return to the third-person voice as I offer some methodological observations to help clarify what we’re arguing over and why.


Good Methodology

In his “Two Kingdoms Myths” post, Mr. Tuininga complains that the critics get both Calvin and VanDrunen wrong, so much so that it appears hard to account for their misattributions except as the result of mendacity, laziness, or poor reading comprehension.  In the above section, I have contended that if Mr. Tuininga does not really mean to accuse us of the former, he should avoid appearing to do so.  But what of the latter charges, not quite so serious to be sure, but still far from trivial?  

Mr. Tuininga’s defense of Dr. VanDrunen in this post repeats the basic methodology he has used in many of his posts on Calvin, which reasons as follows: (1) Critic makes claim X about what this author says; however, (2) I can show you passages from this author which appear to contradict claim X; (3) therefore, the critic clearly doesn’t know what he’s talking about when it comes to this author.  Case dismissed. 

But of course, historical argument is not that simple—nor is any kind of textual argument, for that matter, even though we are often tempted to make it so (and again, this is no doubt an oversimplification of which I have been guilty at times).  For hardly any single text, let alone any single author, is univocal.  Rather, an author makes a variety of claims and arguments, articulated different ways in different places, sometimes qualifying a statement carefully, other times leaving it so unqualified that it seems to tend in a very different direction.  In the work of a very good and careful thinker, these disparate statements will be capable of harmonization into a single coherent account of his thought (although no individual’s thought is perfectly univocal and consistent either), but the task of harmonization is often difficult and contentious, all the more so if the thinker in question is exceedingly complex (as in the case of Calvin) or careless (as, I would argue, in the case of VanDrunen).  What this means is that critics and favorers will both often be able to appeal to a great many passages and implications that support their interpretation.  This does not mean that the critics camp out merely on one set of passages and blindly ignore others, while the favorers do the opposite.  Rather, each interpretation seeks to privilege certain passages and considerations that it takes to be decisive, and uses these to help make sense of other passages and considerations that it takes to be secondary and thus either reconcilable or unrepresentative.  So it has been in the debates about Calvin—Wedgeworth and Escalante in particular have contended that on the basis of certain clear commitments and statements in Calvin’s theology, he cannot ultimately describe the visible church as Christ’s “spiritual government” except in a highly-qualified sense; whereas VanDrunen and Tuininga have taken as their starting-point statements where Calvin does describe the visible church as Christ’s “spiritual government” and have interpreted his other statements and commitments accordingly.  


We will return to these issues in my second post, but first let’s talk about how we see the same sort of thing at work in disputes over what VanDrunen says or means.  In particular in this post, and in his recent response to Bill Evans, Tuininga has reacted indignantly against those who suggest that VanDrunen or other two-kingdoms advocates want to simply identify the “spiritual kingdom” with the Church, and thus want a strict, even “hermetically sealed,” separation between the two kingdoms, and do not think Christians should act as Christians in the public square.  In response, Tuininga protests that he has certainly not done so, and that in fact, neither has VanDrunen—and he offers up some passages as proof.  We will come to those specific passages in due course, but it is worth noting for now that, yes, they do appear to contradict the criticisms.  However, the criticisms have not been manufactured out of whole cloth, but have been offered on the basis of other passages where VanDrunen does appear to simply identify the visible church with the spiritual kingdom, and also to deny the relevance of distinctively Christian commitments and actions in politics and culture, and also on the basis of reasoning by implication: “VanDrunen says X, and seems wholly committed to it, but X implies Y, so even though VanDrunen may at times deny Y, he would appear to be committed to Y.”  In other words, in many cases, the critics have read all the same things as Mr. Tuininga has, and may be aware of all the passages he cites, and yet come to a considerably different overall description and evaluation of his project.  How does this come about? 

 To show that this sort of problem is not narrowly confined to theological, historical, or academic argument, it may be helpful to use a parallel from the realm of art.  How often have you found yourself arguing with a good friend over the merits of a film, each agreeing descriptively on the details of what it is you saw, and even agreeing in principle on the criteria of good art that should be applied, and yet remaining incommensurably at odds in your final assessment?  You think, for all its warts and ambiguities, that the film is a masterpiece, while he thinks, for all its strengths and moments of genius, it is a failure.  You agree that certain flaws really are flaws, but you think that they are minor and forgivable in light of the other strengths of the film, whereas your friend grants those strengths, but can’t get past the flaws, which seem to overshadow everything else.  Or, you might not differ merely on the “good” vs. “bad” judgment, but on questions of the message that the film intends to convey, or of the intentions or character of the protagonist.  You will say, “Well what about that scene near the end where he said such-and-such?”  Your friend will reply, “Well yes, he does say that, but I’m not convinced, because think of all the other points throughout the film that fundamentally undermine that message.”  “But you don’t get it—that scene near the end is the decisive one, and you’ve got to read all the others in light of it.”  Sometimes one person may persuade the other, but often, however much you may sift the evidence together, you persist in your own interpretive and evaluative decisions, which lead to fundamentally divergent judgments.  

What causes these differences?  Why do we weigh the same evidence according to different criteria?  There are a whole host of factors, many of them having to do with personal history or emotional disposition.  “Well, I just love the other work that director has produced, so I’m willing to cut him some slack on what look like flaws in this movie” or “Maybe I just haven’t seen many good movies lately, so this one seemed great by comparison,” or “I find that this protagonist is a lot like me, so I’m perhaps interpreting him somewhat through my own experiences.”

Our theological and historical debates are often more like these aesthetic debates than we would like to think.  Confronted with a text, or an author, that admits of several possible interpretations or evaluations, we choose to privilege certain considerations over others, often on the basis of factors external to the text, and having made these interpretive decisions, do not find countervailing evidence compelling, even when it too can draw on the text.  In Mr. Tuininga’s case, Dr. VanDrunen was a friend and mentor to him when he was pursuing his early graduate work; Mr. Tuininga served as a research assistant for Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms.  This being the case, we would hardly expect anything other than a certain loyalty to his teacher, which would dispose him to highlight the more positive parts of Dr. VanDrunen’s argument and charitably interpret or minimize the more problematic claims.  This is only natural and is indeed laudable; not only that, but it may be that given his personal relationship, he has privileged access to what Dr. VanDrunen’s actual goals are, and can better interpret his writings on that basis.  (Conversely, it may be that his closeness blinds him to flaws that would otherwise be readily apparent from a distance.)  In any case, Mr. Tuininga can scarcely condemn others for not necessarily sharing the same positive predispositions. 


Now, the analogy with film should not be taken as saying that these disputes are merely aesthetic, personal, relative, and ultimately incommensurable.  (Indeed, even disputes about art often can and should be resolved by objective criteria.)  On the contrary, we ought, after patient investigation and debate, to dismiss certain interpretations as implausible, and to arrive at a fairly narrow range of plausible ones.  The most successful and plausible interpretation will rarely be one that perfectly harmonizes all the evidence, although it should be able to harmonize the vast majority of it, but one which concludes that, on a few points at least, our text or author has made statements which cannot be well-supported on the basis of his other commitments.  It is thus up to the author’s advocates to decide whether to jettison these inconsistencies, or else to hold on to them, as the most positive features of the system in question, and reconstruct the rest of the system accordingly.  In the present case, it is our contention that while VanDrunen says things such as “cultural activity should be uniquely Christian” or “that God now rules them [all “the institutions and communities of this world”] through the incarnate Jesus” these statements cannot be well-supported on the basis of other commitments and statements that he has made, and those principles must be abandoned if these salutary conclusions are to be maintained.

In determining the most plausible reading of the overall principles behind an ambiguous author or text, a common strategy is to look horizontally—at colleagues, influences, or other expositors of similar ideas—for illumination.  We do this historically when we interpret Calvin partly on the basis of what we know about Luther, Bullinger, Melanchthon, etc.  We do this contemporarily when we interpret Dr. VanDrunen (or Mr. Tuininga himself) on the basis of what we know about Darryl Hart or Michael Horton or other contemporary “Reformed two-kingdoms” advocates.  This is a problematic, but often an unavoidable strategy, and it is valid to the extent that the author in question has publicly identified himself with one of these colleagues—or, if they have identified themselves with him, to the extent that the author in question has failed to differentiate himself from them.  Now, while such identification or non-differentiation makes this strategy valid, it is still problematic, because the motives for such identification may be complex.  The Reformed world witnessed this problem particularly during the Federal Vision controversy.  A wide range of figures with quite distinct backgrounds, teachings, and agendas, were treated as a monolith—“Federal Vision Theology”—and each found himself forced to defend statements he had never made, merely because one of the other figures in the movement had made such statements.  The critics might contend that this was perfectly legitimate, given that they identified one another as allies, or failed to distance themselves from one another sufficiently.  However, in many cases, the alliances were based on close friendships, or on the need for mutual protection, as a variety of figures, all under attack from their views, sought safety in numbers by associating with others with vaguely similar views, despite significant differences.  To this extent, critics should have been much more careful about differentiating the various figures, and critiquing them each on the basis of their own statements.  That said, we must resist the individualism which seeks to treat each thinker as autonomous, so that he can only be identified by his own explicit statements.  It was thus not illegitimate for Federal Vision critics to attempt to discern, amidst the different articulations, a common logic to the movement, a direction in which its various commitments all seemed to point, implications which would seem to flow from it, even if some more conservative figures denied them.  When looking for such a common logic, it is not uncommon to give disproportionate weight to the statements of the most “extreme” and “unqualified” advocates, not only because they are more noticeable, but because these often turn out to be a sort of prophetic avant-garde, pointing the direction in which the movement, if left to its own devices, would tend to go, once it has abandoned its hand-wringing hesitations.  Of course, it may turn out that these extreme advocates are not an avant-garde, but mere outliers, marginal figures who will soon be jettisoned from the movement.  Often only time will tell when it comes to such judgments.  

In the present case of two-kingdoms debates, this has been the nature of much of the criticism.  Critics are concerned that the logic of the R2K position, as articulated by various advocates, originates from certain shared mistakes, and tends toward a certain problematic destination, despite the nuances and reservations of various thinkers.  In particular, critics have been heavily influenced by the remarkable and often incendiary statements of Darryl Hart, who is indeed guilty as charged of all the criticisms that Tuininga has so indignantly rejected, and who has been the most outspoken public representative of the movement.  Indeed, he has assumed the mantle of its defense lawyer, trawling the blogosphere for criticisms of two-kingdoms theologians, and answering these criticisms in his own idiosyncratic manner.  While we recognize that there may be motivations of personal friendship, etc., that have prevented them from doing so heretofore, unless and until other R2K advocates distance themselves from these representations (as Tuininga has recently begun to do), it will be quite understandable for critics to read VanDrunen et. al. through the lens of Hart’s pronouncements.

History, however, can also be a helpful guide, and in our own attempts (I speak for myself, Wedgeworth, and Escalante) to ascertain the meaning, objectives, and trajectory of figures like VanDrunen, we have also relied heavily on what other forms of de jure divino Presbyterian two-kingdoms theory have looked like, particularly the English Puritan and Scottish Covenanter form, which Dr. VanDrunen’s theological principles closely resemble at many points.  These historical analogues, while they cannot tell us with certainty what contemporary two-kingdoms advocates intend by their words, can provide a good deal of insight into the underlying logic of their position, and where it might be headed (often despite the conscious intentions of contemporary advocates).


Now, for my part, I am convinced that Mr. Tuininga’s own understanding and application of two-kingdoms thinking is quite different than Hart’s and even than VanDrunen’s.  Indeed, he appears in many respects quite close to us; this is even the case, perhaps more so than it often appears, on the historical questions.  I am more than willing, then, to differentiate him, if he is willing to differentiate himself, recognizing that his desire to build on to certain more positive aspects of VanDrunen’s projects cannot really be reconciled with other principles to which VanDrunen appears to be committed.  It may even be, as Tuininga contends, that VanDrunen is himself more flexible on these points than he has appeared, and we have put too much weight on certain poor expressions, on Hart’s formulations and on historical analogues.  But if the most erroneous articulations and principles are to be abandoned, it does not do any good to pretend like they were never uttered.  They have been uttered, and therefore may continue to do a great deal of harm if unopposed, even if their proponents are quietly distancing themselves from them.

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