Church = Spiritual Kingdom?

Consider this just a teaser for Part 2 of “Once More Into the Breach,” which will be appearing on The Calvinist International early next week, in case any of you are not thoroughly exhausted of the topic by that point.  

In his recent “Two Kingdoms Myths,” Matt Tuininga goes out of his way to try and prove that critics have been groundless and uncharitable in their claims that VanDrunen asserts a straightforward identity between the visible church and Christ’s spiritual kingdom (or as VanDrunen often prefers to call it, “the redemptive kingdom”).  Cornelis Venema’s application of the moniker “ecclesiastical kingdom” Tuininga indignantly rejects as virtually slanderous.  Never mind that the first page of Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms declares,  

“According to this doctrine, God rules the church (the spiritual kingdom) as redeemer in Jesus Christ and rules the state and all other social institutions (the civil kingdom) as creator and sustainer, and thus these two kingdoms have significantly different ends, functions, and modes of operation.”

Tuininga tells us, however, that we must take VanDrunen’s slightly later work, Living in God’s Two Kingdoms, as the definitive exposition, and in particular, the sentence on p. 116 that says, “Though the church is not identical to the covenant of grace or the kingdom of heaven, it is precisely in the church that the covenant and kingdom are experienced until Christ returns.”  Perhaps (although this qualification really doesn’t amount to much).  But before we begin to blame the critics for their stupendous blindness, let’s consider just how many passages we could assemble in which VanDrunen appears to make the alleged identification—restricting ourselves to Living in God’s Two Kingdoms only. Here is a sampling:

“The church is the only institution and community in this world that can be identified with the redemptive kingdom and the covenant of grace.” (102)

“The New Testament teaches that the redemptive kingdom finds its present manifestation and penultimate fulfillment in the church, and the church alone.” (106)

“The church, as the kingdom of heaven on earth, must imitate the Lord Jesus . . .” (114)

“Want to see the kingdom of heaven here and now?  Look at a faithful church of the Lord Jesus Christ.” (116)

“The church is the only earthly institution that can identify itself with the redemptive kingdom.  To have fellowship with the church is to have fellowship with the kingdom of heaven.” (133)

“None of them [these other earthly institutions] is the kingdom of heaven on earth.  The church ought to be central to the Christian life because the church is the only earthly community that manifests the redemptive kingdom and grants us the fellowship of our true home, the world-to-come.” (134)

“The church is the redemptive kingdom here on earth.” (141)

“This chapter has already made some important claims about the church as the redemptive kingdom . . .” (146)

“This chapter has covered a lot of ground in considering the church as the redemptive kingdom . . .” (159).

“Thus we have explored the Christian life in the redemptive kingdom.” (160)

Now, we can spend plenty of fruitful time debating whether VanDrunen is right to make this identification, and what he might mean by it.  But let’s not waste time arguing about whether he makes it. The fact that he’s willing to admit that it is not identical without remainder to Christ’s eschatological kingdom does not alter this basic identification; it merely means that he, thankfully, is not a hyper-Preterist!


That Strong and Forcible Word

In the wake of my reflections on Obamacare, ministerial authority, and Christian liberty, I have been involved in several conversations about the authority of preaching—does the minister speak the words of God from the pulpit, or the words of man about the Word of God?  This, it turns out (like almost every issue I find myself wrestling with, it seems), was one of the many matters debated between Hooker and the Elizabethan Puritans.  So highly did they exalt the Word preached, implying that the Word only became living and active in the mouth of the preacher thought Hooker, that they risked derogating from the authority of the written Scriptures and attributing divine authority to human instruments, much like the Roman Catholics.  Perhaps a fully-formed discussion of this topic will follow in due course—for now, a remarkably pithy statement on this matter from William Covell’s Just and Temperate Defence of the five books of ecclesiastical policy written by M. Richard Hooker:

Doctrines derived, exhortations deducted, interpretations agreeable are not the verie word of God, but that onely which is in the originall text, or truly translated, and yet we call those sermons, though improperly, the word of God. . . . The word that proceedeth from God (who is himself very truth and life) should be . . . lively and mighty in operation, sharper than any two edged sword. Now to make our sermons that strong and forcible word is to impart the most peculiar glory of the word of God unto that which is not his word. For touching our sermons, that which giveth them their very being is the will of man and therefore they oftentimes accordingly tast too much of that over corrupt fountaine from which they come. For even the best of our sermons (and in sermons there is an infinite difference) howsoever they oftentimes have a singular blessing and that the scripture, the pure word of God, is the text and ground of the speech, yet the rest of the discourse, which is sometimes two or three houres long (a time too long for most preachers to speake pertinently), is but the paraphrasticall inlarging of the same text, together with those fit exhortations and applications, which the learning of the preacher is able to furnish himselfe withal and his discretion shall thinke fit for that auditory to which he speaketh. And, therefore . . . to make even the best sermons equall to the scripture must be in apparant reason a great wrong to that which is immediately God’s own word, whereunto, though the best preach agreeably, yet the sermons of none, since the apostles’ time, are or ought to be esteemed of equal authority with the holy scripture.”


A Hotline to Jesus? Obamacare, Ministerial Authority and Christian Liberty

In my recent post on Obamacare and subsequent discussions, one of my chief concerns has been one that, remarkably, I share with David VanDrunen—the concern that the spiritual and civil kingdoms are confused, and believers consciences are thereby bound in matters that fall properly within Christian liberty.  The minister must not confuse the words of God with his own opinions, and one surefire way to do so is to assert that the Lordship of Christ or the authority of Scripture is at stake in some particular political policy.  

In seeking to elucidate his recent “Sermon to the Governor and Legislature of Idaho,” Doug Wilson appeared to cheerfully confirm that yes, this is exactly what he intended to do, in exactly the way that R2K theorists warn against.  Let’s take a closer look then at what VanDrunen is so afraid of, and what false assumptions force him to nonsensical conclusions about the relationship between the church and politics.  The same false assumptions, we shall see, appear to underlie Wilson’s recent attempt to justify his claim to have a speak directly for Jesus in this matter.

In Living in God’s Two Kingdoms, VanDrunen argues that his doctrine of the spirituality of the Church, is necessary to safeguard Christian liberty: 

“The church has only the power to declare the laws and doctrines that already appear in Scripture.  In short, church officers can say and do only that which Scripture authorizes them to say and do.  At first this may sound constricting and burdensome for the church, but its effect and driving motivation is actually to protect the liberty of Christians.  If church officers cannot teach anything beyond what Scripture teaches, then they are unable to bind the consciences of Christians beyond how Scripture already binds it [sic].  Thus Christian liberty is maximized.  Christian consciences are bound to believe and to do as Scripture instructs, but Christians are free to exercise their own wisdom in deciding how to live and what to think about all matters that Scripture does not address (within the bounds of respecting other legitimate authority structures in society)” (p. 152).  A little later on he says, “If a church and its leaders take seriously their ministerial authority, then they will exhort Christians to do what Scripture instructs and leave them at liberty to make wise and responsible decisions about other things.  Church officers should teach Christians to submit to civil authorities, to discipline and educate their children, and to work diligently and honestly.  They should offer them pastoral counsel to help them grow in wisdom in such areas.  But they should not command them what political strategies to follow, what child-rearing methods to utilize, or how to make their businesses run more efficiently” (155).

He discusses the particular case of abortion policy, and while granting that the church should support a pro-life position morally, this will not necessarily entail any particular political strategy, since there are many rival considerations that must be taken into judgment in determining whom to vote for, and the best political way to enact pro-life principles.  For this reason, “the church may not promote one side over the other nor may any Christian present his decision as the Christian view. . . . [It may be] an important and morally weighty decision, to be sure, but it is one of discretion and wisdom that the minister, bound to preach the Scriptures and the Scriptures alone, cannot determine from the pulpit” (202-3).  This call for restraint certainly makes sense, but it is when VanDrunen extrapolates from this principle the conclusion that the Church must simply avoid speaking about political matters at all (as he appears to think in NLTK 263-68, where he rebukes Thornwell for “incoherence” in thinking that there may be “a religious aspect to civil concerns”, something clearly appears to have gone awry.

Part of what has gone awry can be seen in his simple conflation of “ministers” and “the Church.”  If ministers can’t address a matter, then “the Church” can’t address a matter, he thinks; but the Church is the whole Christian people, so what about them?  In his paradigm, the voice of the minister is essentially identified with the voice of Christ, and Christ is understood as the great law-giver of the New Covenant.  When the minister speaks, therefore, he is taken to command law in the name of Christ, and thus he cannot envision ministers “speaking” or applying Scripture in any way except to “bind consciences.”  When ministers preach, he thinks, they are necessarily saying “Thus saith the Lord” at every point, and this leaves no room for attempting to venture into the somewhat muddy realm of politics.  VanDrunen actually makes a small qualification that points the way out of this dilemma, but he doesn’t seem to notice it—the line: “They should offer pastoral counsel to help them grow in wisdom in such areas.”  What is pastoral counsel if not an attempt to faithfully apply Scripture and reason to particular circumstances demanding prudence and wisdom, and in which the pastor’s word cannot be anything but provisional and advisory, leaving the conscience of the believer quite free whether to accept it or not?  Apparently, however, VanDrunen sees a sharp disjunction between such private counsel, addressed to individuals, and “the pulpit”—the public sermon addressed to believers at large.  But this leaves out a whole realm of other forms of pastoral communication.  What about Sunday School teaching?  What about writing, speaking engagements, and blogging?  In all these settings, it seems to me, the minister can attempt to offer counsel regarding the proper application of Scripture to life, without necessarily insisting that he speaks directly for God.  Indeed, even though the pulpit is a unique platform that carries particular weight, I see no reason why the pastor cannot venture beyond what is strictly contained in his text to offer a provisional application to current circumstances.  However, the pastor must be clear that he recognizes that the further he moves from the express words of Scripture into particular political questions, the more provisional his statements must be; not all his interpretations may equally claim to carry the authority of Christ.

 

Now, Wilson’s sermon seemed to be a textbook example of the sort of thing VanDrunen was warning against.  In it, he certainly seemed to confuse adiaphora—particular political arrangements—with the express teachings of Scripture (what he called the “biblical concept of limited government” or the prohibition on human authorities claiming to be “as God”).  He offered a particular spiritual evaluation of the current political circumstances, and did not confine himself to description—he went on to offer prescriptions about how the Idaho authorities, at least, were obliged to act in this circumstance.  To be sure, the ordinary citizen did not receive direct prescriptive guidance, except insofar as he was being prescribed to share a particular evaluation of the situation; failure to share this evaluation, it was implied, could stem only from cowardice or sophistry.  And then, to cap it all off, Wilson did exactly what VanDrunen said ministers necessarily do, and said, “I have been declaring all these things in the name of Jesus.”  Obamacare is idolatry . . . Thus saith the Lord.  It certainly appeared to be an attempt to bind the conscience, a violation of Christian liberty. 

But perhaps this was an uncharitable reading of what Wilson was up to; so some contended.  Thankfully, Wilson added a post yesterday to explain exactly what he thought he was up to, entitled “Jesus and Conservatism.”  Unfortunately, the post appeared to rely on the very same categories that VanDrunen uses.  Where VanDrunen attempts to offer a reductio ad absurdum—”ministers can’t preach on particular policy decisions, because that would bind the conscience”—Wilson appears to swallow the reductio—“Sure they can, so too bad.”

The post appeared to be a response to the objection “Why is it OK for you to preach politics, if it’s not OK for N.T. Wright to preach politics, as you’ve often complained before?”  Ironically, the question thus posed perfectly highlighted why ministers should avoid claiming the authority of Jesus for particular policy prescriptions.  If two ministers do so, and their policy prescriptions are contradictory, clearly they can’t both be speaking for Jesus.  Yet Wilson says, “When differing with Wright on his economics, I do not fault him for speaking to the situation, and I do not fault him for doing so in the name of Christ. I would only fault him for the bad economic reasoning, and we could then engage in profitable debate — and the debate should occur on that level.” 

But if he recognizes that there’s touchy matters of economic reasoning going on, which require healthy debate (and are not directly addressed by Scripture) then shouldn’t this highlight the need for all prescriptions on such matters to be provisional?  Wilson, however, seems to think that there is no way to have an opinion without attempting to make it binding on others:

“‘I think I’ll have another helping of potatoes’ says absolutely nothing about what other people ought to be thinking. But ‘I think that two oranges and two more of them make four’ is a claim that I believe to be binding on others.

So when I claim, as I recently have, that belief in the lordship of Jesus Christ obligates us to a position that honors the concept of limited government, I really am saying that everybody needs to get good with this. The Bible teaches it. So then, someone will say, ‘you are claiming that Jesus is a conservative’? Not really — given where He is, at the right hand of the Father, I really don’t know how the label would attach. But I am willing to say that He wants you to be one.”

In other words, Wilson says he really is doing what I worried about; he really does mean to say, “The particular political position I hold is Jesus’s position, and you need to get on board with it.”  He goes on:

“Now the dictum that ‘Jesus is Lord, and not Caesar’ requires that we go one way or the other, down into the details, and that we do so in His name. The only way to avoid that is to reject the claim that Jesus has something to say about how we govern ourselves. For as soon as you say that He does have opinions on it, then some bright fellow will ask, ‘Oh? What are they?’ And I will say that Jesus wants us to stop spending money we don’t have, and a Christian Keynesian will say the opposite. And somebody is wrong, not only about the economics, but also about what Jesus wants.

The only alternative to this is to say that Jesus doesn’t care what the magistrate does. But if He cares, then His people will be asked how He cares, and how His care cashes out. As a minister of Christ, I don’t have the option of saying nothing.”

This is essentially exactly the argument of VanDrunen, only in reverse.  Actually, the minister of Christ does have the option of saying nothing, on matters that are beyond his expertise.  If a quantum physicist asked Wilson what Jesus thinks about the Higgs-Boson particle, is Wilson bound to declare Christ’s mind on the matter, or can he say nothing?  But in any case, there is a false dilemma here, as we say with VanDrunen, between “saying nothing,” on the one hand, and going “down into the details” in the name of Christ.  Why can we not make the general declaration “Jesus is Lord, and not Caesar” in the name of Christ, and then caution that, when we are going down into the details, we are necessarily getting in somewhat over our heads, and whatever we say will be somewhat provisional?  That doesn’t mean we don’t have an opinion about it, as Wilson seems to imply (“But to say that Jesus led me into conservatism (for example) is to say that it would be better if others did that too. This is not ideological imperialism; rather, it is what it means to think something, at least something of this nature.”)  You can believe something, and believe it earnestly, and indeed believe that Jesus led you to believe it.  But because you realize that you are not Jesus, you don’t have to thereby say, “Believe such-and-such, in the name of Christ.”  Rather, you can say, “My understanding of what Jesus wants it that we should do such-and-such.  And I believe this on the basis of these Scripture passages, and this assessment of empirical realities.  But all I can tell you for sure that you must believe is those Scripture passages, not my assessment of empirical realities, and not the particular way I have applied those Scripture passages to empirical realities.”  This is by no means saying that “Jesus doesn’t care what the magistrate does”; it only means that you don’t claim to have a direct hotline to Jesus, some special privileged access into what he would say about every conceivable circumstance.

 

Perhaps I am still missing something, but I do not see how one can make such a claim—”This is what Jesus would say, and you need to get on board with it” without implying that anyone who doesn’t get on board with it is thereby sinning; indeed, sinning in a fairly significant way.  And this is by definition to violate Christian liberty; it is in fact precisely the sort of thing that the Reformers were concerned about when they erected their protest against Rome on the foundation of this doctrine. 

“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” (Gal. 5:1)


Calvin Against the Anabaptists

In several recent posts, I have hinted at the tendency of Reformed disciplinarian thinking to fall into the same errors as Anabaptism, attempting to collapse the gap between the pure Church, hidden in Christ and only glimpsed in the world, and the mixed Church of wheat and tares in which we must live and worship—or, to put it more succinctly, attempting to immanentize the eschaton, anticipating the judgment which only Christ can make by claiming to identify in the here and now all those who are his and those who are not.  

In his Brief Instruction for Arming All the Good Faithful Against the Errors of the Common Sect of the Anabaptists (a critique of the Schleitheim Confession), however, John Calvin offers an extraordinarily fine summary of what is at stake, and why rightly Reformed discipline must never seek to overstep its all too human limits.  (Of course, it may justly be argued that Calvin himself perhaps did not always sufficiently maintain these caveats in practice, and later disciplinarians would certainly cite him as precedent for some of their excesses.)  Here is the nub of the matter:

“The debate is over this: they think that wherever this order [excommunication] is not properly constituted, or not duly exercised, no church exists, and it is unlawful for a Christian to receive the Lord’s Supper there.  Thus they separate themselves from the churches in which the doctrine of God is purely preached, taking this pretext: that they do not care to participate in the pollution committed therein, because those who ought to be excommunicated have not been banished.

“We, on the contrary, confess that it certainly is an imperfection and an unfortunate stain in a church where this order is absent.  Nevertheless, we do not hold it to be the church, nor persist in its necessity for communion, nor do we hold that it is lawful for people to separate themselves from the church.”

He subdivides this matter into two questions: (1) is a church that does not discipline still a church? (2) is it legitimate to separate oneself from a church on the account that it does not practice discipline?

On the first, he appeals to the example of the Corinthians and Galatians, who were still designated “churches” despite their severe corruptions.

“Therefore, let us not deceive ourselves by imagining that a perfect church exists in this world, since our Lord Jesus Christ has declared that the kingdom will be like a field in which the good grain is so mixed with weeds that it is often not visible (Matt. 13:24).  Again, the kingdom will be like a net in which different kinds of fish are caught (Matt. 13:47).  These parables teach us that although we might want an infallible purity in the church and take great pains to achieve it, nevertheless, we will never see the church so pure as not to contain many pollutions.”

This ongoing pollution is of two kinds: first, the persistent sin in the lives of believers, who are simul justus et peccator, so that “even if we had the best-disciplined church in the world, nevertheless, we could not evade the fact that we would daily need our Lord’s cleansing of us in delivering us from our sins by His grace”; second, in that the church always contains hypocrites, who do not fear God or honor him in their lives.  

Now, it is the role of excommunication to remove the latter from the Church, but we must be realistic about its limits:

“This pollution ought to be eliminated by the discipline of the ban, and the church ought to diligently work, to the best of its ability, to do so . . . but [even the most diligent] never arrive at a point where there still aren’t a large number of unpunished evildoers present.  For the malice of hypocrites is often hidden or, at least, is not so well discovered as to permit one to pronounce sentence against it.

“Therefore, in sum, let us hold to what our Lord says, that until the end of the world, it is necessary to tolerate many bad weeds, for fear that if we should pull them all up we might lose the good grain in the process (Matt. 13:25, 29).  What more do we want?  Our Lord, in order to test his own, has willed to subject His church to this poverty, so that it has always contained a mixture of good and bad.”

It is for this reason that Calvin refuses to elevate discipline to a mark of the Church, as some other reformers, influenced by the Anabaptists, were doing:

“For we owe this honor to the Lord’s holy Word and to His holy sacraments: that wherever we see this Word preached, and, following the rule that it gives us, God therein purely worshiped without superstition, and the sacraments administered, we conclude without difficulty that there the church exists.  Otherwise, what would you have?  That the wickedness of hypocrites, or the contemptuous of God, should be able to destroy the dignity and virtue of the Word of our Lord and His sacraments?

“Now I readily acknowledge that discipline also belongs to the substance of the church—if you want to establish it in good order—and when good order is absent, as when the ban is not practiced at all, then the true form of the church is to that extent disfigured.  But this is not to say that the church is wholly destroyed and the edifice no longer stands, for it retains the teaching on which the church must be founded.”

Discipline cannot be a mark, because discipline is something that we do, and the Church is the work of God:

“it would be incorrect to base consideration solely on men.  For the majesty of the Word of God and His sacraments ought to be so highly esteemed by us that wherever we see that majesty we may know with certainty that the church exists, notwithstanding the vices and errors that characterize the common life of men.

“In summary, whenever we have to decide what constitutes the church, the judgment of God deserves to be preferred over ours.  But the Anabaptists cannot acquiesce in the judgment of God.”

 

The second question to be addressed follows logically from this discussion—ought we to separate ourselves from churches that do not discipline properly?  (Note that Calvin has in mind a context where there is essentially one established Christian community—or one Protestant community at least—not a modern denominational setting where many different instantiations of the church exist alongside one another.  To separate from the church at Geneva, in Calvin’s context, would have been a declaration that it was not a legitimate church.)  The Anabaptists said that “wherever the undisciplined are not excluded from the communion of the sacrament, the Christian corrupts himself by communing there.”  Unholiness, on this understanding, is intrinsically contagious.  Note that this is not the concern (which Calvin elsewhere will express) that sinners left undisciplined will corrupt other Christians by their bad example, but that their mere presence at the Table is sufficient to bring judgment on all present, to turn the Supper of the Lord into a table of demons.  Such attitudes remain remarkably common among many Reformed today (I knew a Reformed seminary professor once who considered that at a church that practiced paedocommunion, one could not receive a valid sacrament!).  Calvin has firm words for this kind of thinking:

“a Christian ought certainly to be sad whenever he sees the Lord’s Supper being corrupted by the reception of the malicious and unworthy.  To the best of his ability, he ought to work to see that such does not happen.  Nevertheless, if it does happen, it is not lawful for him to withdraw from communion and deprive himself of the Supper.  Rather he ought always continue to worship God with the others, listen to the Word, and receive the Lord’s Supper as long as he lives in that place.”

Calvin goes on to fortify this opinion with Biblical examples, and particularly with the example of Christ himself, who did not scorn to participate in the rites of a deeply corrupt temple system.  Indeed, we should remember that Paul is quite clear in 1 Cor. 11:28 where chief responsibility for fencing the Table lies:

“he does not command everyone to examine the faults of his neighbors, but says accordingly, ‘Let every man search himself, and then eat of the bread and drink of the cup.  For whoever comes in an unworthy manner will receive his condemnation.

“In these words there are two matters to note.  The first is, to eat the bread of the Lord in an unworthy manner does not mean having communion with those who are unworthy of it, but not preparing oneself properly by examining if one has faith and repentance.  The second is, that when we come to the Lord’s Supper, we ought not begin by examining others, but each should examine himself.”

 

In summary, Calvin says, while churches should seek to discipline the openly ungodly in their midst, such discipline should not think of itself as maintaining more than a poor approximation of the holiness that properly belongs to the Church:

“let us take thought of what we can do.  And when we have done what was in our power and duty, if we cannot achieve what we had hoped to and what would have been desirable, let us commend the rest to God that He might put His own hand to it, as it is His work.”

(all quotes taken from pp. 57-66 of Calvin’s Treatises Against the Anabaptists and the Libertines, edited and translated by Benjamin Wirt Farley)


Genevan Mythbusters

My essay, “Will the Real Geneva Please Stand Up?” is now up over at the Calvinist International, summarizing some of my recent barrage of research into the development of church discipline and ecclesiology in 16th-century Calvinism.  In it, I ask how much typical narratives of Calvin’s ecclesiology correspond to what he actually said and did in Geneva.  On a conventional narrative,

“We would find Calvin arriving in Geneva and gathering around him a band of like-minded pastors and laymen, with whom, having studied the Scriptures carefully, he drafted a church constitution.  This constitution would provide for individual congregations to elect elders for spiritual government and deacons for more temporal needs, and each group of elders would be presided over by a pastor.  Together, elders and pastor would oversee the spiritual and moral lives of their congregants, rebuking them and excommunicating them where necessary; deacons, meanwhile, would gather and manage the alms of the congregation for the needs of its members.  Elders and pastors from individual congregations would meet together regularly with all the others within the city of Geneva, and this synod would vote on decisions binding on all the individual congregations, and would hear appeals on disciplinary matters.  Calvin and his fellow pastors would have made this constitution without consulting the city council, though, in order to keep the peace, they would probably have sought the city council’s blessing, or at least their permission, to carry through this arrangement among such believers in Geneva who wished to participate in this scheme.  And here is the key point—they would not have sought to impose this system on the whole populace of Geneva, since the visible church is a gathered congregation of the truly faithful who willingly submit to discipline, not the whole body of merely outward professors of the faith.  Any Christians in Geneva who wished to participate in Calvin’s churches would have done so, and Calvin and his fellow pastors would have had no interest in imposing their discipline on those outside this church (though they certainly might have tried to evangelize them and to convince them to join).  Those excommunicated from these churches would lose their access to the sacraments and their membership in the spiritual kingdom, but would remain unimpaired citizens of Geneva and members of the society there.”

But what do we actually find?  Well, you can go read the rest of the essay to find out.