How (Not) to Have a Foot in Both Kingdoms: Protestant Models for Christian Citizenship

The following is the full text of a presentation delivered at Wheaton College on September 23, 2016, for an event co-sponsored by The Davenant Trust and the Center for Applied Christian Ethics. I am very grateful to Drs. Vincent Bacote and Bryan McGraw for their hospitality and engagement. The full video of the event, including their responses and the extended discussion time following, can be viewed here. Much of this presentation is taken from chapter 1 of my forthcoming book The Peril and Promise of Christian Liberty: Richard Hooker, the Puritans, and Protestant Political Theology (Eerdmans, May 2017).


Life Between Two Loyalties

From the moment that Christ enigmatically rebuffed Herod’s political theologians with the words “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” his followers have had to grapple with the challenge of living under “different kings and different laws.” At various times and places, some have been so bold as to imagine they had removed the sting from Christ’s statement, whether by bringing God and Caesar into alliance, by restricting their kingdoms to different worlds, or by ensuring that Caesar would adopt pluralistic policies that would grant free rein to any religious conscience. Each such solution has in due course been exposed as an over-optimistic illusion, leaving Christians to grapple anew with the tensions of their dual citizenship. Whatever the failures of Reformation political thought, it must at least be credited with its refusal to blithely dismiss the problem; indeed, fewer questions, as I hope this study will show, were more central to early Protestant theology and churchmanship.

Let us begin, then, by tracing the legacy of Protestantism’s proclamation of freedom in relation to Western political order. Certainly, few deny that a central contribution of Protestantism, what Alister McGrath calls its “dangerous idea,” was an epistemological revolution: the insistence on the freedom of individual Christian consciences to determine Scripture’s meaning for themselves.[1] Luther’s famous words at Worms offer a memorable summary of this freedom:

Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason—I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other—my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.[2]

Read More

The Past for Honesty’s Sake: A Rejoinder to Peter Leithart

In a cheery response to my ponderous (and as-yet unfinished, I am sorry) review of his Delivered from the Elements of the World, Peter Leithart counters my charge of an “addiction to novelty” with a declaration of his commitment to “the past for future’s sake.” It is hard to quibble with the substance of his response; indeed, my organization, the Davenant Trust (which Leithart is kind enough to plug in his post) could almost adopt as its motto “The past for the future’s sake”— maybe it should, come to think of it; Leithart always has had a better flair for marketing than I. Of course we should return to the treasures of the past, beginning with Scripture, “to find resources to edify the church of the present, which is, even while you’re reading this, rapidly becoming the church of the future.” Of course we should seek to “to reach back and rocket forward at the same time,” rather than treating the church’s past as a tunnel to crawl into where we can huddle for safety so as not to face the myriad new challenges that the present assails us with. It should go without saying that there is no disagreement here.

Leithart manages to imply that this is the point of disagreement by omitting the last clause of the sentence which he takes as the summary of my objection: “[novelty theology works by] somehow simultaneously putting us back in touch the original primitive Christianity even while rocketing us into the Christian future by refusing to take its start in the conventional categories that theological discourse has refined over the centuries.” Now admittedly this clause is one that might make my marketing consultant wince, and so perhaps Leithart thought he was doing me a favor by omitting it—“conventional categories” are pretty thoroughly out of style, and “refined over the centuries” sounds like a pretty tedious business. But my complaint is not an antiquarian one; rather, it is a very practical one: the past keeps us honest. Read More

Who’s Who in the English Reformation

After giving a lecture on Peter Martyr Vermigli for Trinity Reformed Church in preparation for Reformation Day, I used the next Sunday’s slot to give a crash course in the long English Reformation.  It occurred to me that this, which I used as a handout, might be of interest to others.

Henry VIII (1491-1547, r. 1509-1547): Tudor King of England who broke with Rome, initially in order to obtain a divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. Generally hostile to Protestant doctrine.

Thomas Cromwell (1485-1540): Lord Chamberlain to Henry VIII who masterminded the break with Rome; sympathetic to Lutheran reform. Fell out of favor with Henry and was executed, 1540.

Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556, bishop 1532-55): Archbishop of Canterbury under Henry VIII and Edward VI. A Lutheran sympathizer early on, he helped accomplish Henry’s break with Rome. Later, under Edward VI, adopted Reformed doctrine and established Reformed faith as the doctrine and practice of Church of England. Martyred 1556 by “Bloody” Mary. Read More

The Story of the Reformation through the Life of Peter Martyr Vermigli

As we approach the 497th anniversary of the Reformation, the few churches that still celebrate Reformation Day will be holding celebrations to commemorate Martin Luther, of course, and maybe John Calvin as well—perhaps one or two other Reformers key to their particular regional tradition. I can bet you there are precious few out there who will be celebrating the legacy of Peter Martyr Vermigli. And yet it is almost impossible to tell the story of the Reformation without Vermigli. Indeed, although we rightly hear a lot about goings-on in Wittenberg and in Geneva, much of the Reformation happened in the wide spaces between these two cities, and there was little of it in which Peter Martyr did not have a hand.

I. Early Life and Education

Peter Martyr Vermigli (named after an obscure medieval Italian saint and martyr, Peter of Verona) was born in 1499 in the great city of Florence, just as both the magnificence of the Renaissance and the appalling corruption of the Church were reaching their height. The infamous Alexander VI was on the papal throne in Rome, surrounded by a web of intrigue, adultery, and murder; while Michelangelo was just returning from Rome to Florence to begin work on his legendary David.

All was not well in Florence, however. Lorenzo the Magnificent, who had made the city the envy of the cultured world with his patronage of great Renaissance artists, had died in 1492, and his son, the aptly-named Piero the Unfortunate, ruled only two years before being deposed in a French invasion that threw north Italy into chaos. Into this chaos preached a charismatic and fiercely ascetic monk, Girolamo Savonarola. Read More

A Living, Busy, Mighty Thing

Luther, Preface to The Epistle to the Romans:

Faith is not that human notion and dream that some hold for faith. Because they see that no betterment of life and no good works follow it, and yet they can hear and say much about faith, they fall into error and say, “Faith is not enough; one must do works in order to be righteous and be saved.” This is one reason that when they hear the gospel they fall-to and make for themselves, by their own powers, an idea in their hearts which says, “I believe.” This they hold for true faith. But it is a human imagination and idea that never reaches the depths of the heart, and so nothing comes of it and no betterment follows it.

Faith, however, is a divine work in us. It changes us and makes us to be born anew of God; it kills the old Adam and makes altogether different men, in heart and spirit and mind and powers, and brings with it the Holy Ghost. Oh, it is a living, busy, mighty thing, this faith; and so it is impossible for it not to do good works incessantly. It does not ask whether there are any good works to do, but before the question rises; it has already done them, and is always at the doing of them. He who does not these works is a faithless man. He gropes and looks about after faith and good works, and knows neither what faith is nor what good works are, though he talks and talks, with many words, about faith and good works.

Faith is a living, daring confidence on God’s grace, so sure and certain that a man would stake his life on it a thousand times. This confidence in God’s grace and knowledge of it makes men glad and bold and happy in dealing with God and all His creatures; and this is the work of the Holy Ghost in faith. Hence a man is ready and glad, without compulsion, to do good to everyone, to serve everyone, to suffer everything, in love and praise to God, who has shown him this grace; and thus it is impossible to separate works from faith, quite as impossible as to separate heat and light from fire. Beware, therefore, of your own false notions and of the idle talkers, who would be wise enough to make decisions about faith and good works, and yet are the greatest fools. Pray God to work faith in you; else you will remain forever without faith, whatever you think or do.