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]

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Does Justification Sola Fide Need an Upgrade? (Delivered from the Elements Review, Pt. III)

In this third installment of my review, I want to turn to consider what is, perhaps more than anything else, at the heart of Leithart’s argument in this remarkable book: his notion of the “deliverdict.” In the last installment of this review (and see here for the opening summary), I argued that in places, Leithart’s commitment to offering an essentially new (or at least long-forgotten) way of talking about Christ’s saving work led him at times to claim to be saying something new when he wasn’t really, lapsing into imprecision at key points where the traditional formulations are really quite clear and perhaps not in great need of being improved upon. So it is also here in his discussion of the meaning of justification.

Now many Protestants, rightly or wrongly (and I am inclined to think rightly), can get awfully nervous when it comes to tinkering with the material principle of the Reformation, justification sola fide. Thus you would think that if what you had to say on the topic was in fact substantially in continuity with Reformational doctrine, that you would be at pains to emphasize that fact, and to present your position where possible in traditional terms. This is particularly the case in a day and age when many Protestants, unschooled in and insecure about the basic principles of their Protestant heritage, are tempted to jump ship to unreformed traditions in response to polemics which caricature key Protestant teachings (particularly justification by faith). So I find it surprising and concerning that Leithart at many points seems to do the opposite, seeking to unnecessarily accentuate differences between his own views and those of the Reformers, and to blur rather than clarify traditional Protestant doctrine.

Indeed, for those who want to cut to the chase (for this will, I am afraid, be a very long post, given the need for some quite long quotations to accurately state Leithart’s argument and illustrate its discontinuities with the tradition), I will state up front what I will argue in this post. Read More

Church Discipline in the Reformation

Longtime readers of this blog may recall that for a brief spell last summer, I was churning out a number of posts related to Reformed views of church discipline in the sixteenth century.  Those were, as it were, the scraps on the cutting room floor from an article I was helping my friend Jordan Ballor write for the online journal EGO: European History Online.  After nine months of peer review and such, the article is finally up here.

While the topic may sound a bit arcane, it is in fact crucial to understanding the development of Reformed ecclesiology and political theology, topics near and dear to my heart, as they should be near and dear to yours.  Although our article is largely encyclopedic in intent (that is to say, to provide a broad overview of the whole topic, rather than advance a particular new argument), we do seek to challenge entrenched misconceptions at a couple points.

First, we argue that it is dangerous to do history too much in hindsight, starting from the fact of later rifts and reading those back into earlier periods.  Accordingly, we suggest that the  Zurich/Geneva dichotomy (Erastian vs. Calvinist models of church/state relations), a firm fixture of Reformation scholarship, while a clear reality of the post-1570 world, should not be overstated when we are talking about earlier periods.  The two models shared a number of key similarities amidst their differences, and neither side (particularly the Zurichers) insisted that theirs was the only right way of doing things.  Indeed, there were a number of hybrid forms in other Reformed cities and principalities, which combined elements of each vision.  Moreover, inasmuch as there were two models, it is somewhat inaccurate to see the second as the creation of Calvin and Geneva; to a large extent, Calvin developed his approach from those used in Basel and Strasbourg. Read More

Richard Hooker and Anglican Moral Theology Review, Pt. 3

In the first part of my review of A.J. Joyce’s Richard Hooker and Anglican Moral Theology, I remarked that this was an oddly schizophrenic book, a bit of a Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde.  On the one hand, it features a basically sound, thorough, and helpful exposition of the key aspects of Hooker’s moral theology out of the primary sources, and on the other hand, an uneven and confused polemic against Reformed readings of Hooker.  Chapter Four, investigating Hooker’s theological anthropology, is a case in point.

The choice to begin with an account of human nature, rather than of the sources of moral theology—reason and Scripture—might seem an odd one, but Joyce’s instincts are good here.  For Protestantism in particular, we must first start from an account of human nature, and its current fallen state, before we can say much about how the authorities of reason and Scripture function in human life.  Put simply, a very strong doctrine of total depravity would tend to demand a moral theology based almost entirely upon special revelation; a more optimistic doctrine of human nature would create more space for the use of general revelation in constructing an account of the moral life.  The classic stereotype, of course, is that Hooker gives us a remarkably rosy evaluation of human nature, one which differs notably from the Reformed understanding of total depravity, and the grim pessimism of a figure like Calvin, and therefore represents a fundamental departure from an authentically Protestant understanding of the relative authority of reason and Scripture.   Read More

Richard Hooker and Anglican Moral Theology Review, Pt. 2

Although delayed substantially since beginning this review more than two weeks ago, I am now recommencing my thorough review of A.J. Joyce’s Richard Hooker and Anglican Moral Theology with an in-depth critique of her third chapter, “Reading Richard Hooker.”  The critique grew so lengthy, however, that I thought it better to adapt it for at The Calvinist International, which has kindly hosted it under the title, “Richard Hooker, Reformed Irenic.”

For the sake of continuity, however, or for those looking for something a bit briefer, I offer here a highly-condensed version.  In chapter three, Joyce proposes to lay the groundwork for a historically sound interpretation of Hooker by teaching us how to discern his rhetorical style and agenda.  Although she purports to be breaking new ground by cutting through the thickets of misunderstanding that have grown up around Hooker’s text and setting the record straight about mild-mannered, “judicious” Hooker, she is in fact simply reciting the fashionable new orthodoxy among Hooker interpreters.  She will argue that, although cultivating a persona of cool objectivity, Hooker is fully engaged in a polemical battle to discredit and defeat his Puritan opponents.  He quotes selectively from them, uses devious little turns of phrase to make them look bad, and imputes bad motives to them, trying to convince his audience that they’re motivated by an emotional agenda, rather than reason.  The irony of all this is that this is in fact precisely what Joyce does to Hooker in this chapter. 

Although she claims to present an objective, historical reading of Hooker in Hooker’s own terms, she in fact shows herself to be motivated throughout by a desire to discredit a particular school of Hooker interpretation, which she fears is trying to align him too closely with the Reformation.  Of course, there’s nothing wrong with this, really.  Of course our desire for truth means that we feel the need to combat error forcefully where we find it; few of us indeed can be moved to write out of a detached love of truth that has not been stirred to action by the perception of error.  So polemicism in the service of truth is no vice, as Hooker himself clearly understood.  So when Joyce thinks she has uncovered a juicy scandal—Richard Hooker was a polemicist—there really is no scandal, for he never pretended to be anything else.

Hooker never makes any attempt to deny is that he is passionately interested in seeing the Puritan position refuted.  On the contrary, he makes clear from the very beginning that he considers it dangerous to the truth, and dangerous to society, and he intends to do his best to expose its flaws.  Joyce attempts to paint him as a hypocrite because, while “presenting himself as a man of unimpeachable Christian charity: an agent of peace and reconciliation who is determined to seek unity and to find common ground with his opponents, however much they might resist such a noble and godly cause . . . if Hooker does indeed seek unity with them, it is abundantly clear that it will be entirely on his own terms” (61).  But Hooker never suggests that he wants unity on any terms other than those of the truth, which is what he intends to be offending.  This, it turns out, is the scandal, from the standpoint of modern academic objectivity—Hooker has the audacity to believe he is right, and his opponents are wrong!

Once we understand that for Hooker, polemics are a tool in the service of truth, we find that there is in fact no contradiction between Hooker’s occasionally polemical style and his overall goal of an “irenical appeal to the hearts and minds of the disciplinarian Puritan opponents of the Elizabethan Settlement,” as Torrance Kirby puts it, to Joyce’s incredulity.  As I have written before here and here, and Steven Wedgeworth has expanded upon with reference to Hooker here, irenicism is the proper end of all good polemics, but it can rarely do without some resort (often very considerable resort) to polemics.  Because it is interested in reconciliation in truth, irenic polemics aims ultimately to persuade the opponent, opposing his errors, but not assassinating his character.  

Does this description accurately characterize Hooker’s polemics?  Joyce would have us believe not, characterizing Hooker’s rhetoric as full of “waspish, acerbic, and irreverent assaults” upon the Puritans, which frequently impugn their motives.  She concedes that he in many places appears to speak positively of his opponents and to declare his goodwill toward them, but insists that we must read all such passages as dripping with sarcasm and irony.  I critique the circular nature of this hermeneutic of suspicion in more detail in the longer version of this review.   In any case, an authentically historical method would seek to evaluate Hooker’s supposed waspishness by comparison to contemporary examples of theological polemic.  And indeed, when we read Hooker alongside writers such as Cartwright, Whitgift, and especially Bancroft, it is no wonder that he has gained a reputation—overstated, certainly, but not entirely unjustified—for saintly serenity.  Of course, we need not imagine that Hooker never stooped to taking cheap shots—misrepresenting his opponents, unfairly attacking their character, using sarcastic put-downs to avoid the real issues at stake, etc.  He is, after all, human, and few polemicists have managed to always resist such temptations, especially in a 1,400-page work.  The question is whether taking cheap shots comprises part of his intentional method, or comprises the exception that proves the irenical rule.

Crucial in answering this question is learning to distinguish what constitutes a “cheap” shot, and what is quite a well-justified shot, and the means that we cannot evaluate the nature of someone’s polemics in abstraction from the question of truth.  Did Hooker’s opponents say the sorts of things he charges them with?  Were these indeed theologically or politically dangerous, as he claims?  If so, his polemic looks decidedly less “waspish.”  In fact, startlingly, Joyce makes no attempt to consider these questions of truth.  This omission is the most glaring in the chief passage she quotes as evidence of Hooker’s “not merely barbed, but quite outrageous” polemics, which she describes as a “merciless parody” of the Puritans (51).  In point of fact, in the passage she quotes, Hooker is in fact closely paraphrasing and even quoting directly from Thomas Cartwright, a fact that he is kind enough to alert us to by an extended footnote, but which Joyce entirely ignores.  Who’s being “outrageous” now?

Also central to Joyce’s re-reading of Hooker against Torrance Kirby is her attempt to show him as “unambiguously contemptuous” of John Calvin.  She achieves this reading by means of the same hermeneutic of suspicion described above, taking anything positive Hooker says about Calvin as sarcastic or a backhanded compliment, and playing up anything negative he has to say.  In point of fact, Hooker makes quite clear to us what he thinks about Calvin—he was a very wise church leader and among the greatest of Protestant theologians, but he is a mere man just the same, who made mistakes, and since “incredible praises given unto men do often abate and impair the credit of their deserved commendation” (II.8.7), Hooker will avoid giving him more credit than he is due.  The Puritan error consists partly in their unhealthy idolization of Calvin as seemingly infallible, to the exclusion of other Protestant theologians, Church Fathers, and even Scripture itself.  So we can hardly pronounce Hooker as un-Reformed merely because he refused to do due obeisance at the altar of Calvin.  Nor can we pronounce him un-Reformed because some of his Puritan readers at the time judged him such.  Joyce considers the negative reaction of A Christian Letter (1599) to be strong proof against Kirby’s theory that Hooker’s overall purpose was irenic, and committed to Reformed fundamentals, for it is “a telling indication of how Hooker’s remarks were received and interpreted by his principal target audience.”  However, anyone familiar with the world of theological controversy ought to know well enough that a that one should never interpret a theological work based on how it is received by its target audience.  Perhaps this suggests that Hooker’s hope of “resolving the conscience” was naïve, but it hardly proves that he never had any such intention.

Kirby’s, of course, is not the final word, and there is much that needs nuancing in his reading of Hooker and Hooker’s relation to the various strands of the Reformed tradition.  But rather than advancing the conversation, Joyce’s a-theological, a-historical “rhetorical criticism” of Hooker leaves us with a text that can be re-shaped according to the interpreter’s whim.  We can only be thankful, then, that for all the drama with which she presents it, the argument and methodology of chapter three ends up playing a relatively minor role in most of the rest of her book, which I will be reviewing further over the next couple weeks.