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.


Love, Law, and Christian Liberty

A couple of weeks ago, I tracked down a remarkable document which has been almost entirely overlooked by scholars, a set of “Propositions or articles framed for the use of the Dutch Church in London” on the subject of Christian liberty and related doctrines.  These articles were occasioned by a dispute over the use of godparents in baptism in the Dutch Strangers’ Churches in London, which raised fundamental questions about Christian liberty, adiaphora, and ecclesiastical authority and led ultimately to a schism.  The Dutch ministers therefore drew up a set of articles, attempting to express the magisterial Reformed understanding of these doctrines, and submitted it to the review of the leaders of Reformed churches in Heidelberg, Bern, Lausanne, Zurich, and Geneva.  After incorporating many of the suggested revisions, which were primarily of a stylistic, not a substantive nature, the resulting document was published under the auspices of Edmund Grindal, the Bishop of London with jurisdiction over the Strangers’ Churches.  It thus can lay claim to comprising a kind of pan-Protestant, or at least pan-Reformed, consensus statement on these issues, and encapsulates teachings that we find in Luther, Melanchthon, Calvin, Vermigli, Bullinger, and others.  

The key points of the Dutch articles may be summarized as follows:

 1. That Christian liberty is spiritual, which means, among other things, that it consists in a free submission to  constraint, not a freedom from all constraint.  This constraint may be that of divine law, which the Christian must follow, though as a result of rather than a means to justification, or, may be imposed by men, in things left indifferent by divine law.

(Art. I: “CHRISTIAN liberty is not a wandering and unruly licence, by which we may do or leave undone whatsoever we list at our pleasure; but it is a free gift bestowed upon us by Christ our Lord; by the which, the children of God (that is, all the faithful), being delivered from the curse of the law, or eternal death, and from the heavy yoke of the ceremonial law, and being endowed with the Holy Ghost, begin willingly of their own accord to serve God in holiness and righteousness.”

Art. IV: “Conscience is the feeling of God’s judgment, whether that a man be assured out of the word of God of that judgment, or that he make it to himself rashly or superstitiously. But whereas it is the duty of Christians to observe the commandments of their Lord, that indeed is properly called a right and good conscience, which is governed by the word of God. Whereby it cometh to pass, that every faithful man by that revealed word doth examine and weigh with himself, both what he doth, and also what he letteth undone, that he may judge of them both, which is just, and which is unjust.”)

2. Things indifferent are not void of moral content, therefore, but take that content from variable circumstances, and by virtue of those circumstances, exert a moral claim on us.

(Art. V: “Indifferent things are called those, which by themselves, being simply considered in their own nature, are neither good nor bad, as meat and drink, and such like; in the which therefore, it is said, that the kingdom of God consisteth not; and that therefore a man may use them well or evil: wherefore it followeth, that they are marvellously deceived, which suppose they are called indifferent, as though without any exception we may omit them, or use them as often as we list, without any sin.”)

3. There are two main ways in which this claim comes about—(a) the law of charity, by which we are bound to use adiaphora to the edification of our neighbor, and (b) human law, by which we are bound to use adiaphora in accord with the commands of civil or ecclesiastical authority.

(Art. II: “Therefore, sith that he which is the Son of God is ruled by the Spirit of God, and that the same Spirit commandeth us, we should obey all ordinances of man (that is, all politic order, whereof the magistrate is the guardian), and all superiors, which watch for the health of our souls; yea, and that according to our vocation we should diligently procure the safeguard of our neighbour; it followeth, that that man abuseth the benefit of Christian liberty, or rather, is yet sold under sin, who doth not willingly obey either his magistrate or superior in the Lord, or doth not endeavour to edify the conscience of his brother.”

Art. VIII: “Generally, the use of these indifferent things is restrained by the law of charity, which is universal.”

Art. IX: “Specially, the use of these things is forbidden by ecclesiastical or civil decree.”)

4. By virtue of both of these, what is in itself free for the conscience becomes per accidens conscience-binding as an indirect command of God, since he commands us to love our neighbor and to obey the magistrate.

(Art. VI: “Things otherwise indifferent of themselves, after a sort change their nature, when by some commandment they are either commanded or forbidden. Because, neither they can be omitted contrary to the commandment, if they are once commanded, neither omitted contrary to prohibition, if they be prohibited; as appeareth in the ceremonial law.”

Art. IX: “For although that only God doth properly bind the conscience of man, yet in respect, that either the magistrate, who is God’s Minister, doth think it profitable for the commonwealth, that something, otherwise of itself lawful, be not done, or that the Church, having regard to order, comeliness, and also edifying, do make some laws concerning indifferent things, those laws are altogether to be observed of the godly, and do so far forth bind the conscience, that no man wittingly and willingly, with a stubborn mind, may, without sin, either do those things which are forbidden, or omit those things which are commanded.”)

5. However, to prevent tyranny, human authorities may not make laws in adiaphora arbitrarily, but only for purposes of edification, civil order, or ecclesiastical order.

(Art. XI: “They, which for any other cause either command or forbid at their pleasure the free use of indifferent things, than for one of these three, that is, neither for edifying, nor for policy, nor ecclesiastical order; and especially those which do rashly judge other men’s consciences in these matters; offend heinously against God and against their neighbor.“)

6. Conversely, because the conscience is bound only insofar as these purposes are at stake, the Christian remains at liberty if the circumstances giving rise to a law no longer pertain, and it can be disregarded without causing offence.

(Art. X: “And sith these things are not ordained simply for themselves, but in respect of certain circumstances, not as though the things themselves were of their own nature unlawful things (for it belongeth only to God to determine this) in case those circumstances do cease, and so be that offence be avoided as near as we can, and that there be no stubborn will of resisting; no man is to be reproved of sin, which shall do otherwise than those ordinances: as it is plain, by the example of David, in a case otherwise flatly forbidden, when he ate the shewbread.”)


This, however, is to make things rather neater than they appeared in fact.  For in point of fact, a great deal of tension attached to the connection between the two laws mentioned above in point (3)—the law of charity and the law of authority.  Is the latter merely valid so long as it remains a subset of the former, as points (5) and (6) imply?  Moreover, although the Dutch articles could speak of “either ecclesiastical or civil decree” in adiaphora as essentially parallel, it was far from clear just how these two were to be correlated.  Both   In fact, these two problems are closely related, as shall readily appear.

Luther and Melanchthon, as Bernard Verkamp has noted, were keen to deny to ecclesiastical ceremonies not only a necessity of means (intrinsically necessary to good standing with God) but also a necessity of precept (necessary to good standing with God merely by virtue of being commanded by church authorities).  Accordingly, Melanchthon will not use the rather clericalist language of the Dutch articles, by which we have an direct obligation before God to obey the commands of ministers, just as we do of magistrates.  To be sure, we can be bound outwardly in ecclesiastical adiaphora, but this obligation proceeds only from the principle of charity, from the demands of peace, order, and edification—while the concrete nature of these demands may happen to be determined by the command of authority, the connection is contingent, rather than necessary.  Therefore, in ecclesiastical matters, Melanchthon will endorse the reasoning of point (6) above—that should the demands of authority and the demands of charity cease to overlap, the latter may be dispensed with, so long as peace can be maintained.  Interestingly, however, he will not take this tack when it comes to civil affairs, for it would seem to disrupt the fabric of human society far too much if individuals were allowed to judge for themselves when laws were no longer binding.  Accordingly, to the principle of charity, he adds what we might call the principle of wrath, which he finds in Rom. 13:5—that to disobey civil authority is to disobey God and risk His wrath: “These are clear words, showing that obedience is necessary, that disobedience hurts the conscience, and that God condemns it.”  Indeed, he sees no need to qualify the conscience-binding character of these laws as indirect, but attacks “many dreamers [who] have written that worldly commandments do not bind us to eternal punishment, for man can punish no one eternally!”  At other points, however, he suggests that there are certain civil laws which are only contingently or circumstantially binding, or else that if civil laws can never be safely disobeyed, it is because to do so will always disrupt peace and cause offense. If so, this suggests that in fact, even in civil laws, it is only the principle of charity that necessarily binds us to their observance. 

Nonetheless, Melanchthon did not satisfactorily resolve this ambiguity, and because of his heavy stress on the intrinsically conscience-binding nature of civil laws, maintained a discontinuity of sorts between ecclesiastical and civil laws, which he otherwise treated as essentially the same, as adiaphorous ordinances of the “civil kingdom.”  In this scheme, it remained ambiguous what was to be done with civil authorities made laws regarding ecclesiastical ceremonies, as in the Adiaphora Controvery and the Vestiarian controversies.  The republication of Melanchthon’s scholia on “Whether it be a mortal sin to transgress civil laws” as part of conformist propaganda in the Second Vestiarian Controversy, then, hardly resolved the fundamental question.

 

In his Institutes, John Calvin had tackled the problem more directly and clearly, denying that there was any fundamental difference in the way that ecclesiastical and civil ordinances related to the conscience, but some ambiguity remains.  Both, as Calvin makes clear in Book III, chap. 19, “On Christian Liberty,” are to be understood as matters of the civil kingdom or “external forum,” wholly different from spiritual matters that occupy the “forum of conscience.”  Calvin’s discussion of ecclesiastical laws in IV.10 shows him to be far from VanDrunen and other advocates of the “regulative principle,” who make the “forum of conscience” co-extensive with the institutional church and rule out man-made laws and ceremonies within it.  On the contrary, such ordinances are absolutely necessary, since any human society requires a “form of organization . . . to foster the common peace and maintain concord.”  The particular form, however, is widely variable depending on circumstances, and accordingly our obligation to obey such laws is not necessary, but contingent.  Calvin’s treatment of this issue is close to that given in the Dutch articles, which are almost certainly drawing on the Institutes here.  In their decree regarding meat sacrificed to idols in Acts 15:20, says Calvin, the Apostles do not lay down a new law binding on the conscience before God, but rather “the divine and eternal command of God not to violate love.”  This command is being specified into a particular requirement in present circumstances, and in those circumstances, the Christian is bound to obey; but the circumstances being changed, so that charity no longer concretely demanded these actions, the law could be disobeyed without sin.  

Unlike Melanchthon, Calvin makes the same distinction of contingency and necessity with regard to civil laws, recognizing that Romans 13:5, if read the way Melanchthon and others appeared to, would threaten the principle of Christian liberty in ecclesiastical laws as well, seeing as both shared the nature of human law: “Moreover, the difficulty [of defining conscience] is increased by the fact that Paul enjoins obedience toward the magistrate, not only for fear of punishment, but for conscience’ sake.  From this it follows that consciences are bound by civil laws.  But if this were so, all that we said a little while ago and are now going to say about spiritual government would fall.”  Therefore, the same restrictions must reply to both: “human laws, whether made by magistrate or by church, even though they have to be observed (I speak of good and just laws), still do not of themselves bind the conscience.  For all obligation to observe laws looks to the general purpose, but does not consist in the things enjoined.”  This “general purpose,” however, is not spelled out by reference to the law of love, but by reference to “God’s general command, which commends to us the authority of magistrate,” although like Melanchthon, Calvin would probably equate the two, arguing that love of neighbor requires subjection to the magistrate, who advances the common good.

 

While all parties acknowledged the value of a certain division of labor between ecclesiastical and civil authorities, given that ministers would be best placed to identify what edification and order demanded in matters pertaining to worship and church government, and magistrates better suited to judge in matters pertaining to more strictly civil affairs, the asymmetry we have just seen posed a problem.  For if the demands of charity, edification, and order in these two spheres clashed, the civil magistrate held the trump card: the divine testimony that to disobey the ruler (within his legitimate sphere) was ipso facto to violate the demands of charity.  Accordingly, we find an increasing tendency to suggest that even in adiaphorous matters, ecclesiastical authorities have an autonomous, divinely-given jurisdiction over church ceremonies and polity.  We see this in the second of the Dutch articles, where God’s command to obey “all superiors which watch for the health of our souls” is put on the same par as His command to obey “all politic order, whereof the magistrate is the guardian.”  Later on, in article 23, they state explicitly that “It belongeth only to the Consistory, to be occupied in making new laws of discipline.”  Indeed, in article 20, the Dutch ministers imply a juridical authority for the clergy in their sphere that is equal to and separate from that of magistrates in their sphere: “In the Church of Christ, that is to say, in the house or city of the living God, the Consistory, or fellowship of governors, consisting of the Ministers of the word, and of Seniors lawfully called, sustaineth the person of the universal Church in ecclesiastical government, even as every magistrate in his commonwealth.”   

Such authority for ministers in making church laws, would seem to run flat contrary to the original anti-clerical impetus of the doctrine of Christian liberty, and could only be reconciled to it by emphasizing that this authority was not arbitrary, but closely bounded by Scripture.  Accordingly, we find the articles repeatedly emphasising that in making such constitutions, “judgment [must] be taken out of the word of God, what may or ought to be done, or not done” (Art. 8).  Of course, to emphasise this, as we have already seen, was to call into question their status as adiaphora in the first place.  Moreover, since all adiaphorists had admitted that divine positive law could in principle render a matter that otherwise would be indifferent (for instance, some aspect of church polity) to be in fact necessary, and therefore out of the discretion of the magistrate, it was possible to argue that divine law in fact required such an autonomous, Scripturally-regulated clerical jurisdiction.  In the wake of their failures in the Vestiarian controversy, it was just this that some of the English dissenters would begin to contend.

 

(This post is in lieu of a thorough analysis of and commentary on the articles which I have been planning to post on The Calvinist International, but which I have been prevented from finding time to write.  The above exposition will likely be part of chapter 2 of my thesis.)


Even if There Were No Hell…

Early in the Institutes, Calvin offers some eloquent and luminous insights on the relation of love and fear, and the difference between the righteous man’s fear of God and the unrighteous’s—passages pregnant with significance for political theology as well, as we consider the way that citizens relate to authorities, their earthly lords and “fathers”:

“For, to begin with, the pious mind does not dream up for itself any god it pleases, but contemplates the one and only true God.  And it does not attach to him whatever it pleases, but is content to hold him to be as he manifests himself; furthermore, the mind always exercises the utmost diligence and care not to wander astray, or rashly and boldly to go beyond his will.  It thus recognizes God because it knows that he governs all things; and trusts that he is its guide and protector, therefore giving itself over completely to trust in him.  Because it understands him to be the Author of every good, if anything oppresses, if anything is lacking, immediately it betakes itself to his protection, waiting for help from him.  Because it is persuaded that he is good and merciful, it reposes in him with perfect trust, and doubts not that in his loving-kindness a remedy will be provided for all its ills.  Because it acknowledges him as Lord and Father, the pious mind also deems it meet and right to observe his authority in all things, reverence his majesty, take care to advance his glory, and obey his commandments.  Because it sees him to be a righteous judge, armed with severity to punish wickedness, it ever holds his judgment seat before its gaze, and through fear of him restrains itself from provoking his anger. And yet it is not so terrified by the awareness of his judgment as to wish to withdraw, even if some way of escape were open.  But it embraces him no less as punisher of the wicked than as benefactor of the pious.  For the pious mind realizes that the punishment of the impious and wicked and the reward of life eternal for the righteous equally pertain to God’s glory.  Besides, this mind restrains itself from sinning, not out of dread of punishment alone; but because it loves and revers God as Father, it worships and adores him as Lord.  Even if there were no hell, it would still shudder at offending him alone.

Here indeed is pure and real religion: faith so joined with an earnest fear of God that this fear also embraces willing reverence, and carries with it such legitimate worship as is prescribed in the law….” (I.iii.2)

“A second sin arises, that they [hypocrites] never consider God at all unless compelled to; and they do not come nigh until they are dragged there despite their resistance.  And not even then are they impressed with the voluntary fear that arises out of reverence for the divine majesty, but merely with a slavish, forced fear, which God’s judgment extorts from them.  This, since they cannot escape it, they dread even to the point of loathing.  That saying of Statius’ that fear first made gods in the world corresponds well to this kind of irreligion, and to this alone.  Those who are of a mind alien to God’s righteousness know that his judgment seat stands ready to punish transgressions against him, yet they greatly desire its overthrow.  Feeling so, they wage war against the Lord, who cannot be without judgment.  But while they know that his inescapable power hangs over them because they can neither do away with it nor flee from it, they recoil from it in dread.  And so, lest they should everywhere seem to despise him whose majesty weighs upon them, they perform some semblance of religion.  Meanwhile they do not desist from polluting themselves with every sort of vice, and from joining wickedness to wickedness, until in every respect they violate the holy laws of the Lord and dissipate all his righteousness.  Or at least they are not so restrained by that pretended fear of God from wallowing blithely in their own sins and flattering themselves, and preferring to indulge their fleshly intemperance rather than restraining it by the bridle of the Holy Spirit.  

This, however, is but a vain and false shadow of religion, scarcely even worth being called a shadow.  From it one may easily grasp anew how much this confused knowledge of God differs from the piety from which religion takes its source, which is instilled in the breasts of believers only.  And yet hypocrites would tread these twisting paths so as to seem to approach the God from whom they flee.  For where they ought to have remained consistently obedient throughout life, they boldly rebel against him in almost all their deeds, and are zealous to placate him merely with a few paltry sacrifices.  Where they ought to serve him in sanctity of life and integrity of heart, they trump up frivolous trifles and worthless little observances with which to win his favor.  Nay, more, with greeter license they sluggishly lie in their own faith, because they are confident that they can perform their duty toward him by ridiculous acts of expiation.” (I.iv.4)

(italics mine)


Two Kingdoms Peacemaking

Those of you interested in such things will no doubt recall the extended and at times quite polemical engagement back in May with Matthew Tuininga (a former research assistant of David VanDrunen and currently a Ph.D student under John Witte), over two-kingdoms theology in the Reformation.  (Although the main interaction took place on The Calvinist International and Tuininga’s blog, I linked to the key posts here, here and here).  Although significant disagreement appeared to persist on the historical issues, it has been striking to note, from many of the posts on Tuininga’s blog, how close we are on a great many questions when it comes to the contemporary application of these issues, suggesting the possibility that some at least of the historical differences can be bridged as well. 

A recent contribution from Tuininga, “The Two Kingdoms: What’s the Fuss All About?” (the first of a prospective three-part series) gave good reason for such optimism, particularly on questions of contemporary application but also on historical questions, and I have accordingly offered an irenic engagement to hopefully move the discussion forward considerably on The Calvinist International.  Matt has already expressed his appreciation and his plan to interact on his blog soon—so stay tuned!


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)