Judgment According to Truth (Theopolitical Reflections on Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, Pt. 1)

Warning: This post contains major spoilers from The Dark Knight, though not from The Dark Knight Rises (although certain themes and plot elements from the latter are discussed)

The haunting and acclaimed film The Dark Knight ended with one of the most arresting and morally provocative twists in Christopher Nolan’s oeuvre (and for anyone familiar with his films, that is truly saying something).  Confronted with the awful truth that Gotham’s “White Knight,” Harvey Dent, the city’s last best hope for order, justice, and redemption, has in fact succumbed to the Joker’s nihilistic message that the only justice is that which we make for ourselves, Batman makes a heroic decision.  He will take the guilt of Harvey Two-Face’s crimes upon himself.  He will bear the guilt, he will become an outcast.  He will be the Dark Knight so that Harvey can remain the White, and Gotham can sustain the faith she needs to conquer injustice.  A greater sacrifice, perhaps, than bearing physical death for the sake of the city, for Wayne has already poured himself out, given up his own life to pour it into the symbol that is Batman—now he must accept the death of that symbol, as it becomes an image of evil, that the city might be freed from evil.*

It is as profound an image of the Atonement as one can find in recent cinema—the hero becomes guilty in order to make his would-be killers innocent, takes evil upon himself so that his people would not have to bear its curse and stain.  And yet, something is amiss.  For this noble act of self-sacrifice is a lie.  Nolan makes no effort to hide from us this rejection of truth:

“It’s what needs to happen.  Because sometimes the truth isn’t good enough.  Sometimes people deserve more,” says Batman.  

And so Gordon duly tells his lie.  Tells how Dent was a hero, and how Batman, a vigilante with his own agenda, turned on him in the end and murdered him (the truth precisely in reverse, of course).  Batman becomes an outcast, Dent a hero.  And Dent’s death provides the city a new start.  Upon this murder a new political order is to be forged, justice is at last to be realized.  What neither Harvey nor Batman could bring to pass on the basis of truth is at last to be achieved on the basis of a lie.  The film thus leaves the viewer with sharply divided sympathies, torn with the moral ambiguity of the situation, as so many of Nolan’s films do.  The nobility of Batman’s abnegation stands in irreconcilable tension with the sense that justice founded on falsehood cannot succeed.

It also renders deeply ambiguous the otherwise deafening Christological resonances.  For while Christ takes the guilt of his people, including those who want to kill him, upon himself, and thereby restores the possibility of a community of justice, his judgment is a proclamation of the truth about us and about himself, and the justice that he establishes is a justice dependent upon truth-telling.  While he may appear to be the Sinner, this is only temporary, and with the resurrection he is vindicated as the Righteous One, who does not merely take the guilt of the people upon himself, but buries it forever so that he may share with them his righteousness.  The ending of the Dark Knight, to be sure, does not foreclose the possibility that the scapegoating will be temporary, that the Dark Knight will rise and receive his public vindication, but it certainly leaves us with an uneasy feeling in the pit of our stomachs.**

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Headship and Authority in 1 Cor. 11

This past Sunday, our senior minister approached with some trepidation 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, the passage which speaks of the subordination of women and their need to wear head coverings.  Also on the agenda was 1 Cor. 14:34-35, which states “Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak, but they are to be submissive, as the law also says.  And if they want to learn something, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is shameful for women to speak in church”—although in the event, the sermon confined itself to the first passage.  These passages naturally can be quite a source of discomfort to churches committed, as ours basically is, to an “egalitarian” rather than “complementarian” position (though I hate those labels!) and to the legitimacy of women’s ordination.  But really, they will be a source of discomfort for almost any Christian today, however “complementarian.”  After all, Paul seems to go beyond a mere outward subordination to suggest that women are naturally inferior: women come from men, and are made to serve men.  Men stand in the same relation to women as Christ does to the Church.  Ouch.  Paul accordingly commands behaviors that only a few radical fringe groups of conservative Christians would actually observe—head coverings for women, silence of women in church.  

So I was genuinely interested in hearing what an egalitarian interpretation of these verses would look like. (The easiest route might to say that Paul was a product of his culture, and thus felt obliged to argue for something that was simply inconsistent with his teaching elsewhere; but I doubted our minister was going to take that route.)  The key argument hinged on the meaning of the word “head” (Gk. kephale) in v. 3, and suggested that of its three main meanings—”physical head,” “authority,” and “source”—it was the third, and not the second, which Paul was using here (in addition to the first, which is of course used in the following verses).  Man is not the boss of the woman, we were told, he is the source.   

However, this didn’t seem to me to be the anti-complementarian trump card that was desired.  What might it really imply to say that man is the “source” of woman?  I offer the following reflections with two major caveats: (1) I have not read any of what is no doubt the copious exegetical literature on this passage, so there will no doubt be a lot of re-inventing (and mis-inventing) the wheel here; (2) I am not trying to argue here for or against women’s ordination, or to provide a decisive solution to the dispute between “egalitarians” and “complementarians”—I am simply trying to trace out the logic of these concepts and of this passage, and see whether it might lead us to conclusions that could be attractive to both sides in certain respects.

 

So first, it’s worth noting that these three meanings of the word “head” are, after all, not three completely unrelated meanings, like the “bark” of a tree and the “bark” of a dog.  Clearly, they are closely related.  The physical head is the source and guide of all intelligible action in the body.  The head of an organization is the source and guide of all intelligible action in the organization.  The head of a river is the source of that river, that which sustains its existence, sends it on its way, establishes its direction.  Clearly, we have three closely interrelated and mutually-interpreting concepts here.  The concept of authority is deeply rooted in the concept of origin.  “It is the authority which has called the form of action into being.  The term ‘authority’ in this sense recalls the Greek word arche, which means at once both ‘beginning’ and ‘rule.'” (O’Donovan, RMO 122)  Obviously, kephale has a somewhat different field of meaning than arche, but I think the analogy with arche is significant.  It was not a coincidence that the Greeks associated rule with beginning.  

While the concept of authority is not exhausted by the concept of origin or initiation (for instance, the concept of “judgment” is generally a central part of what we understand by authority), this is clearly a central part of it.  If we want to know whether an action is authorized in any organization or entity, we will ask where it came from.  If we find out that some order just came from a coworker, then we can scoff at it.  It needs to be traceable back to the “head”—perhaps indirectly, by coming from someone authorized by the head to act in certain matters.  Of course, an individual within the organization may take action on her own accord as circumstances seem to dictate, but if the action is to be meaningful or constructive, it must fit into a shape conferred by the head.  One way or another, all intelligible action in an organization is traceable back to the “head” of the organization, who initiates and orients the actions that are to be taken.  For this reason, of course, the head is also the endpoint, the point where buck stops—the person finally responsible for actions that are taken.

So authority initiates, authority serves as an origin, rule implies beginning.  Is it the other way around though—does an origin always serve as an authority?  Does the “source” of something necessarily have an ongoing claim over it?  Does “beginning” imply rule?  Most societies seem to have thought so.  In early modern political debates, the question of origin was always paramount.  Did the society predate the king as a political entity, did it call the king into being?  Or did the king predate the society, and call the society into being as a political entity.  Who came first?  Who was the source of the other?  The answer to these questions largely determined one’s political theory, one’s judgment as to which was the highest authority, king or parliament.  Theologically, we root God’s authority over the world in the fact that he is the source of it.  He created it, therefore he is king over it.  Likewise, Christ’s headship, in the sense of authority, over the Church, seems inextricable from the fact that he is the source of the Church, that which has brought her into being and sustained her. 

Perhaps there is no reason that we should draw the inference that origination implies authority.  After all, in what sense does the source, the head, of a river have “authority” over that river?  Well, in the sense that it initiates it and directs it.  It gives shape to it.  The source determines which way the river will start flowing, and if the source dries up, the river will not continue flowing.  The river depends on its source, just as a subordinate depends on an authority.

So, if “head” in 1 Cor. 11:3 is not to imply authority in any sense, but only “source,” then what content are we to give to this attribution of source?  What does “source” mean?  The answer that our minister wished to give, it seemed in our conversation afterward, was “mere temporal priority.”  The man is the source of the woman in the sense that January 1st is the source of the new year.  The year does not depend on January 1st, January 1st exercises no directive power over the following year, but January 1st does happen to come first.  Now, the problem is that I am not at all sure, then, that we could meaningfully speak of January 1st as the “source of the year.”  I certainly don’t know anyone who has done so (though I was told that the ancient Hebrews did so).  As a concept, “source” simply has to imply more than mere temporal priority.  Perhaps more problematically, it is unclear how this line of argument could make any sense from the theistic evolutionist standpoint, which is of course the operative standpoint here.  For the theistic evolutionist, there can simply be no literal meaning in the assertion that man is the source of woman, unless perhaps we mean to say that the first hominid that God chose to designate a human being was in fact male, although there were of course a multitude of roughly equivalent female hominids, including his mother.  For the theistic evolutionist, it is hard to see how the narrative in Gen. 2:18-24 could be anything more than metaphorical.  And what then would the point of this metaphor be?  Well, probably something like what Paul seems to say about it—that woman is the glory of man, and woman was created for the man.  

 

Now, the point of all this is to say that it’s not immediately clear that substituting the meaning “source” really gets us away from the concept of “authority.”  But what it does do is to help suggest a new context for the concept of authority; no doubt part of the hostility to the use of that term stems from a misguided paradigm of what “authority” involves—an authority, we think, is someone who can command you to do something without good reasons, who can oblige you to obey whether or not you want to.  Authority, we think, is the opposite of freedom.  But O’Donovan, in his remarkable discussion of authority in Resurrection and Moral Order, invites us to see authority as “the objective correlate of freedom.”  What the heck does that mean?  Well, the concept of authority as initiator, which we have gestured at here, might help us out somewhat.  

At this point, we can finally turn to look again more closely at the passage itself.  We have a good clue that in fact the concept of “source” is central here, in v. 8, “For man is not from woman, but woman from man.”  Does this work with v. 2? “the head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.”  Well, let’s work back from the last.  The Father is certainly not “the boss” of the Son, to use the contrastive term our pastor used.  But the Father clearly can be legitimately said to be the “source” of the Son.  He is the fons divinitatis—the Son is eternally begotten from Him.  But although the Son therefore has dependence on the Father, the Father does not for this reason stand over against the Son then as the one who commands him, for the two are perfectly united.  The Father is in the Son, and the Son in the Father.  If we look at the relationship of Christ and the Church, we have the same thing.  The point being made here is not that Christ has authority to command the Church, although that may be true in its own context.  The point is that Church has come out of Christ, it is the creature of the water and blood flowing from his side.  The Church has come out of the side of Christ, and therefore it depends on him, and he has defined its identity and its calling.  It exists in relation to Him. However, again, it is not separate from Him.  He is our King, but that is not the point here.  We are in him, and he in us.  Now clearly, these same points are being made about man and woman.  Woman was taken out of the side of man, just as the Church out of the side of Christ.  For this reason, woman depends on man, exists in relation to man, is oriented toward man.  However, likewise, as with the other two relations, the key point here is indwelling.  Eve was taken out of Adam in order then to be made one flesh with him.  

And this perhaps provides us with a helpful way forward.  For thus far, I expect, few egalitarians are going to be very satisfied with the implications of this concept of source and origin, with its inescapable connotations of dependency.  Woman is dependent on man?  Yuck.  Of course, one might reply, “Sorry, that’s what Paul says.  Deal with it.”  But I’d like to brainstorm some ways in which the egalitarian might take comfort from this passage.

 

First, one might point out that the language of priority is frequently subverted throughout Scripture.  The last shall be first, the elder shall serve the younger.  Throughout the Old Testament, the one who, by virtue of priority, has a claim to be “head,” turns out to be dependent on the one who comes after—Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, David and Saul.  And of course, this repeated plot line turns out to be prophetic of the greatest reversal at all.  The Church comes out of Israel; Israel is the source, the head, of the Church, and yet the Church is greater than Israel.  The feminist could perhaps have a lot of fun with this plotline of reversal—sure, man may have come first, but now woman is in charge.  Naturally, this would be taking it a bit too far.  Indeed, if we look at the illustration of the Church and Israel, Paul cautions the Romans against just this sort of thinking (Rom. 11:16-18).  Yes, there has been something of a reversal, but neither should boast against the other.  Both have need of one another.  The reversal is one in which a relationship of dependency is transformed into one of interdependency.  If we look back at our 1 Cor. 11 passage, we see something very like this being expressed. “Nevertheless, neither is man independent of woman, nor woman independent of man, in the Lord. For as woman came from man, even so man also comes through woman; but all things are from God” (vs. 11-12).  In the beginning, woman came from man, but then, God made it so that every man has to come out of woman.  The initial dependency is transformed into interdependency.  Or, to put it in other terms, man does not command, and woman obey; man initiates, and woman responds, as an equal, in perfect mutuality.

If we look back at Paul’s analogies, we see this picture confirmed.  The Son is eternally begotten of the Father, and yet (without wanting to peer too far into the mystery of inter-Trinitarian relations), their relation is one of perfect mutuality.  The Father initiates, the Son freely responds.  The Son is the equal of the Father.  The Church comes from Christ, and depends on him, and yet Christ is the firstborn of many brothers.  We are co-heirs with him.  By grace, he treats us as equals.  Christ initiates, and his Church freely responds, in a relationship characterized by mutuality.

Of course, these analogies are imperfect—they are not even strictly equivalent to one another, much less to the man/woman relationship.  And yet, perhaps they provide a clue that the concept of headship, although implying a certain kind of authority, does not imply the kind of authority that egalitarians hate.  We still have a certain kind of “complementarianism” here, but the kind that seems unavoidable.  Any river has to have a starting point.  Any organization has to have someone who’s responsible for getting things moving.  Any conversation has to be initiated by someone, or else everyone’s just going to stand there awkwardly looking at their feet.  Every dance has to have a partner who’s ready to take the first steps.  But for the Christian, this initiation serves the purpose of initiating a relationship of genuine mutuality and complementarity, in which both partners are equal participants, responding to one another.  

 

Of course, this does not begin to address the particulars of Paul’s commands to women, and how much they might still apply today.  Most of us are quite happy to say that the head-covering command was a culturally specific one, though “keeping silent in the churches” (14:34-35) is a bit more contentious.  The prohibition on women teaching (1 Tim. 2:12) has seemed to many to have a permanence that the earlier commands do not.  There are important arguments to be had here, to be sure, and I will not attempt to enter in to them.  It is simply worth noting that the answer to these questions is, I think, underdetermined by 1 Cor. 11:3.  It is not clear that the concept of man as kephale in the sense of “initiator,” as I have spelled it out, constitutes a blanket argument against women in the ministry.  Indeed, if we lay our emphasis on vs. 11-12, where the initial relationship of dependence is revealed to be one of of interdependence, one might say that v. 3 constitutes no bar to women’s ordination.  This, I think, would be overly hasty, but so would the conclusion that it constitutes a decisive bar.


An Advent Prayer

(composed for Advent Sunday 2011 at St. Paul’s and St. George’s Church, Edinburgh)

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.

Lord Jesus, for whose coming Zechariah, Elizabeth, and all the faithful of Israel waited with longing two millenia ago, hear the prayers of your hungry people today.  We mourn in exile from your presence, conscious of the sins that separate us from you, conscious of our faithlessness in the task you have given us to be the lights of the world.  Lord, we are a barren people–our faith is weak, our hearts are cold, our churches are empty.  Lord Jesus, Hope of Israel, who once did condescend to born of a virgin in a stable, be born among us again today, and give us the eyes to see you in your humility.  Be born among us in the preaching each Sunday that we hear and the sacrament we share.  Be born among us in small groups where we fellowship and hear you speaking to us through one another.  Be born among us in our ministries to the lost and to the needy, in the Alpha Course as we display your truth, in our ministries with Bethany as we display your love, in our singing and worship as we display your beauty.  Renew this church, and all your churches, with the power of your presence, with the terror and comfort of your word, with the courage to follow you on the path of love without pretense, love without measure.

 

O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan’s tyranny;
From depths of hell Thy people save,
And give them victory over the grave. 

Christ, Creator, by whose all-powerful word was all brought into being, re-Creator, by whose powerless death was all made new, redeem us again from the pit.  Only-begotten from all eternity, you were born, like each of us, to die, but death did not hold you, and now it has lost its hold on us.  And yet, Lord, the power of death, the stain of sin, remains every day with us–in the violence of the murderer and the rapist, in the despair of a mother who cannot feed her children, in the insatiable greed that defrauds and bankrupts the vulnerable; but also in the angry word that springs so readily to our lips, in the self-absorption that passes heedlessly by someone in need, in the restless discontentment that  drives the wheels of commerce.  Forgive each of us for these sins that are our own, and for the sins of others that we do nothing to oppose and to heal.  Remind us that you have forgiven us, and give us the confidence to forgive others in our turn.  Saviour, Redeemer, Deliverer, rescue us again by your power and love, show mercy to the downtrodden and strengthen us to do the same.  

 

O come, Desire of nations, bind
In one the hearts of all mankind;
Bid Thou our sad divisions cease,
And be Thyself our King of Peace. 

King of Israel, you are also Lord of the nations, before whom every knee shall bow, and whom every tongue shall confess.  And yet our rulers neither confess your name nor bow before you; instead we find the god of Mammon everywhere enthroned, and war a favorite tool to serve agendas of greed and power.  Prejudice and xenophobia divide us from one another, suspicion rather than sympathy is our default.  Lord, we pray for Britain, that you would humble its pride and restrain its greed.  Give us just leaders who protect the poor and the voiceless, rather than the powerful and influential, and who welcome the stranger, rather than turning them away.  Lord, we pray also for America, still infatuated with her power and intoxicated with her wealth, concerned only with maintaining her own position.  Give her leaders who will bow the knee to your kingship.  We pray for leaders in the Arab world and in Israel who maintain their position by violence, make them submit to the Prince of peace.  We pray for young nations that are leaderless and directionless–provide for them order and justice.  We pray for leaders in India and China, nations that will direct the destiny of our world in decades to come; fill those nations with the light of your word today, that they may advance your kingdom tomorrow.  

 

O come, Thou Day-spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
 

Light of the World, we see your light dawning already in every corner of our globe.  You have come, in answer to the longings of the ages, and the world is still echoing with the wonder of that great event.  In nearly every nation and tribe are faithful disciples who call on your name; even among those who have tried so hard to forget you, you haunt their imaginations.  Your kingdom has left its mark on our language, our music, our laws, our buildings.  Lord, fill us with hope and joy this advent, recognizing amidst these short days and long nights that the darkness is breaking, remembering during the cold and the frost that the winter is ending, that you both have come and are coming again.  Lord, let this exhilarating realization animate our every thought and deed.  When we are frightened, let us take comfort in the thought.  When we are tired, let it energize us.  When we are heedless and turned inward on ourselves, let it call us to attention.  When we are in despair, let it give us hope.  When we are angry, let it make us ashamed.  Lord, let each of our lives and each of our churches reflect the glorious proclamation that our King reigns and our King is coming.

 

Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal, through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, now and ever.  Amen.


A Two Kingdoms Hart Attack

Over at Old Life Theological Society, Darryl Hart has been vigilantly policing the web for any criticism of Reformed two kingdoms theology, so I knew it was only a matter of time before my incessant provocations warranted a full-post response.  That response came on Monday, and although I hate the petty squabbling that so often characterizes blog debates, this may be a useful opportunity to clarify some of my critiques of VanDrunen and get a better idea of where R2K folks are coming from.  My main reply proved rather bulky for the comments section, so I’ve opted to post it here–Darryl’s excerpts in italics, mine in regular font:

“1) Christ has fulfilled Adam’s original task.

2) Therefore [Latin, ergo], Christians are not called to fulfil that task.

3) Christians do not need to earn eternal life by cultural labours; they already possess the eternal life that Christ has won for them.

4) Our work does not participate in the coming of the new creation–it has already been attained once and for all by Christ.

5) Our cultural activity is important but temporary, since it will all be wiped away when Christ returns to destroy this present world.”

Sounds pretty good to me (except for number 5 which is a bit of a caricature), but it also makes sense theologically since you wouldn’t want to argue the opposite of these deductions, would you? Do you really want to be on the side of affirming that Christians earn eternal life through cultural labours? 

First, I would ask how #5 a caricature?  This is certainly what VanDrunen appears to be saying in LGTK, but if not, I am glad to hear that, and would like to get a clearer explanation of what R2K eschatology looks like.

Second, why wouldn’t some want to argue the opposite of these deductions?  I would certainly dispute 2, as well as, in certain important senses at any rate, 4 and 5.  The only one that you really wouldn’t want to dispute is 3.  

But more fundamentally, my objection was that these do not constitute “deductions” but a string of assertions.  (3) simply does not follow from (1) and (2)–except on an idiosyncratic and unbiblical understanding of “Adam’s original task”, nor do any of the others follow from (3).  (3) is the odd man out here.   How does the statement “we do not merit redemption by our cultural labours” entail “redemption has nothing to do with our cultural labours”?  We are not justified by our cultural labours, of course.  But our sanctification does flow over into those cultural labours, as I will get to in a moment. 

 

We are united with Christ, ergo, we take part in redeeming the world? How exactly does that follow?

How does it not follow? We are united with Christ, therefore we reign even now with with him; we are made kings and priests, sharing in his dominion and intercession over all creation.  He is even now putting all his enemies under his feet, thus redeeming the world from the bondage of sin.  And by our union with him, we are made sharers in this task.  Lest this sound too triumphalistic, we must of course remember that we are united with him in his death, and called to share in his cross, which is how he overcomes the world.  I suppose it does not follow for the R2Ker because they insist that Christ is not enthroned over creation, but only over the Church; therefore, even if we do somehow share in his kingship, this means nothing for redeeming the world.  This is a whole ‘nother discussion, I suppose, though I have touched on it in previous posts on R2K Christology.

 

But to turn cultural activity into a part of redemption does take away from the all sufficiency of Christ or misunderstands the nature of his redeeming work.  You may understand the sole sufficiency of the work of Christ for saving sinners, but if you then add redeeming culture or word and deed ministries to the mix of redemption, you are taking away from Christ’s sufficiency, both for the salvation of sinners and to determine what his kingdom is going to be and how it will be established. Maybe you could possibly think about cultural activity as a part of sanctification where God works and we work when creating a pot of clay.

There’s vagueness going on here in the term “redemption.”  Redemption involves, if I learned my ordo salutis correctly in Catechism class, both justification and sanctification…not to mention glorification.  So yes, cultural activity is a part of sanctification–and therefore it is a part of redemption.  Redemption takes effect in a sanctification which lays hold of our entire lives, including culture.  Now here’s the cool part.  Although this cultural activity is an effect, not a cause, of our own personal redemption, it is a cause of the redemption of the world more broadly.  This of course gives VanDrunen and Hart the heebie-jeebies, so let me explain.  The fall, by warping our relationship with God, also warped our relationships to one another.  As we are sanctified, we are again enabled to live out these relationships rightly.  Our redemption thus takes effect (slow and ambiguous effect, to be sure) in the healing of distorted social structures, and indeed of creation itself (Romans 8:20-23).  And here is where my “not a zero-sum game” comes in.  Christ is the sole lord of the universe, the sole captain of salvation, the only one with power to redeem.  But he accomplishes the redemption of his creation through his people–by his grace, he redeems for himself a people, and in transforming them, enables them to work together with him in accomplishing the healing of his world.

But as I’ve said before, the fruit of the Spirit is not Bach, Shakespeare, or Sargent; if you turn cultural activity into redeemed work you need to account for the superior cultural products of non-believers compared to believers.

There are actually three categories to be considered, and you and VanDrunen collapse the latter two. First, there are actions carried out in relation to God–here, obviously, only believers saved by grace through faith are able to do what is good.  Then there are actions carried out in relation to other humans–this is the domain of ethics and politics.  Then there are actions carried out in relation to the creation–this is the domain of art, mathematics, technology, etc.   These are of course not iron-clad spheres (at least not the latter two), but useful distinctions.  Now, while in the third category, natural reason is sufficient for unbelievers to discover the laws of geometry or write glorious symphonies just as well as believers (although it is probably not a coincidence that music has developed so much further in the Christian West than anywhere else; if we were being really precise, we would treat humane arts here differently than physical sciences), it’s not quite this simple in the second category.  Unbelievers are not going to have the same insight into justice, into how husbands and wives should treat one another, how rulers should treat their subjects, how economic exchange should be carried out justly, as Christians.  They will have a lot of insight, sure (this is natural law, common grace, etc.), but do we really want to say that salvation doesn’t affect how you treat other people, and the Bible gives no instruction on how to treat other people?  I think not.  It is careless to lump together politics and music as “culture” and say that in all “cultural activities” believers have nothing distinctive to offer, and that the Bible doesn’t give us instruction about cultural activities.

 

Actually, VanDrunen supplies plenty of theological justification for his view of Christ and culture since he sees important layers of discontinuity between Israel and the church 

Sure, of course there are important layers of discontinuity, but there are also important layers of continuity, and I can’t find those in his account (more on this in an upcoming post).

It does not take much imagination to see that the Israelites, even the ones who trusted in Christ during his earthly ministry, were completely unprepared for the new order that was going to emerge after the resurrection…. But the new order of the church was completely unprecedented in the history of redemption to that point in time.

Well, yes and no.  I think N.T. Wright supplies very helpful categories for understanding this.  The gospel only makes sense as an unforeseen fulfilment of God’s promises to Israel.  It is unforeseen in advance, but it is a fulfilment, and thus is in continuity that can be readily traced in hindsight.  I don’t see where those points of continuity are for VanDrunen–the history of Israel remains isolated and unintegrated into the sequence of redemptive history (again, more on this in an upcoming post). 

I see no reason why the next age of redemptive history will [not] similarly exceed any expectation that we have based on our experience of this world.

Absolutely.  But it will nonetheless be in continuity.  When I was a young child, I couldn’t begin to imagine what I would be like as a fully grown man (heh, I still can’t :-p)… but this is different from not being able to imagine what it would be like to be a peacock.  Again, I’m sure VanDrunen would claim that there is some kind of continuity between this creation and the new creation, but I’m not sure where it is, and his theology appears to repeatedly undermine it.



The Sole Un-lordship of Christ

About a month ago, I posted an initial reaction* to David VanDrunen’s Living in God’s Two Kingdoms, with the promise that a more thorough summary would be forthcoming.  At last, I shall attempt to begin to make good on that promise, though the further posts will still be few and concise compared to other book reviews I’ve posted.  I plan to offer four further posts: this one, dealing with basic theological underpinnings of VanDrunen’s paradigm, another touching on the problems of biblical theology that his view runs into, another dealing with the ecclesiology offered and implied in the book, and finally one discussing in more detail the practical political and cultural applications VanDrunen offers, and how they seem at odds with the theological assumptions.  On to the theology then.

In my first post, you may recall I claimed that so alien was VanDrunen’s theological paradigm in this book that I often felt like we were practitioners of two totally different religions.  This was not meant uncharitably, or as a casual charge of heresy in the venerable tradition of Southern Presbyterianism.  VanDrunen is certainly orthodox.  But the following quote may give you an idea of how vast is the gulf between his kind of Christian theology and mine:

“The Lord Jesus, as a human being–as the last Adam–has attained the original goal held out for Adam: a glorified life ruling the world-to-come.  Because Jesus has fulfilled the first Adam’s commission, those who belong to Christ by faith are no longer given that commission.  Christians already possess eternal life and claim an everlasting inheritance.  God does not call them to engage in cultural labours so as to earn their place in the world-to-come.  We are not little Adams.  Instead, God gives us a share in the world-to-come as a gift of free grace in Christ and then calls us to live obediently in this world as a grateful response.  Our cultural activities do not in any sense usher in the new creation.  The new creation has been earned and attained once and for all by Christ, the last Adam.  Cultural activity remains important for Christians, but it will come to an abrupt end, along with this present world as a whole, when Christ returns and cataclysmically ushers in the new heaven and new earth.” (28) 

This passage represents a sort of condensed thesis statement for the entire book (though it must be said that the rest of the book is less a vindication of this proposal than an application of it–it serves more as a starting-point to be proof-texted than a conclusion that is argued toward), so let’s try to unpack the basic theses:

1) Christ has fulfilled Adam’s original task.

2) Therefore, Christians are not called to fulfil that task.

3) Christians do not need to earn eternal life by cultural labours; they already possess the eternal life that Christ has won for them.  

4) Our work does not participate in the coming of the new creation–it has already been attained once and for all by Christ.  

5) Our cultural activity is important but temporary, since it will all be wiped away when Christ returns to destroy this present world.

 

The crucial claim here is the first one: this two-Adams typology serves as the fulcrum for VanDrunen’s argument throughout this book, and is repeated on what feels like every page.  To understand it better, it is perhaps helpful to understand what VanDrunen is reacting to.  He characterises much contemporary thinking on Christianity and culture as follows: we are required to fulfil Adam’s original dominion mandate. Mankind was created to take dominion over the world and enrich creation; man fell; Christ redeemed man and set him back on track to carry out this work of dominion and hence bring creation to completion. 

VanDrunen sharply disagrees with this picture.  Christ does not come to put us back in Adam’s place, but he himself takes Adam’s place and fulfills Adam’s task.  Christ, as the last Adam, has accomplished all that needs to be accomplished, and that accomplishment is not “not ‘creation regained’ but ‘re-creation gained.'”  Now, to a point, I would certainly agree.  There is something very inadequate about a doctrine of redemption that thinks that we are simply being restored to the Garden, a redemption that is simply rewinding the Fall, instead of fast-forwarding us as well into the new Creation (of course, I’m not at all sure that VanDrunen’s opponents actually think this).  

But what does VanDrunen think is Adam’s commission that Christ fulfils?  It does not appear to be, as we would normally think, exercising faithful rule over creation–first over the garden, with the reward of faithfulness there being an exaltation to greater responsibility and a level of greater maturity.  Rather, VanDrunen appears to believe that Adam would have been transposed to a world-to-come if he’d been obedient: “Scripture does not tell us exactly how things would have unfolded, but if the first Adam had been obedient then the rest of us would still have come into existence and shared the glory of the world-to-come with him in the presence of God” (41).  The garden, in this model–indeed, the whole world–appears to have simply been an elaborate stage on which Adam was to play out an act of obedience, after which point God would sweep away the world and give Adam lordship in a “world-to-come” with a completely different mode of existence.  

Needless to say, this seems a bit eccentric.  

From this it follows that Christ’s “fulfilling Adam’s task” means Christ becoming incarnate in order to carry out Adam’s act of obedience as a one-time action and thus earning not only for himself, but for all those whom he elects, a life in this world-to-come.  The point is in no way to restore creation or set us back on track for lordship over it.

The problem is thus not primarily that VanDrunen emphasises “Christ is Adam, not us” (though there are problems there, which we shall get to); the problem is that VanDrunen’s Christ does not actually come to exercise lordship over creation, as Adam was originally tasked to do. If that were Christ’s mission, then even though redemption was in one sense accomplished “once for all,” there would clearly be a sense in which it was still being worked out, as Christ’s lordship was concretely realised.  Christ’s lordship would thus have implications for how life was to be lived in this world, which we would be called upon to bear witness to, even if not to enact it ourselves.  But VanDrunen will have none of this.  Christ did not come to be lord of creation, but to enable us to escape from it to the “world-to-come.”  So let’s jump to the fourth and fifth theses, from which we can return to more carefully consider the second and third.

 

What then is this “world-to-come”?  Does VanDrunen really believe, in quasi-Gnostic fashion, that this world is simply being ditched so we can transition to a brand spanking new, made-from-scratch spiritual world?  I, for one, was quite persuaded by N.T. Wright’s argument in Surprised by Hope that that is completely alien to the vision of Scripture, so much so that I have trouble getting my head around it; but obviously, Wright was writing against somebody and VanDrunen seems to happily play into the stereotype.  On page 53, he describes Christ bringing the present world “to a sudden and decisive end,” and later elaborates, “The NT teaches that the natural order as it now exists will come to a radical end and that the products of human culture will perish along with the natural order.  As we have seen, Christ has already entered into the world-to-come, and now he is making it ready for us to join him.” (64) 

What about the resurrection from the dead, then?  Aren’t our physical bodies brought back to life for a renewed physical existence?  Some of VanDrunen’s remarks seem to attenuate the continuity of our resurrection bodies: “a ‘spiritual’ body is a body that comes from the world-to-come and is fit for the world to come.” (53)

But what about Romans 8? you’re going to ask.  VanDrunen has a reply ready: “To understand Paul’s point, it is important to remember that this present world was never meant to exist forever.  The first Adam was commissioned to finish his task in this world and then to rule in the world-to-come (Heb. 2:5).  Thus when creation groans (Rom. 8:22) for something better, for ‘the glory’ that is coming (8:18), creation is not seeking an improvement of its present existence but the attainment of its original destiny.  It longs to give way before the new heaven and new earth.”  The glorious release that creation is longing for is its own destruction, since that will enable believers to receive their spiritual bodies. (65)

 

Now, having understood all this, we can begin to understand why in thesis 4 VanDrunen can emphasise so emphatically the already of Christ’s work.  If Christ is lord of this world, then clearly his crown, although already bestowed, has yet to be fully recognised–the turning-point of the story may have been reached, but the story has not ended–Christ must reign until all things have been put under his feet.  But for VanDrunen, since the kingdom Christ has gained has nothing to do with this world, the story is basically over, and all we’re waiting for is the opportunity to join him in his completed kingdom. 

Likewise, we can understand why in thesis 4 and in thesis 2, VanDrunen draws such a dichotomy between Christ’s work and our work.  Obviously, if Christ were exercising Adam’s dominion over this world, and making it possible for us to live within it as we were originally meant to live, then it’s hard to see how emphasising the uniqueness of Christ’s work would entail that we do not participate in it in any sense.  Christ might be the only lord, but we are his subjects, and as such called to live out the reality of his kingdom here, participating in his redeeming work here.  But if Christ is not this world’s lord, and if the purpose of his redemption simply purchased us free passes out of it, then obviously there’s not really anything left for us to do. “Before the second Adam no one accomplished the task of the first Adam, and after the second Adam no one needs to accomplish it.  The last Adam has completed it once and for all.  Christians will attain the original destiny of life in the world-to-come, but we do so not by picking up the task where Adam left off but by resting entirely on the work of Jesus Christ, the last Adam who accomplished the task perfectly.” (50)

 

But it is worth pausing to consider a little more the theology underlying VanDrunen’s sharp “Christ, not us” dichotomy.  Underlying VanDrunen’s paranoia about any view in which we participate in Christ’s redeeming work or contribute to the realisation of the new creation is a supercharged doctrine of justification by faith.  (It is as this point where one begins to detect, lurking in the background, the spectres of the Federal Vision controversy, which actually proves to be highly relevant to the whole theological agenda VanDrunen is sketching.)  Let’s look again at a portion of the quote we began with: “God does not call them to engage in cultural labours so as to earn their place in the world-to-come.  We are not little Adams.  Instead, God gives us a share in the world-to-come as a gift of free grace in Christ and then calls us to live obediently in this world as a grateful response.”  Now this is a bit odd, I think, because I don’t know who he thinks he is arguing against here.  No Kuyperian I know of, nor any Anabaptist, nor N.T. Wright, has set up their call for Christian cultural activity in terms of justification by works–we must earn our place in the new creation by working hard to transform the world.  Of course we work as those who have already been forgiven, who have already been promised a share in Christ’s kingdom; of course he has conquered, not us, and all of our labours would be in vain without him.  But for VanDrunen, the suggestion that we are called to participate with Christ in restoring the world suggests synergism, suggests that Christ is not all-sufficient—if we have something to contribute to the work of redemption, then this is something subtracted from Christ, something of our own that we bring apart from him.  Solus Christus and sola fide must therefore entail that there is nothing left to do in the working out of Christ’s accomplishment in his death and resurrection, that we must be nothing but passive recipients.  

Here we find, then, that Puritan spirit at the heart of VanDrunen’s project–the idea that God can only be glorified at man’s expense,** that it’s a zero-sum game, and that thus to attribute something to us is to take it away from Christ, and to attribute something to Christ is to take it away from us.  If Christ redeems the world, then necessarily, we must have nothing to do with the process.  But this is not how the Bible speaks.  He is the head, and we are the body.  We are united to him.  He looks on us, and what we do, and says, “That is me.”  We look on him, and what he does, and say, “That is us.”  He invites us to take part in his work—this is what is so glorious about redemption, that we are not simply left as passive recipients, but raised up to be Christ-bearers in the world.  

Thus, VanDrunen is speaking only half-truths when he declares,

“The New Testament does speak about the completion of the first Adam’s original task and the attainment of his goal, but it always attributes this work to Christ, the last Adam.  We have not been given a plot of land as a holy temple to work and to guard; Christ has already purified a place for God to dwell with his people.  We have not been commissioned to conquer the devil; Christ has already conquered him.  Christ did not come to restore the original creation, but to win the new creation and to bestow its blessings upon his people apart from their own efforts.” (62)

 

At this point, though, the chasm is perhaps not entirely unbridgeable.  In the opening quote, VanDrunen spoke of us being called “to live obediently in this world as a grateful response.”  This kind of language appears at a couple of other points:  

“Believers are not returned to the position of the first Adam, called to win the world-to-come as an accomplished fact and then calls them to cultural labor in this world as a grateful response.” (53)

And similiarly, “We pursue cultural activies in response to the fact that the new creation has already been achieved, not in order to contribute to its achievement.” (57)

VanDrunen is right–the decisive act has been accomplished–in a sense, there is nothing new to be contributed, but simply the outworking of Christ’s once-for-all enthronement.  He is right–we live as those already redeemed, living out of gratitude for this redemption, and not to earn it.  I am all for this idea of Christian cultural activity as a grateful response to Christ’s gift.  But what does that mean?  What does that look like?  VanDrunen has already made clear that it cannot look like “helping make the new order of Christ’s kingdom visible” (since it’s not supposed to be visible) nor can it mean “bearing witness to the fact that Christ is this world’s true lord” (since he’s not), nor can it even mean, “seeking to restore this world to its original created order” (since even Christ isn’t trying to do that).  Indeed, if Christ has staked no claims to this world, and is planning to simply do away with it entirely, it’s hard to see why we should waste our time in any kind of cultural endeavour.  

 

In short, I really do salute VanDrunen’s intention to liberate Christians for cultural engagement as a grateful response to Christ’s gift, but I have a hard time seeing how he can give any meaningful content to this, given the theological foundations he has provided.  I shall say more about this disconnect between foundation and aspiration in a future post.  

 

*See this post.

**See this post and the latter part of this post.