The Hart of the Matter

Darryl Hart has again lobbed one of his predictable grenades at the “Internationalist” R2K critics (though I am deeply hurt to find that my name has dropped off the Most Wanted list), complete with his obligatory Federal Vision allusions and gay jokes.  As the substance of his critique (what substance there is, at any rate) rests on a long quotation from Torrance Kirby that never even does him the service of mentioning the matter that he is using it to illuminate, a detailed response is hardly necessary.  

However, Hart does finally edge us closer to the heart of the matter at a couple points, one of which I want to address here briefly (the other one I’ll be tackling in a longer essay forthcoming at TCI).  Finally recognizing that the “Internationalist” critics are neither theonomist nor neo-Calvinist, he is zeroing in on the source of disagreement when he says that, on the Internationalist reading of Reformation ecclesiology, “As long as you belong to Christ, it doesn’t matter what the preaching, sacraments, ordination standards, or worship patterns are in your own church.”  In one sense, we would say, “well yes, duh”; in another sense, “well yes, but.”  

On the one hand, it is indubitably true that the Reformers believed that these things “don’t matter” in the sense that one can genuinely belong to Christ despite being in a church that lacks true preaching, pure sacraments, godly ordination standards, or edifying worship patterns.  As Bullinger so finely puts it in the Second Helvetic Confession (the most widely adopted of all the 16th-cent. Reformed confessions):

“Nevertheless, by the signs [of the true Church] mentioned above, we do not so narrowly restrict the Church as to teach that all those are outside the Church who either do not participate in the sacraments, at least not willingly and through contempt, but rather, being forced by necessity, unwillingly abstain from them or are deprived of them; or in whom faith sometimes fails, though it is not entirely extinguished and does not wholly cease; or in whom imperfections and errors due to weakness are found. For we know that God had some friends in the world outside the commonwealth of Israel.”  

On the other hand, though, it doesn’t follow from this that none of these things matter at all.  On the first two, preaching and the sacraments, the Reformers were unanimous that in the ordinary course of God’s working, these are indispensable for the life of the Church and the faithful Christian—hence their status as notae ecclesiae (though this never meant that there was no room for variation in how preaching and sacraments were practiced).  However, the latter two were normally classed among the adiaphora, “things indifferent,” so that we could say they “don’t matter.”  Of course, even this would be a misunderstanding to some extent of the adiaphora concept, as it was never meant to convey absolute indifference—there is still a right and wrong, a better and worse, but not one right and wrong that applied to all churches irregardless of time, place, and circumstance (see my essay here for more clarification on the adiaphora concept).

This issue—a right understanding of adiaphora, and of sola fide as relativizing (not marginalizing, mind you, but putting into proper perspective) the role of the external media of the visible church, is, we might say, the theological heart of the matter.

 

The historical heart of the matter, on the other hand, concerns how we understand the emphasis on and practice of church discipline in the early Reformed tradition, particularly in Calvin and his Geneva, to which R2Ks appeal as the flagship for their ecclesiology.  In this, I would suggest, Hart and his allies are relying on an increasingly outmoded (though still cherished) scholarly narrative about the nature and significance of Genevan discipline in the formative stages of the Reformed tradition.  A fresh look at the historical realities, I will argue in my upcoming TCI post, shatters a number of sacred Presbyterian cows and compels a new understanding of what was going on in the early development of Reformed discipline.


Updates, Interlocutions, and a Hiatus

As of today, I will be taking off for a couple weeks for some long-awaited time with friends and family in London, Wales, Yorkshire, and sundry places, and blogging should be quite limited during this period—though I do hope to finally put up a review of John Perry’s excellent book Pretenses of Loyalty (thanks to Davey Henreckson at Reforming Virtue for putting me onto it).

Meanwhile, though, there are a number of exciting things to which I can direct your attention.  First (and perhaps not quite so exciting), I have made long-overdue updates to the other pages here at the S&P—About Me, What is the S&P?, Projects, and Writings.  The most significant changes: I have tried to bring the “What is the S&P?” description more into line with what I actually write about here these days, and I have mercilessly purged excess projects from the Projects page, reflecting my real-life purge as I try to focus more of my attentions and energies on my thesis and related work.

Second, and rather more exciting, the Two Kingdoms debates go on.  Oh yes—and on, and on, and on, no doubt.  Matt Tuininga, not content with one rebuttal to my original post, posted five (here, here, here, here, and here), with which I interacted in a few comments, though whether any clarification was thereby achieved, I leave it to you to judge.  This impending trip has not left me leisure for a full-blown response, chock full of big bloc quotes and footnotes, but fortunately, Peter and Steven at The Calvinist International have happily stepped in to provide such a response, which will be forthcoming any day now—I recommend you check in on TCI every ten minutes or so this weekend. 😉

As if Tuininga’s responses were not enough, Darryl Hart has now kindly jumped into the fray with a post at Old Life, “Speaking of Ecclesiastical Authority.”  Although Hart displays again his odd obsession with trying to somehow link everything he disagrees with to Moscow, ID, I am grateful to him for highlighting in his post what I think is the key issue in this whole two-kingdoms debate—namely, the Protestant doctrine of Christian liberty and its occlusion by ecclesiastical legalism.  Hart insists that the modern R2K view is “an effort to recover Christian liberty from the pious intentions and historical circumstances of some in the Reformed world eager to assert the Lordship of Christ without sufficient qualification.”  The problem, of course, from my perspective, is that the modern R2K view achieves this liberty in its civil kingdom at the cost of banishing it from the Church, ruled as it is with a strictly enforced biblical absolutism.  Hart asks, “how the church as a temporal authority, ruled by an earthly monarch, is going to be any less tyrannical, even if its reach only goes to externals,” which is, one might say, just the question my thesis aims to address.  I hope, therefore, to have the opportunity for a full engagement with this line of challenge after my traveling hiatus is finished; we shall see.


Two Kingdoms Extravaganza

If you’re tired of reading about two kingdoms stuff on this blog, I have good news from you—I won’t be posting any here for a spell.  But if you’re not, I also have good news for you—I’ve got a bundle of great links to share.  

First, Darryl Hart has recently changed his tune noticeably, by suggesting that instead of being a neat, clean-cut dualism, his Reformed two-kingdoms doctrine is in fact a messy, complicated paradox, and so we shouldn’t ask for perfect consistency in his and VanDrunen’s exposition of it.  But that, he says, is a good thing.

Peter Escalante has responded on The Calvinist International with a hard-hitting deconstruction, which at the same time offers the fullest exposition yet of his and Wedgeworth’s vision for a modern Christian liberal politics, and how one might get from Reformational two-kingdoms teaching to that point.

Meanwhile, Matt Tuininga, a Ph.D student at Emory, recently wrote a little article which, although arguing that modern R2K advocates may have the contemporary application wrong, essentially retells their same narrative of the historical form of Reformed two-kingdoms doctrine—viz., that it was about the liberty of the Church over against the State all along.

The Calvinist International kindly hosted my substantial critique of Tuininga’s piece, which has already elicited a response from Tuininga, pledging a forthcoming refutation (at least as far as Calvin is concerned), but graciously seeking constructive dialogue and debate.  I am hopeful that the coming discussion will finally provide some helpful historical and theological illumination to a debate that has generated more heat than light on Reformed blogdom over the past couple years.  So stay tuned to The Calvinist International for follow-up.


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 Ambiguities of a Christian President

Although I’ve been planning to write up a fairly critical review of Darryl Hart’s A Secular Faith, that would perhaps not be the most politic thing to do when he is busy trying to critique me (on my review of VanDrunen) over at his blog right now.  So, in a spirit of camaraderie, let me voice an odd point of sympathy with Hart’s book.  

In it, he is chiefly concerned to argue (among other things) that we should not be voting for our political candidates on the basis of their Christian faith or values, and in fact should be very leery of them trying to bring those convictions into office with them.  Their Christianity simply does not have anything relevant to contribute to rightly governing our country, and we should vote simply based upon political considerations.  While I dramatically disagree with him on the larger issues, being convinced of the relevance of Christianity to public life, the importance of governing a country in submission to Christ, etc., I find myself oddly in sympathy with him when it comes down to practical questions like, “Who do you want to win in 2012?”

 

Last week, I finally decided to try and educate myself a bit on the 2012 contenders, and I was reading an essay about how Republican contender Michele Bachmann is apparently a zealous conservative Christian.  And not just a generic evangelical, but someone influenced by Reformed writers in the remote little neck of the ecclesiastical woods in which I was brought up–people like Francis Schaeffer and even R.J. Rushdoony and Steve Wilkins, if this article was telling the truth.  Now, even if I may have some significant differences with these Christian thinkers, they’re minor in the grand scheme of things.  So here is a legitimate presidential candidate who is about as closely-aligned with me theologically as anyone I could ever expect to run (at least, given what I gleaned from this one article…I am still largely ignorant of Bachmann’s background).  Shouldn’t I be cheering her on?  

On the contrary, I’ve found myself instinctively repulsed by her, despite (perhaps even because of?) her explicit invocation of Christianity.  This may well be quite unfair, but if I were to vote strictly on feelings (and don’t worry, all you conservative readers out there–I wouldn’t vote strictly on feelings, and my reason might well end up somewhere rather different), I’d be more comfortable voting for Obama than for Bachmann.  Weird, huh?  

 

Is Darryl Hart right then?  Does theology have nothing to do with politics?  Well, not quite.  Certainly, with Hooker we could acknowledge that theology may not map onto politics in any clear and straightforward way, and such are the complexities of political life, the silences of Scripture, and the limitations of our ability to apply it, that Christian commitment might be able to manifest itself in any number of varying political commitments.  Perhaps this is part of what’s going on. 

I’d like to think, though, that my objection actually arises more from my fear that Bachmann, like most other Christian conservatives I’ve encountered, actually is not nearly Christian enough in the way she approaches politics.  If you read her statements on “Issues” on her campaign website, it’s hard to find anything beyond a tired old regurgitation of the same old neo-conservative slogans about the importance of protecting the free market and helping business grow, and the importance of looking out for America’s interests in the world and standing up to its enemies.  I’d rather vote for a candidate who doesn’t know Christ (though Obama sincerely claims to and I will take that at face value) but who nonetheless applies some of his warnings against the danger of wealth and his admonitions to love our enemies (not that Obama necessarily has done that very well), than a candidate who claims to make Christ central to their politics, but shows no sign of having ever really listened to some of these central teachings.  

This is, of course, over-hasty as an indictment of the religious Right–I recognise that issues of economics and national security are quite complicated, and you can’t just wave the Sermon on the Mount at them (many of my bloggings here over the past year have been focused on trying to think how some of these Christian teachings ought to intersect with the practical issues of modern politics).  But this is an attempt to explain in a nutshell my gut aversion to candidates like Bachmann.

 Of course, there is another, more pragmatic dimension, and on this point I probably am closer to Hart–there’s something to be said for voting for someone you disagree with, but consider competent, than someone you agree with, but who’s likely to run the ship of state into an iceberg.  When electing someone to government, one must first and foremost have faith in their ability to govern, not merely in their good intentions.  And most of the current Republican front-runners seem committed to radical ideologies that seemed doomed to disaster.  So, ironically, the conservative in me might rather vote for someone more liberal.

 

In any case, if you’re reading this, and know more about the current candidates than I do (which probably describes pretty much everyone who might be reading this), by all means jump in and clear up my false impressions and conclusions.  Even if I don’t vote (which I have trouble imagining I will), it would be helpful to know what’s the landscape’s really like back there in my troubled homeland.   

 

PS: I just realized that having singled out Palin for criticism a couple months ago and Bachmann now, and no other Republican candidates, I may be coming across as somehow misogynist.  I certainly hope that’s not the reason; rather, the main reason, i think, is that I seem to encounter their names much more frequently in the media than any other Republican contenders (and because Christian conservatives seem particularly enthused about them).