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.

Forgetting How to be Secular

In a pregnant passage of Common Objects of Love, O’Donovan argues that, rightly understood, “secularity” is in fact a Christian concept, and the modern retreat of Christianity means, ultimately, a loss of secularity, since secularity consists in the patient suspense in wait of ultimate validation, and modernity rejects faith in any ultimate validation to come:

“The Christian conception of the ‘secularity’ of political society arose directly out of this Jewish wrestling with unfulfilled promise.  Refusing, on the one hand, to give up what it knew of God, itself, and the world, accepting, on the other, that what it knew was incomplete and demanded validation, Israel understood itself and its knowledge and love of God as a contradiction to be endured in hope.  ‘Secularity’ is irreducibly an eschatological notion; it requires an eschatological faith to sustain it, a belief in a disclosure that is ‘not yet’ but is absolutely presupposed as the inner meaning of what we know already.  If we allow the ‘not yet’ to slide toward ‘never,’ we say something entirely different and wholly incompatible, for the virtue that undergirds all secular politics is an expectant patience.  What follows from the rejection of belief is an intolerable tension between the need for meaning in society and the only partial capacity of society to satisfy the need.  An unbelieving society has forgotten how to be secular.”

The Cry of Dereliction (McCormack Croall Lecture #5)

Perhaps wanting to circle the wagons after his unquestionably daring theological moves in the last lecture, McCormack began Lecture 5 by trying to emphasize the non-novelty of what he was doing.  There was a time 25 years ago, he said, when talk of the “suffering of God” and the “death of God” had achieved something of the status of a new orthodoxy in dogmatics.  Process theologians, open theists, Barthians, Moltmannians–they all had their different reasons for making these moves.  But the conclusions were similar: God suffers not as a mere matter of love and empathy, but as one who takes the suffering of world into his own being.  

Returning to some of the rhetoric of his first lecture, McCormack darkly intimated that the causes of the shift back to the doctrines of divine simplicity and divine impassibility had little to do with theology.  The churches of Protestantism are in decline, he lamented, and its theologians are no longer faithful to Protestant theological distinctives–most now seem intent on trying to synthesize Anabaptist ethical impulses, Reformed theology, and High Church liturgical impulses (which, to be frank, sounds like a jolly good idea to me).  Catholic theologians no longer need to take Protestants as seriously as they once did; the traditionalists are now back in the ascendancy in the Catholic Church, and are trying to roll back some of the gains of Second Vatican.  All this, he suggests, has led to a rejection of the more radical, to his mind more Protestant, accounts of the atonement, and a retrenchment within older metaphysical categories–a trajectory that has not left New Testament exegetes unaffected.

Now, just as a brief side-note, all this is a bit amusing for a sheltered evangelical like myself to hear.  Evangelicals tend to lag a few decades behind the rest of the theological world, and so it is that we are just now encountering these radical Barthian ideas, and just now coming to grips with the fact that the Second Vatican Council happened–for us, a brave new world is opening before us, while for McCormack, that world is slipping away and he is desperate to stop the door from shutting on it entirely.  

McCormack prefaced his exegetical lecture with some words about method.  A Protestant dogmatics must be rigorously grounded in Scripture.  And while, to be sure, a dogmatics must read broadly and synthetically across Scripture, instead of singling out a particular text, this should not be the starting point.  Dogmatics must give due attention to the historical and literary features of individual texts.  In this case, that means that dogmatics may use historical reasons for privileging the Marcan and Matthaean accounts, and must take these narratives with utmost seriousness on their own terms, before attempting to make sense of the other narratives.  The lecture was to be organized in four major sections–first, an initial look at the crucifixion narratives in Mark and Matthew; then, attention to the Gethsemane narratives (again, primarily in Mark and Matthew); then, the Gehenna texts of the New Testament; finally, a return to the crucifixion narratives for reconsideration in light of all this.


1. The death of Jesus in Mark and Matthew–a first look

Mark and Matthew each only have one spoken word from the cross, followed by an inarticulate sound as Christ expires.  The one word is the cry of dereliction–there is nothing present to qualify this darkness, to add a tone of victory.  From the beginning, McCormack said, Christians have been concerned about the apologetic difficulties of this cry–how could a victorious God-man expire this way?  If it is the case, as McCormack thinks, that Luke deliberated substituted “Into your hands I commit my spirit,” then it seems that the apologetic modification began quite early.  Throughout church history, theologians were to continue to express discomfort with the cry of dereliction for various reasons.  

The cry has thus come to be considered something of a scandal, to be minimized rather than maximized.  McCormack wants to completely reverse that trajectory.  Two key questions have been raised about the cry: 1) did Jesus really feel himself to be abandoned?  2) was this feeling well-grounded?  Consensus of theological opinion has generally solidified around a “Yes” to the first question, and McCormack wants to take us further, to a “Yes” to the second question.  

The texts before us are Mark 15:33-34 and Matthew 27:45-46.  

The darkness that comes over the whole land is often recognized as an allusion to Amos 8:9, where this is described as an effect of the eschatological judgment of God.  The other obvious allusion is of course to Psalm 22, from which the words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me are taken.”  McCormack criticized the tendency of many exegetes to bring some light into the darkness of this scene by drawing attention to the entirety of Psalm 22, which ends in praise amid the congregation at God’s deliverance.  But this misses the point of our narratives here–God does not intervene, Jesus does not live to praise God amid the congregation, the latter part of Psalm 22 is omitted for a reason.  But, like Psalm 22, this is a prayer, but a prayer that is no longer from a standpoint of intimacy with the Father, as the earlier prayers in Gethsemane were–God is distant.  This is not a prayer for deliverance; that prayer had already been made and refused in the garden; this is an expression of despair at the absence of God.  

McCormack also notes that some exegetes have connected the “loud cry” that Jesus utters at his expiration with the cries of the demon-possessed throughout these Gospels, the only other places this phrase is used. Could this make the cry of dereliction the equivalent of the demons’ “What have we to do with you?”  Not quite, says McCormack, nonetheless, the demonic idea points in the right direction–to the objective, not merely subjective, experience of God-abandonment.

The point of the exegesis McCormack wants to offer is this–in the Matthaean and Marcan accounts, Christ does not die in victorious union with his Father, but under the Father’s eschatological wrath.  These overtones are reinforced by the apocalyptic imagery that follows Christ’s death–the rending of the temple veil, the earthquake, etc.  Jesus thus dies forsaken by God and he remains so until his resurrection.


2. The Prayer of Jesus and Arrest at Gethsemane

The presence of apocalyptic imagery requires that attention be given to the background of Jewish apocalyptic eschatology in the Second Temple period, the study of which has become something of a growth industry.  There are two main patterns of such apocalyptic: cosmic and judicial.  In both, there are two ages of the world, and the move into the new age of glory is inaugurated by the “day of the Lord,” the day of divine judgment.  The first pattern understands the world to have fallen under the dominion of evil powers, and holds that God will invade the world and defeat these powers in a cosmic war.  In the second pattern, the demonic element is marginalized or absent; God’s judgment rests on the evil that human beings do.  God’s remedy in this understanding, the day of the Lord, is a courtroom in which all humanity appears before the judge, and God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked.  

Both patterns are taken up in the New Testament and reinterpreted in light of the Christ-event.  So which one is dominant in these Passion narratives?  McCormack will argue that it is the latter–the judicial notion is most prominent.  He unpacks this by attention to the Gethsemane narrative, which comprehends two main events–the prayer of Jesus and his arrest.  The impassioned prayer of Jesus for deliverance was, like the cry of dereliction, an embarrassment to the early Church.  How could Christ have such terror at the prospect of suffering and death when many martyrs faced such torments more bravely?  Hence, we find a softening in the Lucan account and even more in the Johannine.  Modern interpreters, however, have liked to emphasize the humanness expressed in this fear in the face of death.  But both is mistaken.

What Jesus fears is not death as such, but the eschatological tribulation that will accompany it.  The cup is a common Biblical image of the eschatological wrath of God that will be poured out.  The cup that Jesus drinks is the eschatological wrath of God to be poured out on the nations at the end of history.   Joel Marcus tries to read the cosmic dimension into this account by calling attention to Jesus’s warning to the disciples not to fall into “temptation” or “testing”–a word that alludes back to the Lord’s Prayer and has demonic overtones.  But this demonic threat is to the disciples, not to Jesus.  When Jesus is handed over to the authorities in his arrest, the following narrative makes many allusions to Isaiah 53, which employs judicial, not cosmic categories.  Jesus is handed over to bear the eschatological wrath of God against sinful mankind; he is not handed over to demonic powers that they might be destroyed in their attempt to destroy him.


3. Gehenna texts

At this point, you like me, may be wondering just where McCormack is going with all of this.  And why does he bring in the notion of gehenna (“hell”) here?  Well, part of what McCormack seems to be up to is, following from the hints laid down by Barth and von Balthasar in the previous lecture (that the doctrine of hell was a result of the atonement), to subordinate the doctrine of hell to a judicial understanding of the atonement, and liberate it from dependence on a realistic account of the cosmic demonic powers.  One can see how such moves would be very desirable for a theologian speaking to the modern world, for whom both hell and demons have quite lost their appeal.  (Not that McCormack was denying altogether that there was a cosmic, demonic dimension to the world; he may want to deny that, but if so, he certainly didn’t go explicitly in that direction in these lectures.) 

McCormack thus spent a bit of time surveying the various passages in the New Testament that speak of gehenna or of a similar fiery judgment.  He took particular note, as Protestants generally do not, of hints that all who die, believer and unbeliever, will pass through some kind of fire–Jesus’s saying that “all shall be salted with fire” and Paul’s remarks in 1 Corinthians 3.

The various descriptions of hell, he concluded, cannot be readily reconciled into one realistic picture; what does emerge clearly from them is the description of a condition of separation from God and from the righteous, a judicial picture of sentencing to experience the eternal wrath of God.  So it is that we can find a point of connection with the cry of dereliction.


4. The Death of Jesus in Mark and Matthew–a second look

The death of Jesus, we have seen, is the event in which the eschatological wrath of God against sinners is poured out.  Can we say any more than this?  Yes.

If the mission of Jesus was inaugurated by the Spirit being poured out on him, and the Father is mediated to him by the Spirit, then it makes sense to say that it is the withdrawal of the Spirit from Jesus in his passion that causes him to feel abandonment by his Father.  In the moment of death, the Spirit is withdrawn altogether.  Jesus is still the son of the Father, but the abandoned son of the Father.  It is thus in death that Jesus drinks to the dregs the experience of God-abandonment that is the sentence against the sinner.  Jesus experiences hell in our place on the cross.  



In concluding, McCormack turned to give brief attention to the Lucan and Johannine accounts: In Luke, we have “into thy hands I commit my spirit” and “Father forgive them, for they know not what they are doing” and “Today you will be with me in Paradise”; in John, we have “Woman here is your Son”, “I am thirsty,” “It is finished.”  From John it’s clear how we can come to Tertullian’s conclusion that Jesus remains in complete control of his death.  

While the emotions which give rise to these disparate sayings may be compatible, McCormack considered it quite improbable that Jesus could have actually said all these things.  He thus wants to suggest that Mark and Matthew ought to enjoy a certain priority, on the basis of the sound principle that passages that cause serious difficulties for Christians are unlikely to have been interpolated later.  The words of Luke and John must of course be taken into account in a constructive dogmatic proposal, but cannot be taken with the same seriousness as the Marcan and Matthaean. 



In the Q&A, unsurprisingly, most questioners zeroed in on what McCormack had said about Hell.  The upshot of his answers was to say that he believed that Jesus had experienced hell on the cross in our place–he went to hell so that no one else has to.  Like Barth himself, he gestured toward, but did not commit himself to, a doctrine of universal salvation, leaving open the door to annihilationist accounts, for instance.  And he made clear that salvation must always be accompanied by faith, but he did not necessarily confine the exercise of such faith to this life.  He did go so far as to say, in response to a question about the proper pastoral response to a dying person who asks what God has in store for them, that we can confidently assure them that God has already declared his mercy to them in Christ, and they have nothing to fear.  The mere fact that this dying person would ask such a question, he said, is a manifestation of some kind of struggling faith, and we can be confident that God will acknowledge that faith.  


Some remarks

If you’re like me, you’re probably reaching the end of this saying, “Huh, that’s it?  All that wild stuff in Lecture 4 and all that promise of a new reconstructed account of penal substitution, and the only really new thing we get (hardly new by modern standards) is a sweeping of the doctrine of Hell under the rug?”  I must say that little in the exegesis offered seemed strikingly original.  The emphasis on Jesus’s experience of God-abandonment, his consciousness of the divine wrath, as the heart of his sufferings, rather than mere physical torment and death, was certainly valuable, but in my experience, this has been well-emphasized by the best traditional interpreters.  The notion of the gradual withdrawal of the Spirit was new to me, though I doubt absolutely new, and I tend to think this is a very fruitful way of describing it.  I tend to think McCormack is right to foreground the “judicial” rather than the “cosmic” element, but I’m not yet sure why they must be played off against one another–the NT witness suggests that both are present.  Like Larry Hurtado in the previous lecture, I’m uncomfortable with the extent to which McCormack wants to privilege Matthew and Mark, treating Luke and John as revisionists; he repeatedly affirms that their accounts must of course be taken on board as well, but seems awfully hesitant to actually do so.  The emphasis on Jesus experiencing Hell in our place seems like it may be quite a helpful emphasis, and though I want to be more cautious than McCormack in drawing the conclusions he wants to from that, I don’t want to dismiss them out of hand either.  I will return to reflect more on this last issue in my evaluative post(s) at the end of the lecture series.

The last lecture is today, and I should be able to put up a summary of that this weekend, followed by some reflections in response at the beginning of next week.  

Two Kingdoms or Two Cities?

Around the same time as I was working through my review of David Van Drunen’s Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms, you may recall that Steven Wedgeworth also reviewed the book in Credenda/Agenda, setting off a fiery controversy with Darryl Hart over at Wedgewords.  Add some authentic ultramontane Catholics to the mix, shake vigorously, and you end up with Wedgeworth and Co’s three-part manifesto, “Apostolic Succession and Civic Freedom.”  I must confess that I have followed all this only rather intermittently, due to the enormous volume of writing being churned out in the discussion, and more importantly, because I determined that I don’t have a dog in that fight, so to speak.  I have little sympathy with the clerocratic Catholic viewpoint, and still less with the Hart/VanDrunen radically separate doctrine of the Two Kingdoms, but neither could I feel any hint of sympathy with the assumptions that drove Wedgeworth and Escalante to posit the classical Protestant, semi-Erastian model as a solution.  

Rather to my surprise, however, Davey Henreckson at Theopolitical has offered what appears as an only-slightly-qualified endorsement of Wedgeworth’s view, which he labels “decretist,” and given that he asked for my reaction and that I just recently posted my own (skeletal and oversimplified) theopolitical manifesto, I figured I would try to weigh in briefly.  (Earlier this summer, I interacted extensively about all this with two of Wedgeworth’s allies, Peter Escalante and Tim Enloe, and the following reflects some of that discussion as well.)

However, I feel a bit confused in doing so, as if I must be missing something big and obvious (quite possible, since I’ve only followed the discussion intermittently), since I have trouble making sense of several of the “decretists’” assumptions, and can’t see why, given these assumptions, their model would generate any enthusiasm in our circles.  As I made clear in my “A Primer on Christian Citizenship,” my basic starting point is Augustinian (though this of course requires a great deal of further development and clarification), and I am puzzled to find in Wedgeworth’s manifesto no attention to the Augustinian paradigm as a solution.  We are confronted with two typical Christian errors–a separatist impulse to withdraw the Church away from the civil realm, and a clerocratic impulse to try to make the Church lord it over the civil realm, and then the classical Protestant paradigm is ushered in with great fanfare as the solution.  But whoa, wait a minute…isn’t there another alternative?  

Now of course I grant that certain ways of developing the Augustinian paradigm (which is notoriously pliable and susceptible to varying interpretations) would end up not too far from the “decretist” standpoint (e.g., certain trajectories in the O’Donovan’s work would seem to resonate with at least substantial bits of Wedgeworth’s picture), this is not at all an obvious equation and would need to be unpacked a great deal more.  In a fantastic recent lecture called “Reforming Public Theology: Two Kingdoms, or Two Cities?” Jamie Smith argued that the two-kingdoms “supplement” to the Two Cities paradigm in fact overthrows that paradigm completely, and he offers a powerful argument of what a consistently Augustinian model would look like.  I’m very sympathetic to his project, and indebted to this lecture in what follows.

The key assumption in Wedgeworth’s manifesto that rings hollow to me is his contention that “the Church is not a worldly-temporal entity and thus is in no real ‘competition’ with the State”; throughout the post he pooh-poohs any notion that the Church is an “alternative city” or “alternative society.”  The Church, he tells us “though always embodied, is designed to deal with hearts”; thus it only rules “the spiritual realm.”  Now, again I feel like I must be missing something obvious, but I find it difficult to make sense of such claims.  What would it mean for the Church to deal only with hearts?  What is this supposed “spiritual realm” that is not concerned with physical actions in human society?  I for one am not conscious of a “spiritual realm” within me that is separable from how the Spirit exhorts my body to live in relation to those around me.  And how does this separation work given that about half of the New Testament is ethics?   

As I understand it, the proper distinction is that the Church deals with bodies through hearts, and thus is able to reckon with the whole man, whereas the State can only deal with bodies as bodies.  This, I take it, is what Bucer is trying to say in the opening chapters of the De Regno Christi.  When I look at what the Church is actually called to do in Scripture, it’s hard for me to see how it is not in “competition” with the State. 

Let’s look at some responsibilities of the State, or of political society.  The State seeks to organize men into a community of shared identity and mutual responsibility.  The Church does this too.  The State seeks to guide this community in pursuit of the common good of human flourishing.  The Church does this too. The State seeks to establish norms of social behaviour among its members.  The Church does this too.  The State seeks to bring about a just relationship between its members, restraining the strong and protecting the weak.  The Church does this too.  The State seeks to overcome the threat of external enemies.  The Church does this too.  The State seeks to remedy the injustice wrought by evil men in its midst.  The Church does this too.  The State seeks to ensure that all its members have their needs cared for. The Church does this too.   

The Church is a visible body of people gathered out from among other people, united by various signs, rituals, texts, codes, ways of life, by mutual commitment to one another, in pursuit of a common end (an end that incorporates all of human existence).  It is, in short, undeniably (to my mind) a “political society,” an “alternative city” in a very important sense.  Of course, it is much more.  It is not just this.  This is just like the tip of an iceberg–its foundation and source of life is deeper and hidden.  It is a city that lives by the presence of God himself in its midst.  Moreover, although the Church is political, it is of course with a different kind of politics.  Just because it is in a kind of competition with the State doesn’t mean it’s just another state.  For instance, the end which it seeks, though it includes the flourishing of human life here on earth, transcends that and includes a higher end that no State can pursue.  The Church too overcomes the threat of enemies, but it does so through self-sacrificing love, not violence.  The Church too seeks to remedy injustice done in its midst, but by means of exhortation, penance, and reconciliation, not outward punishment.  The Church too cares for the needs of its members, but it also goes beyond and serves those who are outside, to an extent that few states do.

Wedgeworth is convinced that the Church is non-coercive, and consistently talks as if making the Church an “alternative City” has to mean giving it coercive power over its own members and/or over other cities.  Perhaps I am missing something, but I don’t see why.  (For the record, I am not yet convinced that church discipline is non-coercive in nature, or should be, for reasons that may be partially disclosed in my forthcoming essay on coercion; but as I certainly agree that coercion is at most a marginal part of the Church’s work, I will leave that aside.)  Criticize Hauerwas, Yoder, Cavanaugh, etc. all you want, but I certainly think that you have to interact with their claims that it is possible to have a different kind of politics that does not rely on coercion–the Church is inescapably political, and thus inevitably challenges other political structures, but it practices a qualitatively different kind of politics.  This basic claim rings very true with my reading of the New Testament.  It seems that whenever anything like this line of argument is brought up, Wedgeworth and Escalante dismiss this as “Anabaptist utopianism.”  But name-calling is not the same as a refutation.

Now, none of this means that, because the Church is in some sense in competition with the State, that it must be in every sense in competition with the State.  One may legitimately criticize Hauerwas and Co. for failing to allow for the nuances and tensions of an Augustinian model, which affirms that the Church is a city, but allows for some kind of uneasy co-existence, or “selective collaboration” as Jamie Smith puts it.  I am very open to a conception in which, should the civil authorities recognize Christ’s lordship, they will use their position to encourage the work of his kingdom (without coercing Christianity).  But the differences between this kind of Christendom and the “decretist” model, as I understand it, are manifold.  For one, the Church will view this Christian magistrate as something valuable and appreciated, but non-essential.  The Church may still do its work of transforming the world without the aid of the magistrate.  For another, the magistrate’s role is one of self-abnegation, deferring to the presence of the true City within the midst of his city, and seeking to empower it to do its work better, and to make his task increasingly superfluous (Leithart’s Defending Constantine is a must-read on this way of understanding the relationship).  In the decretist model, the two rules exist in a kind of permanent, static relationship of complementarity.   This, I think, is a crucial point of difference.  I do not see a static arrangement, but a dynamic one, an eschatologically maturing one.  As I understand it, the two rules may at times achieve a certain complementarity, but it will always be one fraught with tension.  I think, for instance, of Augustine’s interaction with the Roman magistrate Macedonius, where Augustine famously urges leniency toward criminals and a cessation of capital punishment, that the Church might do its work of bringing about true repentance and reconciliation, though Augustine recognizes that this is at odds with part of the calling of the magistrate.  The magistrate’s calling is, as much as possible, to be rendered obsolete by the work of the Church, though this may take a very long time, and in the meantime an uneasy dynamic tension will have to be maintained.

Wedgeworth and Co. will call this “utopianism”–I call it postmillenialism, although a very tempered and patient postmillenialism.  I am not sure how to persuade those who are determined to see this as “utopian,” except to point to the fact that the New Testament’s vision of Christian ethics and Christian community looks very utopian to us, and also to the fact that many ethical and political developments that would have seemed “utopian” centuries ago have actually come to pass: the end of widespread slavery, the extent to which racism has been overcome, the growth of genuine (though never unproblematic) religious freedom, equal treatment for women (fraught with problems today, but genuine progress nonetheless), the commitment to peace and cooperation among many nations that used to be at constant war (the European Union, particularly).  So many of the dramatic social improvements and advances in ethical sensibility in Western society owe themselves to the work of the Christian Church, and so I would like to trust in the Spirit to bring new marvels to pass as the Church works faithfully to enact the City of God among us.


The Church and Controversy: Provocations and Consensus

I’ve finally had the opportunity to go back and finish my review of the Aberdeen conference on Controversy and the Church, though I was forced to end much more concisely than I began.  Four short posts will follow on some remaining highlights–Robert Jenson’s lecture “On Creative and Destructive Provocations,” Markus Muhling on “The Church’s Unity without Consensus,” Vigen Guroian on “Debating the Status of Same-Sex Marriages,” and then the roundtable discussion about the controversy over homosexuality.

Jenson, as one might imagine, was a joy to listen to–he, like Hart, had to join us via videoconference, but he still exuded a powerful presence.  In his lecture, he sought to sketch two examples of provocations that were destructive, but which God turned to the good, two that were just plain destructive, and always have been, and two that proved creative and edifying for the Church. 

As examples of the first two, he gave the classic case of Arianism, in which a harmful teaching that came into the Church proved creative of a robust theological response which led to greater maturity, and the rather less classic case of Luther’s marriage to Katarina von Bora, which was a scandal in its day, even among many of Luther’s followers, but has given us the rich benefits (acknowledged even by many Catholics) of married clergy. 

As examples of purely destructive provocations, he gave the case of Gene Robinson and the case of Marcion, and here some of his remarks were memorable.  What Marcion effected, he said, was to make the presence of the Old Testament a question for the Church, something that the Church had to work out and justify, and the Church has never recovered from that.  We take it for granted that the NT is authoritative, as if it anteceded and funded the Church, which it did not, and then we ask to what extent the OT is authoritative, as if it did not antecede and fund the Church, which it did. “The true question is not whether the Church needs OT Scripture, but whether Israel’s Scripture needs the Church,” he concluded, to an outburst of applause.

Then there are, of course, some provocations that are clearly constructive, although in a fallen world, even these will include unwanted painful side-effects.  As an example of such a creative provocation, he offered the preaching of black-white equality in the 1960s, which was deeply provocative, but deeply needed and something for which we are all now thankful.  A constructive provocation, he suggested, will usually challenge something that we want to keep, but about which we have a perennially bad conscience, and therefore tend to protest too much.

In conclusion, he turned to the recurring question, why are provocations such a central part of the Church’s life?  Here, unsurprisingly, his answer was somewhat different from Webster.  Perhaps we should recognize provocation as a fundamental ontological category. God’s dealing with his people are structured in terms of conversation, and perhaps provocation is God’s only way of continuing the conversation with his fallen yet beloved creation.  We recognize that God speaks to us in terms of law and gospel–God’s demand and God’s promise.  We must not synthesize the two, and yet we must hold on to both.  And if this is so, there will always be provocations, and perhaps the more provocation, the better.


In a lecture the next day, Markus Muhling explored the idea of church unity without consensus.  His argument was in fact that this is what we should expect and seek, because consensus does not emerge spontaneously and attempts both to perceive it and to bring it about are always forced.  Indeed, a unity based on consensus is ethically inferior to one based not on consensus, but on tolerance.  Tolerance, he argued, was not of course a holding of all viewpoints to be equally valid, but rather presupposes that I think I’m right and you’re wrong, and thus your error is something that I have to learn to tolerate.  Learning to show such tolerance is learning, like Christ, to suffer on behalf of the other; to accept the insecurity that his opposition brings.  Whereas consensus provides cozy feelings that make us feel safe in our personal identity, tolerance forces us to feel threatened.  

This I found to be compelling and challenging.  Nevertheless, I would want to maintain that there is an eschatological progression, so that the Church does grow toward consensus, at least if this is understood as a polyphonic harmony, though certainly not a bland and static unity.  We must and should learn to tolerate alternative viewpoints, but that does not mean that we do not press on in the hope of resolving these differences.  Muhling’s starkly amillenialist eschatology, however, prevented him from drawing such a conclusion.  He viewed the difference between in via and in patria, the eschatological difference, as a categorical rather than a gradual difference.  Anyone, he said, who wants to see consensus as essential to the Church mistakes this categorical difference for a gradual difference, and such millenarianism results in totalitarianism.  

An overhasty millenarianism results in totalitarianism to be sure, but it is possible to be a patient postmillenialist rather than a triumphalistic one, even if history warns us how easy it is to fall into such triumphalism.  Eschatology, this conference suggested to me, is key to how we view controversy in the Church.  The first lecture examined Luther’s anti-Jewish polemics, and concluded that much of his harshness emerged later in life when his hopes of the imminent Christianization of the world and return of Christ seemed to be in vain.  It was as if he sought to forcibly bring about the eschaton by increasingly forceful rhetoric, and it proved sadly divisive.  Leithart suggested that this was a common theme of conflicts in Church history–over-optimistic millenarian expectations collapsing into pessimism, and generating in both cases an urgency and anger that led to intense conflict (this, perhaps, relates in interesting ways to David Bentley Hart’s thesis about the cause of controversy).  If both apocalyptic premillenialism and triumphalistic postmillenialism generate divisive angry conflict, then, it would seem, the solution is to be found in patient amillenialism.  But I would suggest that the postmillenial element is still necessary, emphasizing, like Webster’s lecture, that God is already resolving conflict and gaining the victory and will continue to do so, a faith that gives us the confidence to approach conflict with patience and reliance on the power of God.