Indifference that Makes a Difference

Just what are adiaphora–“things indifferent”?  Regular readers will know that this concept, so central to the magisterial Reformation, has become a key theme not only of my thesis work, but of my ethical and theological reflection in general in the past year.  They may also have noticed that, however important, it is a highly unstable and ambiguous concept.  In a recent thesis chapter draft, I explored three different contexts in which the term might be used, and was used during the Reformation–exactly how one correlates the three, I think, makes a great deal of difference.  

The ancient Cynics, who coined the term, sought to designate all externals as adiaphora, identifying virtue solely with the interior quality of the self-sufficient soul.  The Stoics, who adopted the term as well, were inclined to be more guarded, treating all externals as adiaphora but still distinguishing between those things absolutely neutral and those that were such as to be generally preferred or rejected, although not intrinsically and in all cases good or evil.  The extreme Cynic position had few subsequent takers, although it made a sort of reappearance in Peter Abelard’s radical voluntarism, which asserted that “apart from intention all human actions, considered in themselves, are indifferent.”

Many other Church Fathers and medieval theologians tended to adapt the Stoic usage, qualifying it still further, and seeking to correlate it with the class of actions neither commanded nor forbidden, but “permitted” by the divine law of Scripture.  Luther, who made the concept of adiaphora so central to his doctrine of Christian liberty, came close to reviving the Cynic radicalism of the concept by the way he tied it to justification by faith.  Since we are saved and accepted before God by faith and faith alone, Luther could argue, all human works are completely indifferent, and no deed done in faith and love is to be preferred or valued over any other.  Having unleashed this antinomian spectre, however, Luther was quick to qualify, dialectically balancing this stark solfidianism with a renewed emphasis on the usefulness of the law and the importance of works of charity within the Christian life.  

This very brief survey suggests already at least three different contexts for the term adiaphora: 1) moral philosophy; 2) epistemology 3) soteriology.  First, adiaphora could be employed in the moral philosophical context of determining what sorts of human actions were intrinsically good or evil, which were good or evil depending on intention, circumstance, and object, and which were absolutely indifferent considered in themselves.   (Of course, this question presupposes the ability to define an “action,” since, defined atomistically enough, any action could be considered morally indifferent, whereas defined holistically enough, even the most insignificant action could take on moral dimensions.)  One might also distinguish between actions so good that we are morally obliged to perform them, and goods that are merely recommended, not required, treating the latter as in some sense adiaphorous.  This distinction, with its sense of “things necessary” and “things accessory,” quickly connects up, in a theological context, with the soteriological dimensions to be explored below.

For the Christian, whose chief rule of moral conduct was the Scripture, the concept of adiaphora could be used in an epistemological dimension, to delineate those areas of action on which Scripture remains silent.  Where Scripture speaks, we have direct knowledge of the good and are obliged to act accordingly; where Scripture does not speak, however, the good has been left undetermined, and it is up to us to discern and apply it as we see fit.  Of course, this need not mean it is wholly undetermined–it may be thoroughly determined by natural law or other sources of moral authority–only that it is not prescribed in Scripture and has been left up to human discretion.  Unfortunately, this use of the concept only partially overlaps with the first sense, as there are a great number of actions that, from a moral-philosophical standpoint, are intrinsically indifferent, which are nonetheless either commanded or forbidden in Scripture (particularly in the ceremonial code of the Old Testament, but also, as Hooker will contend, in certain church orders and ceremonies of the New Testament).  So some things morally indifferent are not Scripturally indifferent; likewise, many things Scripturally indifferent are not morally indifferent.  

Finally, particularly among the Reformers, the concept of adiaphora takes on a crucial soteriological dimension.  Following from Luther’s assertion of justification by faith, and of the “two realms” of Christian existence, Protestant theologians could distinguish between the salvific “spiritual kingdom” of Christian existence coram Deo and the indifferent “temporal kingdom” coram hominibus.  The former contained those things “necessary to salvation” (on the most minimal definition, passive faith merely, though with suitable qualifications, others could be added to this category); the latter contained those things “accessory to salvation” and thus ultimately indifferent for Christian soul.  Again, important as this way of putting things was for supporting the Protestant edifice of justification by faith, it sat somewhat uncomfortably with the other dimensions of the adiaphora concept.  After all, just because lying to your brother does not exclude you from salvation does not mean that it was morally indifferent; nor, just because feeding the hungry cannot win heaven for you does not mean that there is no moral virtue in such a deed.  And, as both these examples show, many deeds could be either commanded or forbidden in Scripture even if, on this soteriological definition, they were “not necessary.”  


Clearly, a great deal was at stake in how one explained adiaphora–the relation of faith and works, of Scriptural authority and natural law, of visible and invisible Church–so it is no wonder that this became such a crucial battleground in Puritan-conformist polemics.  The Puritans, it seemed, were tempted to too closely identify the second dimension with the first, so that Scripture became the only rule to determine the moral goodness of an action–as Hooker summarizes, “That the Scripture of God is in such sort the rule of humaine actions, that simply whatsoever we doe, and are not by it directed thereunto, the same is sinne.”  By virtue of this confusion, anything commanded in Scripture was seen as intrinsically good, and anything forbidden intrinsically evil; there was no need for any other moral-philosophical criterion of goodness.  And lest by this erasure of other criteria, a large sphere of actions be left wholly indifferent, Scripture must be assumed to speak comprehensively on all morally relevant issues, so that very little could really be accepted as “adiaphora” in the epistemological sense.  Indirectly, this conception also tended to obscure the soteriological dimension, so that now matters formerly considered “accessory,” being commanded in Scripture and therefore morally obligatory, were taken to be “matters of faith and salvation.”  

The flip side of this was that conformist apologists, starting too from the second dimension but unable to see in Scripture the profusion of commands that the Puritans read there, could point to Scripture’s formal silence on an issue and conclude thereby that the matter was in every meaningful sense indifferent–left up to essentially arbitrary human judgment, morally and soteriologically insignificant.  Or else, still worse, they might exclusively emphasise the third dimension in a way that led to quietism and fatalism.  If only a very few things were necessary to salvation, then everything else was essentially free for human authority to devise as it thought best–even if Scripture addressed other subjects, its commands here were not to be taken in any permanently binding sense, since these matters were adiaphorous and changeable.  So Thomas Starkey could argue in the 1530s that that the English people should concern themselves with little more than the Apostles’ Creed; whatever else the authorities might see fit to legislate for the Church of England, they should not trouble themselves about it.  So Whitgift could contend in the 1570s, with Calvinist fatalism, that as the availability of right doctrine was the only prerequisite for God to call sinners to himself, it little mattered what other spiritual provision the Church of England offered.  

In this, as in so much else, it fell to Hooker to offer a more adequate statement, accepting the centrality of the third dimension without allowing it to arbitrarily trump the second, or become confused with the first.   

  


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.