Those Socialist Hebrews

In the fascinating second chapter of his provocative book, The Hebrew Republic, Eric Nelson argues that the advocation of redistribution of wealth in the modern political tradition arose not from Enlightenment socialist ideas, but, believe it or not, from the seventeenth-century appeal to the authority of Old Testament Israel and the attempt to make it politically normative for modern societies.   This is an argument that is sure to turn the narrative of Bible-thumping Red State America on its head–according to that narrative, Scripture is adamant about the sanctity of private property, and in proportion as societies have sought to found their government upon Scripture, in the same proportion, they have protected private property rights.  Only when they have rebelled against God and embraced atheistic ideas, we are told, do they toy with evil utopian schemes like redistribution of wealth.  Right in line with this narrative, most modern Reformed advocates of some form of “theonomy”–the attempt to repristinate Biblical law in modern politics–have produced a “Biblical economics” that is curiously right-wing and libertarian.  

But, on Nelson’s account (though of course this is not the point Nelson is out to make) this paradigm is precisely backward–it was in pursuit of seventeenth-century “theonomy” that theologians and political thinkers embraced the idea of “levelling” or redistribution of property.  It was obvious to them that the purpose of the Jubilee and sabbath laws, among many other Pentateuchal land laws, was to maintain a relative long-term equality in property ownership by regular redistribution.  Similar measures, it seemed, would need to be instituted in any Christian society that followed God’s law.  Indeed, so dramatic was the force of this appeal that it worked to overturn the long-standing consensus against redistributive (or “agrarian”) laws in Christian Europe, a consensus that was grounded not, as we might expect, on appeals to Scriptural authority, but rather, on the authority of classical Roman writers who argued for the sanctity of private property rights in order to protect the original expropriations of the patrician classes from any recovery by the plebeians. 

Cicero, in particular, had rendered the authoritative verdict on this point: “Property becomes private through long occupancy, and each one should retain possession of that which has fallen to his lot; and if anyone appropriates to himself anything beyond that, he will be violating the laws of human society….The man in administrative office must make it his first care that everyone shall have what belongs to him and that private citizens suffer no invasion of their property rights by act of the state.”  The “ruinous policy” of the proposed agrarian laws, says Cicero, constitutes such an invasion.  “In short,” says Nelson, “Cicero characterizes the agrarian movement as seditious, dangerous, and violently unjust.  For what is an agrarian law, he asks in De officiis, but an initiative “to rob one man of what belongs to him and to give to another man what does not belong to him?” 

Modern Christian conservatives thus find themselves in the awkward position of parroting Cicero, over against a tradition that sought instead to follow Moses.  

Of course, as I have always hastened to point out in the past, this kind of “agrarian” or “redistributive” drive does not issue from a contempt for private property, but rather, from a much higher valuation of private property–private property is seen as so important that it is imperative to make sure everyone has enough, which means making sure nobody has too much.  

Coming in for a Landing (VanDrunen Review X-end)

At long last, I am ready to bring this marathon review of VanDrunen towards its conclusion.  On the whole, these final sections left a rather more favorable impression than I would’ve expected them to, and a more favorable impression than I’d had for most of the previous chapters.  

Chapter 10 was devoted to a discussion of Van Til and his followers, and I had expected the crescendo of criticism against neo-Calvinism to reach its climax here.  However, VanDrunen was surprisingly reserved, having expended his critical energies in chapter 9’s sketch of the antithesis between the Dutch neo-Calvinists and Calvin.  Van Til himself, concedes VanDrunen, was essentially an apologist, not a social theorist, and so we must not attribute to him views things he did not actually say about the way believers and unbelievers live together in society.  Yes, his view of common grace is problematic, and reacts unnecessarily against an exclusively Catholic conception of natural law, but his ideas are not necessarily at odds with a kind of two kingdoms theory.  

We can see the diverse possibilities of Van Tillianism for social theory, says VanDrunen, by looking at the different routes taken by two of his disciples, Greg Bahnsen and Meredith Kline.  At the mention of Bahnsen, I thought that perhaps VanDrunen was showing his last cards–perhaps the whole book had been building toward a refutation of the hated theonomist, so adamntly opposed by the Westminster Seminary crowd.  After all, it was rather remarkable that in a book ostensibly aimed at a wide audience of ethicists and political theologians, such an obscure and peripheral figure as Bahnsen should receive focused attention.  But VanDrunen didn’t do this–the discussion was brief and the criticism measured.  Perhaps VanDrunen felt (understandably) that Bahnsen’s position was sufficiently marginal that forceful criticism was unnecessary.  And frankly, it is certainly true that, once you do much study at all in ethics and political theology, Bahnsen-esque theonomy seems like a pretty untenable position.  

I am not so sure what I think of the inclusion of Meredith Kline under the Van Tillian heading.  Merely because he was taught by Van Til, and perhaps claimed Van Til as a mentor does not make him genuinely a disciple of Van Til.  VanDrunen does very little to demonstrate any real continuity between the two, but simply asserts the connection.  Most modern Van Tillians, at least, have about as much respect for Kline as they do for Charles Darwin.  But by including Kline as a Van Tillian, VanDrunen is able to to give some respect to Van Tillianism as a standpoint capable of generating valuable social thought, so I guess I won’t complain.   

It is worth pausing to take note of just one of Kline’s comments, since I think it illustrates as well as anything the incoherence into which strong spirituality of the Church/two kingdoms doctrines seem to lead.  VanDrunen summarizes Kline, “Even as Christians follow this model and engage in common cultural activities, however, the church itself is to limit its work to the holy ministry entrusted to it in Scripture and not take up these common cultural activities as part of its own task,” and to this sentence, has a footnote attached: “E.g., see Kline’s opposition to providing medical care on the foriegn mission field for those outside of the church as an ecclesiastical ministry, as articulated in a minority report of his denomination’s Committee on Foreign Missions.” (416)

Are you serious?  In doing missionary work, the Church is only supposed to teach the gospel, not administer actual medical aid or other physical assistance?  But what is the Gospel?  “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)  Or how about, “This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: ‘He took our illnesses and bore our diseases.”  Imagine if we were to tell Christ that as part of his redemptive, spiritual ministry he must only preace the gospel and not heal those who were outside of the Church–we’d have to excise half the Gospels!  If someone’s political theology is leading them to this kind of reductio ad absurdum (as, I think, VanDrunen’s does lead), then I submit that something is wrong with that political theology.  

Having thus dealt quite briefly with chapter 10, let me turn to consider VanDrunen’s Conclusion: “The Survival and Revival of Reformed Natural Law and Two Kingdoms Doctrine.”  As I mentioned above, there were actually some good signs in this conclusion—VanDrunen finally shows that he is able to critically evaluate the position he has been advancing, and to identify its possible weak points, that will need to be defended if it is to stand.  I was surprised to see him being so candid and perceptive about these; my only objection is that I think these weaknesses are far more fatal to the position than VanDrunen seems to think.  Before turning to these, though, I can’t help but poke a bit of fun at the section just before this, where VanDrunen describes “The Survival of Reformed Natural Law and Two Kingdoms Doctrine.”

He begins this by noting how remarkable it is that the year 2006 alone “saw the publication of three books by Reformed authors designed to retrieve their tradition’s natural law and/or two kingdom’s doctrines”–those by Stephen Grabill, by Darryl Hart, and by VanDrunen himself.  Now, given that this amounts to a “me and my buddies” trio, it is hardly an impressive coincidence and hardly suggests that some wide and deep revival of these doctrines is underway.  The rest of the “survival” sketch is not particularly impressive, consisting of a handful of monographs (most of them article length) by historians or theologians in the past century who were retrieving or employing some kind of Reformed natural law and/or two kingdoms paradigms, some of whom (e.g., J. Gresham Machen) do not bear quite as much resemblance to VanDrunen’s understanding of these paradigms as he thinks. 

Having said this, let us turn to look at what VanDrunen has to say about “The Revival of Reformed Natural Law and Two Kingdoms Doctrine,” which is rather more interesting.  He first describes two attractions that this doctrine offers.  First, it helps us draw the kind of clear dichotomy between the violence of the state and the peacefulness of the Church that many contemporary theologians and ethicists, preeminent among them Stanley Hauerwas, have tried to point out.  This seems, I confess, a rather disingenous point to make, because VanDrunen’s doctrine achieves this feat by destroying what for Hauerwas and most contemporary ethicists is the whole point–namely, that the Church’s peacefulness stands as a challenge, condemnation, and call to repentance toward the state’s violence, not as a ratification of it.  However, inasmuch as this is simply a critique of the tendency in neo-Calvinism and theonomy to baptize the violence of the state and co-opt it to the Church’s purposes, I am at sympathy with VanDrunen.  

The other attraction, he says, is that it “also gives theological rationale for affirming the genuine, God-ordained legitimacy of the state and other cultural institutions”; it provides a way for Christians to function comfortably within the state and to work for justice through it.  For many, of course, this hardly comprises an “attraction,” especially as, for VanDrunen, such positive Christian involvement in the state is bought only at the price of having Christians leave their Christianity entirely out of such involvement. 

Now VanDrunen moves to list the challenges facing the Reformed two kingdoms doctrine.  The first concerns the doctrine of the two mediatorships of Christ: “Can future proponents of the two kingdoms doctrine make a compelling defense of this older Reformed doctrine?”  The answer, I would suggest, is no; or rather, certainly they cannot defend it in the form that VanDrunen wants to advance it, not without abandoning Trinitarian orthodoxy.  Second, it must offer a coherent account of common grace as an organizing category for social thought, something that has thus far remained vague.  Ok, very well.  Third, “assertion of the two kingdoms doctrine raises the question as to what, if anything, has changed about the state and its authority and legitimacy with the death and resurrection of Christ.”  At this point, he says, Reformed two kingdoms doctrine parts ways with a Oliver O’Donovan, who VanDrunen incredibly describes as “one important contemporary moral theologian whose thought is in many ways very congenial to a two kingdoms perspective.”  Um, excuse me?  As VanDrunen goes on to sketch the divergence, it is hard to see where exactly this congeniality lies.  Needless to say, I am on the side of O’Donovan on this issue–the resurrection of Christ does make a difference, and it is hard for me to see how it couldn’t.  

Fourth, says VanDrunen, “the two kingdoms doctrine raises some very difficult questions regarding the holistic character of the Chrisitan life.  For example, what exactly does it mean for Christians to live non-violent lives as citizens of the kingdom of Christ and simultaneously participate in the activities of the state that rest upon the threat of coercion.  How can Christians live both of these very different ways of life with integrity and without slipping into a de facto confinement of their Christianity to certain narrow aspects of their lives?”  I’m glad to see that VanDrunen admits these to be “very difficult questions”–indeed, in my view, they are insurmountable from the standpoint of the paradigm VanDrunen has advanced in this book.  

Finally, the Reformed two kingdoms doctrine needs to resolve the point of unclarity about how exactly we are to distinguish between “spiritual” and “temporal” things, and whether this distinction is the same as “internal” and “external,” which VanDrunen isn’t sure that it is.  Of course, I happen to think that this is no minor problem; rather, until R2K doctrine can offer some coherent account of what it intends by this distinction, it has no claim to be taken seriously as ecclesiology or political theology.  

Nevertheless, I do appreciate VanDrunen’s honesty in acknowledging and justly summarizing these potential objections.  It would have been better if he had not merely relegated them to an epilogue, but late is better than never.