The Politics of Advent

In a recent post, I mused that the chief Christian contribution to a hypocritical and deceitful worldly politics might be the witness of truthfulness and transparency.  In a typically luminous column for First Things On the Square, Peter Leithart writes of the political message of Advent, the promise that in the second coming, the transparency which seems to elude all our social and political endeavors now will at last be a reality:

There is a city that fulfills Augustine’s dream of social life, but it’s not an earthly city, not the city of man. In the life to come, everything will become transparent to the Creator, and as a result, opacity will give way to complete transparency: “The thoughts of each of us will then also be manifest to all.” When God removes his veil, we will peer into the souls of others. When we are purged of sin, we will freely share the good within. Only in the city where we see God face-to-face will we have faces to face each other. 

By virtue of Christ’s first advent, though, we have a foretaste of this politics of truth in the Church, a politics that we are called to live out and witness the possibility of, however imperfectly:

Sins are not to be concealed but confessed, and Christians are commanded to meet open confession with open forgiveness. “You are the light of the world,” Jesus told his disciples, a light shining out but also a light that, supplied by the oil of the Spirit, illuminates the corners and dark corridors within.  
Within the church are faint glimmers of a society that might meet with Augustine’s approval. Within the church we find the imperfectly realized possibility of a politics of two Advents.


Natural Law Today

The following was a lovely little intro to the fall and rise of natural law thinking in Reformed ethics that I had penned for the paper I’ll be giving at the AAR this month, “Natural Law and Which Two Kingdoms?”  Unfortunately, as with most lovely little intros, it had to receive the axe, but here on the blog it may live out a long and happy retirement:

 Until quite recently, the concept of natural law was anathema in many Reformed contexts, and even today, it continues to face an uphill battle in many arenas.  In his seminal work, Rediscovering the Natural Law in Reformed Theological Ethics, Stephen Grabill suggests three key reasons why natural law spent much of the twentieth century in exile from an otherwise vibrant tradition of Reformed theology and ethical reflection.  First, the towering figure of Barth, and his resounding 1934 “No” to natural theology (and to Emil Brunner) could not help but cast a long shadow over his successors, convincing many that the concept of natural law was insufficiently Christological and at root humanistic.  Second, even in those sectors of the Reformed faith where the name of Barth was not always hallowed, another consideration prevailed–anti-Catholicism.  Natural law, we all knew, was the product of medieval scholasticism, and hence must be jettisoned if we were to be truly Protestant.  Third, in more liberal circles, the anti-metaphysical turn of late 19th-century German liberalism looked suspiciously on anything so medieval as natural law theory.  Other reasons might be added–much of American Protestantism has been captured by a wholesale biblicism, a conviction that the more one can attribute to Scripture, and the less to any other authority, the better.  Natural law, on this conception, was seen to be in inherent rivalry with the authority of Scripture, and must be jettisoned.  Nor was this suspicion without foundation.  Beginning certainly in the 17th-century and well underway by the 18th-century came a turn in natural law thinking that detached natural law from special revelation and made it the province of autonomous reason.

But just when it might have seemed that all these reasons had conspired to purge natural law from the earth, it has begun a dramatic comeback in the past couple decades.  Again, some good reasons are not hard to spot.  The legacy of Barth has at last begun to wane, or at any rate, to be evaluated more dialogically than reverentially; centuries of Protestant-Catholic hostility have begun to thaw, and partnerships between Reformed and Catholic theological scholarship have emerged to an extent that John Knox is surely rolling in his grave.  Perhaps even more decisively, within an American context dominated by aggressive evangelical politics and shallow evangelical biblicism, it has become increasingly clear to thoughtful public theologians and political theologians that we need a broader foundation for Christian engagement with a secular public square.  For this task, natural law seems to offer great promise.

But with promise, of course, comes potential pitfalls.  With the rapid revival of natural law thinking, and its enthusiastic application to political theology by a rising generation of young theologians like myself, we must not casually brush aside the suspicions of an older generation, and must ask ourselves some hard questions.  First, what about Barth’s concern?  Is natural law un-Christological?  Will a politics of natural law necessarily detach us from a politics of Jesus?  Certainly folks like Stanley Hauerwas are inclined to worry on this score, and justly so.  As disciples of Christ, we must be suspicious of enshrining any standard for just political life that ignores the witness of Jesus, and his challenge to principalities and powers, that fastidiously sweeps the Sermon on the Mount off into the closet of spiritual life, leaving us free to live by another standard in public.  Second, what about the biblicist concern?  Does natural law give us a way to float free from Scripture, following a detached set of ethical principles discerned by reason, not revelation?  Must not the Bible, while not the exclusive basis for all our actions, remain at least the touchstone by which they must all be in some sense tested?  Third, to put a sharper point perhaps on the previous two concerns, what about the Fall?  The Enlightenment gave a bad name to natural law by imagining our reasons to be uncorrupted and capable of perfect access to and application of the natural law.  If we are to be Reformed, if we are to be in any sense the heirs of gloomy old John Calvin, then surely we must insist that natural law, like anything else, needs to be redeemed.  A simple creation/redemption schema, in which natural law governs the realm of creation, and Scripture that of redemption, will not do, because all things are made new in Christ, which includes political life and the standards that govern it.


Peter Takes Two Swords to My Two Cities

Well, at long last, it has appeared.  Deep in the foundries of his labyrinthine mind, Peter Escalante has been forging one post to beat them all, one post to find them, one post to bring them all and in Geneva bind them.  (Hey, if you look at the post, you’ll see that he brought Lord of the Rings into it first, so don’t blame me!) 

Ever since my post “Two Kingdoms or Two Cities?” questioning Wedgeworth’s “Apostolic Succession and Civic Freedom,” and the subsequent discussion that took place largely in the comments section of Wedgeworth’s post, Peter has been promising to smother my “neo-Anabaptism” under a heap of arguments that would make Calvin’s Institutes look like an issue of Reader’s Digest.  He has done so, at last, and you can amble over there yourself now to inspect the scene and determine whether a post-mortem is in order.  

EDIT: In case it wasn’t clear, this is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, and I consider Peter a personal friend.  No hostility whatsoever.

I consider it a great compliment (and I mean this in all sincerity) to be rebutted by someone as learned as Mr. Escalante, and, although perhaps not up to the British standard of deft, white-gloved refutations, he has been as gentlemanly as I could wish.  However, as I posted over there in an initial reaction comment, his whole undertaking seems to have been somewhat misdirected, in that he constructed his post as a refutation of my manifesto.  But of course, “Two Kingdoms or Two Cities” was not a manifesto, but was intended at least as some summary questions and objections to Wedgeworth’s manifesto.  The goal was to elicit clarification from the “decretist” camp, and Escalante’s reply has obliged with some very helpful clarifications.  However, by taking some of my brief and partial summary statements as a thorough explication of a position, he has, I think, mis-read and miscritiqued some of them.  Hopefully over the next couple weeks, I will be able to follow up on some of these points here, explain where I agree with his position (as I certainly do at many points, now that I’ve seen it stated so comprehensively) and clarify the points where I do not.  For now, a couple brief remarks (these excerpted almost verbatim from the comment I just posted over there):

One very brief point where he seem to have misunderstood me (understandably, as I hadn’t fleshed this out thoroughly in my original posts) regards the relationship of the “State” and the “City of Man.”  Peter say that I basically think “State=City of Man=Kingdom of Satan,” which he says is un-Augustinian. Well certainly that is un-Augustinian, but I never intended to make either of those equations. In the Civitas Dei, the State is as it were the most visible institutional representation of the City of Man, but it is not simply reducible to it…it’s much more complicated than that. “More complicated? Do elaborate,” he will certainly say, and I shall try to, but not just here and now. And of course the City of Man is not the “Kingdom of Satan” simpliciter…Despite his forceful emphasis on the all-corrupting influence of the libido dominandi, Augustine clearly held that human nature, although corrupted, was still intact, and so approximations to virtue and to civic and social good were still possible in the City of Man.

More importantly, and more intriguingly, as I read Peter’s final section, where he dissect the points where I claim “Church” and “State” are in competition, it struck me that the key difference may lie at a rather different point (or is best seen from a different angle) than where he seemed to be putting it. My main concern, I think, revolves around the relationship of “natural law” and evangelical law, to try (probably unsuccessfully) to put it in a nutshell. It’s a question of ethics.


Basically, I am uncomfortable at the way the Reformers tried to rebut the Catholic distinction between the commands and the counsels of perfection. The Anabaptists absolutized the counsels of perfection into a new legalism…that can’t be right. But the magisterial Reformers responded by basically dissolving away the counsels of perfection, and blunting the hard, radical edge of Christian ethics to subsume it back into the changeless categories of the old moral law, the “natural law,” etc. That’s what rubs me the wrong way. And so in saying “the Church” responds to enemies in a certain way, or cares for the weak in a certain way, I’m contending that Christians are to be visible as a community with a social ethics that is not simply expressed in the laws of political justice.

Of course, Peter will reply that this just proves I’m Anabaptist.  But, I contend that I am not simply ruling out the ethics of the political realm as something to be entirely shunned by and excluded from the Christian community. Rather, the political remains a part of the life of the Christian people, but is always being challenged, pushed, and prodded by an evangelical ethics that remains ever dissatisfied with merely natural political justice. Now, of course, I’m just sounding like O’Donovan, and not far from Peter at all, so this can’t be all I really intend to say…obviously, I have a more radical agenda than that, right? Yes, probably so. And I’ll try to uncover the contours of that over the next few weeks.

In particular, in my very next post, I’ll be looking at the relationship between commands and counsels of perfection in Melanchthon, who I was just reading before I saw Peter’s post.



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.