Omni Cui Multum Datum Est . . .

This afternoon, I submitted my Ph.D thesis, “The Freedom of a Christian Commonwealth: Richard Hooker and the Problem of Christian Liberty.”

Vital statistics: 7 chapters; 99,999 words; 333 bibliography entries; 2 appendices.

The following text appeared in the Acknowledgments section at the beginning, and I tried to make it a slightly more engaging read than your average Acknowledgments page:

Like perhaps many other things in life, a Ph.D thesis is a disconcerting combination of, on the one hand, meticulous planning and disciplined execution, and, on the other hand, the completely unforeseen and fortuitous: the chance meeting and conversation at a conference or (more often perhaps nowadays) online, the furious footnote pursued into a treasure-trove of exciting discoveries, an offhand suggestion by your supervisor that blossoms into an important new line of inquiry, the epiphany that comes during the morning walk to your desk or over your third coffee as you muse on Rachmaninov’s Third. Unfortunately, it is only the first of these categories, by far the less consequential contribution, that the lowly writer can take credit for. For the rest, he can only say, non nobis, Domine, sed Nomini Tuo da gloriam! However, it smacks suspiciously of false modesty to wax eloquent thanking God on an Acknowledgements page, a way of not-so-subtly insinuating to one’sexaminers that everything before them has God’s personal stamp of approval, being His own handiwork. Thankfully, however, God works mostly through strange and fallible secondary causes, especially those that walk on two legs, and to these it is appropriate to indulge in effusions of gratitude.

Many of these (some long dead) have made their contribution primarily through the written word, sealed up between two covers of a book; these are honored in the appropriate (though depressingly formal) way in the footnotes and bibliography that accompany this thesis, so there is little point listing them here. I will make an exception of three only. David VanDrunen, given the rather merciless beating (although with all due academic decorum) he receives in a few of the pages that follow, deserves a word of thanks here. His book Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms fortuitously came my way three years ago, and set me on a quest of refutation that led me unexpectedly to this thesis (in the process of which the nature of the refutation changed dramatically, and I learned a great deal from him). He was polite enough to meet me for a beer and a somewhat confusing argument about Calvin even after I had intemperately savaged him in print—and I have no doubt he will have the graciousness to do so again next time our paths should cross. In a very different way, my debt to Torrance Kirby in various ways is evident all over the pages that follow, although he will no doubt find much to quibble with. The rich insights I have mined from his books and articles have been complemented by his patient correspondence and feedback over the past few years, during the early part of which he displayed great perseverance in trying to drill the Reformational two-kingdoms concept into my thick head. Third, of course, I must thank Richard Hooker, “of blessed memory” (as Paul Stanwood likes to always add), who has been far more to me these past two and a half years than the subject of a thesis. I hope it will not sound like sacrilege to say that his words have been a lamp for my feet, and a light unto my path in more ways than I can count, many of them well beyond the scope of this research.

For introducing me to Hooker (or re-introducing, as I had made a passing though passionate acquaintance with him during a summer study at Oxford some years ago), I must thank of course my supervisor Oliver O’Donovan, who has throughout this process guided me with a gentle but judicious hand. His suggestions have been few but carefully-chosen, and have usually yielded abundant fruit—none more so than his absurd insistence that I spend my Christmas break two and a half years ago toiling through the eight books of the Ecclesiastical Polity, which had, I thought, little bearing on my anticipated thesis topic. His wife Joan has proved an extraordinary (though again, an unforeseen) secondary supervisor, meticulously flagging the least grammatical transgression or conceptual ambiguity throughout the process. Perhaps just as important as this formal supervision has been the quirky but unfailing advice of my friend and mentor, Peter Escalante. I have had the uncanny experience, ever since stumbling upon the topic and argument of this thesis, that I was simply unfolding an idea that he had mysteriously “incepted” into my mind sometime in autumn 2010. Of this thesis it might truly be said “Peter planted, Hooker watered, and God gave the growth.” I appreciate also Peter’s willingness to read over each chapter draft as it appeared, reassuring me that yes, it was coherent enough to pass on to my supervisors for their scrutiny.

Many other friends (some of them friends formed along the way) helped by their suggestions, conversations, feedback on drafts, and penetrating questions. Steven Wedgeworth and Jordan Ballor, in particular, gave me many helpful ideas and put a number of key resources in my path; the opportunity to work with Jordan on a project on 16th-century Calvinist church discipline was especially fruitful. Andrew Fulford read over several bits of the thesis at the crucial revising stage, helping me ensure that they were polished and comprehensible enough. I also owe a debt of gratitude to my old and brilliant friend Davey Henreckson, who will no doubt be the secure occupant of a professorial chair at Yale Divinity while I’m still trying to jerry-rig my own personal theological-paedagogical revolution from my parents’ basement a few years hence. Throughout the Ph.D process, he has asked many annoying but penetrating questions, and made a number of suggestions, many of which turned out to be very useful indeed—putting me onto John Perry’s Pretenses of Loyalty, for instance. And of course my faithful friend Brad Belschner has always been there to chat things through when we have the chance to catch up every few months.

Even the rare reader inquisitive enough to read through an Acknowledgements section is likely to skip along when he encounters the section thanking family, as it is sure to be sentimental, and almost entirely unrelated to the matter of the thesis. And yet for the writer of the Acknowledgments, no section could be more important. In particular, the bit where the author thanks his wife for her extraordinary patience and longsuffering over years of penniless and seemingly pointless toil (often in a foreign land, no less), can seem quite perfunctory, and yet it is anything but. To my wife, Rachel, I am indescribably and eternally grateful for her unfailing support at every stage of the way. It may sound trivial, clichéd, or maybe even sexist to single out for gratitude the extraordinarily fine dinners that I could look forward to at the end of a day of study and writing, but few things contributed so much to the relative ease and efficiency of my work. “An army can’t move except on its stomach,” said Napoleon, and the same is true of an academic. My four-year-old son Soren has been a source of frustration as well as delight along the way, but even the former has been invaluable in keeping me grounded—such as his resort to the blunt expedient of slamming my laptop shut and saying “Don’t work!” when it was high time to call it a day. My eight-month-old angel Pippa has provided constant joy and inspiration on the crucial last leg of the thesis (and to think I was afraid she would slow it down with sleepless nights!). To thank one’s mother may seem acceptable at a high school graduation speech, but frankly embarrasing in a Ph.D thesis Acknowledgements page. And yet I must thank her once more for teaching me to write—to write essays clearly, quickly, and effectively, from a young age. Too many writers must labor simultaneously with forming their ideas and forming their words; I have been fortunate enough to be able to focus on the former and let the latter take care of themselves, thanks in large part to that training many years ago. My dad too has provided an ever-ready ear, to chat about things thesis-related, or not-so-related, throughout my Ph.D work, keeping my morale up with his humor and his uncanny willingness to agree with me.

Finally, I will thank God directly—not for the content of the thesis, but for the joy it has brought me. For too many Ph.D students, it seems, a thesis has become stale and lukewarm by the date of submission, and they are only too happy to do to it what God wanted to do to the Laodiceans. I am happy to say it is not so for me, and it is with a fond farewell that I send this thesis forth upon its voyage of examination.


Church = Spiritual Kingdom?

Consider this just a teaser for Part 2 of “Once More Into the Breach,” which will be appearing on The Calvinist International early next week, in case any of you are not thoroughly exhausted of the topic by that point.  

In his recent “Two Kingdoms Myths,” Matt Tuininga goes out of his way to try and prove that critics have been groundless and uncharitable in their claims that VanDrunen asserts a straightforward identity between the visible church and Christ’s spiritual kingdom (or as VanDrunen often prefers to call it, “the redemptive kingdom”).  Cornelis Venema’s application of the moniker “ecclesiastical kingdom” Tuininga indignantly rejects as virtually slanderous.  Never mind that the first page of Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms declares,  

“According to this doctrine, God rules the church (the spiritual kingdom) as redeemer in Jesus Christ and rules the state and all other social institutions (the civil kingdom) as creator and sustainer, and thus these two kingdoms have significantly different ends, functions, and modes of operation.”

Tuininga tells us, however, that we must take VanDrunen’s slightly later work, Living in God’s Two Kingdoms, as the definitive exposition, and in particular, the sentence on p. 116 that says, “Though the church is not identical to the covenant of grace or the kingdom of heaven, it is precisely in the church that the covenant and kingdom are experienced until Christ returns.”  Perhaps (although this qualification really doesn’t amount to much).  But before we begin to blame the critics for their stupendous blindness, let’s consider just how many passages we could assemble in which VanDrunen appears to make the alleged identification—restricting ourselves to Living in God’s Two Kingdoms only. Here is a sampling:

“The church is the only institution and community in this world that can be identified with the redemptive kingdom and the covenant of grace.” (102)

“The New Testament teaches that the redemptive kingdom finds its present manifestation and penultimate fulfillment in the church, and the church alone.” (106)

“The church, as the kingdom of heaven on earth, must imitate the Lord Jesus . . .” (114)

“Want to see the kingdom of heaven here and now?  Look at a faithful church of the Lord Jesus Christ.” (116)

“The church is the only earthly institution that can identify itself with the redemptive kingdom.  To have fellowship with the church is to have fellowship with the kingdom of heaven.” (133)

“None of them [these other earthly institutions] is the kingdom of heaven on earth.  The church ought to be central to the Christian life because the church is the only earthly community that manifests the redemptive kingdom and grants us the fellowship of our true home, the world-to-come.” (134)

“The church is the redemptive kingdom here on earth.” (141)

“This chapter has already made some important claims about the church as the redemptive kingdom . . .” (146)

“This chapter has covered a lot of ground in considering the church as the redemptive kingdom . . .” (159).

“Thus we have explored the Christian life in the redemptive kingdom.” (160)

Now, we can spend plenty of fruitful time debating whether VanDrunen is right to make this identification, and what he might mean by it.  But let’s not waste time arguing about whether he makes it. The fact that he’s willing to admit that it is not identical without remainder to Christ’s eschatological kingdom does not alter this basic identification; it merely means that he, thankfully, is not a hyper-Preterist!


Once More Into the Breach, Pt. 1: Manners and Methods

I was at last undertaking to offer a long-promised engagement with Matthew Tuininga’s post from last month entitled, “Friendly Chatter About the Two Kingdoms” (which was a response to my “Two Kingdoms Redivivus: Is there Still a Fuss?”, an analysis of his Reformation21 piece, “The Two Kingdoms Doctrine: What’s the Fuss About?”), when I was interrupted by his very recent post, “Two Kingdoms Myths: How the Critics Get VanDrunen (and Calvin) Wrong” (which was an engagement with my recent TCI engagement with Cornel Venema’s essay on VanDrunen and John Calvin in the forthcoming volume Kingdoms Apart), which seemed to require an answer first. 

If you weren’t altogether lost amidst that chaos of links and counter-links (and if you were, perhaps you will want to just keep an eye on the Political Theology blog in the coming weeks for a short series, “The Two Kingdoms: A Guide for the Perplexed”), you may have noticed a curious discordance between Mr. Tuininga’s two post titles.  On the one hand I am invited to a “Friendly Chatter,” in which he considers that the remaining differences between us are few and perhaps relatively insignificant, and is eager to continue to sort through them in a spirit of mutual respect and iron sharpening iron—an impression Mr. Tuininga has created in private correspondence as well.  On the other hand, I am accused of perpetrating “myths” that fly in the face of “the consensus of Calvin scholars,” without “offering evidence,” and of making claims about VanDrunen that are contradicted by his own words.  (Admittedly, these accusations are not only or perhaps not even primarily aimed at me, but I seem to be one target of them.)  This curious two-facedness appeared in my earlier exchange with Tuininga in May, in which I and my friends were, by turns, treated as respectable interlocutors with whom a valuable conversation could be had, as damnably wrong and irresponsible villains needing to be summarily refuted, and as hotheads so absurdly off-base as not even to merit mention or refutation.  

The charitable judgment (and my own belief) is that the latter representations are inadvertent on Mr. Tuininga’s part and he really does want “friendly chatter.”  The internet is a particularly slippery medium when it comes to confusing bad impressions with bad intentions, as I myself have often experienced.  Of course, this merely means that we must redouble our efforts at careful and charitable rhetoric.  To that end, I want in this post to offer the following four observations about about good manners in debate, in which I shall be so bold as to address Mr. Tuininga in the second person, since at the end of the day, personal relationship is more important and more decisive than illusory scholarly detachment.  I will then offer some preliminary methodological reflections about how to adjudicate the kind of interpretative differences that have been log-jamming this discussion.  Only after all this will I, in a second post later this week, address some particular points of agreement and disagreement arising from his two posts.

 

Good Manners

First, let me reiterate the caveat that in what follows, I make no hasty judgments about your intentions, only about the impressions that have sometimes been created by your statements.  

(1) The term “myth” is a strong one indeed, as it carries connotations not merely of falsity but of deliberate fabrication or culpable credulity.  It is a tempting term to use, to be sure, as it is a short, punchy way of saying, “seriously flawed narrative that bears little relation to the historical facts so far as I can see,” and I plead guilty of reaching hastily for the same term in my initial critique of yourself and VanDrunen back in April.  But I think on reflection that it is a term best avoided in such discussions, given how readily it creates the impression (even if unintended) that one’s opponents are fundamentally dishonest, and thus morally degraded, not worthy of one’s own time or anyone else’s.  There are times perhaps when such a weighty charge is apropos, but one should be very slow to make that assumption in debates over historical scholarship, and hopefully it is not apropos in the present case. 

(2) Naming one’s opponents is way of showing respect.  Leaving them unnamed, by contrast, is often perceived as a deliberate slight—if, that is, their identity is likely to be known by many readers (if not, then leaving them unnamed may be a laudable attempt to avoid causing strife or offense).  This is all the more so if there is a recent history of direct public interaction with them, in which they have always taken care to address you by name and in detail.  When you respond to such careful critiques merely by alluding vaguely to nameless myth-propagating “critics,” you give the impression that they are simply so absurd or irresponsible as to be scarcely worth your time or attention.  Moreover, it deprives these opponents of the opportunity to vindicate themselves, whereas if you name them, your readers may at least check their writings to ensure that your complaints are valid.  Indeed, given that in this recent post, your complaint is precisely that critics are not carefully reading Dr. VanDrunen, it seems a bit hypocritical to dispense with the need to carefully read those critics.  Notably, right after making various insinuations against these unnamed opponents, you do, in addressing the second “myth,” in fact address Venema and Smith by name, making the previous omission all the more glaring.  Indeed, this is not the first time you have done so; on the contrary, in the interlocution in May and in following posts, it became your standard practice to dismissively attack these nameless opponents and their myths about Calvin.  In fact, we do have names—Peter Escalante, Steven Wedgeworth, and Brad Littlejohn—and given the time and attention we have devoted toward engaging your arguments with specificity, it seems that you owe us the same courtesy.  (Of course, I note that in fact, your name omission has been primarily confined to the first two, and you have often addressed me courteously by name.  Perhaps this is the way of reconciling your two different rhetorical postures—I am, for whatever reason, deserving of a respect and friendliness that Pastor Wedgeworth and Mr Escalante are not.  But it is hard to see why this should be the case, given that my posts interacting with you have been edited and hosted by them, and their own post interacting with you was far more thorough and learned than anything to which I could yet aspire.)

(3) Related to the foregoing—if your opponents have directly responded to your earlier requests for clarification and “evidence,” it is gentlemanly to at least note the fact, even if you find their response inadequate, rather than leaving your readers with the impression that they have never bothered to supply evidence.  While we scholars are tempted to treat evidence that we consider inadequate or unpersuasive as “no evidence,” we must resist the temptation to equate the two, at least when the evidence presented has been offered in good faith.  To say that one’s opponents have made claims without supplying evidence, like accusing them of propagating “myths,” implies that they have no interest in the truth, but in mere propaganda, and hence are morally degraded.  Wedgeworth and Escalante, in particular, supplied a mountainous, 80-page essay in response to your call for evidence.  To say that you found their arguments unpersuasive, their evidence inadequate, their ideas confused, is all quite alright.  But to instead just say, “Pay close attention when the critics are propagating this myth. Do they actually offer evidence for their views? Do they make sense of the many places in which Calvin clearly identifies the spiritual kingdom with the visible church?” is fundamentally misleading to your readers, and again comes across as hypocritical when your complaint in the post is that critics are failing to engage with what VanDrunen has actually said.

(4) Your appeal to the authority of scholarly consensus comes off as pretty cheap rhetoric and brash posturing—“There is no point in my quoting scholar after scholar – although I could do that.”  A bit more humility would actually look considerably more impressive, showing that you’re able to think for yourself, rather than leaving the impression that your own research project is simply to reassert what everyone who’s anyone already knows.  In any case, when your opponents have actually gone to the trouble to point to quite a bit of scholarly support for many of their arguments, it is ungentlemanly, to say the least, to simply confidently reassert that they have none, without actually engaging those arguments.  I recognize of course that you can’t be expected to engage every argument in every post, and this was supposed to be a rather quick overview post.  But in that case, don’t fall into trap of simply ratcheting up the rhetoric of your claims to compensate for the lack of space to substantiate them.

 Now I admit that I may have been guilty of many of these same bad manners at times in past engagements with yourself, VanDrunen, etc.  For these, I freely apologize, but two wrongs don’t make a right.  Real progress in these discussions, by which we can all make a real contribution to the task of Reformed historiography and Reformed ethics, as we both urgently desire, can only come if we all commit to such principles of charity and respect.  Now, I shall return to the third-person voice as I offer some methodological observations to help clarify what we’re arguing over and why.

 

Good Methodology

In his “Two Kingdoms Myths” post, Mr. Tuininga complains that the critics get both Calvin and VanDrunen wrong, so much so that it appears hard to account for their misattributions except as the result of mendacity, laziness, or poor reading comprehension.  In the above section, I have contended that if Mr. Tuininga does not really mean to accuse us of the former, he should avoid appearing to do so.  But what of the latter charges, not quite so serious to be sure, but still far from trivial?  

Mr. Tuininga’s defense of Dr. VanDrunen in this post repeats the basic methodology he has used in many of his posts on Calvin, which reasons as follows: (1) Critic makes claim X about what this author says; however, (2) I can show you passages from this author which appear to contradict claim X; (3) therefore, the critic clearly doesn’t know what he’s talking about when it comes to this author.  Case dismissed. 

But of course, historical argument is not that simple—nor is any kind of textual argument, for that matter, even though we are often tempted to make it so (and again, this is no doubt an oversimplification of which I have been guilty at times).  For hardly any single text, let alone any single author, is univocal.  Rather, an author makes a variety of claims and arguments, articulated different ways in different places, sometimes qualifying a statement carefully, other times leaving it so unqualified that it seems to tend in a very different direction.  In the work of a very good and careful thinker, these disparate statements will be capable of harmonization into a single coherent account of his thought (although no individual’s thought is perfectly univocal and consistent either), but the task of harmonization is often difficult and contentious, all the more so if the thinker in question is exceedingly complex (as in the case of Calvin) or careless (as, I would argue, in the case of VanDrunen).  What this means is that critics and favorers will both often be able to appeal to a great many passages and implications that support their interpretation.  This does not mean that the critics camp out merely on one set of passages and blindly ignore others, while the favorers do the opposite.  Rather, each interpretation seeks to privilege certain passages and considerations that it takes to be decisive, and uses these to help make sense of other passages and considerations that it takes to be secondary and thus either reconcilable or unrepresentative.  So it has been in the debates about Calvin—Wedgeworth and Escalante in particular have contended that on the basis of certain clear commitments and statements in Calvin’s theology, he cannot ultimately describe the visible church as Christ’s “spiritual government” except in a highly-qualified sense; whereas VanDrunen and Tuininga have taken as their starting-point statements where Calvin does describe the visible church as Christ’s “spiritual government” and have interpreted his other statements and commitments accordingly.  

 

We will return to these issues in my second post, but first let’s talk about how we see the same sort of thing at work in disputes over what VanDrunen says or means.  In particular in this post, and in his recent response to Bill Evans, Tuininga has reacted indignantly against those who suggest that VanDrunen or other two-kingdoms advocates want to simply identify the “spiritual kingdom” with the Church, and thus want a strict, even “hermetically sealed,” separation between the two kingdoms, and do not think Christians should act as Christians in the public square.  In response, Tuininga protests that he has certainly not done so, and that in fact, neither has VanDrunen—and he offers up some passages as proof.  We will come to those specific passages in due course, but it is worth noting for now that, yes, they do appear to contradict the criticisms.  However, the criticisms have not been manufactured out of whole cloth, but have been offered on the basis of other passages where VanDrunen does appear to simply identify the visible church with the spiritual kingdom, and also to deny the relevance of distinctively Christian commitments and actions in politics and culture, and also on the basis of reasoning by implication: “VanDrunen says X, and seems wholly committed to it, but X implies Y, so even though VanDrunen may at times deny Y, he would appear to be committed to Y.”  In other words, in many cases, the critics have read all the same things as Mr. Tuininga has, and may be aware of all the passages he cites, and yet come to a considerably different overall description and evaluation of his project.  How does this come about? 

 To show that this sort of problem is not narrowly confined to theological, historical, or academic argument, it may be helpful to use a parallel from the realm of art.  How often have you found yourself arguing with a good friend over the merits of a film, each agreeing descriptively on the details of what it is you saw, and even agreeing in principle on the criteria of good art that should be applied, and yet remaining incommensurably at odds in your final assessment?  You think, for all its warts and ambiguities, that the film is a masterpiece, while he thinks, for all its strengths and moments of genius, it is a failure.  You agree that certain flaws really are flaws, but you think that they are minor and forgivable in light of the other strengths of the film, whereas your friend grants those strengths, but can’t get past the flaws, which seem to overshadow everything else.  Or, you might not differ merely on the “good” vs. “bad” judgment, but on questions of the message that the film intends to convey, or of the intentions or character of the protagonist.  You will say, “Well what about that scene near the end where he said such-and-such?”  Your friend will reply, “Well yes, he does say that, but I’m not convinced, because think of all the other points throughout the film that fundamentally undermine that message.”  “But you don’t get it—that scene near the end is the decisive one, and you’ve got to read all the others in light of it.”  Sometimes one person may persuade the other, but often, however much you may sift the evidence together, you persist in your own interpretive and evaluative decisions, which lead to fundamentally divergent judgments.  

What causes these differences?  Why do we weigh the same evidence according to different criteria?  There are a whole host of factors, many of them having to do with personal history or emotional disposition.  “Well, I just love the other work that director has produced, so I’m willing to cut him some slack on what look like flaws in this movie” or “Maybe I just haven’t seen many good movies lately, so this one seemed great by comparison,” or “I find that this protagonist is a lot like me, so I’m perhaps interpreting him somewhat through my own experiences.”

Our theological and historical debates are often more like these aesthetic debates than we would like to think.  Confronted with a text, or an author, that admits of several possible interpretations or evaluations, we choose to privilege certain considerations over others, often on the basis of factors external to the text, and having made these interpretive decisions, do not find countervailing evidence compelling, even when it too can draw on the text.  In Mr. Tuininga’s case, Dr. VanDrunen was a friend and mentor to him when he was pursuing his early graduate work; Mr. Tuininga served as a research assistant for Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms.  This being the case, we would hardly expect anything other than a certain loyalty to his teacher, which would dispose him to highlight the more positive parts of Dr. VanDrunen’s argument and charitably interpret or minimize the more problematic claims.  This is only natural and is indeed laudable; not only that, but it may be that given his personal relationship, he has privileged access to what Dr. VanDrunen’s actual goals are, and can better interpret his writings on that basis.  (Conversely, it may be that his closeness blinds him to flaws that would otherwise be readily apparent from a distance.)  In any case, Mr. Tuininga can scarcely condemn others for not necessarily sharing the same positive predispositions. 

 

Now, the analogy with film should not be taken as saying that these disputes are merely aesthetic, personal, relative, and ultimately incommensurable.  (Indeed, even disputes about art often can and should be resolved by objective criteria.)  On the contrary, we ought, after patient investigation and debate, to dismiss certain interpretations as implausible, and to arrive at a fairly narrow range of plausible ones.  The most successful and plausible interpretation will rarely be one that perfectly harmonizes all the evidence, although it should be able to harmonize the vast majority of it, but one which concludes that, on a few points at least, our text or author has made statements which cannot be well-supported on the basis of his other commitments.  It is thus up to the author’s advocates to decide whether to jettison these inconsistencies, or else to hold on to them, as the most positive features of the system in question, and reconstruct the rest of the system accordingly.  In the present case, it is our contention that while VanDrunen says things such as “cultural activity should be uniquely Christian” or “that God now rules them [all “the institutions and communities of this world”] through the incarnate Jesus” these statements cannot be well-supported on the basis of other commitments and statements that he has made, and those principles must be abandoned if these salutary conclusions are to be maintained.

In determining the most plausible reading of the overall principles behind an ambiguous author or text, a common strategy is to look horizontally—at colleagues, influences, or other expositors of similar ideas—for illumination.  We do this historically when we interpret Calvin partly on the basis of what we know about Luther, Bullinger, Melanchthon, etc.  We do this contemporarily when we interpret Dr. VanDrunen (or Mr. Tuininga himself) on the basis of what we know about Darryl Hart or Michael Horton or other contemporary “Reformed two-kingdoms” advocates.  This is a problematic, but often an unavoidable strategy, and it is valid to the extent that the author in question has publicly identified himself with one of these colleagues—or, if they have identified themselves with him, to the extent that the author in question has failed to differentiate himself from them.  Now, while such identification or non-differentiation makes this strategy valid, it is still problematic, because the motives for such identification may be complex.  The Reformed world witnessed this problem particularly during the Federal Vision controversy.  A wide range of figures with quite distinct backgrounds, teachings, and agendas, were treated as a monolith—“Federal Vision Theology”—and each found himself forced to defend statements he had never made, merely because one of the other figures in the movement had made such statements.  The critics might contend that this was perfectly legitimate, given that they identified one another as allies, or failed to distance themselves from one another sufficiently.  However, in many cases, the alliances were based on close friendships, or on the need for mutual protection, as a variety of figures, all under attack from their views, sought safety in numbers by associating with others with vaguely similar views, despite significant differences.  To this extent, critics should have been much more careful about differentiating the various figures, and critiquing them each on the basis of their own statements.  That said, we must resist the individualism which seeks to treat each thinker as autonomous, so that he can only be identified by his own explicit statements.  It was thus not illegitimate for Federal Vision critics to attempt to discern, amidst the different articulations, a common logic to the movement, a direction in which its various commitments all seemed to point, implications which would seem to flow from it, even if some more conservative figures denied them.  When looking for such a common logic, it is not uncommon to give disproportionate weight to the statements of the most “extreme” and “unqualified” advocates, not only because they are more noticeable, but because these often turn out to be a sort of prophetic avant-garde, pointing the direction in which the movement, if left to its own devices, would tend to go, once it has abandoned its hand-wringing hesitations.  Of course, it may turn out that these extreme advocates are not an avant-garde, but mere outliers, marginal figures who will soon be jettisoned from the movement.  Often only time will tell when it comes to such judgments.  

In the present case of two-kingdoms debates, this has been the nature of much of the criticism.  Critics are concerned that the logic of the R2K position, as articulated by various advocates, originates from certain shared mistakes, and tends toward a certain problematic destination, despite the nuances and reservations of various thinkers.  In particular, critics have been heavily influenced by the remarkable and often incendiary statements of Darryl Hart, who is indeed guilty as charged of all the criticisms that Tuininga has so indignantly rejected, and who has been the most outspoken public representative of the movement.  Indeed, he has assumed the mantle of its defense lawyer, trawling the blogosphere for criticisms of two-kingdoms theologians, and answering these criticisms in his own idiosyncratic manner.  While we recognize that there may be motivations of personal friendship, etc., that have prevented them from doing so heretofore, unless and until other R2K advocates distance themselves from these representations (as Tuininga has recently begun to do), it will be quite understandable for critics to read VanDrunen et. al. through the lens of Hart’s pronouncements.

History, however, can also be a helpful guide, and in our own attempts (I speak for myself, Wedgeworth, and Escalante) to ascertain the meaning, objectives, and trajectory of figures like VanDrunen, we have also relied heavily on what other forms of de jure divino Presbyterian two-kingdoms theory have looked like, particularly the English Puritan and Scottish Covenanter form, which Dr. VanDrunen’s theological principles closely resemble at many points.  These historical analogues, while they cannot tell us with certainty what contemporary two-kingdoms advocates intend by their words, can provide a good deal of insight into the underlying logic of their position, and where it might be headed (often despite the conscious intentions of contemporary advocates).

 

Now, for my part, I am convinced that Mr. Tuininga’s own understanding and application of two-kingdoms thinking is quite different than Hart’s and even than VanDrunen’s.  Indeed, he appears in many respects quite close to us; this is even the case, perhaps more so than it often appears, on the historical questions.  I am more than willing, then, to differentiate him, if he is willing to differentiate himself, recognizing that his desire to build on to certain more positive aspects of VanDrunen’s projects cannot really be reconciled with other principles to which VanDrunen appears to be committed.  It may even be, as Tuininga contends, that VanDrunen is himself more flexible on these points than he has appeared, and we have put too much weight on certain poor expressions, on Hart’s formulations and on historical analogues.  But if the most erroneous articulations and principles are to be abandoned, it does not do any good to pretend like they were never uttered.  They have been uttered, and therefore may continue to do a great deal of harm if unopposed, even if their proponents are quietly distancing themselves from them.


A Hotline to Jesus? Obamacare, Ministerial Authority and Christian Liberty

In my recent post on Obamacare and subsequent discussions, one of my chief concerns has been one that, remarkably, I share with David VanDrunen—the concern that the spiritual and civil kingdoms are confused, and believers consciences are thereby bound in matters that fall properly within Christian liberty.  The minister must not confuse the words of God with his own opinions, and one surefire way to do so is to assert that the Lordship of Christ or the authority of Scripture is at stake in some particular political policy.  

In seeking to elucidate his recent “Sermon to the Governor and Legislature of Idaho,” Doug Wilson appeared to cheerfully confirm that yes, this is exactly what he intended to do, in exactly the way that R2K theorists warn against.  Let’s take a closer look then at what VanDrunen is so afraid of, and what false assumptions force him to nonsensical conclusions about the relationship between the church and politics.  The same false assumptions, we shall see, appear to underlie Wilson’s recent attempt to justify his claim to have a speak directly for Jesus in this matter.

In Living in God’s Two Kingdoms, VanDrunen argues that his doctrine of the spirituality of the Church, is necessary to safeguard Christian liberty: 

“The church has only the power to declare the laws and doctrines that already appear in Scripture.  In short, church officers can say and do only that which Scripture authorizes them to say and do.  At first this may sound constricting and burdensome for the church, but its effect and driving motivation is actually to protect the liberty of Christians.  If church officers cannot teach anything beyond what Scripture teaches, then they are unable to bind the consciences of Christians beyond how Scripture already binds it [sic].  Thus Christian liberty is maximized.  Christian consciences are bound to believe and to do as Scripture instructs, but Christians are free to exercise their own wisdom in deciding how to live and what to think about all matters that Scripture does not address (within the bounds of respecting other legitimate authority structures in society)” (p. 152).  A little later on he says, “If a church and its leaders take seriously their ministerial authority, then they will exhort Christians to do what Scripture instructs and leave them at liberty to make wise and responsible decisions about other things.  Church officers should teach Christians to submit to civil authorities, to discipline and educate their children, and to work diligently and honestly.  They should offer them pastoral counsel to help them grow in wisdom in such areas.  But they should not command them what political strategies to follow, what child-rearing methods to utilize, or how to make their businesses run more efficiently” (155).

He discusses the particular case of abortion policy, and while granting that the church should support a pro-life position morally, this will not necessarily entail any particular political strategy, since there are many rival considerations that must be taken into judgment in determining whom to vote for, and the best political way to enact pro-life principles.  For this reason, “the church may not promote one side over the other nor may any Christian present his decision as the Christian view. . . . [It may be] an important and morally weighty decision, to be sure, but it is one of discretion and wisdom that the minister, bound to preach the Scriptures and the Scriptures alone, cannot determine from the pulpit” (202-3).  This call for restraint certainly makes sense, but it is when VanDrunen extrapolates from this principle the conclusion that the Church must simply avoid speaking about political matters at all (as he appears to think in NLTK 263-68, where he rebukes Thornwell for “incoherence” in thinking that there may be “a religious aspect to civil concerns”, something clearly appears to have gone awry.

Part of what has gone awry can be seen in his simple conflation of “ministers” and “the Church.”  If ministers can’t address a matter, then “the Church” can’t address a matter, he thinks; but the Church is the whole Christian people, so what about them?  In his paradigm, the voice of the minister is essentially identified with the voice of Christ, and Christ is understood as the great law-giver of the New Covenant.  When the minister speaks, therefore, he is taken to command law in the name of Christ, and thus he cannot envision ministers “speaking” or applying Scripture in any way except to “bind consciences.”  When ministers preach, he thinks, they are necessarily saying “Thus saith the Lord” at every point, and this leaves no room for attempting to venture into the somewhat muddy realm of politics.  VanDrunen actually makes a small qualification that points the way out of this dilemma, but he doesn’t seem to notice it—the line: “They should offer pastoral counsel to help them grow in wisdom in such areas.”  What is pastoral counsel if not an attempt to faithfully apply Scripture and reason to particular circumstances demanding prudence and wisdom, and in which the pastor’s word cannot be anything but provisional and advisory, leaving the conscience of the believer quite free whether to accept it or not?  Apparently, however, VanDrunen sees a sharp disjunction between such private counsel, addressed to individuals, and “the pulpit”—the public sermon addressed to believers at large.  But this leaves out a whole realm of other forms of pastoral communication.  What about Sunday School teaching?  What about writing, speaking engagements, and blogging?  In all these settings, it seems to me, the minister can attempt to offer counsel regarding the proper application of Scripture to life, without necessarily insisting that he speaks directly for God.  Indeed, even though the pulpit is a unique platform that carries particular weight, I see no reason why the pastor cannot venture beyond what is strictly contained in his text to offer a provisional application to current circumstances.  However, the pastor must be clear that he recognizes that the further he moves from the express words of Scripture into particular political questions, the more provisional his statements must be; not all his interpretations may equally claim to carry the authority of Christ.

 

Now, Wilson’s sermon seemed to be a textbook example of the sort of thing VanDrunen was warning against.  In it, he certainly seemed to confuse adiaphora—particular political arrangements—with the express teachings of Scripture (what he called the “biblical concept of limited government” or the prohibition on human authorities claiming to be “as God”).  He offered a particular spiritual evaluation of the current political circumstances, and did not confine himself to description—he went on to offer prescriptions about how the Idaho authorities, at least, were obliged to act in this circumstance.  To be sure, the ordinary citizen did not receive direct prescriptive guidance, except insofar as he was being prescribed to share a particular evaluation of the situation; failure to share this evaluation, it was implied, could stem only from cowardice or sophistry.  And then, to cap it all off, Wilson did exactly what VanDrunen said ministers necessarily do, and said, “I have been declaring all these things in the name of Jesus.”  Obamacare is idolatry . . . Thus saith the Lord.  It certainly appeared to be an attempt to bind the conscience, a violation of Christian liberty. 

But perhaps this was an uncharitable reading of what Wilson was up to; so some contended.  Thankfully, Wilson added a post yesterday to explain exactly what he thought he was up to, entitled “Jesus and Conservatism.”  Unfortunately, the post appeared to rely on the very same categories that VanDrunen uses.  Where VanDrunen attempts to offer a reductio ad absurdum—”ministers can’t preach on particular policy decisions, because that would bind the conscience”—Wilson appears to swallow the reductio—“Sure they can, so too bad.”

The post appeared to be a response to the objection “Why is it OK for you to preach politics, if it’s not OK for N.T. Wright to preach politics, as you’ve often complained before?”  Ironically, the question thus posed perfectly highlighted why ministers should avoid claiming the authority of Jesus for particular policy prescriptions.  If two ministers do so, and their policy prescriptions are contradictory, clearly they can’t both be speaking for Jesus.  Yet Wilson says, “When differing with Wright on his economics, I do not fault him for speaking to the situation, and I do not fault him for doing so in the name of Christ. I would only fault him for the bad economic reasoning, and we could then engage in profitable debate — and the debate should occur on that level.” 

But if he recognizes that there’s touchy matters of economic reasoning going on, which require healthy debate (and are not directly addressed by Scripture) then shouldn’t this highlight the need for all prescriptions on such matters to be provisional?  Wilson, however, seems to think that there is no way to have an opinion without attempting to make it binding on others:

“‘I think I’ll have another helping of potatoes’ says absolutely nothing about what other people ought to be thinking. But ‘I think that two oranges and two more of them make four’ is a claim that I believe to be binding on others.

So when I claim, as I recently have, that belief in the lordship of Jesus Christ obligates us to a position that honors the concept of limited government, I really am saying that everybody needs to get good with this. The Bible teaches it. So then, someone will say, ‘you are claiming that Jesus is a conservative’? Not really — given where He is, at the right hand of the Father, I really don’t know how the label would attach. But I am willing to say that He wants you to be one.”

In other words, Wilson says he really is doing what I worried about; he really does mean to say, “The particular political position I hold is Jesus’s position, and you need to get on board with it.”  He goes on:

“Now the dictum that ‘Jesus is Lord, and not Caesar’ requires that we go one way or the other, down into the details, and that we do so in His name. The only way to avoid that is to reject the claim that Jesus has something to say about how we govern ourselves. For as soon as you say that He does have opinions on it, then some bright fellow will ask, ‘Oh? What are they?’ And I will say that Jesus wants us to stop spending money we don’t have, and a Christian Keynesian will say the opposite. And somebody is wrong, not only about the economics, but also about what Jesus wants.

The only alternative to this is to say that Jesus doesn’t care what the magistrate does. But if He cares, then His people will be asked how He cares, and how His care cashes out. As a minister of Christ, I don’t have the option of saying nothing.”

This is essentially exactly the argument of VanDrunen, only in reverse.  Actually, the minister of Christ does have the option of saying nothing, on matters that are beyond his expertise.  If a quantum physicist asked Wilson what Jesus thinks about the Higgs-Boson particle, is Wilson bound to declare Christ’s mind on the matter, or can he say nothing?  But in any case, there is a false dilemma here, as we say with VanDrunen, between “saying nothing,” on the one hand, and going “down into the details” in the name of Christ.  Why can we not make the general declaration “Jesus is Lord, and not Caesar” in the name of Christ, and then caution that, when we are going down into the details, we are necessarily getting in somewhat over our heads, and whatever we say will be somewhat provisional?  That doesn’t mean we don’t have an opinion about it, as Wilson seems to imply (“But to say that Jesus led me into conservatism (for example) is to say that it would be better if others did that too. This is not ideological imperialism; rather, it is what it means to think something, at least something of this nature.”)  You can believe something, and believe it earnestly, and indeed believe that Jesus led you to believe it.  But because you realize that you are not Jesus, you don’t have to thereby say, “Believe such-and-such, in the name of Christ.”  Rather, you can say, “My understanding of what Jesus wants it that we should do such-and-such.  And I believe this on the basis of these Scripture passages, and this assessment of empirical realities.  But all I can tell you for sure that you must believe is those Scripture passages, not my assessment of empirical realities, and not the particular way I have applied those Scripture passages to empirical realities.”  This is by no means saying that “Jesus doesn’t care what the magistrate does”; it only means that you don’t claim to have a direct hotline to Jesus, some special privileged access into what he would say about every conceivable circumstance.

 

Perhaps I am still missing something, but I do not see how one can make such a claim—”This is what Jesus would say, and you need to get on board with it” without implying that anyone who doesn’t get on board with it is thereby sinning; indeed, sinning in a fairly significant way.  And this is by definition to violate Christian liberty; it is in fact precisely the sort of thing that the Reformers were concerned about when they erected their protest against Rome on the foundation of this doctrine. 

“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” (Gal. 5:1)


Two Kingdoms Extravaganza

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

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

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

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

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