Archive for March, 2007

One of the most helpful features of Darryl’s argument is that it strips away the last remnants of theocracy and gives us an opportunity to be more consistent with our theological confession. There was unresolved tension in our 17th-century confession between our view of redemptive history as expressed in our covenant theology (covenant of works v covenant of grace) and our politics. Under the influence of theocracy, we tended to allow the state a redemptive function insofar as it regulated or imposed religion by enforcing the first table of the Declaogue or by regulating the order of the church.

I don’t blame our 16th- and 17th-century forebears for doing this. Covenant theology, as I’ve tried to argue elsewhere, did not emerge de novo in the 16th (and certainly not in the 17th-century as some folk continue to insist!). The covenant theology of the WCF has roots in the fathers and various strains of medieval theology, e.g., most patristic and medieval theologians understood Adam to have been in a probationary state. Our covenant theology developed in the Constantinian/theocratic context. Though the 16th- and 17th-century Reformed were able to re-think many things they were not able to re-think politics, and for the most part, science. We can be grateful that the divines had more wisdom than the 16th-century Lutherans and did not confess anything about the power of garlic!

There are historical reasons why it was not possible for the 16th- and 17th-century Reformed to re-think their politics. Both were centuries marked by tremendous upheaval and instability. The rise of social and religious radicals such as the Anabaptists and spiritualists and rationalists (e.g., Servetus) posed a great social threat. It’s not as if they were unable to re-think some aspects of social life. Contemporary Reformation scholarship has shown that Calvin’s understanding of marriage and divorce (he served as legal counsel in his brother’s divorce!) was fairly radical for the time, but wholesale overhauling of civil government was not on the agenda in the 16th-century. The Thirty-Years War and the English Civil War made it unlikely for most of the 17th century as well.

It really only in the European expansion to the New World and in the utter collapse from exhaustion of European Christendom in the 18th century that allowed folk, after the Thirty Years War to re-think the role of the magistrate. Until then it was implausible. Even so, it took a vicious revolution in France, which was a response to the attempt by the papists to re-assert their civil authority (as part of the ongoing campaign to recapture Europe for the Papacy, which turned out to be its last gasp). It’s interesting that the Protestant revolts, the foundations of which were being laid as early as the 1540s in the Protestant resistance literature (e.g., Beza’s De Iure Magistratuum and “Brutus'” Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos, were of a different character.

So far as I can strangely, we have mostly accepted the rise of the new science (any geocentrists in the room?) but some of us are having trouble accepting the new politics; but the new politics are the natural result our theology. It was theocracy that was at variance with our theology. We theorized about but did not implement the two kingdoms consistently until the New World.

One of the great things accomplished by the Reformation and the absolutely necessary development (sine qua non), was the distinction between law and gospel. We expressed this distinction in our covenant theology by distinguishing between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace.

The political correlate to law/gospel distinction is the that which exists between the church and the magistrate. The latter is a horizontal covenant of works between citizens and between the government and the governed and between governments. A covenant of works is legal: “do this and live.” The state is not a gracious entity. Though a magistrate may choose to exercise grace, such is not proper but alien to it. The judge is not obligated to be gracious. Failure to recognize this fact lies behind much confusion on the right and the left today. Both groups seem to want to make the state an agent of redemption.

I suspect that is because many on the right and the left don’t “get” the distinction between law and gospel. It’s clear that many theocrats and most theonomists don’t get it and those who do live with the same sort of tension between their soteriology and their politics that existed in the 16th and 17th centuries.

What we want from civil authorities (and what they often fail to deliver) is justice. We render to Caeasar so he will pave our streets and protect us from criminals. Instead Caesar often takes our renderings and function as if he is an agent of grace to citizens and corporations as benefits him.

The state does not exist in a covenant of works before God. The only divinely authorized national covenant ever to have been instituted (with national Israel) expired on the cross. This fact explains why the apostles did not prosecute the civil authorities for failing to uphold their national covenant as the prophets did.

The only institution which expresses the covenant of grace is the visible, institutional church. The church is where the covenant of grace is announced, where the minister declares my sins to have been forgiven sola gratia, sola fide, solo Christo. To be sure, the minister also announces the law of God, but he does so as an agent of redemption not as a civil authority and he announces he law chiefly to drive sinners to Christ and that those who have so trusted Christ might order their lives according to the divinely revealed moral will. We might say that the church is “legal” in the interests of grace.

The state, as an agent of law, has no interest in absolving sin and is gracious only in the interests of justice.


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Back in chapter 1: City on a Hill, Darryl wrote, “But as antithetical as the two cities were in Augustine’s mind, and as much as that antagonism might seperate believers from nonbelievers… (pg. 39).

I am confused by this reading of Augustine. In this age, can the two cities be understood as really antithetical? In one sense it is certainly true but are these cities not confounded and mixed together in a way that cannot be seperated in this age? Are we to understand Augustine’s metaphor in the simplistic division between church and state?

Copelston writes: “the ideas of the heavenly and earthly cities are moral and spiritual ideas, the contents of which are not exactly coterminus with any actual organization. For instance, a man may be a Christian and belong to the Church; but if the principle of his conduct is self-love and not love of God, he belongs spiritually and morally to the City of Babylon. Again, if an official of the State is governed in his conduct by the love of God, if he pursues justice and charity, he belongs spiritually and morally to the City of Jerusalem. ‘We see now a citizen of Jerusalem, a citizen of the kingdom of heaven, holding some office upon earth; as, for example, wearing the purple, serving as magistrate, as aedile, as proconsul, as emperor, directing the earthly republic, but he hath his heart above if he is a Christian, if he is faithful…'” (History of Philosophy, Vol. 2, pg. 103, citing Augustine, In Ps., 51,6).

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A short biographical aside appears appropriate at this juncture. I am a lawyer and thus my approach to these matters has probably followed a somewhat different course than others (excepting perhaps Chellis). My curiosity began largely from sociological/legal interest in how people construct, adapt, modify, and deliver argument. Specifically, the various kinds of political arguments Americans make, why they make them, and what historical experiences are at the root of those arguments. I remember being rather stunned to discover that the American puritan impulse and the American universalist impulse were siblings in the great reformational/enlightened modern family. And like many siblings, they have the most heated rivalries. All the high-falutin’ philosophy of politics and history came later and provides a pretty coherent theoretical framework for what I suspected, and am now convinced, is true about our own political experience. It is fascinating to me to observe the internal feedback loop of the American (modern) soul cut adrift from an Augustinian/platonic/medeival conception of reality. The Puritanical conservative sects and the universalist liberal sects are at separate ends of the same spectrum of belief in man’s perfectability in the here and now. And each has fixated his gaze on the other as that which is to be most feared and loathed; as that mirror image — one of the other — which each is terrified of becoming. And the comi-tragic irony is, of course, that the Puritans did become universalists, and the universalists have now become the new Puritans, propagating all kinds of regulations on human happiness and flourishing (anti-smoking campaigns come to mind) in the name of progress and continuing enlightenment.

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So far I have been accused of holding to high a view of the natural law and to low a view of it. I want to do justice to a proper view so will allow the venerable ghost of Kirk to speak. I appreciate Kirk’s view as it seems to me very close to that of the old southern Presbyterians.

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Daniel Howe

Darryl, thanks for the props on Englishness. If you think about it, it’s not that weird that the Scots and Scots-Irish would be the British exceptionalists. Bad experiences with Cromwell notwithstanding, the Scottish and Scots-Irish comprise the survival of muscular puritanism in the three kingdoms. That puritanism was marked by both relentless reformation and by separatism – even though many of the separatists technically supported establishment (the formation of the Reformed Presbytery in the 18th century is a good example). The British experience through the centuries following the Reformation continually enforced exceptionalism.

As for Wright … I was about to accuse you of being a Hauerwasian postliberal! Or, more precisely, I was about to accuse the Westminster West school of thought (Scott, you listening?). One of the major differences between Wright and Hauerwas is that the former understands the zero-sum game to be eschatological in nature – which I agree with. At the last day, Caesar is a goner (along with the Hanoverians, Bushes, etc.). Wright believes that the eschaton is brought to bear on this age through social and political action. British Christians seem to be instinctively left-wing, mirroring the instinctive right-wing leanings of American evangelicals. Certainly the Tories give them no feasible alternative. Hauerwas is deeply postmodern by contrast, making community-membership supreme. Within the Christian community, the contest between Christ and Caesar is certainly zero-sum. But Hauerwas is not subtle in his implication that outsiders simply have different communities, languages, rules, rulers, and gods. Hauerwas emphasizes that Yahweh is the god of ISRAEL. Other nations have other gods (and, maybe, should). Wright properly understands that Yahweh is revealed to and through Israel, but is truly the god of the whole world – as is demonstrated conclusively by his victory in Jesus’ resurrection.

The biggest difference, as is often the case, is not ethical but hermeneutical. In The New Testament and the People of God Wright goes to pains to support the possibility of a hermeneutical spiral – the potential to change one’s worldview through interaction with the text, driving deeper into it as we go. I detect tremendous similarities to Paul Ricoeur, Kevin Vanhoozer, and Anthony Thiselton here. (Lefebvre would be a good one to comment on this.) Hauerwas assumes a circle: the text is part of our circle of thought. To accept the circle is to accept the text; to reject the circle is to reject the text. If you reject both, they are not true for you. At best this is a gutsy pluralism – it sets its foot down with regard to conduct and use of language within the Christian community but regards Christian ethics and belief as, shall we say, nearly useless for those outside. I have read articles in Modern Reformation in recent years that make me think this approach is in vogue in the orange groves of Escondido. Let me be clear: I like Will Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas a lot, and appreciate their brash tone and (in Hauerwas’s words) “tendency to be ‘against'”. But I can’t accept reading the “two kingdoms” concept through postliberal eyes. I don’t think that’s historically or theologically acceptable. I have read enough Wittgenstein to know that language games aren’t ultimately discrete. Communication begins with God, and the curse of Babel has been ameliorated by his common grace.

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Protestants at the time of the War for Independence and since have talked a lot about the need for a virtuous citizenry to protect this freedom-loving republic. The rhetoric of virtue has always made religion necessary to the health of the U.S. From George Washington to Jerry Falwell, the American religio-political tradition has been to insist on the need for a religious people if this experiment in liberty is to survive.

Although this argument has much common sense behind it, it seems like an argument that any justification-by-faith loving Protestant would steer clear of as much as possible. The talk of virtue, and the assumption that religion makes people good, sounds like a form of works-righteousness. Worse, it sounds like boasting, as if the believers are the good citizens and the unbelievers are the ones we need to keep an eye on.

If Protestants truly took solace in the righteousness of Christ and looked at their own virtues as filthy rags, I think they might be less willing to speak of religion as the basis for republican virtue. They might also consider other ways to preserve civil and political liberty (though I admit this is hard one to reconsider). But with this argument as the basis for political reflection have Protestants merely made America safe for Mormons and Roman Catholics? Have they also given their faith a bad name by coming across to unbelievers as self-righteous?

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In commenting on my review of Darryl’s book, Bill Chellis asks,

I think that Darryl has a doctrine that makes Christianity applicable to politics. Darryl Hart is no heretic. He is no anabaptist. He affirms the soverign Kingship of Christ over both Kingdoms (one common and one holy). I am waiting to hear how, in his mind (and Scott’s) Christ’s rules the nations and how the nations should respond? What is the role of the moral law and what is the nation’s duty toward it?

I do fundamentally agree with Darryl, and I probably agree with him more now than when I wrote the review, though I stand by my comments in the review.

Darryl isn’t making Christianity apolitical. He doesn’t have to make it apolitical, since it is so in its very nature. That’s one of the great differences between the temporary, typological, national covenant, which expired with the death of Christ, and the New Covenant.

I’m a big fan of 17th-century Reformed theology, but there are three areas where we made significant mistakes as a group: 1) eschatology (the rise of chiliasm in the 17th century among Reformed folks says something about us); 2) science (many of us were geocentrists far too long; 3) politics. On one hand we set the framework for overcoming theocracy, on the other hand most of were theocrats and make reckless use of the Mosaic theocracy as it suited our needs in the 16th and 17th centuries. The 1729 American adoption of the Standards and 1789 revisions of the Standards were good and necessary consequences from our hermeneutic and theology.

No theocrat or theonomist can make a compelling case from the NT for theocracy or theonomy. Not one of the apostles made theonomic (calling for the imposition of Mosaic penalties) or theocratic (calling for the civil enforcement of the first table) arguments or overtures to any civil figure or in any civil context.

What evidence is there from the apostolic church or even from the very earliest post-apostolic church that the Christians had any political interests as Christians? As citizens they had political interests (personal and corporate security, freedom to worship etc) but one of the principal arguments by the early post-apostolic or at least early non-canonical apologists the pseudonymous “Mathetes” (The Disciple) to the secular/civil/pagan authorities was: “we’re no threat to existing order. We simply want to be left alone to worship the risen Savior Jesus peacefully. We have no civil/political/cultural intentions.” The reason that Pliny the Younger either spied or sent spies to the Christians and reported to Trajan was precisely because they suspected the early Christians of being subversive of the existing civil order. He found no such subversive activity, because there wasn’t any to be found.

To take a stab at your question concerning how Christ rules the nations, I’ll give the same answer I give to the Dispensationalists (not that you are anyone here is a dispensationalist):

Christ rules the nations in the very same way he’s been doing when he created all that is, when he installed and drowned Pharaoh and his hosts, when he installed and refused to answer Pilate, when he was being crucified, when he ascended into heaven as the true, greater-than-David King, when Stephen was stoned, and when Paul was beheaded: by his providence.

Jesus sovereignly rules over all civil realms, ordaining all that comes to pass and sustaining all civil orders in all times and in all places.

Of course that fact tells us very little about how Christians ought to theorize about the civil magistrate or how they ought to function as members of civil society.

It seems that the question assumes the premise that I’ve seen reflected in other posts, i.e., that Christians (as Christians) have special insights into the nature of things (we do, sola gratia) and therefore are specially gifted for politics. This is a non sequitur. I don’t see how we have any special insights into how to do politics any more than we have them as to how to maths. We know why politics are as they are (sin and the providence of God), and we know why maths work (providence), but those are two different questions.

We have revealed truth about ultimate matters (the Trinity, anthropology, Christology, salvation, church, sacraments and eschatological life) and they surely inform our civil conduct and speech, but apart from the general equity of the Mosaic civil code, I don’t know that we have anything to say to penultimate matters beyond that which we can learn from the natural law (i.e., the second table of the decalogue) as it applies to civil life. According to Paul in Rom 1 and 2 everyone knows this law.

As a recipients of special revelation, we do think of other citizens differently than they do and our treatment of them should reflect our understanding of the grace of God in Christ, but in matters of policy, the doctrine of predestination isn’t really relevant.

Relegating Christians to the status of mere citizens diminishes Christ’s Lordship not one iota. It does diminish our pretensions to special insights into civil life and it diminishes the sometimes accompanying lust for power and that’s a good thing. The sooner we can communicate to our fellow citizens that 1) we’re not after their money either by chicanery or through power politics; 2) that we’re not out to use the levers of power to impose the faith on them, the better off the church as an institution will be and the better off both we and our pagan neighbors will be as we come to talk with them about that which is genuinely transcendent of civil politics.

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