Thursday, August 30, 2007

Eschatology Precedes... Pretty Much Everything

I'm going to make a bold claim and then attempt to back it up in the next few posts, in the hope that you, the faithful readers, will either convince me I'm wrong or reinforce my thesis with your own input. So here goes:

An individual's or church's eschatology has a direct bearing upon everything else.

To ask a few questions by way of example: Will a two kingdoms proponent have a different rationale than a transformationist for Sabbath-keeping (or breaking, as the case may be)? Will the need for cultural relevance be more accute for one than the other? Is a transformationist more likely to promote political activism than an advocate of the two kingdoms doctrine? Whose church, Tim Keller's or Darryl Hart's, is more likely to have cars with "I-Heart-NY" bumper stickers in their parking lot?

My own ongoing observation is that everything from one's concept of true piety to one's way of defining the gospel's success is determined in large part by whether one distinguishes between the civil and spiritual kingdoms, allows one to swallow the other, or just collapses them altogether.

OK, fire away....

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

W2K Part Five: Biblical Dualism

As D.G. Hart has recently pointed out, "dualism" has become a modern-day theological expletive for most transformationists of a neo-Calvinist stripe. The argument seems to be (1) Gnostics are dualists; (2) Proponents of two kingdoms theology are dualists; therefore (3) Proponents of two kingdoms theology are Gnostics.

(Yes, I realize their argument is more sophisticated than that, but brevity is a necessary bedfellow of the blog.)

Listen to this passage from the Westminster Confession:
"Synods and councils are to handle, or conclude nothing, but that which is ecclesiastical: and are not to intermeddle with civil affairs which concern the commonwealth, unless by way of humble petition in cases extraordinary; or, by way of advice, for satisfaction of conscience, if they be thereunto required by the civil magistrate (xxxi.4)."
Please notice that there are two distinct spheres of authority mentioned: the Church (which is concerned with spiritual matters), and the State (which is concerned with civil affairs). I pointed out in my last post (half in jest) that there must be some "bracketing" of one's faith involved when one's duties in one sphere are in tension with one's duties in another (such as a civil magistrate who is called to execute justice and to turn the other cheek).

In response to the challenge of reconciling killing people with the sword and killing people with kindness, one anti-W2K commenter argued that, while the State must be merciless, the individual Christian is called to be forgiving (sounds like two kingdoms to me).

The real issue, then, is not dualism at all, but the nature of one's dualism. Sure, if I pit the physical against the spiritual, I am a Gnostic. But if I pit the spiritual against the temporal, or this passing age against the eternal age to come, I am Pauline (Eph. 1:21; cf. Matt. 12:32).

Two kingdoms, two swords, two cities -- however you describe the dynamic, the fact is that though both are intrinsically good and ruled by God, one is fleeting while the other endures forever.

Monday, August 27, 2007

W2K Part Four: The Impracticability of the Alternative

For the sake of continuing the argument for the doctrine of the two kingdoms (though I'm disappointed at the lack of biblical arguments to the contrary), I will concede, for one post and one post only, that there is only one kingdom, and that the Church and State are to work together to see God's kingdom realized.

Let's examine how this would work practically....

First of all, if the State's precepts must come exclusively from Scripture rather than from natural law, what better place to start than the Ten Commandments? Let's begin with the first one (you know, the one about how it is illegal to worship any other God but Yahweh).

If, as critics of two kingdoms theology insist, our faith must not be bracketed (since Jesus rules every square inch of the universe), then the first commendment must be enforced in the civil sphere, which would effectually bring an end to Mormonism, Catholicism, atheism, and pretty much any other "ism" that fails to worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (this may sound to some like a pretty good idea, to which my only response is a shudder).

Secondly, consider this dilemma: If biblical law is intended to be a blueprint for a godly society, then the State must inflict capital punishment on those offenders who commit capital crimes according to the Old Testament. But then, we're also called to "turn the other cheek" in the Sermon on the Mount. And since there aren't two kingdoms but one, the civil magistrate must somehow figure out how to kill people with the sword as well as with kindness.

Finally, since we are called in Philippians to prefer others' needs before our own, then every time we find ourselves at a Stop sign, we must, in obedience to this command, let every other car go before us, until we're the only one left.

(Oh, and you know how in basketball you sometimes do a "pump-fake" to deceive your defender, or how in baseball the manager gives secret signs to the hitter about whether or not to bunt? Well you can just forget about that, they break the ninth commandment).

Friday, August 24, 2007

W2K Part Three: Sola Scriptura

One of the arguments for the two kingdoms position that many of its detractors are either unaware of, or simply choose to ignore, is from the Reformation principle of Sola Scriptura. Let me explain....

One critic of W2K stated in the comments under the previous thread that he is "interested in changing the priorities of culture through the increased influence of the church on government, specifically, how government is structured, what laws are passed, and how they are enforced." As I stated in my reply, a very problematic version of the doctrine of Sola Scriptura is being invoked in such a statement.

In a word, it is way too broad.

As the Westminster Confession points out, the way the Bible governs the cultic sphere of "worship" is very different from the way it orders "all of life." In the former, nothing is permitted without an explicit biblical command or precept, while the rule for the latter is that we may do all manner of extra-biblical things (like eating tacos or playing baseball), provided we do not violate an express biblical command. This is why we are told, "God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in any thing contrary to his Word, or beside it in matters of faith or worship" (xx.2). Further, concerning Holy Scripture we read:

"... there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and the government of the Church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed" (i.6).
In other words, those things concerning which God has spoken clearly can be declared with a confident "Thus saith the Lord," while those things about which Scripture only provides "general rules" must be held to with humility, by the "light of nature," and with "Christian prudence."

The danger of seeking to subsume "all of life" under the direct jurisdiction of the Church is such that the authority of the Bible will need to be significantly watered down for such a grandiose endeavor.

After all, it's a small leap from "My personal reading of the Bible kinda lends support to my views on the Middle East" to "My personal reading of the Bible kinda lends support to my views on justification by faith alone."

Thursday, August 23, 2007

W2K Part Two: Whose Christian Agenda?

I've made this observation before, but I find it curious that those who advocate the Church's active role in social and political affairs spend so much time arguing for the transformation of culture that they rarely get around to answering an even more important question:

"Transformation into what?"

The reason for this omission, I think, is that we all know what kind of culture we're aiming for (wink wink). This explains the woman's comment (recounted in the Christianity and Liberalism post) that church planting in the Pacific Northwest would be so much easier if there were more right-wing culture warriors up here. This also explains the commenter's question (under the Exclusiveness of Christianity thread) which implied that the two kingdoms doctrine assumes that God is neutral about the sinfulness or uprightness of society.

The answer, of course, is that less sin is always better than more. But let's stop for a moment and ask why American Christians fear sins like fornication and homosexuality (which he listed) but rarely lose sleep over such "white-collar" sins as the exploitation of the poor and the lust for power, whether corporate or imperial.

So next time a well-meaning Christian passionately advocates the Church's role in the redemption of culture, just experiment a bit by responding, "I totally agree with you! So what ideas do you have about putting Nike out of business?"

(Insert blank stare here)

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

W2K Part One: The Exclusiveness of Christianity

While in Oxford last winter my good friend Ryan and I concluded that the issue of Christ and culture in general, and of the two kingdoms in particular, is the most important discussion that needs to take place within contemporary American evangelicalism, and that we should do everything we can to "force" the conversation by whatever means at our disposal.

I'm happy to see that the discussion is taking place in various online forums, often framed in terms of the helpfulness or unhelpfulness of what has come to be known as "W2K" (which is code for Westminster Seminary California's doctrine of the two kingdoms). I have already given a basic biblical defense of the teaching; my goal now is to approach the issue from various other angles.

One of the main arguments for the two kingdoms doctrine begins with the exclusive nature of the Christian religion. A brief survey of our creeds, confessions, and catechisms from the past couple thousand years will indicate just how arcane our faith is: We place a lot of emphasis on such topics as the hypostatic union of the divine and human natures of Christ, the extent of his atoning work, the role of faith in justification, and the exact meaning of "Hoc est corpus meum."

What role, I ask, does the Eutychean/Nestorian controversy play in determining whether the federal budget should concentrate more on social aid to the poor or on expanding the military? How crucial is a correct interpretation of the communicatio idiomatum for setting the agenda for U.S. foreign policy?

I trust you see where I'm going with this....

We are certainly free to make it our goal to legislate the second great commandment of the law under the guise of creating a Godly society, but love of neighbor cannot be divorced from love of the one true God and still be called "Christianity."

So our only options are to (1) bite the bullet and proselytize by sword-point, (2) reduce Christianity to a social gospel, or (3) let the State be the State, and the Church the Church.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Dare To Be a Dhanab Hamid al-Ghazali

I am working on a review of Michelle Goldberg's book, Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism. Whatever side you're on with respect to the Church's dominion mandate, this book is a must-read. "Christian Nationalism," according to Goldberg, is a "totalistic political ideology" that begins with the idea that "the Bible is absolutely and literally true" and extrapolates from this "a total political program... a conflation of scripture and politics that sees America’s triumphs as confirmation of the truth of the Christian religion, and America’s struggles as part of a cosmic contest between God and the devil."

Remarkably, Goldberg succeeds in recognizing the similar cultural strand that connects LaHaye's Dispensationalism, Kennedy's Postmillennialism, and Rushdoony's Reconstructionaism (not bad for a self-described secular Jew -- she seems to grasp the connection between eschatology and social vision to a degree far beyond most Christians I know).

In fact, she demonstrates in her last chapter that Christian Nationalists have actually become bedfellows with Islamic fundamentalists in the culture wars, even teaming up to lobby the U.N. against international accords protecting women's and children's rights.

It makes sense if you think about it: If Protestant denominational distinctives can be set aside for the sake of a common cultural battle, why stop there?

Those Muslims are good in a fight too, aren't they?

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Christianity and "Liberalism"

I have been on vacation in Orange County for the past few weeks, and as is always the case when I leave the Northwest, I had the following conversation with someone (in this case, a PCA pastor's wife) who was asking me about Exile Presbyterian Church:

Her: "How is your church plant going?"
Me: "It's going really well."
Her: "It must be so hard to plant a church up there!"
Me: "Why is that?"
Her: "Well, it's just so liberal."

I responded that I don't think that religion and politics have much, if anything, to do with one another, so I don't see why an area's political climate should have any bearing on the difficulty or ease of church planting.

Now, if I were attempting to open a sports apparel store in Boston, and if my store sold New York Yankees paraphernalia exclusively, then she'd certainly have a point.

My point, then, is that the degree to which one thinks that Christianity is a hard(er) sell in blue states demonstrates the degree to which one understands Christianity to be a political blueprint for this age rather than a religion that concerns itself with the affairs of the one to come.

After all, though the Red Sox and Yankees are arch-rivals, they are both baseball teams. In fact, it's precisely because they are distinct species of the same genus that makes their rivalry possible. Think about it: No one would object to a Yankees-only clothing store on the basis that its potential clientele are left-handed, would they?

The question, therefore, is this: Are the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the Democratic (or Republican) Party two distinct sides of the same cultural coin, or do they represent two kingdoms altogether, one concerned with civil, and the other with eternal affairs?

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Federal Vision on Law and Gospel

On "Law and Gospel," the recently-issued Joint Statementof the Federal Vision reads, in part:

"When [those in rebellion against God] have been brought to the point of repentance by the Holy Spirit, we affirm that the gracious nature of all God’s words becomes evident to them."
"All of God's words" are not gracious. The gospel is gracious, the law, on the other hand, is legal. That's why it's called law, and that's why our theologians distinguish between law and gospel as God's "two words" to man.
"At the same time, we affirm that it is appropriate to speak of law and gospel as having a redemptive and historical thrust, with the time of the law being the old covenant era and the time of the gospel being the time when we enter our maturity as God’s people."
This is true, on the broad level. "Law" is often used to denote the Mosaic economy, and "gospel" the New Covenant epoch. But what I've yet to see a Federal Visionist appreciate is the distinction in our tradition between law narrowly considered and law broadly considered. Though the gospel was operative during the time of the law, Paul extrapolates from Moses a narrow principle, "do this and live," that is antithetical to the gospel when considered as the means through which the eternal inheritance is secured.
"We deny that law and gospel should be considered as a hermeneutics, or treated as such."
If our friends are saying what I think they're saying (that we oughtn't force every passage into one of these two categories), then I add a hearty "Amen."
"We believe that any passage, whether indicative or imperative, can be heard by the faithful as good news, and that any passage, whether containing gospel promises or not, will be heard by the rebellious as intolerable demand. The fundamental division is not in the text, but rather in the human heart."
This I have difficulties with. Our brothers seem to be denying that there is any objective force to God's speech, but that all divine utterance is contingent upon the listener's response. But the mixed nature of God's audience notwithstanding, law is still law and gospel is still gospel. So when God offers his heavenly reward upon condition of personal obedience, that is not gospel. Likewise, when God freely offers life and salvation through faith in Jesus Christ, that is not law.

So this portion of the Joint Statement, though it has its good points, ultimately fails to reflect what I see as the historic Reformed consensus.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

The Federal Vision and Union and Imputation

The Statement of the Federal Visionists says concerning "Union With Christ and Imputation":

"We affirm not only that Christ is our full obedience, but also that through our union with Him we partake of the benefits of His death, burial, resurrection, ascension, and enthronement at the right hand of God the Father. We deny that faithfulness to the gospel message requires any particular doctrinal formulation of the 'imputation of the active obedience of Christ.' What matters is that we confess that our salvation is all of Christ, and not from us."
A few thoughts:

This paragraph (not quoted in full here) is not too bad, as far as it goes. But I do think that "what matters" is more than "confessing that our salvation is all of Christ, and not from us" (a confession any Mormon would happily, albeit erroneously, make).

But I am curious as to what our FV friends fear about the language of active obedience. Does not the Westminster Confession repeatedly speak of "the full obedience and satisfaction of Christ" being imputed to us by faith (and not, by the way, "through our union with him")?

Does not the Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 60 teach us that "God... grants and imputes to me, the perfect satisfaction, righteousness and holiness of Christ; even so, as if I... had fully accomplished all that obedience which Christ has accomplished for me; inasmuch as I embrace such benefit with a believing heart"?

(Please note that the righteousness of Christ is something granted, not just reckoned, to us.)

And finally, if the union according to which the Joint Statament says we receive the blessings listed is not the "real and inseparable" union of the Westminster Standards (you know, the one that is a "special benefit" for "true believers" who are "elect members of the invisible church"), but is rather a covenantal union that may turn out to be temporary and fleeting, then what is true of the union becomes true of the assurance we are supposed to derive from it:

It becomes just as temporary, and just as fleeting.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

The Federal Vision and the Covenant of Life

One of the most problematic sections in the Federal Visionists' Statement, at least from this Reformed confessionalist's perspective, concerns "The Covenant of Life," which reads in part:
"We deny that continuance in this covenant in the Garden was in any way a payment for work rendered. Adam could forfeit or demerit the gift of glorification by disobedience, but the gift or continued possession of that gift was not offered by God to Adam conditioned upon Adam’s moral exertions or achievements."
What frustrates many Reformed people about the Federal Vision is its assumption that the nomenclature of "covenant of life" is somehow an alternative to the "covenant of works" (these are taken from the Larger Catechism and Confession respectively). Though it has traditionally been understood that the former denotes the reward while the latter highlights the means to it, it is now fashionable to pit the covenant of life and the covenant of works against one another, as if the divines at Westminster had two distinct types of covenants in mind between which candidates for ordination could conveniently choose.

Just read the quotation above if you think I'm being unfair. The covenant of life, we are told, did not hold out to Adam a gift "in any way [as] a payment for work rendered" or "conditioned upon [his] moral exertions." Confessional Reformed believers, to the contrary, insist that the original covenant with Adam offered a reward (glorified life) "upon condition of perfect, personal, and perpetual obedience."

This is far from "striving about words to no profit." Once we forfeit the idea that Adam would have earned his reward by his law-keeping, we lose not only the doctrine of the imputation of the second Adam's obedience and satisfaction, but also the assurance of knowing that the Father's acceptance of us is not only the result of "rich grace" toward us, but of "exact justice" toward his Son (WCF xi.3).

Thus the Federal Vision, in its (laudable) attempt to exalt the primacy of divine grace, ends up subverting that grace, replacing it with a monocovenantal system which promises us that, once we've rendered enough congruent merit euphemized as "covenant faithfulness," the Father will mingle with it his grace to make it acceptable.

Just like he did for Jesus.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

The Federal Vision and the Proclamation of the Word

Another section in the Federal Vision's Joint Statement concerns "The Proclamation of the Word," in which the authors write:

"We deny... that translations [of biblical language into 'philosophical' or 'scholastic' language] are superior to or equal to the rhetoric employed by the Spirit in the text, and we believe that the employment of such hyper-specialized terminology in the regular teaching and preaching of the Church has the unfortunate effect of confusing the saints and of estranging them from contact with the biblical use of the same language. For this reason we reject the tendency to privilege the confessional and/or scholastic use of words and phrases over the way the same words and phrases are used in the Bible itself."
If there ever were a rejection of the need for systematic theology, this is it.

Here is my question: If Paul teaches that we are justified "apart from works," while James insists that Abraham was "justified by works," which is more "confusing": (1) Seeking to understand what these two authors meant by "justify" while denying that they simply contradict one another, the result being that what James had in mind was something more akin to vindication (Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac, after all, happened some twenty years after he was accounted righteous), or (2) Refusing to capitulate to "scholastic, confessional categories" by biting the bullet and insisting, as Leithart does, that saints are justified by works "in whatever sense James meant it"?

I'm all for retaining biblical categories, but what the Federal Visionists seem to miss is the fact that various biblical authors use identical terms to denote different phenomena.

Pointing this out helps alleviate confusion, while refusing to do so under the guise of protecting us from "scholasticism" only perpetuates it.

Friday, August 03, 2007

On Neutrality and Commonness

I promise I'll move on eventually, but for now, I just can't let this issue go....

The section on Christendom in the Joint Statement on the Federal Vision states:

"We deny that neutrality is possible in any realm, and this includes the realm of 'secular' politics. We believe that the lordship of Jesus Christ has authoritative ramifications for every aspect of human existence, and that growth up into a godly maturity requires us to discover what those ramifications are in order to implement them."
I'm guessing by "neutrality" the authors have in mind some arrangement that seals off certain aspects of society from any and all divine jurisdiction or influence. To my knowledge, no one believes this (except maybe some eighteenth-century deists I've never met), so I'm not sure who, exactly, our brothers are arguing against here.

On the other hand, there are certain cultural questions that are "common" (though not "neutral"), and are to be tackled by those whose citizenship in the kingdom of man and whose creation in the image of God entitle them to join in the conversation. And yes, this includes Christians and non-Christians.

The problem with denying this -- if that is indeed what the Joint Statement is doing -- is that it places "every square inch" of the civil kingdom under the jurisdiction not just of God as Creator, but of Scripture, of the gospel, and of Christ as Redeemer.

The result of this, in addition to watering down Sola Scriptura to the point of meaninglesness, is a "baptized" version of politics with God's trademark stamped on the brochure. But what if this "Christian worldview" fails to capture the concerns of those sincere believers who don't think that GOP stands for "God's Own Politics"?

What of those believers who are against the present war? What of those who think the free market is a sham? And what of those who simply want to keep their religion free from the partisan bickering that characterizes the culture wars?

Apparently, they won't find refuge in Moscow, ID.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

The Federal Vision and Global Christendom

The third affirmation/denial of the Federal Vision's Joint Statement reads, in part:

"We affirm that the Christian faith is a public faith, encompassing every realm of human endeavor. The fulfillment of the Great Commission therefore requires the establishment of a global Christendom. We deny that neutrality is possible in any realm, and this includes the realm of 'secular' politics. We believe that the lordship of Jesus Christ has authoritative ramifications for every aspect of human existence, and that growth up into a godly maturity requires us to discover what those ramifications are in order to implement them."
It's late, so I'll offer a few thoughts and we'll further the discussion in the comments section.

1. If Christianity is such a "public faith," why the instruction by Jesus to perform our acts of devotion and mercy privately, to the point that the works of the right hand are not even known by the left?

2. If the Great Commision is a charge to strive for "global Christendom," then why didn't Paul or Peter issue this clarion call when they specifically addressed the role of the believer in society (Rom. 13; I Pet. 2)? "Living a quiet life" and "minding our own business" is hardly the stuff of societal transformation.

3. Is the denial of "neutrality" also a denial of "common" endeavors? If there's a specifically Christian position on, say, economics or health care, I've not found it in the Bible.

What I find ironic in much of the transformationist rhetoric is that, to me at least, it always seems like it's those people's culture over there that needs redeeming (black culture, for example), but not our own. So for the sake of argument I'll agree, the ghetto could do with less drugs and crime, but is it not also true that the suburbs of Atlanta would be more "redeemed" if there were no shopping malls, or that Fallujah would have seemed more "heavenly" if hundreds of its civilian women and children hadn't been killed?

Or is the concern for America's greed and Iraq's dead not the right kind of sanctified politics?