Friday, February 27, 2009

Who Said That?

"... lest the universal monarchy should become a universal tyranny, a check is needed upon the Empire. This, in Dante's scheme, is provided by the Church, which at every point interfuses and penetrates the secular order, not by directly intervening in politics (since this can only corrupt the spiritual power by worldly greed and ambition), but by forming men of such character that they will produce a temporal society in which it is possible to live a full and a Christian life.

"It is at this point we find Dante clearly distinguishing between Reason and Revelation. The secular order is founded upon Reason, and its task is to lead happiness in this world; the spiritual order is founded upon Revelation, and its task is to lead men to eternal beatitude. "

If you know the answer straight away, keep it to yourself in order to give others a chance to guess. And as always, no Googling.... .

Commenter Barrett Turner got the answer right, the quote is from Dorothy Sayers's introduction to Dante's Inferno.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Could Luther and Leo Have Ironed Things Out Over a Few Pints?

In his book The Spirit and Forms of Protest-antism, French Lutheran-minister-turned-Catholic Louis Bouyer argues that Protestantism, positively considered, is completely consistent with Catholic tradition both ancient and modern. He writes concerning sola gratia:

... this assertion, taken in its essence as we have sought to define it, is a genuine-ly Christian one and fully in accord, of course, with Catholic tradition properly understood.... Luther's basic intuition, on which Protestantism continuously draws for its abiding vitality, so far from being difficult to reconcile with Catholic tradition or inconsistent with the teaching of the apostles, was a return to the clearest elements of their teaching and is in the most direct line of that tradition.
Bouyer even goes as far as to say:

Protestantism, reduced to what Protestants regard as its essence, was under no necessity to embody itself in schism and heresy. On the contrary, by the very logic of its nature, it should have initiated in the Church itself a powerful movement of regeneration.... Unfortunately, that is not what happened, though the blame, in any case, does not lie exclusively with the basic principle of the Reformation.
Bouyer goes on to argue that Protestantism's central principles such as divine sovereignty, the unique authority of Scripture, and salvation by grace alone are not fallacious in what they affirm, only in what they deny (which things, he argues, are unnecessary and incidental to the heart of the Reformation).

This line of argument seems to be along the same lines as the sentiments of the late Richard John Neuhaus, who insisted that when he abandoned Wittenberg for Rome he relinquished nothing of what he formerly believed, but instead just picked up a bunch of extra stuff.

I'm interested to hear your thoughts on this, because I find it incredibly interesting (not to mention baffling and suspicious) that former Lutheran clergymen like Bouyer and Neuhaus would say such things. My initial reaction is to dismiss such sentiments as indicative of their never really having understood their own tradition, but I am also aware of how much of an ass that makes me look.

So what gives? Did Luther and the pope just need a heart-to-heart over a few ales in order to smooth things over?

Monday, February 23, 2009

Some Random Thoughts on the Two Kingdoms

In this post I’ll just make a few observations about the doctrine of the two kingdoms, in no particular order.

First, I have yet to hear anyone either challenge it exegetically or argue exegetically for some alternative or another. What I have been hearing is general statements like, “Missionaries should help supply fresh water for villagers,” or “How can ministers not bind the consciences of their people to vote pro-life?” Those are good and challenging questions, but what I would like to hear is an actual argument from Scripture that the church’s task includes transforming society. It seems to us two-kingdoms folks that Jesus, Peter, and Paul all had perfect opportunities to argue for this very thing, but instead took those opportunities to tell us to mind our own business and pay our taxes (Matt. 22:21; Rom. 13:1-7; I Thess. 4:11-12; I Pet. 2:13-17).

Secondly, it has been asked, “What exactly, does the two-kingdoms position actually provide for the church?” Apparently it looks to some like all we do is complain without offering anything constructive or helpful. This is a great question and I am happy to answer it. One of the things the doctrine of the two kingdoms offers is a proper understanding of the New Testament dualism between this age and the age to come (Gal. 1:4; I Tim. 6:17; Tit. 2:12; Matt. 12:32; Eph. 1:21; Heb. 6:5). Though we’re sometimes accused of Manichaeism or some other form of Gnosticism (because after all, dualism must be Gnostic), the fact is that there is dualism all over the New Testament. But the thing about biblical dualism is that it’s not a matter/spirit dualism, but an already/not yet one. In other words, it’s eschatological (this age/the age to come) and ethical (sin/grace), not Manichaean (matter/spirit).

Another thing the two-kingdoms position provides is both an appreciation for creation (qua creation, and not just for its redemptive potential) as well as the liberty of conscience to determine how to interact with it. When earth’s institutions, art, and sports are said to be in need of transformation in order to be enjoyed, a low view of creation is implied. What the doctrine of the two kingdoms does is carve out legitimate space for earth to just be earth, and as such, to be enjoyable. Moreover, when one believer’s conscience forbids him from drinking alcohol or voting Republican, his right to his opinion is protected by the two-kingdoms doctrine. In a word, no believer will ever have to sit in church and be tyrannized by a pastor’s pet opinions about this or that theory of domestic or foreign policy. Such things are not only wasteful of people’s time (they could just stay at home and read the newspaper), but also are an abuse of the minister’s holy office, a casting of his swine before pearls.

But more important than the reasons why I like the doctrine of the two kingdoms or the fact that it is the historic Reformed position is the fact that it is taught implicitly and explicitly in Scripture. So if anyone out there wants to challenge the two-kingdoms position exegetically, the comment button is conveniently located just below this line.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Some First Impressions of U2's New Album

I posted this on Facebook, and I thought I’d put it here as well (especially since I am rather uninspired of late).

So I downloaded U2’s new album No Line on the Horizon on Tuesday night (it doesn’t come out until March 3, but it was leaked early, being accidentally sold online for a couple hours that night. I was in the right place at the right time).

I am hesitant to say too much about it because No Line on the Horizon, like the best of U2’s albums, is not the kind of thing that just walks into the light, undresses, and suggests itself to you. It is subtle and complex. When I first listened to 1991’s Achtung Baby, I remember not liking it very much at first. In fact, it took a good two years before I realized that it was the best album U2 had ever made.

So turning to No Line on the Horizon, I would definitely say that, unlike 2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind or 2004’s How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (neither of which I find particularly remarkable), this one’s a grower. There are certain songs that are immediately catchy like “I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight” and “Get On Your Boots” (the latter of which is easily the album’s worst song), but more often it is the case that No Line on the Horizon’s songs are so layered and interesting that they’ll need some time to sit with the listener and let him get to know them a bit before he feels ready to opine too much about them.

If I had to venture an opinion about No Line on the Horizon at this early stage, I would say that it is a cross between 1984’s The Unforgettable Fire and 1993’s Zooropa. There's ambience as well as experimentation. As one reviewer put it, this current incarnation of U2 “has one leg in the shallow, concentrate-version of U2 that the world has taken at face value for a decade, and one leg in a future as exciting as anything they have hitherto allowed us to glimpse.”

For my own part, I am very excited about this album, I think it is the best thing they have done since the early ‘90s. Sure, I’ve got some nit-picky complaints about this or that lyric or production decision, but after almost a decade of U2 putting out albums that were decidedly less than the sum of their parts, it’s nice to hear an album that can be described or debated as a whole, on its own terms, without even mentioning what the individual songs sound like.

So well done, lads. You’ve given us an album that is bold, unpredictable, and when it comes to song structure, quite unconventional. Thanks for not playing it (too) safe.

Monday, February 16, 2009

From Bones to Bach, Savagery to Shakespeare

I have always been a bit bemused when I hear proponents of the idea that Christianity has an inevitable transformative effect on a culture say things like, "Look at a society after the Christian religion has penetrated it, and you'll see how much progress it always makes." The question that arises in my mind is, "Progress towards what?"

Well, towards American values, of course....

You see, the notion of progress or improvement is meaningless without some standard toward which said progress or improvement is made. And in the case we're discussing, the standard is always us. To put it bluntly, to whatever degree some African nation begins to resemble a western one after embracing Christianity, it can therefore be said that the nation in question has improved or made progress.

(And coupled with such cheers over improvement, of course, are jeers over the hopelessly backward and primitive ways the newly-Christianized culture has thankfully left behind.)

For my own part, this all seems quite ethnocentric and racist, not to mention extremely selective when it comes to evaluating Christianity's influence. For example, to gush over the fact that even black people can be trained to listen to Bach instead of savagely killing one another is to assume that Bach's music (along with that of other white European composers) is objectively good. And moreover, such criteria also forgets that Christians themselves are often rather bloodthirsty and prone to beat the drums for war.

Come to think of it, wasn't our religion used as justification for killing and enslaving the very people whom we claim our religion is supposed to civilize? "Isn't it ironic, don'tcha think?"

On that note, how are we to deal with the fact that America, upon which Christianity has enjoyed near-exclusive rights of influence for 400 years, is still in the business of exploiting Asia's and Africa's poor? Now I suspect the retort will be something along the lines of "Well, that's not Christianity's fault, it's the fault of other political and economic factors." OK, so let me get this straight: If there's something good about America then Christianity gets the credit, but if there's something bad, Christianity avoids the blame? Sounds like the game has been rigged from the get-go.

I think it would be prudent at this point to remind us all of what Christianity actually is. Christianity is a religion (not a world-and-life view) whose central tenet is that God assumed a human nature in order to live, die, and rise again to save sinners. If that's a fair summary, then I must admit that it completely escapes me how such a faith can be expected to instill in its adherents an appreciation for fine cuisine or, for that matter, an appreciation for silverware with which to eat it.

If we're being honest in our transformationism, we should lay at the foot of the church both the credit for our society's virtues as well as the blame for its vices. But even better, in my opinion, would be to let the earthly kingdom worry about earth, and let the church provide water, word, and wine to those whose thirst can be quenched by nothing else.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Shall We Take Obama's Will for a Canon?

I came across this passage yesterday in Kenneth Whitehead's One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic:

St. Athanasius described how the Arianizing Emperor Constantius, in 355, dealt with a group of recalcitrant bishops at a local meeting in Milan. These bishops were refusing to sign a condemnation of Athanasius and "to communicate with the heretics. And when they in astonishment at this strange order said that there was no ecclesiastical canon for it, he instantly retorted: 'Take my will for a canon! ... Either obey or go yourselves into exile!'" (St. Athanasius, History of the Arians, 33).

In the course of nearly a half century during which he never wavered in defense of the doctrinal teaching of Nicaea, the great Athanasius regularly fought attempts by the imperial power and by bishops allied with it who sought to dictate Church decisions on the basis of considerations other than the traditional faith that had been handed down from the apostles.
Call me a cynic, but I can't help but wonder about the naivete on the part of those who desire the civil magistrate to be a protector of orthodoxy and guarantor of proper worship in the churches under his jurisdiction. Think about it: Whose orthodoxy would the magistrate enforce? Catholic? Pentecostal? Reformed? And according to whose understanding would the powers that be seek to ensure worship with reverence and awe?

It seems to me that in order to live up to the desires of our Reformed theocratic forebears we must banish all religious freedom so that we all worship and think according to what President Obama deems appropriate.

The collective shudder I just felt indicates to me that this whole ideal is more about power than it is about guaranteeing doctrinal and liturgical orthodoxy. If "our guy" wins the White House then sure, we'll let him call the ecclesiastical shots. But if, as is almost always the case, the president doesn't have a clue about religious matters, then why would we want to anything but escape the trappings of our theocratic ancestors?
After all, it is now, in a religiously pluralistic context, that our forefathers' two-kingdoms sentiments can actually be taken out for a spin to see how they handle.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Could John Calvin Get a Faculty Position at Westminster Seminary California?

In his Institutes of the Christian Religion (3.19.15, under the heading "The Two Kingdoms"), John Calvin writes:

Therefore, in order that no one can stumble upon that stone, let us first consider that there is a twofold government in man: one aspect is spiritual, whereby the conscience is instructed in piety and in reverence towards God; the second is political, whereby man is educated for the duties of humanity and citizenship that must be maintained among men. These are usually called the "spiritual" and the "temporal" jurisdiction (not improper terms) by which is meant that the former sort of government applies to the life of the soul, while the latter has to do with the concerns of the present life.... The one we may call the spiritual kingdom, the other, the political kingdom. Now these two, as we have divided them, must always be examined separately, and while the one is being considered, we must turn aside from thinking about the other. There are in men, so to speak, two worlds, over which different kings and different laws have an authority.
I’ll go on the record and state that the two-kingdoms doctrine that I espouse is identical to what Calvin says above. Man is under a twofold government because he is a citizen of both heaven and earth, and accordingly, he receives his marching orders from two sources. The church instructs him on matters relating to spiritual piety and heavenly life, while the civil magistrate teaches him how to do earth.

Calvin goes on to make a qualification:
Through this distinction it comes about that we are not to misapply to the political order the gospel teaching upon spiritual freedom, as if Christians were less subject, as concerns outwards government, to human laws because their consciences have been set free in God's sight; as if they were released from all bodily servitude because they are free according to the spirit.
Calvin’s point here is that spiritual liberty is just that, spiritual and not civil. This means that it is wrong to interpret biblical promises about being free from the tyranny of the devil and dominion of sin to mean that we are free from the tyranny of the king and dominion of his unjust tax laws.

The Westminster Confession makes precisely this same point:

They who, upon pretence of Christian liberty, shall oppose any lawful power, or the lawful exercise of it, whether it be civil or ecclesiastical, resist the ordinance of God (XX.4).
Now for the purpose of fruitful discussion I think we need to distinguish between the doctrine of the two kingdoms and its application to the world in which we live. I would maintain that when it comes to the former, the two-kingdoms model espoused by Westminster Seminary California faculty such as Michael Horton, D.G. Hart, and David VanDrunen is much closer to that of Calvin than the infinitely more popular transformationism advocated by the majority of the PCA.

If I’m wrong, please show me where.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Is the Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms the Historically Reformed Position?

In his essay titled "The Two Kingdoms Doctrine and the Relationship of Church and State in the Early Reformed Tradition" (Journal of Church and State, Autumn, 2007), David VanDrunen points to Calvin as advocating the position that has become known as the doctrine of the two kingdoms (hereafter 2K).

The Geneva Reformer explicitly distinguishes between what he calls the civil and spiritual kingdoms, highlighting three distinctions between them. First, the spiritual kingdom is redemptive in character while the civil kingdom is a realm of God’s providence rather than his redeeming grace. Second, the spiritual kingdom is heavenly while the civil kingdom is earthly. Lastly, Calvin argues that the spiritual kingdom finds its present expression exclusively in the church, while the civil kingdom expresses itself in such realms as government, science, and the arts.

VanDrunen then turns his attention to theologians from the heyday of Reformed orthodoxy. Rutherford, for example, distinguishes between "the kingdom that is of this world" that "fights with the sword," and "the kingdom that is not of this world" that "fights not with the sword." He calls the former "the magistrate’s kingdom," while referring to the latter as "the church and kingdom of Christ." Elsewhere, Rutherford speaks of "the kingdom of this world" and "Christ’s other kingdom, that is not of this world."

Turretin also follows Calvin in distinguishing the two kingdoms: "Before all things we must distinguish the twofold kingdom belonging to Christ; one natural or essential; the other mediatorial and economical." The "natural" kingdom, writes Turretin, is "over all creatures," while the "mediatorial" kingdom is "terminated specially on the church."

One can say what one will about the 2K doctrine, but he will be hard pressed to demonstrate that it was not held by Calvin and the seventeenth-century theologians who followed him. Look where you please, what you will find is a distinction between the sacred and the secular, between the civil and spiritual, and between cult and culture.

So I guess my question is, If the 2K position is thoroughly Reformed, why are those who hold it today looked upon with such suspicion?

Saturday, February 07, 2009

An Open Letter to U2

Dear U2,

OK, we get it: Your new album, No Line on the Horizon, is coming out in a month, and it’s "the best thing you’ve ever done," blah, blah, blah. Allow me to remind you that we’re not morons, and that we realize you would make the claim that your new album is your best ever whether you believed it or not. You know your last album, the one about the Atomic Bomb? You also claimed that was your best work, remember? Guess what? It wasn’t. Not even close.

Your new single, "Get On Your Boots," makes us nervous, mainly because it’s completely unremarkable. It sounds like "Vertigo" (as in, almost exactly like "Vertigo"), except the chorus is worse (if possible). So far, no good.
But I will admit this much: Bono, your voice has been sounding really good lately. After hearing your last two albums I wanted to write the band and beg them to let you sing in a range with notes you could actually hit. But lately you’ve been sounding pretty comfortable in that upper register, which gives us hope.

So please, don’t embarrass us. No more songs about moles digging in holes or monkeys stealing honey. No more lines about New York being hot as a hair dryer or people in Ireland tearing down trees and using them on their enemies (what does that even mean?).

Take us back to the experimental vibe of the ‘90s. Give us fat grooves and filthy, give us sensuality, give us a bit more tenebras and a bit less lux. Give us more songs like "Acrobat."

We’re counting on you, lads. The reviews have all been positive, but you’ll have to forgive us for keeping our enthusiasm to a minimum. We don’t want an album that we have to convince ourselves to like because it’s by U2. The Joshua Tree wasn’t brilliant because you made it, it was brilliant regardless. We didn’t have to force ourselves to like Achtung Baby, it was a masterpiece in its own right. So all we’re asking with No Line on the Horizon is that you don’t put us in the awkward position of having to keep re-convincing ourselves that you’re the best band in the world.

You are. So please—prove it to us again, just once more....

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Orthodoxy (Generous and Otherwise)

I’ve been thinking lately about how to relate the idiosyncratic beliefs and emphases of a particular Christian tradition to the Christian faith as a whole, and it seems to me that there are a few approaches we may take, at least.

First, we can choose the course that minimizes the specific idiosyncrasies in order to emphasize commonality. Accordingly, if a particular doctrine gets in the way of ecumenicity, it should be either deemphasized or jettisoned altogether. Protestant liberalism seems to prefer this approach.

A second option would be to do the very opposite, willingly sacrificing broad catholicity in order to maintain faithful adherence to the tenets of some Christian tradition or another. When I think of this approach, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church comes immediately to mind. Say what you will about its relevance or lack thereof in the culture, the OPC has the stones to say, "Look, we don’t give a frak about how small we are, we’re maintaining fidelity to our confessions, whatever the cost." Agree or not, you gotta give props to the OPC for their audacious lack of interest in success as defined by their transformationist peers. And for their bow ties.

A third option would be to attempt some hybrid of these two, which is where the PCA seems to fall. Should we ordain women as deacons? Well, that would certainly gain us some street cred in "the city" (you know, the place God really cares about). But then, whatever tolerance we display on the diaconate is canceled out if we oust all the Federal Visionists because they cross their "i"s and dot their "t"s instead of the other way around.

What this all boils down to is the relationship of Orthodoxy and orthodoxies. The former, I would maintain, consists of all the stuff you have to believe to be a Christian. The latter includes the stuff over and above the former, all the peculiar beliefs that make Pentecostals Pentecostal (like the Second Blessing), Calvary Chapel people Calvary Chapel people (like the Rapture), and Presbyterians Presbyterian (like the doctrine of Imputation).

The Protestant belief in the invisible church usually precludes us from equating our various orthodoxies with Orthodoxy with a big O, meaning that we treat the former more as house-rules and not as the actual apostolic paradosis and deposit of faith. There is one church, of course, that sees no distinction between its every dogma and Orthodoxy itself, but they’ve been around long enough to brag a bit, even if they get carried away at times.

But when it comes to the PCA, I hardly think it would be appropriate for me to make such lofty claims, especially about a denomination that was born the same year I was.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Is Being Right a Sufficient Tactic Against Heresy?

First off, I am sicker than I ever remember being, so if the following makes little sense or sounds half-baked, just back off and cut me some slack or I’ll cough the bubonic plague on you.

My Catholic readers make a big fuss over the fact that, according to them, there is no "principled difference" between Protestant theology and heresy. What they mean is that when a Protestant debates a Mormon, the conversation may go something like this:

Protestant: "You’re wrong about Jesus, you know. He was God."
Mormon: "Nuh-uh."
Protestant: "Yeah-huh!"
Mormon: "Prove that I’m wrong."
Protestant: "OK, look at these verses."
Mormon: "Fine, but first I want you to look at these verses."
Protestant: "Nice ten-speed" (slams door).

The Catholic (claims the Catholic) is not doomed to forever spin in a circular prooftext battle, for he alone can appeal to the historic succession of bishops stretching back to the apostles. His position, in other words, rests both on appeal to Scripture but also upon a version of apostolicity that is actually verifiable rather than invisible.

So here's my question: How does Paul the apostle tell his readers to deal with heresy that would eventually arise?

Let's consider a couple texts. In Acts 20, Paul bids farewell to the Ephesians, telling them that savage wolves would invade the flock from within and without. He then says, "Therefore I commend you to God and to the Word of his grace."

To his protégé, Timothy, Paul says that his heretical opponents must be dealt with gently and peaceably, without quarrelsomeness, if perhaps God might grant them repentance and the ability to know the truth and be spared the devil's snare.

In both cases, doctrinal error is to be combated with doctrinal truth, and in neither case is there any sentiment that says, "Riiight.... Can we have a look-see at your list of bishops? Oooh, don’t got one, do ya? Thanks for playing, the consolation prize is available in the losers' lounge."

I’m not denying the role that such succession may have played in the early church, but I am wondering if something that began as an circumstance of history has become a litmus test that excludes others who may actually be right.

I mean, once the locus of our worship ascended to heaven, the significance of historical succession seems to have ceased. Jesus is not a priest after the order of Aaron, but it doesn't matter. Gentiles can't trace their heritage back to Abraham, but so what, they were spiritual Israelites. So why can't apostolicity be spiritual as well, rooted in truth rather than genealogy?