Protestant Politics and Eschatology

[The following is a reply to Ryan M. at The Two Cities. Since I thought it too long for the blog comment thread, I have posted it on my own blog instead.]


Thanks for writing back. One of the first disclosures I ought to make to nearly all audiences is that, whatever I may pick up from the radical Reformation, my entire framework grows out of the magisterial tradition. This is because I do believe that the magisterial Protestant tradition holds both the diversity and the general coherence to sustain the full flowering of civilization. The other thing I ought to mention is about Steven Wedgeworth (I assume that’s who you mean by Steven Cumberworth). He does minister in the CREC, but what you call the Moscow crowd is also a diverse group theologically; where he stands in relation to all this, he outlines himself. Anyway, on with the main comments.

What I mean about natural law is not that it lacks the scope to convict man of sin: any guilt people feel about real sin, in a society completely untouched by Scripture, is a response to natural law. What I do mean is that natural law, as far as it can intelligibly be picked up without Scripture, does not have any of the specificity to make a civil system of law, whereas the Scriptures give us an example of what one particular polity’s civil code looked like. We’re not bound to replicate this ancient civil code – since Christ has come, in fact, it would be downright immoral to mandate certain parts of it – but the principles of Western law have long been subject to Scripture, enough that explicit appeals to biblical texts have been admissible in courts. In our own legal contexts, the very idea that the magistrates cannot legislate for the conscience, nor should they try, and ought instead confine themselves to punishing outward wickedness and sedition, is a Protestant idea, tolerating Romanists and Anabaptists but derived from neither.

This idea of law, accepted even by Jefferson and others who were not doctrinal Protestants, we have kept for a time even without acknowledging the source; but as the Protestant consensus falls apart, the freedom upheld by this legal framework will be swallowed up by either secularism or sharīʿah law. Both of these outcomes, at their logical conclusions, would be tyrannical: a secularism with Protestant principles removed becomes an intrusive thought police, and sharīʿah law refuses to allow for apostasy from Muhammadanism. These trends are read by many as assaults on the U.S. Constitution, and I would largely agree with this assessment, but underneath they also strike at the Protestant roots of the tree of political liberty. Complete disestablishment is impossible: you get to pick only which (postmoderns would say whose) framework you have. As for me, since I love to keep my freedom, I say go with the Protestant vision and lose the visions of three antichrists: the Pope, the Turk and the Stalin.

Being a certain mix of Reformed and Anabaptist systems, of course, is nothing new: most self-identified Evangelicals in North America are a certain mix of the two, except they also have (regrettably) a large dose of Dispensationalism. What I think has to happen, though, is for the Protestant system to be adopted unequivocally. Such a confused group as the Baptists will have to swing one way or the other, as will the bulk of those caught between the two systems of Church reformation. To have a coherent political theory, either they must adopt the one and reject the other, or they must discredit the one and uphold the other. Already, as we see, some Baptist churches are moving toward what they themselves call Reformed theology, which is a good development if it leads to clarity on the political and legal framework. Eventually Christians in America will have to deal with the question of Lockean liberalism, which is related to the Baptist doctrine of soul liberty, the doctrine that determined the religious settlement of Rhode Island. The questions are complex, but I’m confident that pious patience with the political questions will be fruitful.

This brings me to the next point, on eschatology. What I’m saying about the continuum between amillennial and postmillennial views is that people like me exist, people who do have a project belonging neither to the amillennial Klineans nor to the postmillennial Van Tillians. Ultimately, the Klineans seem to be concerned primarily with fetching people out of the fallen mass, and the Van Tillians with how to replace the natural law tradition with a self-sufficient biblicism. What I maintain is the parallel worth of the temporal order, which is also the continued value of the human body, especially as inhabited by the Holy Ghost. The cultural mandate, after all, remains in force along with the Great Commission, not to be abolished but to be restored by the latter as the gospel sets people free from the bondage of sin. In eternity will be seen what we now call the invisible Church; in time we see the history of the visible Church, which is visible indeed, not only in cultic (i.e. ‘religious’) activity but in the rest of life as well.

You attribute the stripping of our souls to the Western way of life, but I think it important to distinguish between the influence of the gospel and the influence of godlessness. My contention is not that the West has unequivocally improved – in fact, the other day on Facebook I said just the opposite in relation to Noah’s flood and baptism* – but rather that the gospel itself has improved and does improve human society as a sign of its real ability to rehabilitate man to the ways of God. These are two very different propositions, and I hope not to be associated with the former. It’s the latter, not the former, that concerns my views on the Church and the end times. In particular, I believe the gospel’s victory in the world means not only that more persons are justified with Christ in heaven but also that even the temporal polity (including but not limited to the law) is improved by people’s sanctification on earth as they live out their priestly vocations in all areas of life. Despite the continuance of suffering and death, the faithfulness of Christ will be visible, however unevenly and imperfectly. Both amillennialists and postmillennialists must reckon with the thing that Richard Hooker stated most clearly:

There is a glorifyinge righteousnes of men in the Worlde to comme, and there is a justefying and a sanctefyinge righteousnes here. The righteousnes wherewith we shalbe clothed in the world to comme, is both perfecte and inherente: that whereby here we are justefied is perfecte but not inherente, that whereby we are sanctified, inherent but not perfect.

Because man is a social creature, the sanctifying righteousness must come out as he works out his salvation with fear and trembling. Therefore it is, as St Austin argues against the pagans, that the gospel makes for good citizens, not for bad ones; for a good commonwealth, not for a bad one.

Here we come to the institutional form of the Church. I agree completely, the visible Church is not an institution, because the Church is a people, and the polity exceeds its legal institutions. When I study in school, I am a member of the visible Church; when a Christian physician helps people heal, he is a member of the visible Church; when a Christian king watches over his people, he is a member of the visible Church. This is most certainly an organic part of the polity, supported by love and friendship. Nevertheless, the rituals of word and sacrament are important to the identity of the Church, shaping the holy lives that Christians lead. This is the domain for which ecclesiastical elders are officially appointed, by the instructions of Titus 1, not to do the whole liturgical work of the Church (for it would be a contradiction in terms to call liturgy what was done by the elder alone) but to regulate it and teach the people its sound meaning. This is also, I presume, why St Ambrose as Bishop of Milan was often having to settle disputes between people: it was part of his duty to teach people how to live according to the holy word that he proclaimed every Lord’s Day.

Much of the political-sociological stuff, I’m quite sure, is already described in Johannes Althusius’ Politica, which I really should get around to reading. Against the theories of Bodin, it gives an account of society that doesn’t simply flow downward from God through the rulers, an account that undoubtedly was informed by Protestant theology and the Reformed monarchomaques who struggled against the rise of absolute monarchy. (I’m pretty sure, by the way, that I like Hayek, and I know for a fact that I support Ron Paul as the best current candidate for president, but I also know I’m really not a libertarian but a conservative.) In the West, what I consider the best course is to continue developing the intellectual tradition we already have and recover ground from the secular thought that threatens to destroy liberty, recognizing that history has its ups and downs; how these efforts go, for those who are involved in these fields, is not our concern but God’s.

P.S. I hope you like my blog.


* This is what I wrote on Facebook, to a friend asking why change was so hard: ‘Human growth ought to be a natural process, happening readily so long as we have the nourishment for it. In the Garden of Eden, this is no problem. In our own time, though, the earth is cursed to bring forth thorns and thistles, and it’s in the sweat of his face that man eats bread, and often he does starve. This physical corruption reflects the corruption of our souls, which has fragmented the image of God and misled us even into loving the wrong things because the natural order of our loves has been thrown into chaos. And so, even as we see ourselves growing in technological power, we know deep down that this power does nothing to stop us from killing one another and spreading violence all over the earth: we know there needs to be some kind of Noah’s flood to wipe out the filth from the face of the earth, except this inward baptism must truly renew our souls by killing the corrupted man and raising a new one with the original human integrity. If this is the growth we’re talking about, there’s no question that it’ll be hard.’

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