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Archive for October, 2012

The work of peacemakers is never finished, surely not on this side of glory! In fact, genuine peacemaking is a foretaste of glory, isn’t it?

In addition to multiple efforts on this blog to engender an atmosphere of constructive engagement in the NL2K discussion (see here and here and here and here), we gratefully receive this report of a recent panel discussion on the campus of Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, Georgia. The reporter is an alumnus of both schools, whose representatives were engaging in this dialogue concerning a dispute that lies so near to the heart of the educational vision of these respective schools. What a relief it must be, then, when a graduate hears representatives of his most formative educational institutions agreeing at so many important points!

It’s best that you read that report before continuing to read this post, since most of my observations depend on the background offered there.

The comments that follow are not intended to detract from the progress in understanding, but merely to focus the discussion for the sake of clarity among the churches.

That last italicized phrase is, for me, perhaps the most important element in this entire discussion. This controversy has been going on for more than three years now, and has drawn international attention and commentary. Some are calling it an intramural dispute, just one more tempest in the Reformed teapot, descriptions often accompanied with a hopeful sigh that “this, too, shall pass.” Most of the public participants are office-bearers in Christ’s church, a fact that invests this discussion with more than ordinary weight. Ministers, elders, and theologians are advocating positions, ideas, and conclusions designed and intended to lead the church. And so it is with that “target audience” in view, that we’d like to press further in our pursuit of clarity and coherence.

Let me reiterate: the following comments are born neither of cynicism nor disbelief regarding the intentions of participants, but rather seek to help foster ongoing integrity in the cause of intellectual, moral, and ecclesiastical leadership.

So here goes.

1. That troublesome definite article

Imagine a conference or panel that was meeting somewhere—let’s say, Grand Rapids, Michigan—to discuss a matter central to Reformed and Presbyterian identity. The outcome gets reported in the local paper under this headline: “The Covenant in Grand Rapids: Healthy and Well.”

Those exhausted by a conflict about “the covenant” that some might dismiss as merely intramural would heave a sigh of relief. Those schooled in Reformed theology would be immediately suspicious, and inclined to ask: Which covenant? For in Grand Rapids you’ve got a number of versions of “the” covenant represented by a panoply of denominations—so what are we talking about, specifically, please?

So too here. We are assured in some quarters that there’s no real disagreement about “the two kingdoms doctrine”—prompting anyone informed about this discussion to ask rightly: Which two kingdoms doctrine, please? The one advocated by Martin Luther? Or by John Calvin? Or by contemporary innovators? By all of of them?

The problem continues to be the persistent, unqualified use of the definite article as if there exists a single, univocal referrent behind that article. In point of fact, there does not. Just as “the” doctrine of the covenant does not exist, so “the” two kingdoms doctrine does not exist. The time has come to stop writing and speaking as if there exists “the two kingdoms doctrine.”

2. Kuperian neo-Calvinism and “the two kingdoms doctrine”

This problem-of-the-definite-article can be clarified further when we evaluate the claims offered about the compatibility between Kuyperian neo-Calvinism and “the two kingdoms doctrine.”

Again, we are being assured that the differences between moderate—let us say: representative—neo-Calvinism and “the two kingdoms doctrine” are, after all is said and done, not that great. No fewer than nine elements of agreement are identified in the report of the recent panel discussion.

I deeply appreciate this attempt at rapprochement.

With a view to continuing the conversation, then, let me identify four questions raised by the reported attempt.

Are representative neo-Calvinism and the contemporary version of “the two kingdoms doctrine” genuinely compatible when advocates of the latter . . .

2.1 . . . publicly question whether there is really such a thing as “Christian education”? (For background to this question, see here and here and here.)

2.2 . . . [clearly share an approach to interpreting the Bible that is being used to {altered 11/8/2012}] defend the legitimacy of homosexual marriage? (For background to this question, see here.)

2.3 . . . publicly claim that the thought of Herman Bavinck and Abraham Kuyper regarding the relation between the Christian faith and public life is incoherent? (For background to this question, see here and here.)

2.4 . . . publicly ridicule serious attempts to integrate Christian faith and science, faith and learning, faith and politics, faith and farming, faith and plumbing, and so forth?

Please don’t receive or interpret these questions as impertinent or dismissive.

Some “two kingdom” advocates seem to be saying now, at least three years into this discussion, that there is no one, single, univocal “two kingdoms doctrine.” Evidence: one NL2K advocate seems unwilling now to be identified with the views of another NL2K advocate.

Such unwillingness would be quite understandable—and also reminiscent of other recent debates that stirred the Reformed/Presbyterian teapot. Perhaps we will be seeing advocates of “the two kingdoms doctrine” taking a page from the playbook of “the Federal Vision movement” to remind us that theirs is not a monolithic movement, nor even a movement. Just classic Reformed theology. (My point, lest it be unclear, is that I am a bit sympathetic to—now, as then—the attempted disassociation within the ranks, from the more radical positions being advocated in both debates. If, however, no disassociation is attempted or made, all sympathy, and credibility, evaporate.)

So then it behooves anyone presenting his or her claims as “the” implication of “the two kingdoms doctrine” to specify which version of “the two kingdoms doctrine” underlies that implication, and which version(s) do(es) not.

The church is not being helped, it seems to me, by the lack of definitional clarity in arguing as if representative neo-Calvinism and “the two kingdom doctrine” are compatible.

3. “Rightly” dividing . . .

The report of the recent panel discussion repeatedly observes that various respondents “rightly noted,” or “rightly point[ed] out,” or “rightly questioned” certain emphases or claims. Each of these reportedly correct observations constitutes a change in position or emphasis among advocates of “the two kingdoms doctrine.” Needless to say, this must be a cause for true and genuine joy!

(Parenthetically, however, it must be noted that with these changes in position, it is now becoming increasingly difficult to write/speak about “the” two kingdoms doctrine.)

More astonishing still is that all the panel participants reportedly agreed with one speaker’s claim “that Scripture is necessary not just to the Christian doctrine of salvation but to the proper interpretation of natural law for the purposes of cultural and political engagement” (italics added).

Read that statement again.

This is a crucial change in position, given earlier formulations of this issue!

In light of this remarkable change in position, I think it’s fair to ask: Will we be reading a formal printed retraction of the public claim by advocates of “the two kingdom doctrine” that natural unbelieving human beings can construct a valid public ethics solely on the basis of natural law? Or will we instead be invited to continue the conversation as if everyone now agrees with the claim about the necessity of Scripture for the proper interpretation of natural law for cultural engagement?

In light of this remarkable change in position, I think it’s fair to ask: How long will the church need to wait before advocates of “the two kingdom doctrine” repudiate the claims identified in the four questions above, all of them being made by advocates of various versions of “the two kingdoms doctrine”? Or will we instead be expected to continue the conversation as if these claims were not made, or not seriously intended, or not necessary implications of “the two kingdom doctrine”?

What, then, is our point in this post?

Simply this: To avoid any possible disingenuousness in the reported rapprochement, we need to remove any possible as if quality from our terminology, from our comparisons, and from our advocacy of the truth.

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Given this and similar recent blog posts, it appears that inch by inch, real progress is being made in reaching clarity in the contemporary discussion of how Christ(ianity) and culture relate. We may take comfort in knowing that this is neither a new discussion nor an easy one, given the wide-ranging positions and literature on this subject throughout church history. But we’ve not been orphaned—we are the beneficiaries of a rich legacy of Reformed and Reformational thought devoted to this discussion.

1. Charity served by logic

For example, several have responded favorably to my recent post about applauding the institutional church for both opposing the intolerable evil of abortion and encouraging the elimination of the intolerable evil of abortion. They recognize and appreciate the importance for this discussion of carefully employing logic in service to charity.

Universal rules of logic stipulate, for example, that encouraging the state to eliminate this particular evil of abortion is not at all equivalent to encouraging the state to eliminate all-evil-in-general. So be at peace: the former is no contradiction of the biblical teaching about total human depravity.

Universal rules of logic also stipulate that a distinction is not yet a separation, so that one can happily (and validly) distinguish spheres, kingdoms, church and state, religion and politics, without thereby separating them. Again, be at peace: to distinguish the ways in which the Lord Jesus Christ rules within and beyond the institutional church is not at all to separate these ways of rule. Nor is distinguishing among spheres of human cultural activity the same as separating them into autonomous, hermetically sealed domains.

Logic, then, can help us spot the false dilemma requiring us to choose between either a form of theocratic Christendom or a kind of religious secularism.

But you may be asking: What’s the payoff of making these logically valid points?

Such logic fosters clarity, demonstrates fairness, and enhances conversation. In other words, logic serves charity, and is therefore a moral commodity.

2. Preaching . . . principles . . . practices

It appears that a consensus is being reached among most responsible participants in the NL2K conversation. This consensus acknowledges that through the activity of preaching, the institutional church may—indeed: must—teach and inculcate among God’s people the principles of living as Christians in a Christian manner in today’s world. The concluding paragraph of the recent blog post mentioned above contains this helpful exhortation:

If the church wants to maintain its prophetic edge it needs to focus on what Scripture actually teaches, encouraging Christians to work out these principles in citizenship and vocation and in a spirit of service to their neighbors (think Kuyper’s distinction between the church as institution and the church as organism).

During the past few years, we have been seeking to make this helpful claim explicit, by way of legitimately unpacking the term vocation. It seems fair and valid to expand this claim as follows: the institutional church should focus on those principles that Scripture actually teaches in relation to the spheres of  . . . education . . . labor . . . art . . . and everything else that Christians do by way of cultural activity. The church should then encourage Christians to work out these principles as their calling to cultural obedience. Moreover, it may be helpful to add to the above claim this customary expansion: the church needs to focus on what Scripture teaches, including what Scripture teaches by good and necessary consequence.

So the connection between preaching and principles of Christian cultural obedience in today’s world is becoming recognized and acknowledged.

It seems but a small step, then, to recognize and acknowledge the legitimacy of the church’s preaching against specific intolerable evils and encouraging God’s people to endeavor (in unspecified, to-be-discovered ways that are legal, appropriate, and effective) to eliminate specific intolerable evils in society. Like slavery. Or abortion. Or the marriage of homosexuals.

With this small step, we have joined preaching, principles, and practices. A union that must surely be bathed in pastoral wisdom, saturated with exegetical insight, and respectful of believers’ (note the plural) moral maturity.

3. What, really, is a “prophetic” church?

All of this, it is suggested, is required if the church wishes to maintain “its prophetic edge.”

At this point, I’d like to echo and clarify a very important caution that has been sounded passionately and properly by NL2K advocates, regarding the competence and authority of the institutional church in terms of its administration of the means of grace. To do this is not to contradict anything said above. For one of the clear strengths of the neo-Calvinist, biblical assessment of varied spheres of activity is its ability to recognize and describe the limits and the competence of these spheres, including the institutional church, without separating any of them from the Word of God and its principles.

This question, “What is a ‘prophetic’ church?” is far too profound and complex to be answered adequately in this blog entry. But I’d like to register a couple of observations.

In the Bible, prophecy has less to do with prediction than with proclamation. Yes, there are futuristic elements within biblical prophecy, but these frequently form the conclusion or the “so what” of a prophetic sermon, whereby God announces what he will or will not be doing in response to the “answer” given by his hearers to the message being proclaimed.

So, being a “prophetic” church has less to do with foretelling the imminent constellation of nations in the Mideast resulting from the upcoming national election, for example, than with forthtelling what the Sovereign God of heaven will be doing on earth as we all await Christ’s return.

More importantly, in the Bible, prophecy is usually addressed to the church, that is, to the “old” Israel and the “new” Israel as the people of God. On the one hand, prophecy is addressed to the world-in-the-church, in terms of rebuke, warning, and summons to repentance. On the other hand, prophecy is also addressed to this church-with-the-world-among-her, in terms of comfort, encouragement, and summons to endurance.

Our point, for now, is that being a “prophetic” church, in line with how prophecy functions in the Bible, has less to do with the church telling the world-outside-the-church how to behave, than with confronting the world-inside-the-church with the covenant threats awaiting those who spurn God’s Word, and comforting the church-that-is-faithful with the covenant promises designed for those called to endure to the end.

To state the matter somewhat colloquially: far too much preaching goes “over the heads” of church people—to swat at people “out there,” people “in the world,” “those” people who advocate evolution, or defend one or another aberrant lifestyle, or hate God. Since generally speaking, I’m guilty of none of those “sins,” as a pewsitter, such “prophetic” preaching never lays a glove on me!

Truth be told, the first and principal (not exclusive) target of biblically “prophetic” preaching of repentance, conversion, and holiness is . . . the church, the world-in-the-church, as well as the faithful who are being oppressed by this world-in-the-church.

Belonging to such “prophetic” preaching, then, is the summons to repentance and the communication of comfort with respect to the church’s pilgrim-style, communal, cultural obedience in today’s world.

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Here is a rather provocative post commenting on the “bishop bans Biden” Roman Catholic controversy involving the Vice President’s political position on abortion.

What interests me here is the hopeful possibility of constructive engagement regarding the particular brand of what is known as “two kingdoms theology” (or NL2K, or R2K, or Escondido Theology), a novel construal of the relationship between Christ(ianity) and culture that has received a careful analysis and clear response in the newly released volume, Kingdoms Apart: Engaging the Two Kingdoms Perspective.

The blog post reviews the Biden controversy, along with some Roman Catholic casuistry (a good word, by the way!) for advising church members about voting for candidates who support abortion. Then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) offered some distinctions relating to evaluating the way in which a candidate’s toleration of abortion functioned in his political activity.

I’m fascinated by the author’s concluding praise for the Roman Catholic Church’s position:

The concern [of Ratzinger’s advice] is clearly to place the church in opposition to an evil so grave that it may never be tolerated. For that, I think, the Catholic Church should be lauded. There are some principles of moral obedience binding on a disciple of Christ that simply cannot be compromised, even if (or especially if) that disciple is a civil magistrate.

If we should applaud the church that advises its members regarding political responses to candidates who favor abortion, then by this logic we should also applaud the church that encourages its members—whether citizen or magistrate—to seek effective legal means that will eliminate “an evil so grave that it may not be tolerated.”

This encouragement should be applauded as being something distinct from the church endorsing, or requiring its members to endorse, one or another such legal means to eliminate this evil. (We are not arguing that the church-as-institute should endorse, say, a particular constitutional amendment relating to defending life at conception.)

This encouragement should be applauded because eliminating this evil is also required by “the principle of moral obedience binding on a disciple of Christ that simply cannot be compromised.” We would be troubled if our applause for the church-as-institute were permitted by our NL2K friends to be one-sided—applauding the church’s opposition toward intolerable evil, but not the church’s promotion of the good over against that evil.

Historically, it is exactly this kind of encouragement by the church-as-institute for the church-as-organism that has fueled Christian, Calvinist cultural engagement that seeks to express (not “extend”) the Lordship of Jesus Christ within the field of politics.

Historically, it is exactly this kind of encouragement by the church-as-institute that has identified Christian activity (something distinct from activity by Christians) in various cultural spheres as serving the coming kingdom of God (something distinct from building the kingdom of God).

Historically, this kind of encouragement arose from biblical preaching and teaching that presented the Cosmic Christ as having royal claims upon all Christian activity, as well as all activity by Christians, within cultural life.

Historically, this kind of encouragement from the church-as-institute motivated the collaborative application by Christian believers of biblical principles and perspectives to spheres like labor and management, citizenship and justice, education and nurture, science and art, and more.

If the institutional church should be applauded for opposing the evil of legalized abortion on demand, why should it not be applauded for promoting the elimination of that evil? And if the latter is valid, then on what biblical and theological basis should the institutional church be forbidden from promoting the good—pursued by believers laboring together beyond the activity and competence of the institutional church—in other areas of cultural life?

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This book is a collection of sermons preached and published by the author, suitable for reading in public worship and for personal devotions. The sermons cover the Old Testament book of Jonah.

For information on purchasing this newly published ebook, go here.

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Here are the money quotes from a rather remarkable post that explains a healthy version of “two kingdoms thinking” in terms of German Christianity in the Third Reich:

What is worth noting in the context of contemporary debates about political theology is that the two kingdoms doctrine was used in conflicting ways, both to support allegiance to the Nazi regime and to oppose it. For those inclined to support the regime the two kingdoms doctrine taught that the realm of politics and the state is separate from the realm of the gospel, representing a source of authority and identity distinct from that of Christ and yet binding on the Christian’s allegiance.

And a few paragraphs later:

What those Christians and churches who maintained this confession [the 1934 Barmen Declaration] – and their opposition to the Nazi regime – seemed to recognize, in contrast to many of those Christians who supported Hitler, was that the allegiance of Christians and of the church to Christ is preeminent in every area of life, and that therefore the authority of Scripture must always be the ultimate judge in matters of justice, political ideology, or politics. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer argued so carefully, versions of the two kingdoms doctrine that divide life into distinct realms, one of which is outside the authority of Christ, are denials of the Christ in whom all things exist. To conceive of any action or authority apart from Christ is to conceive of an abstraction.
Christians who held to the two kingdoms doctrine but who lacked this Christocentric perspective had little with which to resist the claims of a state that masterfully channeled the spirit of the times. Given our contemporary debates, that something we need to take seriously.

The entire post can be found here.

I, for one, have a hard time distinguishing this from what we’ve been writing and defending for more than three years, in terms of the NL2K (Natural-Law-Two-Kingdoms) discussion. You can find a clear and thorough articulation of this version of “two kingdoms thinking” in the book to be released on October 25, Kingdoms Apart: Engaging the Two Kingdoms Perspective.

Now, can we get everyone participating in the discussion to agree with this, perhaps as a starting point for moving forward?

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