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Archive for the ‘Eschatology and ethics’ Category

Drew soccer

Grandson Andrew Hans Kloosterman moving the ball downfield.
Photo © Nelson D. Kloosterman

With this very helpful post, the discussion of “two kingdom theology” is surely being advanced!

Three notes for further reflection:

1. The term eschatology is not simply a “time word”—as in: something we wait for until after we die. As strange as it sounds, the Bible teaches us that the future is now already. For the Christian, the future drives and shapes the present. In the Bible, eschatology is always for ethics!

2. Based on this post, there seems to be a very close resemblance, if not identity, between this description of “two kingdoms theology” and the “already/not yet” distinction long employed within Reformed biblical studies—as in: “the kingdom of God is already present but not yet complete.” That’s been the diet for decades of students of Geerhardus Vos and  Herman Ridderbos and Richard Gaffin and George Eldon Ladd and Graeme Goldsworthy and . . . the list could go on and on. So then, what’s new?

3. Please munch on this sentence from the post: “Temporal actions are spiritual for Christians both because they point to the justice of the coming kingdom and because they carry with them eternal rewards.” The eternal rewards of faithfulness-in-history—now that deserves a book!

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This essay written by Matthew Tuininga is the third in a series seeking to explain the heart of the new movement known as “natural law and two kingdoms” (NL2K, R2K, or simply 2K). It remains to be seen, however, whether his numerous qualifications designed to safeguard his position and to effect rapprochement with worldview Calvinism will offer genuine clarity or generate more confusion.

After describing ways in which the Christian witness to Christ’s lordship will affect our vocations, communities, and presumably our culture, Tuininga summarizes his point this way: “About all of these cultural affairs, in which believers engage in common with unbelievers, Scripture has much to say.”

In light of that summary statement, then, read carefully the following paragraph:

This point, of course, clashes with the rhetoric of some two kingdoms advocates who want to emphasize how little Scripture says about political or cultural engagement. And to be sure, there is distinct danger at both extremes here. On the one extreme are those Christians who find the need to seek explicit Scriptural justification for every little thing that they do, an approach that creates the enormous temptation to read into Scripture things that simply aren’t there, or to apply passages in ways they were never meant to be applied. But it is just as problematic to overreact to that mistake by pretending that Scripture has nothing to say about Christians’ vocations, social life, or political engagement, or by requiring pastors to refrain from teaching what Scripture clearly teaches (italics added).

I draw your attention to the italicized phrases, and offer the following observations.

1. It is clear that the author seeks to be even-handed in criticizing the extremes of the positions in question, almost to a fault. However, I have yet to meet any Christian participating in this debate who “find[s] the need to seek explicit Scriptural justification for every little thing that they do.” This statement constructs a straw man, and has the regrettable effect of diminishing the force of his correct observation that some users of Scripture misapply passages of Scripture.

2. The author appears to present a forceful repudiation of the position that tends to reduce what both Scripture and pulpit teach regarding the Christian’s cultural engagement. I hasten to remind readers, however, that we’re not out of the woods just yet. For by adding to the last sentence the phrase, “what Scripture clearly teaches,” the author has simply carved out for himself a refuge, an oasis, a safe place—since the debate currently raging involves precisely the scope of what Scripture clearly teaches about political or cultural engagement. As the author notes, some NL2K advocates insist that Scripture’s explicit teaching about these matters consists of very little. Others of us insist that in various ways (guide, guard, compass, and example) all of Scripture furnishes the child of God for every good work—including cultural obedience (2 Tim. 3.16-17; Ps. 119.105).

3. By the end of the paragraph, then, it is not at all clear that the author’s point “clashes with the rhetoric” of the extreme NL2K advocates he has tried to identify! In fact, his final sentence seems to echo rather clearly exactly what these advocates have been telling us on this blog.

This is why the author’s next paragraph is essential reading:

Far better is to determine (and preach!) the principles revealed in Scripture, some of which I have outlined above, while maintaining humility consistent with our call to be servants (and therefore refraining from preaching) about the way in which those principles might apply to concrete circumstances, organizations, or policies. All of the major Reformed confessions contain rigorous affirmations of general revelation or natural law, in part relying on the broad Christian consensus about the meaning of Romans 2:14-15. And while Christians should never seek to interpret natural law without using the lens of Scripture, they should also be careful not to confuse the lens with what we see through that lens. It is one thing to humbly seek to articulate a worldview based on Scripture. It is another thing arrogantly to assume that the worldview we have articulated is the teaching of Scripture itself. Most of what we know about mathematics, science, or history is not derived from Scripture, although Scripture shapes how we interpret it. We should expect the same when it comes to our understanding of culture, economics, or politics (italics and bold added).

Again, several observations.

1. Finally, someone has “picked up” on the difference between preaching and applying the Scriptures directly to our current culture, and preaching and applying the principles of Scripture to our current culture. This difference is crucial and essential to this part of the debate. Thank you!

2. It is not very clear, however, what is meant by “refraining from preaching about the way in which those principles might apply to concrete circumstances, organizations, or policies.” Does this mean that the church should never preach about the concrete application of those biblical principles? That claim requires far more nuance to be helpful.

Consider this example. In 1936, as German tanks were rumbling across Europe, the synod of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands declared that membership in the National Socialist Movement or in the Pacifist Movement was incompatible with membership in Christ’s church. From what this author has written, it would appear that such a decision, and preaching consistent with it, would be illegitimate. Similar examples could be cited, examples of the church speaking concretely to specific circumstances, organizations, and policies.

This very matter is becoming a pressing issue, in view of the current political restrictions of religious liberty in connection with nationalized health care.

All of which is to say: this qualification doesn’t supply the needed clarity.

3. We come next to the author’s comments on general revelation and natural law.

3.1 Surprisingly, the author identifies and equates these two, when he insists that the Reformed confessions rigorously affirm “general revelation or natural law.” This imprecision is unhelpful because it renders the issue unclear. For in identifying these two, what is being overlooked is that “natural law” is somebody’s formulation of the moral requirements embedded in creation. To follow the author’s own advice (this is tongue in cheek), we really should not identify the product of human reflection (natural law) with the object of that reflection (general revelation).

3.2 Finally, attention is being given, in this debate, to the role of Scripture as the spectacles through which creation revelation is interpreted. Thank you!

3.3 Unfortunately, however, what is given with the right hand is then retracted with the left hand. This exhortation not to identify what is seen through the spectacles (worldview) with the spectacles themselves (Scripture) is, well . . . a nasty boomerang! This is the very argument that has been used to disconnect the church’s dogma from Scripture, in order to denigrate the authority of “human formulations” (can you say Confessions?). To illustrate the point, substitute the word “confession” for the word “worldview” in the following sentences—“It is one thing to humbly seek to articulate a worldview based on Scripture. It is another thing arrogantly to assume that the worldview we have articulated is the teaching of Scripture itself.”

Would it be “arrogant” to assume that the confession we have articulated is the teaching of Scripture itself? If not, why is it “arrogant” to assume that the worldview articulated from Scripture is the teaching of Scripture itself?

Now, before anyone gets agitated, I understand the complaint about giving the so-called “Christian worldview” confessional status. I’m neither pleading for that, nor defending that. I am simply issuing the caution that the distinction being employed here, warning us not to identify what-we -describe-as-being-seen with the spectacles-through-which-we-see, is a knife that cuts more than one way.

3.4 Regrettably, like so many others advocating today’s version of NL2K, the author has chosen to ignore, while speaking enthusiastically about “general revelation or natural law,” the biblical and confessional teaching about the intellectual, moral, and spiritual extent of human depravity with respect to rightly apprehending and employing both general revelation and natural law. Amid all the strident huffing and puffing about this criticism of the NL2K position, perhaps people will settle down enough to examine rationally where the Confessions end up in their treatment of things “natural.” A good place to begin is with Canons of Dort 3/4.4—all of it.

*  *  *

Postscript: Lest you imagine that the NL2K/R2K/2K debate is a tempest in the North American Reformed/Presbyterian teacup, think again. This insightful interview from Australia will help you do that careful thinking.

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My friends know that I am the son of an immigrant father. Before I was born, my father came to the United States from the Netherlands. I think I was fourteen years old before I realized my father spoke with an accent, when a friend asked me, “Why does you dad talk so funny?” Ever since then, I have learned to appreciate the accents with which people speak English.

Of course, in this post I’m not really interested simply in a linguistic accent, but far more in a theological, philosophical, personal accent.

In this video presentation on “Principled Pluralism, South African-become-American Gideon Strauss combines, in an accent that is both winsome and welcoming, a clear-headed articulation of this core idea within whole life Calvinism. If you’d like to learn more about Gideon, check this out.

Enjoy!

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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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This morning, I want to refer you to a most helpful blog post by Matt Tuininga, which you can find here.

This is why I think it is so helpful.

Matt clarifies an important distinction between representative neo-Calvinism and radical forms of neo-Calvinism. This distinction is so important, because it enables all of us to acknowledge that the former has always operated with an understanding of two kingdoms that seeks to uphold Scripture, honor the church, and respect the tension between this age and the age to come. Many criticisms of neo-Calvinism from some of today’s two-kingdom advocates apply only to radical forms of neo-Calvinism. Representative neo-Calvinism, by contrast, enjoys an international reputation for Scriptural fidelity, for historical rootedness, and for responsible churchmanship.

Matt is right: many of the goals and cautions envisioned in today’s advocacy of two kingdoms are shared by representative neo-Calvinism.

I want to thank Matt personally and publicly for this clarification, and want to commend his blog to our readers.

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Those tracking the intra-mural debate about gospel driven cultural obedience (GDCO) will appreciate this clear assessment of Augustine’s political phenomenology. In “Reforming Public Theology: Two Kingdoms, or Two Cities,” Calvin College philosophy professor James K. A. Smith clarifies the historical portrait of Augustine en route to identifying key conditions for residents of the City of God functioning in the city of man.

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Someone (a fatherly ministerial colleague, in fact) once told me that you really need to hear only one good sermon in your life. We call that hyperbole, exaggeration to make a point. His point was that a well-constructed and well-delivered textual sermon puts enough fuel in your tank so you can travel a long, long way.

In our age of advertising-by-superlatives and politics-by-overstatement, it is dangerous even to suggest that this sermon on Romans 8.18-25, “A New Creation,” may be that sermon for you. It is very well crafted, largely because its language and metaphors and stories powerfully open the text. The ethical implications are stunning.

Covenant Presbyterian Church of Chicago is not my home church (which is Lincoln Square PCA), but I happen to be teaching a six-week class at Covenant PCA on “How Do Pilgrims Have Fun? Living As God’s Children in God’s World.”

Attending the worship service before that class last Sunday morning afforded me the gift of hearing this sermon, and I share it with you. I wish you could have heard this sermon in the context of the entire liturgy, a liturgy for the 4th Sunday of Eastertide that included an early Latin hymn, a hymn from St. Ambrose (340-397), and a congregational reading from Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 1, 43, and 45.

To suggest that this single sermon “says it all” is hyperbolic. But on the other hand . . . give it a listen, and see if you agree.

Enjoy! And be blessed!

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