White Horse Inn Blog

Know what you believe and why you believe it

The God of the Ordinary

So far throughout this series we’ve underscored this point: it’s not just the theology we profess but also the habits and practices that make certain doctrines plausible or implausible in the first place.  But the doctrines obviously matter.  Faithful convictions expose unfaithful ones and persuade us to re-evaluate the practical assumptions that we take for granted in our lives.

The doctrine of providence is that sort of doctrine.  It has fallen on hard times, though.  Its marginalization is no doubt a major contributor to our lack of appreciation for the ordinary.   A casualty of the culture wars, the doctrine falls through the crack between secular naturalism and hyper-supernaturalism.  Either everything is a miracle, or nothing is.  The result is that everything is brought down a notch.  Miracles lose their distinction as exceptional and extraordinary divine acts, while ordinary providence seems hardly capable of fending off a full-strength secularist virus.  To appreciate the ordinary, we have to begin with God as the original worker.  Here I try to distinguish God’s miraculous and providential ways of working while giving both their due.

Once upon a time, many average Christians expected to experience God in the ordinary and familiar routines of daily life.  You couldn’t go to the market or the park without passing the church in the center of town, with the graveyard reminding you that we all are hanging by a thread, dependent in every moment on the generosity of God.  In times of famine, drought, disease, or natural disaster, people worked hard, but they also prayed hard.

Today, God’s involvement in our everyday lives seems increasingly remote.  We go to the superstore to buy our packaged food items.  We find it easier to follow the Weather Channel than to pray during natural disasters.  For relief from plagues, we wait eagerly at the altar of technology for some word of a new pharmaceutical answer.  We want to believe that even these natural remedies are ultimately from God, but we often find ourselves trusting in the gifts more than in the Giver.

The options seem pretty stark.  On one hand, we encounter a dogmatic naturalism that identifies ordinary with natural, the means with the ultimate cause.  There is no God.  The world is self-caused and self-sustaining, the result of chance plus time.  On the other hand, in reaction, many Christians have adopted a hyper-supernaturalism.  In its laudable eagerness to uphold God’s existence, power, and involvement in the world, this approach tends to downplay the ordinary and natural means through which God fulfills his purposes.  Ironically, these opposing views end up agreeing on at least three crucial points: (1) There is only one cause; (2) If God is this cause, then his fingerprints must be obviously evident; (3) To the extent that natural explanations are appealed to, God’s involvement is negated.

None of the major branches of the Christian church or their representative theologians have agreed to any of these points.  A host of examples could be cited, but I will only summarize the consensus.

First, mainstream Christianity has never held that there is only one cause—one agent (namely, God).  Every now and then, a thinker has come along to suggest that everything that happens is a direct act of God, but this idea has typically been dismissed as a form of Creator-creation confusion (that is, pantheism or panentheism).  The traditional view that one finds in Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant teaching is that while God is the Lord of all, apart from whose eternal purpose nothing exists, he is not the immediate or proximate cause of every act.  This would include sin especially.  It is generally recognized that Scripture teaches both God’s all-encompassing sovereignty and human responsibility.  God is not the author of evil.  The fact that both of these truths are true is part of biblical revelation; how they can be true is beyond our comprehension or explanation.

Second, God uses ordinary and natural means to accomplish his purposes.  Following Luther, Calvin referred to these means as “masks” God wears.  We pray for our daily bread, but manna does not fall miraculously from heaven as it did for God’s people in the wilderness.  God fulfills this petition through natural processes and our neighbor’s vocations.  Some people plant, water, and harvest grain.  Others load and transport the grain to the mill and send the processed product to shops where bakers make the bread.  Still further steps are required, with other “masks” fulfilling their calling, before a sandwich appears on the table.  Do we thank God for that sandwich?  Of course.  Did he make it?  Ultimately, yes, but through many hands.  Therefore, we cannot choose between supernatural and natural sources.  God did it, through natural and ordinary means.  Similarly, our restoration to health may be attributed both to doctors and to God, but in different ways.  God is the ultimate healer, but he ordinarily heals through natural processes and remedies and skills that he has created, sustains, and gives.

Third, because God works ordinarily through so many layers of creaturely means, we cannot expect to decipher his immediate providence.  To begin with, we do not know his ultimate purposes if he has not revealed them to us in his Word.  We see the mask, but not the one wearing it.  What we encounter ordinarily is the baker—the immediate rather than the ultimate source of our daily bread.

In our day, we are even further removed from the baker by more layers of mediation.  Usually, we pick up our bread at the supermarket.  Normally these days, we don’t meet the dairy farmer who harvests the milk we drink.  As medical advances have exploded, we seem to have more natural diagnoses and treatments on hand before resorting to supernatural explanations and cures.  At this point, we may be inclined to embrace naturalism: the view that only that which we can see and subject to measurement and prediction truly exists.  Or we may react by embracing a hyper-supernaturalism that looks for God in the gaps—that is, where natural explanations are not readily evident.  Yet, as apologists have discovered, this approach ends up backfiring as scientific research expands and the gaps in the natural explanations are filled in.  Where is God to go?

The other response—the one that I am advocating, consisting with traditional Christianity—is that God has not gone anywhere.  We must not relegate God to those occasions when he is one cause among others that we can see, measure, and test.  We only have direct access to the natural means, but they are God’s ordinary way of working in the world and in our lives.  Every time a cut heals naturally, God is the ultimate healer.  The birth of a baby is not a miracle, but a splendid example of his providence that never fails to fill us with awe.  Instead of detracting from God’s sovereignty, natural explanations—especially the more complex ones that display the obvious evidence of God’s design—should provoke wonder at God’s concern, wisdom, and loving involvement in every detail of our lives.

Jim Gilmore on the Death of Robert Farrar Capon

Our good friend, Jim Gilmore, was asked to comment over at the Out of Ur blog on the death of Episcopal priest and author Robert Farrar Capon whose book on the parables we commended to you during the White Horse Inn series on the parables. Jim’s comments are rich (which we’ve come to expect from Jim): rich with personal insight, heart felt commentary, and humor.

Here’s a preview:

Robert Farrar Capon. Died September 5, 2013. Age 88.

Died. Capon would want it described this way. Not “passed away.” Not “departed.” Not “went to be with the Lord.” He died. Dead. Dead. Dead.

Many who will write tributes to the pastor, chef, and author, will undoubtedly call attention first and foremost to Capon’s delightful book,The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary ReflectionChristianity Today has already commented that Capon was “most notably” known for this work, a theological thought-tickler presented as a lamb recipe for eight, served four times. This focus is understandable, as the book is a truly unique treasure. I love the chapter in which Capon skewers the cocktail party; I think it the book’s climatic moment. To Capon, the cocktail party provides the host with an excuse to not be a host, flitting about here and there, never taking responsibility for the conversation among his guests. (Hmm … in this sense, I suppose all of today’s so-called “social media” is really just one big cocktail party!) Capon used the cocktail party as a foil to advance his case for the dinner party as the ideal social form of entertaining—for amusing ourselves delightfully to death. I’ve put his advice into practice. First, I helped stage a sizeable two-day business event in which every meal (breakfast, lunch, and dinner) was held at rectangular tables-of-eight for conversations-of-eight. (Hotel “banquet rounds” for ten inherently kill whole-table conversation.) And at home, my wife and I now sit as hosts in the middle of the long side of the dining room table when having three other couples over for dinner—that is, we’re not seated at either end, as had previously been our custom.

Read the rest at Out of Ur.

Sanctification: “Justification in Action”?

We get a lot of great questions sent to us.  Here’s one that I’d like to address because I hear it a lot these days.  The writer asks:

Here is the issue as stated: ‘Sanctification is NOT  “justification in action.”  Justification is a finished work. Sanctification is powered by regeneration, not justification.  The New Birth enables the believer to work with the Holy Spirit. Justification is a finished work apart from sanctification.  I’m sure you’ve written on this, just not sure where.

Yes, I’ve written at length on this subject in various places, including (more recently) my books The Christian Faith and Pilgrim Theology.  In a nutshell, though…

What I’m hearing, on one hand, are comments about sanctification being simply the outworking of our justification, and, on the other hand (often in reaction), that sanctification has nothing to do with justification but is simply the fruit of our union with Christ.

I think that Scripture clearly refuses this false choice.  Although I can’t make the full case here that I do elsewhere, let me summarize my conclusion.  It’s standard Reformed theology.  And, though perhaps nuanced a bit differently here and there, I think it’s substantially the same as the Lutheran view as well.

Faith is produced by the Spirit through the gospel.  This faith that rests in Christ for justification also receives Christ for sanctification.  In other words, union with Christ is not piecemeal.  We don’t have the forgiveness of sins through one act of faith and sanctification from another.  Faith embraces Christ for all he is and gives: freedom from both sin’s guilt and tyranny.  One day, as faith is turned to sight, we will also be liberated from sin’s presence.  So saving faith bears the fruit of love, and love expresses itself in good works as we serve our neighbors.  Here’s the order, then: Gospel – Effectual Calling/Regeneration – Faith – Love – Works.  God sanctifies those whom he justifies.

Looking at this from the “big picture,” then, sanctification is guaranteed by our union with Christ (through faith, given to us by the Spirit through the gospel in effectual calling).  It’s not only justification, but all spiritual blessings in Christ that ensure our sanctification.  Examining it in terms of the traditional “order of salvation” (ordo salutis), our gradual renewal and conformity to Christ (sanctification) is based on the imputation of Christ’s righteousness in justification.  Without that legal basis, there is no adoption, no sanctification.

So on one hand it’s reductionistic to say that sanctification is the consequence simply of justification (without including election, redemption, and the new birth).  And it’s dangerous, in my opinion, to say that sanctification is “justification in action.”  Justification is complete: a once-and-for-all judicial verdict based on the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.  Justification is therefore not “in action.”  It is finished.  Rather, it’s faith that is “in action,” always looking to justification as the security that allows us to move forward in confidence rather than fear.  Although in the act of justification faith is only a “resting and receiving,” because it receives Christ with all of his benefits it cannot be dead, but is immediately active in love and good works.  We are not only declared righteous, but grafted into the Righteous Vine, producing the fruit of the Spirit.

Ironically, those who see justification as absorbing the whole horizon of our blessings in Christ end up turning it into something more than the declaration that it is.  Yet those who fail to see a logical dependence of sanctification on justification within our union with Christ leave sanctification suspended in midair.  They fail to see the decisive role of justification in giving assurance of peace with God throughout the Christian life.

WHI-1171 | Extraordinary Gifts Through Ordinary Means

It is wonderful when thoughtful believers take initiative to learn what they believe and why they believe it. But this shouldn’t be something that can only be obtained through a spectacular conference experience or through the ideas of best selling book. Every church should be a garden, and every minister is called to water and tend each plant under his care, so that we’re all nourished by Christ, the life-giving vine.

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Extraordinary Gifts Through Ordinary Means

If you’re wondering whether your life counts if it consists of so many ordinary things every day, you are in good company.  After all, God works through ordinary means every day in so many ways that we often don’t even notice his involvement and our complete dependence on him in each and every moment.

Typically, we identify an “act of God” with the big stuff.  Earthquakes, hurricanes, and parting seas.  Or perhaps a better way of putting it: we identify the big stuff with what can be measured and obvious as a direct, miraculous intervention by God.  Millions of people around the world will turn out for a prosperity evangelist’s promise of signs and wonders.  But how many of us think that God’s greatest signs and wonders are being done every week through the ordinary means of preaching, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper?

Even in creation, God works through ordinary means.  Sure, there is the initial fiat-command, “‘Let there be light!’  And there was light.”  But then there are the other verses in the creation story where God said, “‘Let the earth bring forth…!’  And the earth brought forth….’” There’s nothing to suggest that this was anything other than a normal and natural process.  But does that make it any less the result of God’s sovereign word?

In every work of the Trinity, the Father speaks in the Son and by his Spirit, who is at work within creation to bring about the intended effect of that word.  But God uses means, often many layers of means.  This is actually for our good.  Since no one can see God’s face and live, we need God to wear various masks as he condescends to love and care for us.  We pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.”  We don’t expect it to fall from heaven.  Rather, we know that God will give it to us through farmers and bakers and warehouse employees and truck drivers and shop clerks and so on.

Of course, the eternal Son’s incarnation was extraordinary.  Like, “‘Let there be light!’” was a direct miracle.  So too were his signs and wonders culminating in his own resurrection.  And yet, his gestation and birth were a normal nine-month process as he assumed our humanity.   Even our divine Savior “increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man” (Lk 2:52).  Imagine Jesus learning Mary’s favorite Psalms and asking Joseph questions in the shop about God and life while they were making chairs.  Daily, ordinary, seemingly little stuff that turns out to be big after all.  Even his crucifixion was just another Roman execution, as far as what the onlookers witnessed.  And yet, through it, God was reconciling the world to himself.

Then think of the way the Father unites us to his Son by his Spirit today. “So Faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ” (Rom 10:17).  A normal process: a fellow sinner is sent by God to proclaim the forgiveness of sins to me in Christ’s name and I believe and am thereby saved (vv 14-15).  Baptism seems less dynamic than, say, raising someone from the dead or giving sight to the blind.  And yet, we are “baptized for the remission of sins” and “the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).  What can the regular administration of the Lord’s Supper accomplish, with the most ordinary daily bread and wine as the elements?  Nothing by them alone, but through the Lord’s Supper God promises to deliver Christ with all of his benefits (1 Cor 10:15-17).

We keep looking for God in all the obvious places.  Obvious, at least, to the natural eye.  But God chooses to be present in saving blessings where he has promised, in the everyday means that are available to everyone and not just to the spiritual “storm trackers.”  We don’t climb up into heaven or descend into the depths to find God.  Christ is present where he has promised: that’s the argument Paul makes in Romans 10.

If our God is so keen to work in and through the ordinary, maybe we should rethink the way we confine him to the theatrical spectacles, whether the pageantry of the Mass or the carefully staged healing crusade.

What’s true in our salvation is also true in providence.  The birth of a baby doesn’t have to be elevated to the status of a miracle to be a stupendous example of the wonder of God’s ordinary way of working in our lives and in the world.  We can’t rule out miracles, but we also can’t expect them.  By definition, they aren’t ordinary.  Miracles surprise us.  But have we lost our joy in God’s providential care, working through normal processes and layers of mediation that he himself has created?

Once we recover a greater sense of God’s ordinary vocation as the site of his faithfulness, we will begin to appreciate our own calling to love and serve others in his name in everyday ways that make a real difference in people’s lives.

 

WHI-1170 | Ordinary Excellence

Some may argue that the call to recover “ordinary discipleship” is simply a call to mediocrity and low expectations. But as we’ll discuss in this program, ordinary discipleship is actually a higher quality form of discipleship that’s sustainable over the long haul, one that doesn’t give up easily when immediate results are unseen. On this program, we’re in part two of our month-long series, Ordinary.

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Ordinary Excellence

Far from throwing a wet blanket on godly passion, the goal of this WHI series is to encourage an orientation and habits that foster deeper growth in grace, more effective outreach, and a more sustainable vision of loving service to others over a lifetime.

But is “ordinary” a cop-out for mediocrity?  Is it a call to low expectations, failure, and passivity?  On the contrary, it’s a call to sustainable discipleship over the long haul not only throughout an individual’s life but also over generations.  It’s not a call to do less, but instead is a call to invest in things that we often give up on when we don’t see an immediate return.

So, in order to get off on the right foot, I want to identify what we don’t meant by “ordinary.”  Too often, it’s seen as synonymous with nominal, mediocre, passive, disengaged—a cop-out for just not caring.  The very fact that “ordinary” now has these connotations underscores the shift in our cultural imagination.  It’s a shift that makes it difficult to nurture those values that actually sustain deep commitments, values that enrich our lives and the lives of those around us.

Many of us had parents who were wind beneath our wings.  They encouraged us to aim for the stars.  We can all recall a coach or teacher who believed in us when we weren’t so sure of ourselves.  People like that are worth their weight in gold.  We cannot live without drives, passions, and goals.  God wired us that way and pronounced it “good.”  Yet everything that the Bible identifies as sin, and that even our nature recognizes as such, is something essentially good gone wrong.  Or more precisely, something that God has made that we corrupt.  Augustine defined the essence of sin as being curved in on ourselves.  Instead of looking up to God in faith and out to our neighbors in love, we turn inward.  We use God’s good gifts as weapons in the service of our mutiny against him and each other.

A good example of this is the pursuit of excellence.  It is going over and beyond the call of duty, with God’s glory and our neighbor’s good as the goal.  But this virtue can easily become warped when it is centered on us.  Whether due to a lack of confidence or over-confidence, we focus on goals and our own measurable progress rather than on the end toward which we should aim.  When this happens, “standards of excellence”—at school, at work, in the church and in family life—become an idol.  We have a certain image of ourselves or of the persona that we would like to project and we guard it at all costs.

Obviously, excellence is not the problem; we are.  The question is whether by excellence we mean quality or quantity, hype or substance, perpetual novelty or maturity.  It has often been said that American Christianity is a thousand miles wide and an inch deep.  If we were to measure excellence by God’s standards, the list might seem a little foreign and strange: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal 5:22).  Not exactly the qualities that are mentioned in job postings for leaders these days.

I have to say—and it will not come as any surprise to anyone involved in ministry—that things don’t often seem different in the church.  Love, joy, and peace are often threatened less by doctrinal disputes than by selfish ambition.  Tribes gather around a charismatic figure and then the movement that they form exalts itself over other churches or movements that haven’t caught up with the spirit of the age.  The mutual submission of members in local churches through the oversight of pastors and elders is seen as a fetter on one’s unique and utterly personal relationship with God.  The New Testament vision of local churches (and their leaders) submitting themselves to others in broader assemblies of accountability for doctrine and life surrenders to the atmosphere of the marketplace and political campaigns.  Patience is threatened by restless devotion to the latest slogan, the emerging generation, or the newest church growth/personal growth/social transformation program.  Kindness and goodness have given way in large measure to a coarse and inhospitable rhetoric that would have been considered sinful by our forebears and socially inappropriate by their contemporaries.  Faithfulness is not likely to thrive in an environment of perpetual revolutions, self-expression, and makeovers.  And the mature qualities of gentleness and self-control are made subordinate, at least in practice, to the sort of reckless, visceral, and often ill-informed judgments that we once associated with adolescence.

Excellence is still a goal to which we strive.  That’s true of anyone who’s driven by a worthy prospect, cause, or calling.  But the goal will not only determine the means but also whatever we assume excellence to be in the first place.  Since our failures are liberally pardoned by a merciful Father in Christ, we can strive “to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.”  It is life not of fear, but of “endurance and patience with joy, giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light.  He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Col 1:10-14).

Does the Two-Kingdoms Distinction Necessarily Lead to Apathy and Indifference Toward Social Issues?

Guest post from the Reverend Ken Jones, Pastor of Glendale Baptist Church (Miami, Florida) and Co-Host of White Horse Inn.

 

Recently Dr. Anthony Bradley—a good friend and co-author with me—(we both contributed chapters to Glory Road and he was the general editor of a book to which I contributed a chapter) offered a rather scathing indictment against the so-called “two-kingdoms” position, sparked by a statement by Carl Trueman in support of the view.  Before offering my opinion, I will first offer Trueman’s statement and then Dr. Bradley’s indictment:

In short, they (Christians) will be those whose faith informs how they think and behave as they go about their daily business in this world.  Christianity makes a difference through the lives of the individual Christians pursuing their civic callings as Christians, not through the political posturing and lobbying of the church.

Anthony Bradley responded on his Facebook page:

Friends, if you ever wonder why Presbyterians turned a blind eye to Black suffering during slavery and sat on the sidelines during the Civil Rights Movement, it’s the position stated above.  This sounds good on paper, but if the church has no social witness, history demonstrates that ‘individual Christians’ will simply remain individualistic….

He allows for hyperbole in asserting, “Presbyterians turned a blind eye to Black suffering …”. (After all, slavery and related issues led to significant splits within the Presbyterian Church as early as 1857.)  Furthermore, Presbyterians (theologically liberal though they may have been) such as William Sloan Coffin and Eugene Carson Blake were on the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement of the ‘60s.

But my concern is not to defend the smattering of Presbyterian voices of opposition to slavery and segregation.  The issue for me is whether or not “two kingdoms” thinking necessarily results in apathy and non-involvement on these matters.

Let me offer three observations.

First, Presbyterians were not the only evangelicals that used the “spirituality of the church” as the basis for not voicing opposition to slavery or segregation.  E. V. Hill once quipped, “The civil rights marches and protests of the ‘60s may not have been necessary if Billy Graham had spoken out against racial segregation in the ‘50s.”  To his credit, Jerry Falwell publicly acknowledged in the ‘70s that he and other conservative Baptists were wrong in not publicly denouncing racial segregation.  Most notably, in 1960 the all black National Baptist Convention president refused to make the Civil Rights Movement a part of the convention’s platform, which led to the formation of the Progressive National Baptist Convention the following year.

That brings me to a second observation.  All institutional non-involvement did not lead to group apathy or individuals on the sidelines.  I grew up in a National Baptist church during the Civil Rights Movement of the ‘60s.  While our church did not side with the progressives, many individuals within our church (including the pastor) partnered with groups such as the NAACP, SCLC, and other local and national organizations that were fighting for change.  Our church called racial segregation a sin and members were challenged as citizens to make their voices heard.  Congressman John Lewis of Georgia is a good example.  He was a licensed Baptist preacher from a conservative Baptist church who marched and participated in freedom rides and the March on Washington.  He did so not in the name of his church but as an individual working with other individuals and organizations on the front line.

Here’s my final point.  In my estimation, it is healthy and helpful to revisit some of the church’s missteps on these critical issues of social justice.  Fear of being labeled with the social gospel tag caused inertia on the part of many evangelicals, both black and white.  Some may have done so while claiming fidelity to “two kingdoms,” I don’t know.  But it is precisely for the sake of theological integrity that I think the world can benefit from a clear and consistent “two kingdoms” perspective.  In other words, consistent “two kingdoms” thinking allows one to engage the issues of the day and become co-belligerents with people without religious convictions, all for the sake of justice, without compromise and without confusion.  It would be wrong to assume that Southern Presbyterian indifference or apathy toward Black suffering during slavery and the civil rights struggles was a natural and logical consequence of “two kingdoms” thinking.  That would be similar to assuming that the apartheid of South Africa was a natural and logical consequence of the Kuyperian Calvinism that it professed to follow.

If one wants to debate the merits or demerits of “two kingdoms,” there’s room for that.  It is a stretch, however, to blame the church’s sins of social justice on a “two kingdom” theology when there were (and are) plenty of Christians–from many different perspectives–who share the blame.

Two Kingdoms and Slavery

A few years ago I had the privilege of speaking at a conference on Karl Barth at Princeton Seminary.  In one unforgettable moment, George Harinck, history professor at the Free University of Amsterdam, explained the difference between the way members of his church (a confessionally conservative Reformed body) and the students of Barth responded to the Nazi occupation.  Consistent with the Barmen Declaration, the Barthians told Hitler to take his hands off of God’s church.  “But our church’s leaders,” related Harinck, “told Hitler to take his hands off of God’s world.”

Professor Harinck belongs to the Reformed Churches—Liberated, a continuing body of the denomination led by Abraham Kuyper.  This remark stayed with me and has haunted me as I try to think through the relationship of Christ and culture.  Where it has clear exegetical warrant, the church speaks authoritatively for God, in Christ’s name, to all of the principalities and powers in this present age.  Christ is Lord of all, not just the church, and his universal claims are to be proclaimed to the world as well as to be embraced and obeyed by those who are called by his name.

I was reminded of Harinck’s provocative comment while reading an interesting volley over the “spirituality of the church” in the blogosphere.  The concern was raised by someone I respect that this doctrine—more generally identified as “two kingdoms”—led to the toleration if not outright encouragement of slavery and segregation in the Southern Presbyterian Church (PCUS).

Like the “two kingdoms” distinction advanced by Luther and Calvin, the “spirituality of the church” refers to its distinct calling in the world.  When I affirm “two kingdoms,” I have in mind the Great Commission issued by our Lord, which mandates that the church preach his Word, administer the sacraments, and preserve the discipline and unity of the body through its officers.  As the Westminster Confession puts the matter, “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” (31.4).

According to the caricature at least, a “two kingdoms” view separates the believer’s life in the church from his or her life in the world.  Anthony Bradley is a conservative Reformed and African-American theologian. In his dialogue with Carl Trueman and others, he raised some pretty important questions about whether such a “dualistic” perspective was precisely what kept the Presbyterian Church in the South from opposing slavery and then segregation.

This is a hugely important issue, especially since the sins of our fathers are still with us and our own Reformed and Presbyterian denominations do not seem yet to reflect the diversity that anticipates the worshipping throng in Revelation 5:9.

So I’ll offer a few brief comments as a pushback to this charge.

First, it is implausible to suggest that the “spirituality of the church” (or “two kingdoms”) was the glue that held together the southern Roman Catholic, Episcopal, Presbyterian, Methodist, and Baptist churches in their common defense of slavery.  Slavery held them together.  Their views on the matter were argued on the basis of racist doctrines and tortured appeals to slavery in biblical times, as if it were anything like modern slavery that depended on kidnapping, murder, theft, and numerous other sins identified in Scripture as capital offenses.

Second, even if we could accept the caricature of the “spirituality” or “two kingdoms” approach as dualistic, this would only mean that the church refused to address the evil because it was a political matter.  In actual fact, though, the church itself was segregated—often more so than society at large.

Third, Southern Presbyterian theologians who labored indefatigably to defend slavery may have cloaked some of their arguments in appeals to the church’s spiritual mission, but they were calling the state to perpetuate the institution from the pulpit and classroom lectern.  I have in mind especially R. L. Dabney and James Henley Thornwell, who based their arguments on a vision of a Christian society that would make the South the envy of the world and enemy of revolutionaries everywhere.   Their arguments for slavery were not based on the spirituality of the church (I’m not even sure how they could be) but on racist dogmas, Scripture twisting, and wicked cultural prejudices that vitiated the gospel.  Charles Hodge was exactly right when he said that Thornwell was using the spirituality of the church as a cover for his errors.  Assimilating Christ to culture is the sort of thing that the spirituality of the church is especially designed to guard against.

Fourth, it is “guilt-by-association” to argue that because such views on slavery and race were held by people who also spoke of the “spirituality of the church,” the latter view is implicated.  One has to show that the doctrine actually supported racism.  Yet it is very easy to argue that the theological architects of apartheid in South Africa thought they were implementing the transformative vision of Abraham Kuyper.  In fact, they had some support for it in Kuyper’s own writings.  When South Africa’s largest Reformed body confessed apartheid to be heresy, the explanation of its development was linked directly to the Kuyperian movement.  In his biography of Kuyper, James Bratt relates that the Dutch leader did not favor the emerging Afrikaner nationalism.  Nevertheless, many of his ideas were applied:

Key leaders in the Reformed churches in South Africa would work their way to Amesterdam to study at the Free University, and they would have considerable impact in shaping Afrikaner thought and identity in the 1920s and 1930s. They magnified the suggestion Kuyper had taken up from S. J. Du Toit that Afrikaners had a holy calling in their land. They savored the biblical warrant that Kuyper gave to the pluriformity of human cultures, giving the Tower of Babel episode normative status for human history and interrelationships. Most crucially, they adapted philosopher H. J. Stoker’s addition of the volk to the sovereign ‘spheres’ ordained of God. With that, Romantic sociology and European racism received a warrant beyond appeal–and quite beyond what Kuyper had accorded them. The results were startling: a system of separate organization based on race instead of religious confession….

This was a radical reversal of the inter-racial Reformed churches and missions that went all the way back to the time of the Synod of Dort (Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat [Eerdmans, 2013], 295-96).

So, from a “two kingdoms” perspective, Southern Presbyterians like Dabney and Thornwell and the Afrikaner architects of apartheid were driven by cultural prejudice over Scripture and by a vision of creating a “Christian” (code for “white”) culture.  Any view of the relation between Christ and culture can be abused—including a “two kingdoms” approach.  It would be easier to blame our tradition’s complicity with social sin on a group or party that held a particular doctrine.  But the issue here is racism, pure and simple.  And it is still with us.

Now let’s imagine ourselves back in the 1850s.  What would a “two kingdoms” or “spirituality of the church” doctrine lead one to do?

First, it would lead the church to exercise its spiritual function—specifically, the ministry of the keys (opening and shutting the kingdom of heaven in Christ’s name).

This would be done by preaching the whole counsel of God, including his wrath against the sin of slavery.  There is no Christian liberty to disobey God’s commands and he has commanded clearly that he hates kidnapping, theft, and murder—sins on which the modern slave trade and slave-holding thrived.  Even Christian families were separated from each other for the economic gain of white Christians.  There is no comparison between this form of slavery and the largely debt-based indentured servitude of ancient societies.

Further exercising the keys, churches committed to the spirituality doctrine would have disciplined members and especially officers who held slaves or shared in the traffic of slaves.  It would have been as natural for a church embracing its spiritual mission to do this as it would have been in the case of members and officers participating in a chain of whorehouses.  After the customary steps, the discipline would take the form of excommunication for the unrepentant.  Dr. Dabney was held in high esteem after the Civil War as a minister and professor, as he continued to defend slavery as an honorable institution.  What would have happened if the church had in fact exercised its spiritual vocation?

Second, there is nothing in the “two kingdoms” or “spirituality” doctrine to keep the church from declaring to the civil powers directly what it proclaims to the world from the pulpit.

Recall the judicious language of the Confession above: “…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.”  It is hard to conceive of a greater example of a “case extraordinary.”  Today denominations offer solemn declarations on all sorts of matters that are not addressed in Scripture and should, therefore, be left to Christian liberty.  The church has no authority to determine the details of public policy, but it does have the authority—indeed, the obligation—to declare God’s condemnation of public as well as private sin.

Third, the church is not only the people of God gathered, but the people of God scattered into the world as parents, children, neighbors, and citizens.

Imagine what might have happened if the Southern Presbyterian Church (PCUS) had fulfilled its spiritual mandate in the first two ways I’ve mentioned.  Wouldn’t the members be shaped by God’s Word and Spirit to oppose such a horrific evil?   And wouldn’t they do so not only in their extended families but in their towns and cities?  Wouldn’t they carry their convictions to the voting booth as loyal citizens?  Some would even do so as judges, legislators, and generals.  What if the church that nurtured R. L. Dabney had denounced slavery with one voice, with all of the spiritual authority in heaven behind it?  Would he have become a notorious defender of racist religion as he preached, wrote, and served as chief of staff to Stonewall Jackson?

Some Southern Presbyterians who held a “spirituality” view (such as B. B. Warfield’s father and grandfather) did oppose slavery on theological grounds.  In fact, his maternal grandfather did so as chairman of the Republican Convention that re-elected Abraham Lincoln, in opposition to his nephew, former Vice President of the United States and a Confederate general.  B. B. Warfield himself shared his father’s pro-abolition and “two kingdom” views and, at the turn of the twentieth century, wrote one of the most moving pleas for integration.  What if the church had been unified on the Word of God touching this crucial matter?

So to return to Professor Harinck’s arresting point:  Anyone who affirms the “two kingdoms” acknowledges Christ as the Lord of both.  Even through pagan rulers, Christ exercises his worldwide dominion.  We tell the principalities and powers not only that the church belongs to Christ, but that ultimately the world belongs to him as well and will not tolerate indefinitely the injustices of this age.  We address Caesar with confidence where the one greater than Caesar has spoken.  And yet addressing the magistrate in his or her public office can be done only “in cases extraordinary,” and “by humble petition.”  In any case, we encourage Caesar in his defense of justice and punishment of evil-doers.  More than this, we announce a law to which everyone is bound and a gospel by which even Neros may be reconciled to God and those they’ve offended.

To lodge the authority of the church in the mission that Jesus assigned to it seems restrictive and ineffective in transforming the world only if we forget that the gospel is the power of God unto salvation.  Are the preaching of the Word, the administration of the sacraments, and church discipline inconsequential in this great battle between the powers of this present evil age and the reign of Christ?  Or are churches powerless against the evil one precisely to the extent that they fail to fulfill their sacred mission?  The history of slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, and the racisms that still haunt our society teach us just how sorely we need the state and the church to carry out their distinct but often cobelligerent callings—the one as God’s minister of temporal justice and the latter as the ministry of everlasting life.

WHI-1169 | Courage in the Ordinary

Have you noticed that words like “extreme” and “revolutionary” have ironically become part of our “ordinary” vocabulary, even in the world of contemporary Christianity? We’re constantly encouraged to “transform the world,” to pursue “radical discipleship,” or to do “big things for Jesus.” What is the cost of this continual use of superlatives? With the help of Tish Harrison Warren, we’ll discuss this issue and point to a recovery of “ordinary discipleship” in a world of hype.

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