I had the pleasure of being a guest on today’s installment of Coffee & Markets, the fine podcast hosted by Kevin Holtsberry and Pejman Yousefzadeh. I got to talk about Abraham Kuyper and his essays on common grace, particularly in the areas of science and art.
Check out the podcast and some related links over at the Coffee & Markets website.
At the Daily Beast yesterday, Michelle
Goldman Goldberg muses on the movement of “the ultra-right evangelicals who once supported Bachmann” over to Ron Paul. This is in part because these “ultra-right evangelicals” are really “the country’s most committed theocrats,” whose support for Paul “is deep and longstanding, something that’s poorly understood among those who simply see him as a libertarian.” (Goldberg’s piece appeared before yesterday’s results from Iowa, in which it seems evangelical support went more toward Santorum [32%] than Paul [18%].)
Goldberg shows some theological sensibilities as she tries to trace the connections between Christian Reconstructionism and libertarianism. Better informed readers will recognize some of the holes, however, as Goldberg describes proponents of Reformed or “covenant theology” as those who “tend to believe its man’s job to create Christ’s kingdom before he comes back.” Christian Reconstructionism becomes, then, “The most radical faction of covenant theology,” and, “a movement founded by R. J. Rushdoony that seeks to turn the book of Leviticus into law, imposing the death penalty for gay people, blasphemers, unchaste women, and myriad other sinners.” (For an opposite reading of Paul that criticizes him precisely for not seeking to legislate biblical morality and his “opposition to moral legislation,” see D. C. Innes’ piece over at WORLD, “Christian, why Ron Paul?”)
So while Goldberg is right to note the interesting connections and tensions between libertarianism and Reconstructionism, the connection of Reconstructionism to broader evangelical and Reformed “covenant theology” is rather more tenuous. In part this must be because she relies primarily on Steve Deace, “an influential Iowa evangelical radio host,” for her mapping of the intellectual and theological landscape. But it’s also due, of course, to the impulse to paint any conservative Christian who draws political implications from their faith as a kind of theocrat, whether a theonomist, Reconstructionist, or the latest term bandied about by Goldberg in connection with Michelle Bachmann and Rick Perry, “Dominionist.”
On the one hand, you rarely if ever hear this sort of worrying over the influence of those on the religious Left, who very explicitly want to make an American government in line with their image of biblical justice. On the other, Goldberg’s connection between Christian Reconstructionism and libertarianism, especially in the person of Gary North, is quite legitimate. This can be seen in more detail and with more nuance in one of the few academic articles to explicitly address this connection, “One Protestant Tradition’s Interface with Austrian Economics: Christian Reconstruction as Critic and Ally,” by Timothy Terrell and Glenn Moots. And as pieces from David Bahnsen and Doug Wilson from earlier this year show, the connections between reconstructionists and libertarians are deep, in part because, as Wilson puts it, “We are talking in many cases about the very same people.”
But as Terrell and Moots point out, the place of Christian Reconstructionism within the broader context of American evangelicalism, and Reformed covenant theology in particular, is hotly disputed. Indeed, write Terrell and Moots, “Some of the most notable critiques of Christian Reconstruction come from within conservative Presbyterianism.” So while Christian Reconstructionism might self-identify as a kind of Reformed covenantal thinking, this doesn’t mean that all Reformed covenant theology is either postmillennial or prone to theonomy. As no less than John Calvin writes in his Institutes,
The allegation, that insult is offered to the law of God enacted by Moses, where it is abrogated, and other new laws are preferred to it, is most absurd. Others are not preferred when they are more approved, not absolutely, but from regard to time and place, and the condition of the people, or when those things are abrogated which were never enacted for us. The Lord did not deliver it by the hand of Moses to be promulgated in all countries, and to be everywhere enforced; but having taken the Jewish nation under his special care, patronage, and guardianship, he was pleased to be specially its legislator, and as became a wise legislator, he had special regard to it in enacting laws.
This is a sentiment commonly shared by Reformed theologians of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the theological forebears of Reformed “covenant theology.”
Terrell and Moots conclude with an emphasis on the importance of taking religious motivations and theological convictions seriously:
Recent history demonstrates that the considered prescription of a free society has advanced best when it is a broadly ecumenical and pluralistic discussion. This means that it not only includes secular and religious justifications but also takes into consideration the breadth and depth of religious viewpoints.
So I think we should applaud Goldberg for taking into consideration the religious viewpoints and influences of candidates like Ron Paul, Rick Perry, and Michelle Bachmann, but we should also take her to task for not being a bit more sensitive to the complicated theological landscape. Christian Reconstructionists are a vocal minority, a “fringe” as Goldberg calls them, among politically conservative Christians, but their specific views about biblical laws and punishments are simply not attributable to every evangelical candidate.
Unfortunately this kind of conflation is all too common in the media and popular entertainment. As Russell Moore writes of “dominionism” (and by extension all of the charges of theocracy against conservative Christians) in the latest issue of The City,
the menace of this movement is routinely exaggerated by the media. All this is quite rare, a movement on the far fringes of faithful life. And the scare tactics are made worse by ignorance, particularly among those who don’t understand ‘dominion theology,’ and assume the use of the word ‘dominion’ itself as a call for theocracy as the consolidation of Christian political power — when the case is so exactly the opposite.
And as I conclude in the same issue, “Those in our day who level the baseless charges of suspicion against Christians for undermining the public good deserve to be branded as the real dissemblers and enemies of common good.” Or as Calvin put it, “It is not we who disseminate errors or stir up tumults, but they who resist the mighty power of God.”
It has long been customary to distinguish characteristically Protestant and Roman Catholic approaches to ethics by understanding Protestants to embrace a dynamic divine-command approach and Roman Catholics to pursue stable natural-law methods.
James Gustafson, for instance, writes that the strength of Roman Catholic moral thought is “an ordered pattern of moral thinking, based upon rather clear philosophical and theological principles with positive moral substance.” On the Protestant side, we find “a theology and an ethics that has a looseness and an openness which is responsive to modernity as the context in which the Christian community has to find fresh and relevant ways to counsel and to act.”
In an incisive piece at Christianity Today earlier this week, Matthew Anderson of Mere Orthodoxy highlights why evangelicals tend to be skeptical of natural-law arguments, “Why Natural Law Arguments Make Evangelicals Uncomfortable.” But Anderson does this in a way that avoids identifying Protestant ethical thought as univocally opposed to natural-law thinking.
As heirs of the Reformation, most evangelical ethicists have argued that the brokenness of human reason makes it insufficient to successfully persuade people in public on the basis of universally accepted moral norms.
Anderson goes on to note Carl Henry’s opposition to natural law, but also observes that Protestant reticence about the approach does not always result in wholesale rejection of the doctrine of natural law.
Anderson refers to Stephen Grabill’s Rediscovering the Natural Law in Reformed Theological Ethics as leading the charge in an array of recent attempts to more fully and responsibly understand the role of natural-law thinking in Protestant traditions. Anderson also notes David VanDrunen’s latest work, Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms: A Study in the Development of Reformed Social Thought.
VanDrunen in fact points indirectly to the central role that the Acton Institute has played in fomenting this kind of corrective work. He writes, “2006 alone saw the publication of three books by Reformed authors designed to retrieve their tradition’s natural law and/or two kingdoms doctrines.” On the former front, he points to Grabill’s work and his own monograph, A Biblical Case for Natural Law, each of which are connected directly to the Acton Institute. VanDrunen rightly observes that the fact that “such books would appear within a few months of each other is rather remarkable.” VanDrunen also makes use of primary source works that have appeared in the institute’s Journal of Markets & Morality, including pieces by Johannes Althusius and Jerome Zanchi.
The upshot is that Protestantism has had its own variety of characteristic approaches to natural law, and these are not reducible to the stereotypical divine command occasionalism or neo-Thomistic rationalism. A quote from Al Moehler represents these middle paths perfectly: “As an evangelical, we have every reason to use natural law arguments; we just don’t believe that in the end they’re going to be enough.”
Anderson’s piece has sparked some broader conversation, particularly at the First Things site. This includes posts from Joe Knippenberg and Greg Forster. Forster concludes, “Natural law is not the whole picture – but a recovery of our four-century natural law tradition (call it something else if the phrase “natural law” bothers you) has to be part of it.”
Also noteworthy is a recent conference on natural law and evangelical political thought. Although I wasn’t able to attend, given the variety of speakers I would hope that the real diversity of natural-law approaches from various traditions was well-represented.
As I noted in the context of the Witherspoon Center’s recent project, the characteristically and uniquely Protestant views of natural law have not always been properly appreciated. Thus far in the most recent rounds of conversation, the particularly Protestant emphasis on the voluntarism of the anthropological problem, that even though we know what is good we willingly choose not to do it, when sinners “suppress the truth by their wickedness,” warrants greater emphasis.
While there is much to applaud in the Center for Public Justice and Evangelicals for Social Action’s “A Call for Intergenerational Justice,” the lack of discussion of the problem of economic growth is troubling. I believe Don Peck is correct when he writes in The Atlantic:
If it persists much longer, this era of high joblessness will likely change the life course and character of a generation of young adults—and quite possibly those of the children behind them as well. It will leave an indelible imprint on many blue-collar white men—and on white culture. It could change the nature of modern marriage, and also cripple marriage as an institution in many communities. It may already be plunging many inner cities into a kind of despair and dysfunction not seen for decades. Ultimately, it is likely to warp our politics, our culture, and the character of our society for years.
The only solution here seems to be economic growth. And while tackling the staggering problem of the debt is an integral component to ensuring the younger generation gets a fair shot to succeed the first and most pressing issue is employment itself. There is little in ‘A Call for Intergenerational Justice’ that takes this challenge seriously as it calls for cuts in programs (Such as military spending and business subsidies) which do create jobs for many Americans. This is not to say that these cuts should be taken off the table but rather that there needs to be an acknowledgement that these cuts will also affect Americans negatively and may, in the short term at least, add to the ranks of the poor in America.
These are not easy questions to answer but I believe that any solution to the question of intergenerational justice must begin with the question of economic growth. We need solutions that empower entrepreneurs, invigorate the private sector, and accelerate economic growth informed by an understanding of the role of markets and free enterprise.
This year’s Lausanne Congress, Cape Town 2010, is underway and all reports are of a massive event, with substantial buildup and coordination of efforts of and implications of various kinds across the globe. (Dr. Anthony Bradley, a research fellow at the Acton Institute, participated in one of the conversation gatherings last month leading up to the Cape Town event.)
In my book published earlier this summer, Ecumenical Babel, I mentioned Cape Town 2010 as one of the major ecumenical events taking place this year. Dr. Stephen Grabill, in his foreword to the book, wrote extensively of the opportunities and challenges facing evangelical ecumenical efforts.
I think holistic biblical stewardship understood as a form of whole-life discipleship may be just the motif or infrastructure that the ecumenical movement has needed “to move purposefully forward.” At the beginning of the twenty-first century, an unprecedented opportunity exists to disciple the church in the fundamental pattern of holistic stewardship. As the church becomes increasingly aware of issues of sustainability, seeks to understand the role of business, and expands the message of the grace of giving as a central motif of the Christian life, an environment for personal and corporate transformation takes root.
Dr. Grabill and Brett Elder (of Acton’s strategic partner, the Stewardship Council) are both in Cape Town over the next weeks to participate in the event in a number of ways.
Speaking of Grabill’s usage of the phrase “grace of giving,” there is a site setup to coordinate a number of the resources that are being made available to Cape Town delegates. A special edition of the NIV Stewardship Study Bible is being made available to all the attendees, as well as a Cape Town edition of occasional papers for the Resource Mobilization Working Group published by Christian’s Library Press under the title Kingdom Stewardship.
For a really stunning and inspiring story of how the concept of stewardship can enliven and enrich our lives, check out the story of Bishop Hannington of Uganda, now appearing on the Grace of Giving site.
In an interview promoting his recent book Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite, D. Michael Lindsay, describes what he sees to be the intellectual sources of evangelicalism:
And the interesting thing is that the Presbyterian tradition, the Reformed tradition, has provided some of the intellectual gravitas for evangelical ascendancy. And it’s being promulgated in lots of creative ways so that you have the idea of Kuyper or a cultural commission of cultural engagement is being promulgated by Chuck Colson, who is a Baptist. So Presbyterians are – if I had to say what are the two main intellectual influences on the evangelical ascendancy – it’s Roman Catholicism, conservative Catholicism, embodied by, let’s say, Richard John Neuhaus in First Things. And it’s going to be Reformed theology coming out of places like the philosophy department at Calvin College.
In 2002, a conference was held at Calvin College as part of recognition of the hundredth anniversary of Abraham Kuyper’s Stone Lectures at Princeton. The proceedings of the conference, “A Century of Christian Social Teaching: The Legacy of Leo XIII and Abraham Kuyper,” were published in the Journal of Markets & Morality, and included closing comments from Chuck Colson that illuminates a connection between the two sources of evangelical intellectualism that Lindsay identifies.
Since 1992, I have been involved in an organization called Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT). (And I have the scars to show for what has often been a controversial undertaking.) Working for accord between people of goodwill from both communities is something I believe in very deeply, and I see this conference advancing that cause.
The thoughts that I want to share with you tonight are inspired by that great Dutch theologian and statesman, Abraham Kuyper, and I do so, noting with particular pride that this is the one-hundredth anniversary of his famous Stone Lectures at Princeton University. Dr. Kuyper’s influence on my life has been profound. I was introduced to him by people here at Calvin. Another influence in my life is that of John Paul II. I suspect that our Catholic brethren here tonight would agree with me that someday he will be known not just as Pope John Paul II but as John Paul the Great—one of the most significant figures of the twentieth century.
And while Kuyper rightly deserves credit for being one of the leading influences on American evangelicalism, so too does his contemporary Herman Bavinck warrant greater appreciation. Two notable publications this year testify to this.
First, the fourth and final volume of the translation of Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics is newly available, Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation. And secondly, a collection of articles and treatises by Bavinck on various topics has been translated in Essays on Religion, Science, and Society. The latter volume includes essays “On Inequality,” “Classical Education,” and “Ethics and Politics” that will be of special interest to PowerBlog readers.
Update: See also, “The Roots of American Evangelicalism,” in five parts.
Following up on our discussion of the Pew survey on the American religious landscape, I have a few thoughts as to what plagues American Protestantism, particularly of the evangelical variety, and it has to do precisely with the “catholicity” of Protestantism.
To the extent that people are leaving Protestantism, or are searching for another denomination within the broadly Protestant camp, I think there are at least two connected precipitating causes. (A caveat: there are many, many individual and anecdotal exceptions to the generalizations I will make below, and I think they serve to highlight rather than to undermine this basic picture.)
The first is the lack of historical connection to tradition (with a lower case “t”) among American Protestants. Whether by intention or ignorance, the relation of Protestantism to the broader church’s history is sorely under-recognized.
Part of this phenomena is the anti-creedalism, anti-confessionalism of many evangelicals, such that when something like the Apostle’s Creed is even part of a worship service, the church is confessed to be not one, holy, “catholic,” and apostolic but rather “Christian” (or at best “catholic” with a footnote).
Part of it is simple intellectual laziness (i.e. not having the methodological and academic rigor to take up questions of the origins of the Protestant Reformation in its context). The claims of the reformers to represent the authentic “catholic” Christianity of the church’s tradition, focused especially on their grounding in the patristics, must be dealt with responsibly, even if in the final judgment some find these claims to be untenable. More often than not, the claims to the catholicity of the Reformation are ignored rather than engaged.
The second cause is a lack of connection with worldwide Christianity. The “catholicity” of the Church has not only to do with our connection to the past tradition, but also to contemporary believers who live all over the world. If the Pew survey is bad news for American Christianity (and evangelical Protestantism in particular), then the good news is that the church is not limited to North America and that Christianity is growing both by number and by vigor in the global south and east.
Part of the emergent impulse is I think an inchoate and instinctual response to these realities. Wouldn’t it be tragically ironic if at the height of American evangelicalism’s political influence its spiritual core was failing? We need to be concerned about “whitewashed tomb” syndrome, so focused on the external influence of the church on culture, politics, and society that we abandon the church’s primary spiritual calling.
In addition to an increased historical awareness of the roots of the Reformation, one fruitful avenue to explore in making these connections is in the pursuit of a theology of obedience, suffering, persecution, and martyrdom, a theology more along the lines of Tertullian, Kierkegaard, and Bonhoeffer than of the political and cultural Christendom that has so recently dominated the church in Western civilization.
A sampling of some books worthy of consideration that are indirect popular responses to these problems I identify:
- Charles Colson and Harold Fickett, The Faith: What Christians Believe, Why They Believe It, and Why It Matters
- Dennis Ockholm, Monk Habits for Everyday People: Benedictine Spirituality for Protestants
- Craigh Hovey, To Share in the Body: A Theology of Martyrdom for Today’s Church
- Barry Harvey, Can These Bones Live? A Catholic Baptist Engagement with Ecclesiology, Hermeneutics, and Social Theory
- Mark A. Noll and Carolyn Nystrom, Is the Reformation Over? An Evangelical Assessment of Contemporary Roman Catholicism
Related to John’s post about “natural” capitalism (and as I previously promised in the context of the “new” evangelicalism), I’d like to point to this summary of the contemporary situation from Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, speaking of a left/right political divide:
This bifurcation is itself an important clue to the central characteristics of modern societies and one which may enable us to avoid being deceived by their own internal political debates. Those debates are often staged in terms of a supposed opposition between individualism and collectivism, each appearing in a variety of doctrinal forms. On the one side there appear the self-defined protagonists of individual liberty, on the other the self-defined protagonists of planning and regulation, of the goods which are available through bureaucratic organization. But in fact what is crucial is that on which the contending parties agree, namely that there are only two alternative modes of social life open to us, one in which the free and arbitrary choices of individuals are sovereign and one in which the bureaucracy is sovereign, precisely so that it may limit the free and arbitrary choices of individuals. Given this deep cultural agreement, it is unsurprising that the politics of modern societies oscillate between a freedom which is nothing but a lack of regulation of individual behavior and forms of collectivist control designed only to limit the anarchy of self-interest. The consequences of a victory by one side or the other are often of the highest immediate importance; but, as Solzhenitzyn has understood so well, both ways of life are in the long run intolerable. Thus the society in which we live is one in which bureaucracy and individualism are partners as well as antagonists. And it is the cultural climate of this bureaucratic individualism that the emotivist self is naturally at home.
There has been a lot of confusion over Mike Huckabee’s invocation of the term “vertical politics,” but I think it is one attempt (perhaps futile) to come to terms with this feature of modern political life. The fact that the chattering classes exist in a two-dimensional realm explains why they have trouble understanding such attempts at transcending a binary political continuum. Such attempts at transcendence seem to me to be necessary given a view that holds to a hierarchy of moral goods (perhaps a minority view, nowadays).