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April 28, 2010
Before reviewing the rest of chapter 1, I want to voice my appreciation for VanDrunen’s tone in this section.  Unless I am missing hidden barbs of underlying sarcasm (which may well be the case, since I have become rather fuller of the milk of human kindness since moving over here than I was in my American Reformed days), his general tone throughout is patient, measured, carefully qualified, and quite respectful of his opponents.  I am particularly gratified by the way he summarizes figures such as N.T. Wright, John Milbank, and Stanley Hauerwas, all of whom tend to be polarizing figures, oft misrepresented, especially in American Reformed circles.  He represents them fairly and seems to have genuine respect for the insights and contributions they bring to the theological discussion, even where he disagrees with them.  He clearly thinks that neo-Calvinism is deeply flawed, yet he never acts like they are stupid, wicked, irrational, or incoherent.  In all of these respects, I found this book much easier reading than I’d expected, having been prepared by my experience with Darryl Hart for a lot of snarkiness.

Van Drunen concludes his definitional section by saying that, “Through these two doctrines, therefore, the older Reformed writers rooted political and cultural life in God’s work of creation and providence, not in his work of redemption and eschatological redemption through Jesus Christ.”  This looks to me like something of a thesis statement for the book, so we should keep it in mind as we go through.  I have questions about the coherence of this statement, though, because what does it mean to “root” political life in God’s work of creation vs. Christ’s work of redemption...or rather, what would it mean to do otherwise?  Who, we may ask, wants to “root” political and cultural life in Christ’s work of redemption, suggesting that this is their initial grounding?  Obviously political and cultural life precede Christ’s work of redemption, so it would be wrong to “root” them in it.  Is VanDrunen not rather objecting to those who might seek to root Christ’s work of redemption the way Christians should act in political and cultural life in--i.e., who say that Christians ought to engage in such spheres as redeemed people and emissaries of Christ’s work?  Or is he objecting to those who would say that political and cultural life, though rooted in creation, should be transformed by Christ’s redemption?  I suspect that this is really what he is saying, and if so, I must confess that I have trouble understanding how and why anyone would want to object to that.  
He then moves to state the troubling situation that moves him to write, which is that Reformed people now reject natural law as Catholic and the two kingdoms as Lutheran, or worse, reject both as Enlightenment ideas that encourage secularization and the privatization of religion.  I happily admit that I am among those with such skepticism, with the latter kind of skepticism in particular.  I am certainly in favor of some kind of natural law, but the concept is a dangerous and ambiguous one, that can easily turn into Enlightenment accounts of reason; as for “the two kingdoms”--well, there are many different versions of this, but it is hard for me to imagine one that does not dangerously limit the social reach of the Church’s work.  
Before proceeding any further, VanDrunen clarifies the potentially slippery language of “social” and “culture”: the former refers to “the common life that people live together in their various economic, political, and legal (etc.) relations”; the latter to “the vast range of activities that constitute human life.”  Not particularly precise, but what can you expect with terms like these?  Interestingly, he remarks, “This is not to say, of course, that religious bodies are not social and do not have their own cultures which may influence and be influenced by the world at large”--that’s just not what he’s planning to talk about.  I’m skeptical whether this crucial angle can be so casually left out, but we’ll see.
He now turns to look at the plight of current Reformed social thought, which he sees as having been largely captivated by the errors of Kuyperianism (or neo-Calvinism).  He takes a page to give a portrait of this view, a portrait which he clearly intends to be critical, but which it’s hard to see why.  For these folks “the foundation for cultural activity is not so much the creation order as it is being preserved as it is God’s redeeming the creation order and moving it toward its eschatological goal of a new heavens and new earth” (4).  Again, we could bicker about whether “foundation” is the right word, but surely, now that God is redeeming the creation order, we should live in light of that work of redemption and not pretend it isn’t happening?  “Rather than two kingsdoms, these writers affirm one kingdom of God.  This kingdom, encompassing all human activities and institutions, was originally created by God in perfect righteousness (with potentialities that were to be actuated in history), was corrupted through the fall into sin, and is now being redeemed from corruption and advanced toward its eschatological goal.  Christians are not to dismiss any area of life as outside of God’s redemptive concern, and thus are to seek to transform all activities and institutions in ways that reflect the kingdom of God and its final destiny” (4).  I’m no Kuyperian, but I’d certainly identify with that description.  It’s a pity that this is primarily a historical, rather than theological work, because I’m really curious to see exactly where and why VanDrunen would disagree with that picture.  Obviously, there will be disputes about exactly how and to what extent certain activities and institutions will be transformed, and which ones should be done away with entirely, and so on, but to suggest that the general statement--that all of life is to be redeemed--is false seems to me to be a doubting of the gospel.  VanDrunen ends this summary by offering what he thinks are particularly ludicrous examples of this way of thinking that he has encountered: “ordinary Reformed people found goat-breeding socieites on a ‘Reformed basis’ and wrestle with how to develop college football programs in accordance with a Reformed world and life view” (4).  Now, perhaps these need not be conceived on a narrowly sectarian Reformed basis, but these seem to me like two excellent activities to try to carry out in a distinctively Christian way.  Why not, Dr. VanD.?  
In any case, he concludes, these ideas are fundamental shifts from Reformation teaching, since Calvin, for instance, “identified only the church with the redemptive kingdom of Christ and denounced the claim that civil government was a part of Christ’s kingdom” (4).  I have a suspicion that the word “kingdom” is being used ambiguously here.  Undoubtedly Calvin did want to talk about the Church, not the State, under the heading of the “kingdom of Christ,” and yet, if you had asked, “Are all areas of human life, including civil government, under Christ’s lordship and should they be lived out in light of his redemption?” it is hard for me to imagine that he would say no.  But, we shall see.  
On the next page, VanDrunen says that this shift is particularly odd because the Reformers, though insisting on two kingdoms doctrinally, did not seem to live out this doctrine, happily embracing a close union of Church and State; and neo-Calvinists, though denying the two kingdoms, seem happy to live in modern pluralist societies.  He is right to point out hypocrisy among some neo-Calvinists, though I don’t think it necessarily lies exactly where he sees it, but I’ll leave that point alone for now.  I’ll also register my opinion that the reason he sees a contradiction between the Reformers’ doctrine and their practice may well be because he has misconstrued their doctrine.  But there will be plenty of opportunity later on to investigate that.
Now, things start to get really interesting.  On pages 7-10, he ties in the current craze for neo-Calvinism with various other crazes on the modern theological scene which, in his mind, betray similar concerns.  First he lists the New Perspective on Paul, and figures such as N.T. Wright, who have protested against readings and applications of Paul that separate his “theological” concerns from his social and political concerns.  Second he lists Stanley Hauerwas and those who have drawn inspiration from the Anabaptist tradition (and from Alasdair MacIntyre, he notes!), in his rejection of secular liberalism and call for a uniquely Christian culture.  He mentions also Brian MacLaren and the emerging church as “similiar in many important respects.”  Third, he mentions Radical Orthodoxy, with its radical critique of non-Christian thoguht and attempt to “give a thick, Christian account of all of reality.”  All of these, he thinks, are somewhat related phenomena, all of which have been sympathetically adopted by many neo-Calvinists.  
Now, the cynic will be quick to point out that perhaps the only common thread in these three sets of ideas is that they are un-VanDrunenian.  That is to say, perhaps VanDrunen commits the classic error (so beloved of Reformed folk) of establishing his position as the measuring-rod, and then lumping together every form of position that differs from him as “the same sort of thing.”  He singles out the criterion: “Do they think that Christianity applies to all of life?” and casts all those who answer “Yes,” (who it seems to me should be the vast majority) into the same mold.  But, to be fair to VanDrunen, we should admit that there is a great deal of affinity between these three strands, both one with another, and with at least some forms of “neo-Calvinism.”  VanDrunen does a good job on picking up on some of the crucial points of contact--a skepticism about the powers of independent secular reason, an antagonism toward the state, the idea that the Church must embrace its role as a society against surrounding societies.  Nevertheless, I think he has to pave over a lot of important differences, both within each strand and between them, to treat the NPP, Hauerwasianism, Radical Orthodoxy, and Kuyperianism as species of a genus...perhaps classes of an order, to continue the taxonomical analogy.  
But, I must move on, because some interesting comments follow this section.  VanDrunen worries that “the considerable comfort it [neo-Calvinism] may feel within these broader discussions may in fact betray significant internal tensions that it experiences just below the surface and challenge it to reckon with its present claims in light of the claims of the earlier Reformed tradition” (10).  Intriguing...tell me more.  He turns to the issue of violence as an example.  The three strands just mentioned, he says, tend to “press these points more consistently than many recent Reformed writers.  For they have observed that Scripture portrays the kingdom of Christ as a non-violent, peaceful kingdom which does not wield the sword.  Therefore Christians, in witnessing for this kingdom and expressing its way of life in all of their activities, ought to pursue non-violent means of acting in the world....Christians exist as the church and for the world not as a community complementary to the state, but as an alternative to the state....[Here he says, which I appreciate, that this school of thought seems to have a very strong case from a biblical perspective]  Yet if this is the case then why have so many contemporary Reformed writers comfortably identified the stte as a good part of God’s creation, as another area of life subject to redemption, as an arena in which Christians do well to participate?...Those reviving the peace traditions of the radical reformation therefore challenge contemporary Reformed social thought to carry through more consistently one of its own most basic premises (the need for Christians to express the way of Christ’s kingdom in all of their activities) and join them in a thoroughly non-violent lifestyle.  But for Reformed Christians to do so would in fact be no small step in ironing out a minor inconsistency.  To do so would constitute a major break with their heritage.” (11).  Whew!  Thus he lays down the gauntlet to the Kuyperians-- “Either get serious about this faith for all of life business and become pacifists, or drop the idle talk!”  Now, it ought to be pointed out that this is of course a bit unfairly oversimplistic of VanDrunen.  After all, straightforward pacifism is not the only alternative, as should be clear from the fact that many of the thinkers who fall broadly within the three strands above are not pacifists--e.g., N.T. Wright.  So far as I know, Milbank isn’t either, though correct me if I’m wrong.  
However, I think VanDrunen is dead-on in his main point.  Kuyperians do a lot of talking about transforming everything in light of Christ’s redemption, and yet this transformation starts to look more like a light makeup job when it comes to the state.  Indeed, Kuyperians do not necessarily accept the central social role that these other three strands give to the Church, and thus leave matters of authority, violence, law, etc. relatively unchanged by the new creation begun in Christ.  This is why, I think, that many neo-Calvinists who have encountered Wright, Milbank, or Hauerwas are feeling the need to revise or reject their Kuyperian sphere sovereignty, and why the rest are finding themselves in something of a pickle.  
So VanDrunen has certainly found a weak spot, and he pounces on it eagerly...a bit over-eagerly, as it turns out.  The neo-Calvinists, he thinks, resist pacifism because of the lingering remnants of the two kingdoms theory that they still hold to, and they must be made to see this inconsistency, so they can be convinced that, in order to avoid the error of pacifism, they have to embrace two kingdoms theory in its entirety.  “Because the early Reformed tradition affirmed two kingdoms of God, the civil and the spiritual, it could posit the full legitimacy of the the coercive state as a God-ordained institution without running afoul of Biblical teaching” (12).  As VanDrunen seeks to portray it in these pages, there are two basic options--either adopt the two kingdoms theory--the idea of two radically different but parallel realms of God’s work--and you can maintain some role for a sword-bearing state, or else you will have to reject the state altogether.  This is another classic Reformed move--it’s either my way or the highway.  There are a plethora of highly-respected ethicists and political theorists out there who would protest against VanDrunen’s neat bifurcation, insisting that there are theological ways of allowing for a limited continuing role for civil authority without adopting VanDrunen’s full-fledged two kingdoms view.  As just mentioned, I think N.T. Wright and John Milbank would fit this description, as would figures like Oliver O’Donovan, Charles Mathewes, and Peter Leithart.  
Before moving this portion of the review onto its much-needed close, I want to critically comment on the paragraph with which VanDrunen closes this section.  “In their capacity as citizens of the spiritual kingdom of Christ, Christians insist upon non-violence and the ways of peace, refusing to bear arms on behalf of his kingdom; in their capacity as citizens of the civil kingdom, they participate as necessary in the coercive work of the state, bearing arms on its behalf when occasion warrants.  As citizens of the spiritual kingdom they have no patriotic allegiance to any earthly nation; but as citizens fo the civil kingdom a healthy patriotism is certainly possible” (13).  To VanDrunen this sounds like a neat, tidy solution to the problem; to me it sounds like schizophrenia.  Do we really not see a problem with describing a Christian in terms of this kind of dual citizenship?  This is no doubt a question that will continue to crop up.  Then VanDrunen says, “As citizens of the spiritual kingdom they can make radical critiques of all theories, practices, and institutions that are not submissive to the redemptive lordship of Christ; but as citizens of the civil kingdom they can acknowledge the significant benefits that the state brings for earthly life, enjoy the amazing products of human culture, and seek common cause with non-Christians on a variety of social projects” (13).  This kind of rhetoric annoys me.  The implication here is that, without the two kingdoms theory, those seeking to radically critique secular society could not “enjoy the amazing products of human culture, and seek common cause with non-Christians on a variety of social projects.”  This is simply not true, and ignores the many careful ways in which Christian thinkers have delineated the ways in which a Christian may be in the world without being of the world. 
In the final few pages of the chapter, VanDrunen gives an outline of how he proposes to proceed, and summarizes the contents of each chapter, so I don’t see any need to interact with those pages here.  So, on to chapter 2 in the next review.  Hopefully now that we’ve got a lot of this foundational stuff out of the way, it will go much faster.

2 comments:

Matt Peterson wanted to post this, but for whatever reason couldn't, so I'm posting it for him:
"Obviously political and cultural life precede Christ’s work of redemption, so it would be wrong to “root” them in it." Would St. Maximos the Confessor agree? (Admittedly I'm not too familiar with him.) If the Incarnation is the cause of all things, the Incarnation is the cause of political and cultural life. And following St. Paul, if all treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden in Christ, bodily, wouldn't the treasures of the wisdom of living well politically and culturally be hidden in the Incarnation, and thus rooted first--at least for us--in the Incarnation?

April 29, 2010 at 8:47 AM  

I will now reply to Matt (not to myself, as it appears):

I had wondered whether someone might raise that objection. And to be sure, I would agree that, reflecting on things from that incarnational angle, there's an important sense in which political and cultural life begins and ends with redemption. This is a Barthian point as well as an Orthodox one.

But I think that for many neo-Calvinists (which is who VanDrunen is aiming at) that would not be part of their paradigm, and, from their perspective, they would agree that cultural and political life is rooted in creation, but would insist that it is unavoidably transformed in redemption. So I perhaps spoke unguardedly and overstated the point.

This, however, comes back to a point I made in the previous post, regarding how this should not be posited as a question of either creation or redemption, but rather of how we construe that relationship in the first place. I object to how VanDrunen treats "creation" and "redemption" as two given, independent theological pillars, so that the only question then is which things we decide to build on which pillar. And of course that's not how it works; the relationship between the two is much more complex than that.

April 29, 2010 at 3:39 PM  

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