Posted by Brad Littlejohn at 6:03 PM
May 1, 2010
To write a chapter called “Precursors of the Reformed Tradition” seems a rather risky way to proceed, as it invites the criticism that you have set up the Reformed tradition as the perfected endpoint, and have scripted all of previous Church history into a narrative of development towards and imperfect realizations of this ideal. Indeed, it is perhaps inevitable that this structural decision will lead to a somewhat imperfect and one-sided treatment of the history. But I confess that VanDrunen does quite a good job (at least, so it seems on a first reading) of steering clear of the pitfalls that accompany this approach. I was impressed and (I must confess) surprised by VanDrunen’s careful, even-handed treatment of the history, allowing each author to speak more or less for himself, rather than forcing him into the preconceived schema of what he was going to try and prove later, and by his sympathetic use of medieval Catholic sources, treating them as part of the single, continuous heritage of the Church’s teaching.
I say “surprised” because this has not been, in my experience, typical of what you expect to find from Westminster Seminary professor, but perhaps times are changing. Moreover, from my experience with Darryl Hart, I’d come to expect his brand of “spirituality of the church” advocate (as I’d perhaps over-hastily classified VanDrunen) to imaginatively project their idiosyncratic view backwards onto other figures with rather different views. But, in any case, on the basis of chapter 2 I repent somewhat of these negative stereotypes. This is not to say that I don’t have some lingering questions and objections, but on the whole I must admit this chapter to be coherent, balanced, and enlightening.
In it, VanDrunen examines five variants of the “Two Cities” and the “Two Swords” doctrines of the Patristic and Middle Ages, considering them to each be, in certain respects, precursors of the mature “Two Kingdoms” doctrine. Then he looks at the use of natural law in the three leading medieval philosophers: Aquinas, Scotus, and Ockham. Finally, he argues that both of these strands are picked up by Martin Luther in his political theology, which provides the direct precursor to Reformed political theology.
Let’s look at each of these three sections in turn.
A criticism immediately suggests itself regarding the first section. Has not VanDrunen simply taken up every different sort of “Two somethings” theory in Church history and treated them as variations on a theme, so that he can then portray the Reformed Two Kingdoms theory as the heir to and perfection of this continuous tradition? No doubt he would deny that this was his purpose, but it is hard not to feel that something of this sort is going on. The Epistle to Diognetus, Augustine, Gelasius, Boniface VIII, and Ockham all get discussed in turn, all as having articulated some form of duality between Church and State, or Church and world, and all (except perhaps Boniface) as having some positive features that VanDrunen wants to pick up on. Political-theological models that have often been treated as starkly contrasting or even standing at opposite poles are here narrated together as variations on this duality theme. However, this exercise is prevented from becoming irresponsible or absurd by the fact that VanDrunen examines each of these models carefully on its own terms, and with attention to varying scholarly interpretations. He then considers carefully how each one relates to and differs from the others that he has considered.
Particularly satisfying was his engagement with Augustine, whose City of God has often been distorted to represent a varied array of mutually contradictory political theologies. Although, in my estimation, VanDrunen is too much indebted to R.A. Markus’s saeculum reading, he knows better than to follow it too far, and tempers it with a healthy dose of O’Donovan. I don’t think that he sufficiently recognizes the ramifications of O’Donovan’s adjustment to Markus’s thesis, and so he lives us with a reading of Augustine that is rather murky and undecided on some of the key disputed issues. This is fine, of course, as long as VanDrunen does not want to use Augustine as a key pillar later on his argument. For that, we’ll have to wait and see.
From the “two cities” doctrine, espoused in some form or another by Augustine and the “Epistle to Diognetus,” VanDrunen derives the idea of “commonality amid antithesis.” Christians are fundamentally and unavoidably different from the surrounding culture of unbelievers, characterized by a different love and a different end, and yet they are inextricably intermingled in the present age, such that the Church is able to make use of, and even participate in to a limited extent, the goods and institutions of the earthly city. Civil government, in this picture, belongs (though somewhat ambiguously) within the province of the earthly city--ultimately condemned, though it serves limited goods for the present. VanDrunen is particularly pleased with the way that Augustine “refused to embrace an idyllic, theocratic, or Christianized view of the world. Christians here on earth are a people on pilgrimage, their citizenship and their hope lying in an everlasting, heavenly city” (32). In other words, he like Augustine’s amillenialism. This unspoken eschatological commitment of VanDrunen’s is worth keeping in mind. VanDrunen’s main complaint against Augustine is that he “does not emphasize the legitimate and God-ordained status of civil government as a positive matter” (32).
VanDrunen thus examines the “two swords” doctrine, which differs significantly from the “two cities” in that it conceives a unified Christian society with two types of rule, rather than two different societies living side-by-side. This idea is of course associated first of all by Pope Gelasius, who asserted that the Christian society was ruled by two authorities, the “spiritual” and the “temporal,” each with their proper functions upon which the other ought not to encroach. VanDrunen notes that this distinction covers somewhat different ground than Augustine’s distinction: “Augustine’s two cities are first and foremost eschatological concepts, with present institutional expression in church and empire only a secondary matter. Here, in contrast, Gelasius’s two swords doctrine is specifically institutional in its focus. This fact cautions interpreters not to be hasty in setting these two models in opposition to one another, for the ‘two cities’ and the ‘two swords’ had slightly different referents in mind” (33-4). Having established this caveat, he draws the following comparisons: the Gelasian doctrine sees none of the antithesis that the Augustinian does between church and world, since the world is now conceived of as Christian; second, Gelasius gives the state a specific institutional legitimacy that Augustine did not give it.
He briefly sketches Boniface VIII’s alteration of the Gelasian doctrine, which made both swords the proper domain of the church, yet such that the church delegated one to the civil authority. Needless to say, VanDrunen does not have much use for this view; he mainly introduces it, it seems, to provide the backdrop for William of Ockham’s doctrine of Church and State, to which he gives a few pages of attention. He is particularly interested in Ockham’s teaching that “true lordship of temporal things” and “true temporal jurisdiction” existed among unbelievers, such authority was thus part of the natural order, and did not depend upon the Pope or the Church. Temporal authority, on this view, is established directly by God, as a separate, yet complementary sphere of authority to that of the Church. Ockham’s view, VanDrunen believes, puts him in many ways alongside Gelasius, but with the important different that “whereas Gelasius’ model seems to presume that there is one body of people being governed by both powers, with both powers mutually submitting to each other, Ockham seems less tied to such a vision. The idea of a Christian empire, even one not entirely controlled by the pope, seems to play no essential role in Ockham’s political thought” (40-41). Therefore, for Ockham, as for Augustine, we may speak of the realm of temporal authority as a realm of overlap, of commonality between believers and unbelievers. But unlike Augustine, he sees this realm as a positive good, rather than as something shadowy and suspicious. It is clear that VanDrunen has considerable sympathies with this Ockhamite synthesis.
At this point, VanDrunen turns to consider medieval doctrines of natural law, but let us pause a moment to see what has been gained from the foregoing. First, we have seen that the Christian tradition has been in broad agreement that there is an inescapable duality in the Church’s life in the world, a recognition that two different types of authority hold sway in the present life--”spiritual” and “temporal.” Second, we have seen that the best thinkers in the tradition have recognized that the Christian’s relationship to the unbelieving world is one of “commonality amid antithesis,” fundamentally different orientations toward shared settings, goods, and even institutions. Third, we have seen that, for many in the tradition, civil authority is not just something we have to live with, but is a positive good instituted by God for ruling the temporal realm, and VanDrunen prefers this conception.
Now, this isn’t much, I think we will agree--it’s all quite vague and underdetermined. Many key questions remain unanswered. For instance, what is the relationship between “spiritual” and “temporal”? Is it a spatial relationship, or a, well, a temporal one? That is to say, do we conceive of the two realms as occupying two different spheres of social “space” at the same time, or of occupying two different “times,” so to speak, as the common language of “temporal” vs. “eternal” would imply? This distinction makes an important difference when considering some Patristic and medieval writers. And what do we mean by asserting that temporal authority is something that is “common” to both believers and unbelievers? We could say that worship is common to believers and unbelievers, in the sense that all men worship; they just differ in what they worship. Or we could say that food is common to believers and unbelievers, in that both believers and unbelievers eat basically the same things in basically the same way. In which sense is civil authority common? Clearly VanDrunen wants us to think in something much more like the second sense. But is that what all these writers intend? Indeed, by attempting to point us toward this notion of “commonality amid antithesis,” I can’t see that VanDrunen has told us anything at all, for what Christian would deny that a Christian’s relationship to the world is one of “commonality amid antithesis”? But, to be fair, VanDrunen is merely laying groundwork at this stage, and so we should not ask too much. Nevertheless, these remain distinctions he will have to flesh out at a later point in order to put forth a coherent political theological proposal.
Now, what about natural law? Here VanDrunen turns first, of course, to Thomas Aquinas, and then seeks to show that, contra standard stereotypes, much the same concept is operative in Scotus and Ockham. The account he gives of Aquinas is fairly standard and uncontroversial. Natural law is “the rational creature’s participation of the eternal law,” it is the rational principles by which nature is meant to operate, reflecting the nature of God its Creator. Mankind has been created able to ascertain these principles, and so to know how to conduct himself, and though his reason is distorted after the fall by sensual impulses, it is still able, in principle, to understand the natural law. Human law is a particular determination of natural law to address particular circumstances.
Before moving on from Aquinas, he mentions briefly the relationship between divine law (divided into Old Law and New Law) and natural law, listing Aquinas’s four reasons for the necessity of the divine law. He then discusses the relationship between the Old Law and the natural law (namely, that the moral law, summarized in the Decalogue, can be equated with the natural law), but he does not at any point discuss the relationship between the New Law and the natural law, which seems to me a very serious omission, given that how we articulate this relationship is utterly crucial to the matter at hand--namely, the relationship between the Church, ruled by the New Law, and the civil authority, ruled by the natural law.
His purpose in looking at Scotus and Ockham is not to develop their views of natural law in depth, but simply to show that, despite what we might expect from their voluntarist metaphysics, they retained the category and it played an important role in their ethics and political thought. I don’t know enough about either of these figures to challenge VanDrunen if he has misconstrued or omitted something, but his account here seemed persuasive. This argument allows him to move into the Reformation having established that “Whatever medieval school or schools may have influenced particular Reformers, therefore, natural law was part of a common, catholic theological inheritance” (55).
Now, one brief comments about this section. I have the same concern as I raised in the previous section--namely, that he has only established vague generalities so far. The fact that there was a pervasive doctrine of natural law in the late Middle Ages, which was understood to be a crucial source for civil law, really tells us very little about the questions at hand--namely, how civil law is to relate to the Church and to what extent natural law, or at least its application in civil law, are to be transformed by Christian faith. If grace perfects nature, does the evangelical law of the gospel perfect or transform in some way natural law, so that a Christian state would look very different fron a non-Christian? Careful attention to Aquinas’s views of the relationship between the New Law and the natural law could have helped move us toward some answers to this question, but VanDrunen simply omitted this. Frustrating, but again, we are only at the groundwork stage, so I will merely flag this question for later.
In the next (considerably briefer) post I will look at VanDrunen’s discussion of natural law and the two kingdoms in Luther.