May 15, 2010
Alright, it’s time to move this review along...I’m supposed to have read and reviewed up through chapter 6 by now, but I’m still wading through chapter 3. So I’ll try to step lightly through the rest of the chapter, and only zero in on the parts that really need it. You may recall that VanD had listed “three important attributes of each kingdom that display the contrast of one with the other. The three attributes of the kingdom of Christ are its redemptive character, its spiritual or heavenly identity, and its present institutional expression in the church. The three attributes of the civil kingdom are its non-redemptive character, its external or earthly identity, and its present (though not exclusive) expression in civil government.” So let’s look at the second one.
We are told that for Calvin, the spiritual kingdom has to do with “the life of the soul” and “superior objects” while the civil has to do with “matters of the present life” or “external conduct” and “inferior objects” (75). Calvin elaborates thus: “By earthly things, I mean those which relate not to God and his kingdom, to true righteousness and future blessedness, but have some connection with the present life, and are in a manner confined within its boundaries. By heavenly things, I mean the pure knowledge of God, the method of true righteousness, and the mysteries of the heavenly kingdom” (76-77). Is Calvin trying to tell us here that affairs of this present life have nothing to do with God and his kingdom, a kingdom that pertains only to “pure knowledge” and “heavenly mysteries”? At this point, I scribbled frantically in the margin, “Mayday! Mayday! Gnosticism unchecked!” Now this is one of those points where I cannot much fault VanD for his historical work, but I have to protest on theological grounds. Sure, Calvin said stuff like this, but why would any of us want to follow him in it? Liberal theology in the last century has given us all kinds of problems and heresies, but one blessing it has surely given us is the firm and widespread conviction that our faith is a faith for this life, a faith meant to transform our present world, and the realization that we need to repent of many centuries of various forms of Gnosticism. VanDrunen goes on to extensively quote “a series of rather moving passages” in which “Calvin lifts his readers’ eyes away from present earthly existence toward a future, heavenly life” (77). These passages were “moving” all right, as they moved me very quickly to wrath and to wish that I could just take VanDrunen and stick him in solitary confinement with a copy of Surprised by Hope for about a year, and hope that he emerged from it a changed man.
I should perhaps clarify at this point that, although Calvin’s contrast between “this present life” and the kingdom of God leave me sputtering, I have no problem in principle with articulating a distinction between, say, “the kingdom of this present age” and “the kingdom of the age to come.” This kind of temporal contrast has a strong historical pedigree in the Christian tradition and is clearly found in the New Testament. But the key thing to understand about this distinction is that according to the Gospel (and this is what makes our gospel so wonderful) the age to come has already broken into the present age and started transforming it. So while the kingdom of Christ is certainly not of this present life in the sense that it derives from, and subsists in this present life, it is certainly of this present life in the sense that it comes to and pertains to this present life. We can see this same misuse of of in the way that VanDrunen and Calvin contrast the spirit and the body. Of course we are told in Scripture that the things of Christ are of the Spirit, not of the flesh; but in Scripture, this clearly means that they do not derive from the flesh, not that they do not pertain to the flesh. VanDrunen needs to be more precise with his language here.
Come to think of it, the same sort of problem plagued the previous section, where VanD contrasted the “redemptive” character of the heavenly kingdom and the “non-redemptive” character of the civil kingdom. Well, of course the civil kingdom is not “redemptive” in the sense that it does not redeem. But this is not the same thing as saying it is not redeemed. It is not the source of redemption, but it is surely the object of redemption. Somehow VanDrunen completely elides this distinction between subject and object, and moves seamlessly between talking about how the civil kingdom is not “redemptive” to talking about how it is unaffected by redemption. I am not convinced that Calvin was so careless on this point.
The third difference between the two kingdoms consists in the insitutional contrast between church and civil government. Now here, I think, a methodological difficulty that has been plaguing VanD all along rises to the surface, the product of the uncomfortable marriage he has tried to force between the Augustinian “two cities” and the Gelasian “two swords.” The difficulty is this: is the contrast between the two kingdoms the same as the contrast between church and state, or is it a contrast between “earthly” and “heavenly,” “physical” and “spiritual”? VanD seems to want to have his cake and eat it too, and this, I think, simply will not do, unless you want a totalitarian doctrine of the State. Let me attempt to explain.
If you want to develop a strong contrast between the work of the state and the work of the Church, then you have a potentially coherent and workable model, though one that has, to be sure, been fraught with tension for two millenia. There are a number of different ways to draw the lines between the two: you could draw it in terms of different tools, so that both the Church and the State pursue the good, but one uses coercive tools, while the other uses spiritual and charitable tools; or you could draw it in terms of the extent of their moral reach, so that the State is responsible merely for restraining vice, while the Church is responsible for cultivating virtue; or you could try to draw up spheres, so that the state handles certain functions in society, the church handles others, and presumably, other institutions handle still other functions. Now, each of these proposals runs into its own difficulties and ambiguities, but all are at least basically coherent and have been practiced with some measure of success. If you want to draw a strong contrast between the Church and civil society, so that the Church pertains to invisible, spiritual matters, affecting the soul and the future life, but not the body and the present life, as VanDrunen just seemed to be doing in the previous section, then you have something that, I suppose, makes sense in theory, though as I’ve said, it doesn’t make sense to me as an articulation of Biblical Christianity. But it’s important to realize that these are not the same distinctions. Historically, arguments over the relationship between Church and State presupposed that these two occupied basically the same plane--human society--and that they had to figure out how they interacted on that plane. Suggesting that the Church does not occupy the plane of human society at all (as VanD has just been doing) is a different proposition altogether. The only way in which these two distinctions can be basically the same is if you assume that the realm of civil society is coterminous with the realm of the State, if you assume that civil authority exercises its sway over the entire sweep of human social and cultural life. Now somehow I don’t think that VanDrunen, as an American conservative, really wants to do this.
And so it is that in this section, we keep seeing this odd waffliness: “A third and final point of contrast between the spiritual and civil kingdoms for Calvin is the former’s institutional expression in the church and the latter’s expression in a broad range of cultural endeavors, especially (and institutionally) in civil government” (79). What exactly is this “especially (and institutionally)”? We are told that Calvin “includes in this category [of the civil kingdom] ‘matters of policy and economy, all mechanical arts and liberal studies.‘ It would seem fair, therefore, to conclude that Calvin saw the range of (non-ecclesiastical) cultural endeavors as constituting the civil kingdom. But within this broad conception Calvin also accorded a particularly important place to civil government and its laws” (80). He then summarizes what he sees as Calvin’s “basic identification of the spiritual and civil kingdoms with the church and civil government” and then discusses the Church-state relationship in Calvin for a couple pages. This is all just too vague. You can’t just say that the civil kingdom includes, essentially, all “cultural endeavors” and then say that the civil kingdom is civil government, unless you want to say that all cultural endeavors fall under the legitimate (and exclusive?) purview of the civil government. Now, admittedly, some of the Reformers did seem to make this elision, as we see, for example, in the extremely wide-ranging responsibilities Bucer gives to the prince in De Regno Christi, but, judging from the political rhetoric of the Religious Right in America (of which the Reformed have generally comprised the most libertarian wing) I can’t see American Calvinists being willing to go this route. So I’d like to see a little intellectual honesty here--if you’re going to equate civil society with civil government, then embrace the political consequences.
In the following pages, VanD turns to address the vexing problem of the seeming disconnect between Calvin’s actual practice in Geneva (and of many remarks in his writings outside of Institutes III.19 and IV.20) and the clear two kingdoms doctrine he has just discerned. I already discussed a bit some of the methodological problems that make this such an issue for VanDrunen, so I won’t rehash them at length here.
VanD begins by reminding us that Calvin lived in an age of Christendom, so you can’t really expect him to have developed the modern secular society that his theology seems to demand. We are then given a couple pages on the ways in which the civil authorities in Geneva were involved in religious affairs (e.g., the burning of Servetus) and the ways in which the religious authorities were involved in civil affairs. Regarding the latter, for instance, “the Consistory’s range of concerns included general education and medical care and, according to Witte and Kingdon, especially sex, marriage, and family, but also in later years ‘business practices and disrespect for the leaders of government and church.’” (84) Now, for me, it’s hard to imagine how these sorts of things would not be concerns of the church, but I suppose that if you’ve said that the Church has nothing to do with “external conduct” this would seem to be something of an inconsistency. VanDrunen, being an honest scholar, then admits that this is not simply a disconnect between theory and practice, because Calvin seems to endorse such mutual meddling in his writings, including the Institutes, e.g., when (in IV.20 no less!), “Calvin writes that among the duties of civil government are ‘to foster and maintain the external worship of God, to defend sound doctrine and the condition of the Church,’” etc. (86)
VanD then embarks to determine just how inconsistent Calvin is, and begins by saying that two points can be raised in defense of his consistency on the church’s meddling in civil affairs: “First, Calvin frequently reminds the church, even when assigning such affairs to it, that it does not have civil jurisdiction or the power to coerce through the sword. Second, most of the civil affairs which Calvin made answerable to the Consistory can be said to have a spiritual dimension. Certainly the issues of marriage and family that took up so much of the Consistory’s attention are matters that, while clearly civil, also implicate the spiritual condition of people and thus are of rightful concern to their pastors and elders. Broadly, one might say that since people can fall into any sin in any are of life, no area of life can be completely slotted as civil and not at all as spiritual” (87).
Now, I pause to quote this whole paragraph because I think that’s it’s jolly fun that, in the course of trying to defend Calvin’s consistency here, he actually does a beautiful job of red-flagging some of the key inconsistencies. On the first point, the difficulty is that VanDrunen has all of a sudden shifted the ground of the distinction between the two kingdoms--now the distinction lies not in the content of the two kingdoms, but, in much more Gelasian (or Bucerian) fashion, in their means--one rules civil affairs coercively, the other non-coercively. But this is much more “two swords” than it is “two kingdoms,” and is not at all consistent with the kind of dichotomies VanD was tracing in Calvin just a few pages ago. On the second point, VanDrunen has made a very important and true statement--“no area of life can be completely slotted as civil and not at all as spiritual,” but at the cost of essentially renouncing everything he tried to establish on the previous pages, and granting a key neo-Calvinist premise.
On the next page, he offers some defenses of Calvin’s consistency on issues of the state meddling in religious affairs. We are told, for instance, that Calvin “is clear in entrusting to the state concern for the ‘external worship of God,’ a ‘public form of religion,’ the ‘open’ violation of God’s law, and ‘public blasphemy.’ This gives some plausibility to characterizing the magistrate’s activities even here as civil rather than spiritual, given Calvin’s contrast of the two kingdoms in terms of the external and the internal” (88). This achieves “consistency” at the cost of revealing how unhelpful the external/internal distinction was to begin with, and at the cost of making Calvin unserviceable to VanDrunen’s project, since I am quite sure that the kind of two kingdoms theory VanD wants us to embrace is not one in which the civil authority is in charge of all outward manifestations of religion.
In the end, though VanDrunen admits (with an almost audible sigh) that to some extent, Calvin really was inconsistent, and we have to remember that he was a man of his times. The problem of course is that VanD seems to want to treat one position--a sharp two-kingdoms dichotomy--as Calvin’s “real” position, and the other--close cooperation between the two kingdoms--as an inconsistent alien element that shows him to be a product of his times. By what right can VanDrunen single out the two kingdoms doctrine as Calvin’s “real” teaching? Couldn’t someone just as well argue that Calvin’s real position was one of close cooperation between church and state and that the bits of sharp dichotomy you see in passages of the Institutes are alien elements that come from overstated polemical concerns? That would be just as historically compelling, or perhaps more so.
VanD closes this section by relating Calvin’s version of Two Kingdoms doctrine to the various forms we have looked at before. Like Luther, he has a strong Augustinian doctrine of antithesis between believer and unbeliever and yet commonality amid the antithesis, and he has Gelasian emphasis on the positive institutional legitimacy of the state. Unlike Luther, however, he allowed the use of the sword in religious affairs, and he did not view the law/gospel distinction as coterminous with the two kingdoms distinction--there was a place for the law in the Church. Indeed, on the whole, says VanDrunen, taking Calvin’s practice into account, his model has a fair dose of Gelasian two-swords theory, mixed with his Lutheran two-kingdoms theory. VanDrunen summarizes the unresolved dilemma: “The point of particular tension here is the matter of commonality. Is the civil realm one that Christians and non-Christians share in common in the present age, as Luther’s two kingdoms theology held, following Diognetian and Augustinian lines? Or is the civil realm governed by church and state, albeit in their own ways, according to a vision in which the civil realm is populated, or at least ought properly be populated, by a Christian people, as a Gelasian vision suggests? In other words, is the civil realm ultimately characterized by commonality or Christianity? Though Calvin’s two kingdoms doctrine provides theological ground for affirming the former, in practice the latter prevailed” (93). Unfortunately, as I have argued in this review, this is far from the only unresolved tension in the picture VanDrunen has tried to give us.
This quote concludes VanDrunen’s discussion of Calvin’s two kingdoms doctrine; he moves on to discuss his natural law theory in the next section, and I should be able to tackle that and the remainder of the chapter in one more post.