This blog has an identity crisis. It has been superseded, it is being replaced, we're moving in a new direction. But it lives on, feeding on the scraps that the new Sword and Ploughshare won't dare touch. Oh well. Such is life.
I am a Master's student in Divinity at the University of Edinburgh, where I am studying Reformation political theology with the venerable Oliver O'Donovan. Thankfully, I have other interests as well, and as time permits and the Spirit moves, I spill the excess of my reflections into blogdom, where it has coalesced into the bricolage you see here.
In chapter 6, this book turn a turn from the wearisome to the farcical, and I’m afraid I lost my patience. I no longer have the patience to write 10,000 words slowly and politely deconstructing the argument of each chapter. Chapter 6, although massive (65 pages) and full of details crying out for attention, does not merit such time. So, I’m going to whip through it in one rather tempestuous segment. I’m going to promise to keep this under 2,500 words, though methinks I can dispose of it even quicker than that.
VanDrunen’s argument in this chapter seems to be that, although the universally-held position of the Reformers and their heirs for 150 years on the two-kingdoms was always hobbled by blatant inconsistencies, that they were unable or unwilling to recognize or expurgate, that finally, 270 years after the Reformation, in a new land across the sea, under the sunny influence of Enlightenment philosophy and still reeking of gunpowder from a recently successful revolution, the Virginian heirs of the Reformation finally realized what their forefathers had been trying to say but hadn’t been able to enunciate properly, and embraced the true, pure form of the two kingdoms doctrine--separation of Church and State. It turns out, though, that this isn’t his argument; it is only Stuart Robinson’s, a Civil War-era Kentucky Presbyterian who constructed this narrative so as to make his own bizarrely innovative position look historical. VanDrunen begins by appearing to endorse Robinson’s narrative, but on a closer look at the historical evidence, dismisses it for a still more fantastic one. No, it turns out, the Virginia Presbyterians in the 1780s did not consistently embrace two kingdoms teaching either, for they still thought it was fine for the Church to give its input on civil affairs. No, it wasn’t until another 80 years later, 350 years after the Reformation in the midst of an attempt to defend Negro slavery from ecclesiastical censure, that the true meaning of the two kingdoms doctrine was finally understood, in the idiosyncratic and novel teaching of Stuart Robinson and James Henley Thornwell. Finally, upon closer examination of these figures, VanDrunen concludes that, although they got close, these men too failed to purge the two kingdoms view of its inconsistencies and realize its true genius, because they too still felt that the Church might have something to say at least on the moral dimension of civil affairs. The true meaning of the Reformation view, it seems, continued to remain hidden to its heirs, until God brought VanDrunen himself along to purge it of its inconsistencies, and present it pure and unspotted before the world.
Purged of its inconsistencies? What a joke! How, I must ask, is one to make sense of the claims that the Church must limit its preaching, teaching, and application to the prescriptions of Scripture only, and that therefore the Church must confine itself only to spiritual affairs, offering no insight on civil affairs? What Scripture, I must ask, are we talking about, if it is one that speaks only of “spiritual” matters and has no insight to offer on “civil” matters, whatever those two terms might mean (and VanDrunen has yet to offer us anything coherent they could mean in his usage)? I’d best quote the whole paragraph in which this claim transpires, because you have to see it to believe it: “Thornwell suggests a position quite similar to Hodge’s, namely, that though there may be a relatively small class of ‘purely political’ issues, there are a wide range of issues for which the church and state have overlapping jurisdiction, namely, civil issues about which the Bible has something to say. Perhaps one cannot blame Thornwell too much for tripping on this matter, for the matter of assigning respective jurisdictions to church and state had tripped his Reformation and Reformed orthodox predecessors as well. As discussed in previous chapters, their incoherence involved enunciating the two kingdoms doctrine and then trying to find a civil aspect to religious concerns and thus entrusting magistrates with protecting religious purity as a civil responsibility. The issue here with Hodge and Thornwell entailed the reverse scenario. American Presbyterians had in significant ways (though not entirely) rejected the idea that the state was to enforce religious purity as a civil task. But Hodge, despite his stance against the Spring Resolutions, held on to common American Presbyterian notions that the church should project its voice directly into political and other cultural affairs. Insofar as Thornwell echoed similar concerns after enunciating his spirituality doctrine, he lapsed into incoherence by finding a religious aspect to civil concerns and thus entrusting the church with promotion of civil good as a spiritual responsibility. Thus, Thornwell’s thought illustrates the continuing difficulty with which Reformed theologians sought to apply their two kingdoms doctrine in a theoretically and practically consistent way.”
Well, I bet he lapsed into incoherence, because it’s impossible to enunciate something like Thornwell’s spirituality doctrine without doing so. But tell me, Dr. VanDrunen, why it is incoherent to find a “religious aspect to civil concerns?” Oh wait, you can’t do that, because you’re just a historian, right? Could’ve fooled me.
The root problem here is, as I have insisted before, the methodological separation of Reformed political theory from Reformed political practice, as if the former could be established without reference to the latter, and then used to prove that the latter was incoherent. Notice how VanDrunen puts it above: “their incoherence involved enunciating the two kingdoms doctrine and then trying to find a civil aspect to religious concerns and thus entrusting magistrates with protecting religious purity as a civil responsibility”--as if there were a temporal sequence: first they enunciated this pristine “two kingdoms doctrine” and then they tried to find a civil aspect to the religious side of it. But of course, it wasn’t like that...it was all part and parcel of the same theory. And, simply as a matter of historical probability, it is extraordinarily unlikely that for hundreds of years, all the proponents of this theory consistently failed to say what it was they meant to say, consistently failed to see that their “real” theory differed from the one they sought to propound and apply. As it turns out, unsurprisingly, it was not. Their real theory simply wasn’t what VanDrunen tries to make it out to be, as Steven Wedgeworth very neatly summarizes here: http://www.credenda.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=218:two-kingdoms-critique&catid=96:theology&Itemid=122. Again, I can’t really imagine how it could’ve been, because I still can’t find a way to actually make coherent sense of what this “pure Two Kingdoms” theology is, in VanDrunen’s mind.
Essentially, then, what VanDrunen is asking us to do is to suspend our historical disbelief in order to try and imagine a fictional real doctrine lurking hidden behind the stated Reformed teaching, and he asks us to make this leap into historical incoherence in service to a theological proposition that he has never made any effort to establish the coherence of, because he’s supposedly just a historian. I’m sorry, I just can’t go with him along that road any longer.
The worst part is that the would-be heroes of the fantastical narrative of this chapter just aren’t very good heroes. John Cotton appears as the villain, because after all, he persecuted Roger Williams and wouldn’t allow religious freedom. In the words of Brian Regan, “Wow, you’re breakin’ some new ground there, Copernicus.” VanDrunen makes little effort to go beyond traditional prejudices here. That doesn’t mean I’m a fan of John Cotton; no, but I’d much rather go with him, a man of principle, than the next set of actors that strut across the stage--the Virginia Presbyterians in the 1760s-80s. These men, VanDrunen wants to say, finally broke free of the bonds of inconsistency that had tied up the Reformed tradition for centuries by espousing the separation of Church and State. But then, it turns out, as even VanDrunen must regretfully admit, that actually they didn’t do this out of principle, but simply because they happened to be the religious minority in Virginia, and “Separation of Church and State” was a way of getting the Anglican establishment off their backs. When the opportunity presented itself of them being co-established alongside the Anglicans, they jumped at the opportunity, before lapsing back into separationist mode as soon as the opportunity disappeared. Hardly the most principled lot. In any case, VanDrunen is unhappy with them himself, because they failed to see that, as a corollary of freeing the Church from state control, they needed to keep the Church from, on its part, giving advice to the state. Oh, heaven forbid that the Church might ever want to do anything like that--that would be too much like...oh, I don’t know...Isaiah? Elijah? John the Baptist? Jesus Christ?
So onto the stage strut our pair of arch-heroes, Negro servants in tow, grovelling as appropriate--James Thornwell and Stuart Robinson. VanDrunen momentarily entertains some doubts that perhaps their motivations in keeping the Church out of anything besides “spiritual affairs” were more a matter of trying to protect slavery than of theological principle, but tries to gloss over these objections: “The consistency of and motivation for Southern Presbyterian advocacy of the spirituality of the church are interesting and difficult questions, but this section will delve into them only lightly.” (249) Wait, hang on a second--it might well be that the masterminds of your pet doctrine actually just cooked it up so they could hold onto their African slaves, but you don’t see that that really matters to your point? Actually, it makes sense that VanDrunen would not think that it matters, because this kind of mind/body dualism has been an operating principle all along--if he can just distill the intellectual theological essence of the doctrine, it does not matter what ugly practical applications it was wrapped up in. This is perhaps understandable for a systematic theologian, but it is just bad history. A footnote acknowledges the debate over Thornwell and Robinson’s motivations, but while it lists six sources that have been written to make the case that slavery was their chief motivation, it lists only two for the contrary position, one of which hardly counts, because it is by D.G. Hart, a buddy of VanDrunen’s who has the same polemical axe to grind.
But again, whatever we are to think of the ignoble heroes VanDrunen has scripted for us, we come back to the same mystifying question--just how is it that Scripture--we are talking about the same Scripture, right? Genesis through Revelation, 66 books and all that?--does not have anything to say about, to use Robinson’s words, “wrong moral views of social and civil affairs,” and not just wrong moral views, mind you, but wrong moral practice? (If you think that was a convoluted sentence, at least it wasn’t as convoluted as this paradigm.)
Essentially, what VanDrunen leaves us with are the alternatives either to accept his historical narrative and grant that the Reformers must’ve chucked Scripture out the window as soon as they started thinking about these matters, or else to trust that the Reformers must’ve had a few ounces of Biblical sense and so discard his historical narrative. I’m no big fan of the Reformers’ political theology, but I know which alternative I’ll take.