Kevin DeYoung recently interviewed David VanDrunen on “Politics after Christendom.” I’ve critiqued VanDrunen’s natural law, two kingdoms approach in the Journal of Biblical Theology and Worldview. That said, I’m also appreciative of many of VanDrunen’s insights both on particular biblical texts and more broadly. This is worth a listen. While I think that Brad Littlejohn’s presentation of the two kingdoms is more historically accurate than VanDrunen’s (see also here), VanDrunen is right about something very important that is often missed among those bitten by the ressourcement bug—just because someone believed or practiced something in the patristic, medieval, or post-Reformation periods doesn’t mean it should be believed or practiced today. VanDrunen has mined those historical resources, but his proposal is inflected by the fact that he lives in the United States with its heritage of classical liberalism and religious liberty.
I agree with David Koyzis’s critique of liberalism as an idolatrous ideology. This was my view before post-liberalism became cool (note the post linked to is from 2016, and I had read Koyzis some years before). Since post-liberalism has become popular, however, I’ve become more concerned about the ideas of those who wish to discard it. I don’t want to discard equality of all citizens under the rule of law, private property guarantees, and various freedoms that I can take for granted as an American (e.g., even if I don’t think freedom of speech as an absolute right and would like to see it qualified in certain ways, such as excluding pornography from its purview, I also think that if that right were not acknowledged by the governing authorities, Christian freedom to speak biblical truths would likely be abridged). Thus, I’ve found this National Affairs article, “Liberal Practice v. Liberal Theory” helpful. Liberal theory is idolatrous and has led to some bad places, but there are some liberal practices that we would be wise not to undermine. DeYoung and VanDrunen nod in this direction toward the end of their discussion.
My friend Andy Naselli has also posted two articles on political theology. The first, “What Is the Spectrum of Major Views on Political Theology?” seeks to do what the title describes. As he acknowledges this is a huge task, and all the qualifications he makes toward the end of the article are important. I have two friendly critiques of the article. The first flows from an observation that almost all conservative Protestants fall into views 4 and 5 (my apologies to Daryl Hart if he agrees with his placement in view 3). This observation does not negate the usefulness of being able to identify and bracket views 1-3 and 6-7 from our consideration as profitable paths forward. But I think it does mean that a follow-up study that captures the spectrum of views within views 4 and 5 is important if the taxonomy will be useful for debates among conservative Protestants (see Andy’s concluding reflections 3 and 4). Second, the article leaves out a major view: the neocalvinism of Kuyper, Bavinck, and their heirs. One of the useful aspects of neocalvinism is its effort to proclaim the lordship of Christ in all spheres of society while also recognizing that the modern western states that many Christians live in are religiously pluralistic. Whether or not one agrees with the principled pluralist approach of neocalvinism, and I’ll note a critique in the next paragraph, it is an important view to interact with. One cannot simply repristinate medieval or post-Reformation Christendom, as some seek to be doing, without reckoning with the fact of pluralism which brought the rise of classical liberalism and principled pluralism.
In my view there is a positive and a negative to principled pluralism: (1) Positively, principled pluralism recognizes that a religiously diverse nation cannot be undone by dint of political will or the use of political power. This is my fear of some of the Christian nationalism and adjacent talk. There is the false hope that we can reverse failures in evangelism and discipleship by the exercise of political power. (2) Negatively, principled pluralism can lead to its own kind of secularization in which Christians at best retreat to their own institutions and at worst look favorably on a state that acts contrary to Christian morals. That’s not where Kuyper was, nor where his conservative followers go, but that is where some of his heirs have gone.
The second article provides “Twelve Reflections on Twelve Interviews on Christian Nationalism.” I found it interesting that Reflection 1 is “The interviewees are basically within views 4 and 5 of my taxonomy of political theology.” As noted above, that’s to be expected, since almost all conservative Protestants will fall within that range. I think this observation argues for a finer grained taxonomy of these two views.
I would like to raise a caution regarding Reflection 4. “The interviewees know what time it is.” Andy argues that this phrase can be grounded in 1 Chronicles 12:32a and Luke 12:56. If all that is meant by the phrase is that we need to be aware of our present cultural situation and how our culture relates to Christianity, who could object? In one sense, I’d argue that knowing what time it is means not thinking that a religiously pluralistic nation can be forced back into a post-Reformation Christendom. Evangelism will be more important than elections (not to mention revolutions!) if we want to see a Christian nation.
But those who use the phrase often seem to be thinking strategically along line like these: back in the 2000s the winsome strategy of Tim Keller was appropriate because we were living in a neutral world, but now we live in a negative world. The thing to do in a negative world is to seek to seize the levers of cultural and political power and to show no quarter to our enemies.
There seems to be at least two problems with this kind of thinking.
1. I think that America and the world as a whole has largely been a negative world for faithful Christians throughout history. When was it a positive world? During the spiritual darkness of medieval Romanism? During the lives of Philip and Matthew Henry? When faithful Christian missionaries were imprisoned in Georgia because they would not support Indian Removal? Or, as Alan Jacobs observed, when Ruby Bridges prayed for her enemies as they threatened her life? This is not to say that there were not times of real Christian advance during any of these periods or times when things in certain regards were better then than now. But it is always mixed. A postmillennialist friend of mine about twenty years ago critiqued some premillennial pessimism by pointing out that from a Christian perspective some things are often getting better while others are getting worse. I think he was right. Life in America over time is simply too variegated to be summed up as negative or positive or neutral. For instance, Christians today enjoy greater religious liberty protections today that they did when I was in grade school. Or to give another example, home schooling faced legal challenges then that it does not face today. On the other hand, support for sexual sins such as homosexuality are far more culturally accepted, and the pressure to approve of such sins has increased. And yet, to give an example that Alan Jacobs gives, the sin of racism was more prevalent in past eras of American history than at present (even if identity politics of the left and right have the potential to undermine these gains).
2. I’m also concerned that the “know what time it is” phrase is used to give cover for strategies that are simply worldly. Frankly, I thought that Keller had a tendency toward theological compromise for the sake of apologetic success (see Engaging with Keller). Those former-Keller fans who think that the times have changed are still thinking in terms of the best strategies for Christian cultural engagement, and my concern is that the anti-winsomeness pro-courageousness strategy still has built in the same problematic tendency to compromise with the world for the sake a seemingly successful strategy. The new anti-winsomeness mood is tracking pretty closely with the current zeitgeist of the political right, and a great deal of that zeitgeist is what the Bible calls worldly.
In my view, winsomeness can be distorted into a vice (especially when viewed as a strategy), but Philippians 4:5, Colossians 4:5-6; Titus 3:10-2; 1 Peter 3:14-17 all call for gentleness, respect, gracious speech, avoidance of quarrels and slandering in our interactions with what was certainly a very negative world. This isn’t about strategy, it’s about Christlikeness. To be sure, there are texts where Jesus or Paul speak against sin and sinners in forceful, direct, condemnatory speech. To always avoid that kind of speech would also be worldly. But the strategy + negative world framing seems to push against trying to discern when forceful condemnation is called for and when gentleness is called for. It also pushes against combining gentleness and graciousness with an uncompromising, forceful, and direct defense of what is true. It seems to push people to categorize themselves as being characterized by one or another kind of speech (even making one approach their “brand”).
I wrote the preceding paragraph in an email to a friend back in August. I think the thoughts there resonate with a recently published article by Kevin DeYoung, “On Culture War, Doug Wilson, and the Moscow Mood.”
DeYoung makes a powerful case that Wilson’s branding and strategy for reclaiming Christendom is worldly:
Wilson’s sarcastic bite is not first directed toward the wicked, the hardhearted, or the forces of evil in our world. He takes a swipe at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and at the G3 Conference. Both are conservative Baptist groups—groups, we might add, that would be on the same side as Wilson in almost every important cultural battle. It’s fine if Wilson wants to disagree with these groups; they’ve disagreed with him at times. But Wilson doesn’t mention them in the video in order to make a serious argument. He uses them for a punchline.
Wilson’s approach depends on a fundamentally oppositional framework. The Moscow mood provides a non-stop adversarial stance toward the world and toward other Christians who are deemed (or caricatured to be) too afraid to “tell it like it is.” Moscow cannot become the American Redoubt for conservative Christians if it is too similar to other places, with basically the same kinds of churches, schools, and institutions found in hundreds of other cities. Differentiation is key, and this can only be sustained by a mood of antagonism and sharp antithesis. In keeping with the spirit of the age, Wilson shares the rhetorical instinct that has come to dominate our politics and political punditry: a negative partisanship that builds a following by exposing the impurity of the other side, even if sometimes the other “side” shares almost all of your own positions. The strategy is not to link arms with other networks, but to punch hard and punch often, all the while forging an unbreakable loyalty to the one who is perceived as the Outsider-Disruptor. And that means always meme-ing his critics, always tweaking his opponents, and never (that I’ve seen) cultivating a broken-hearted and courageous contrition for the remaining sinfulness in our own hearts (Ps. 51:17).
And beyond worldly, it is sinful:
Were I to use these words in public (or in private) I would be quickly confronted by my elders and likely brought before my presbytery for questioning. If I persisted, I would probably be deposed as a minister. And rightly so, for such language constitutes filthiness, foolish talk, and crude joking (Eph. 5:4). Which of the Puritans, or Southern Presbyterians for that matter, would have dared to speak this way? What candidate coming forward for ordination could get away with writing in this way? What parent would be thrilled if their daughter’s new boyfriend sprinkled his vocabulary with words like these? If such “prophetic” language is justified for the minister when he is attacking a godless culture, is the language therefore appropriate in the pulpit? According to Wilson’s logic, I don’t see why not. And should we hope to see more pastors employ these terms? Would that be a step toward the saving of Christendom, for Christian ministers to talk more frequently [in this way].
There is no excuse for this language. To be sure, the prophet Ezekiel could use extreme language in extreme situations to show the ugliness of extreme wickedness. Likening a study committee of a confessionally Reformed denomination to Dolly Parton’s anatomy is none of these things. It’s juvenile, sensuous, and entirely without biblical warrant. This isn’t using graphic language to highlight the horror of sin; it’s a bawdy way to make fun of a group of orthodox churchmen with whom Wilson disagrees. Wilson likes to emphasize that if Christ is Lord, he must be Lord of all. Yes and Amen. But “all” means our hearts, our minds, and our typing fingers.
Political theology is important. But more important is Christian faithfulness and obedience to Christ in all situations. Christians do not need to recover Christendom. They do need to be Christlike.
UPDATE 12/9/2023: I came across Joe Rigney’s response to the DeYoung article mentioned above. Rigney responds by arguing for a biblical imperative for mockery, citing the example of Elijah mocking the prophets of Baal. Recognizing that DeYoung had specifically objected to mocking fellow Christians, Rigney noted Jesus’s mocking of the Pharisees and Sadducees (claiming that some of them were believers who were being mocked by Jesus). He then charges critics with failing to practice the biblical pattern of mockery and sarcasm. He notes that DeYoung raises concerns about worldliness, and he warns about the worldliness of seeking “respectability, reputation, credibility.” There is more, but this is the heart of the biblical/theological part of the response.
1. The Mark Driscoll defense—finding in Scripture examples of certain speech to defend one’s own use of such language—is a dangerous path. It is worth noting that throughout the history of the church such passages have been troubling to commentators because they seem to contradict direct Scripture instruction regarding speech. Take Galatians 5:12 as an example. Agustine and Jerome wrestled with this question. Jerome (problematically) suggested that Paul sinned in speaking thus. Augustine suggested that there was a blessing embedded in the curse: “For thus they will become eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (Plumer, Augustine’s Commentary on Galatians, 93). Aquinas similarly found this passage in contradiction to Romans 12:14, and he offered two allegorical interpretations of the text: first Paul was referring spiritually to the abolition of “the legal ceremonies” and second, he did not want them to spiritually propagate themselves (Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians, 162). The Reformers rightly avoided these allegorical interpretations, but even Luther wrestled with the question, noting that Christians “are permitted to curse … but not always and not for just any reason.” They can speak this way, Luther says, when God is being blasphemed (LW 27:45-56). William Perkins practiced that proper kind of casuistry in evaluating this kind of speech: it must be directed against God’s enemies, not personal enemies; it must be directed against the incurable (which a prophet or apostle could know by revelation), not against the curable; it must be done with from a “pure zeal of God’s glory” and not from being “carried with carnal affection.” Having thus justified Paul, Perkins asked,
The second question is whether we may not curse our enemies as Paul did? No, for we have not the like spirit to discern the persons of people what they are, and our zeal of God’s glory is mixed with many corrupt affections and therefore to be suspected.William Perkins, Commentary on Galatians, as cited in Gerald L. Bray, ed. Galatians, Ephesians, Reformation Commentary on Scripture, ed. Timothy George and Scott M. Manetsch (Downers, Grove, InterVarsity, 2012), 184.
Perkins correctly notes that Jesus, prophets, and apostles could speak from God in ways that those who do not receive direct revelation from God or bear the role of speaking divine judgments are not authorized to speak. Even if Perkins draws the net too tight, what the Scripture does sparingly and what Christians in ages past saw as questionable should be done sparingly—not turned into an online brand.
2. Equating G3 and the ERLC with the Pharisees and Sadducees is absurd. The folks at G3 are not liberal squishes. If there is doctrinal debate to be had, or even concerns about misrepresentation, raise those issues. Don’t treat the folks at G3 like Pharisees. Further, the issues raised by Rigney regarding the ERLC are issues about which Christians in good conscience can disagree. Rigney may object to immigration reform that combines border security with creating a penalties and a path for naturalization for longtime illegal residents in the US, but other conservative Christians may have good reasons for supporting such reforms. He may object to measures in which firearms can be temporarily taken from a person deemed, by a court, to be a danger to himself or others, but the Bible does not require other Christians to take this position. And he may believe that the law should require the execution of mothers who have abortions while other Christians may observe pressing for such laws will make it less likely to pass legislation outlawing abortion. In none of these cases is there cause for treating brothers and sisters in Christ like Pharisees and Sadducees.
3. As a Fundamentalist, I can hardly object to Rigney’s concerns about pursuit of “respectability, reputation, [and] credibility” in the PCA (and broader evangelicalism). I, and my circle of churches, have had that concern for decades. But I am also concerned about the worldliness DeYoung was calling out. Rigney says, “DeYoung worries that the world is burning and Moscow is lighting things on fire. I worry that DeYoung is bringing out a fire extinguisher in the middle of a flood.” I’m worried about both the fire and the flood.