Saturday, October 30, 2010

From Hippo to Escondido - II

So far we have seen that the two kingdoms idea is a variant of Augustine's idea of the two cities,and that it implies that the church is a spiritual body, and the Christian, though free from the laws of men intruding into the church, is yet nevertheless bound by the laws of men (insofar as these do not infringe the law of God) in society. The kingdom of Christ is not of this world. We then saw how this view was modified by Abraham Kuyper into a sharp distinction between church and kingdom, and the idea of Christian culture. We now enter the twentieth century, with its strong disparagement (in Protestantism, and especially in its Reformed segment) of natural theology and natural law. We ended by noting some narrowing of focus.

Let us see how this works out. To come, there are two more chapters, each dealing with ‘The Kuyperian Legacy’. As Van Drunen sees things, Kuyper himself is on something of a knife-edge.He retains elements of the classic position, but (so it seems, and so it has provide by hindsight) the idea of a Christian cultural mandate in all spheres of life has swamped the two kingdoms idea and has transformed the idea of natural law into that of a number of cultural spheres, each retaining its own integrity in a kind of cluster. The idea of the church and the culture existing side by side, the spiritual character of the Church, and the operation of natural law in society more generally, have at best been skewed, at worst they have been lost from view. At the very least, we can make this generalisation: that those who form the Kuyperian legacy have not developed their ideas in conscious opposition to, or qualification of, the two kingdoms/natural law position, but either in total unawareness of it, or in caricature of it. This caricature has taken the form of warnings against the nature-grace ‘dichotomy’ or ‘dualism’, according to which ‘nature’ is a mythical human state unaffected by the Fall, the brainchild of the Roman Catholic Church in its medieval expression. They reckon that the failure to see this Pelagianising element in medievalism is a weakening of the Reformation outlook, until in the late nineteenth century it regained its balance.

(Incidentally this understanding of nature and grace, the distinction between which goes back to Augustine, is actually decidedly unmedieval, as I try to show in Chapter 10 of Calvin at the Centre. It is rather the product of the Counter-Reformation, and more exactly of one party of the Counter-Reformation, those who regarded the Fall as leaving human nature intact, as a state of ‘pure nature’. This was most certainly not Thomas Aquinas’s view of the effect of the Fall, yet it came to be regarded by Reformed thinkers such as Bavinck (and as Hodge) the standard Roman view. That too is partly the result of the Kuyper-legacy, as a result of which proponents of a supposedly more consistently view of culture get off on the wrong foot.)

Back to VanDrunen’s treatment of that legacy, the first trustee of which is Herman Dooyeweerd, whose mantle then passes to Cornelius Van Til. What of Dooyeweerd? His views of the Christian’s attitude to culture place on it an ‘eschatological burden’ (a nice phrase, which the author uses more than once). We see an effort to impose such a burden on the currently-faddish idea that Christians must make a positive response to ‘global warming’ as part of their preparation for the renewing of the heavens and the earth in the eschaton. Dooyeeweerd moves further away from the two kingdoms view than did Kuyoer, his theoretical spheres taking the place of the continued functioning of natural law in earthly kingdom. For Dooyeweerd theoretical thought(including the thought of Christian theology) starts pre-theoretically in the possession of a religious ’ground-motive’ which conditions all one’s theoretically influenced activities in whatever sphere. So the Christian religion is pre-theoretical, a relation between God and the heart, ensuring membership of the invisible church, and theology is theory. The state is to gain its Christian character not through its relation to the church but through expression of the Lordship of Christ in its members. Common grace is rooted in Christ. Hence the eschatological burden. Adherence to natural law, it is said, represents an unfaithful synthesizing of Christian ideas with Greek, a nature-grace ground-motive that is alien to a thoroughly consistent Christian view. The laws of the various ‘spheres’ of creation, worked out in detail, take the place of natural law, and relate directly to the Christian ground-motive, and cultural endeavour is thus a direct fruit of Christ’s redemption. VanDrunen looks at certain of Dooyeweerd’s North American disciples, Henry Stob, Cornelius Plantinga, Albert Walters, Craig Bartholemew and Michael Goheen. Naturally enough, he finds in them the same emphases. You see the narrowing?

As VanDrunen understands things, the problem with Van Til, the second beneficiary of the Kuyperian legacy, is that he is more emphatic even than Kuyper. This is because of his stress on antithesis, there is no area, such as ‘the natural’ where Christians and non-Christians can speak the same language. There have to be Christian schools, VT says, because otherwise Christians would not learn to count properly, which of course makes the task of computing one’s Income Tax liability rather difficult. Nevertheless, there can be no natural theology, no natural law, no space for civil society or for the formation of ‘little platoons’ through which Christians may engage with their societies and cultures. Unless the unbeliever understands reality with the help of special revelation, there is no point of contact between belief and unbelief, except through a piece of make-believe. It is always nature and Scripture, special revelation and general revelation, the one interpreting the other. For God is ‘the interpreter’ par excellence,and we shall be in the mire unless, taking his special revelation in our hands and in our spirits, we succeed in interpreting nature and all else by its means.

And yet Christians are in society as non-archists. How so? They can get along on an ‘as if’ basis, that’s all. ‘As if’ means, I presume, that we have to pretend, or deceive ourselves, or play the game of living in a common, objective world, when all along we know that we do not and cannot do so. Playing the ‘as if’ game is the only way you can trust the cash machines at the supermarket. This hopping from one extreme to the other is characteristic of the thought of Van Til, I’ve always thought. There is absolute antithesis, enough to give us the shakes. What must I do to live? Ah, ‘from a relative point of view’ the non-Christian ‘knows things after a fashion’ because the unbeliever receives God’s truth without knowing it; he borrows from the bank without realising it, believing all the while that he is financially sound. This kindness of God prepares for his redemptive grace, it is the field in which the seeds of grace can be sown and (by God’s sovereign grace) germinate and bear fruit. This emphasises, once more, is that common grace is not ‘nature’, it is not a distinct order where Christ, the Logos of creation and its conservation rules, separately from the order of grace where, as the Mediator between God and man, he redeems. So culture is a Christian task, with non-believers as assistants but not among the ultimate beneficiaries.

So, what are to say about natural law and the two kingdoms? Some things may suggest ‘nature’; it is as if ‘natural law’ and ‘common gracious are mere stylistic variants. But this is not so. For the heart of the matter is Christ’s rule over every sphere of life; Christ as the God-man Messiah, that is, not as the Logos of creation. Van Til’s criticisms of Kuyper take him beyond Kuyper, heading in the direction of special redemptive grace swamping common grace, which has no independent standing. ’We must unite the idea of creation in Christ with that of His redemption of all things’. Extremes meet, Van Til, the strong critic of Barth, has Barth’s view of the unity of Christ’s creating and redeeming work. On this choppy sea, it is as if they look up and suddenly realise that they are in the same boat.' There is no realm of common grace, no natural theology or natural ethics where Christian and non-Christian may share projects in abona fide manner. Common grace is simply the setting for the growing and harvesting of the fruits of God’s special grace.

The philosopher Peter Geach said of the philosophy of John Locke: you pays your money and you takes your choice. There is something similar about Van Til, as is witnessed by the fact that two of his disciples, Greg Bahnsen and Meredith Kline, ‘develop’ his ideas in entirely different direction. Bahnsen heard Van Til say ’no natural ethics’, so he developed a scheme under which Christians are obliged to keep the whole law of God ‘as a pattern of sanctification’. Revealed law swallows up natural law. Christ’s kingship may be affirmed, but it is not the two-fold kingship of the two kingdoms. Yet not quite, since according to Bahnsen, it is the state, and not the church, which bears the sword.

On the other hand Meredith Kline, who ended his career as a teacher at Westminster West, Escondido, ‘develops’, if that is the word, Van Til’s thoughts back in the direction of the classic position, while being (so it seems) largely ignorant of that position. He did this by the way in which the covenant comes to play a crucial part in his thought. Common grace, though antithetical to God and his redemptive kingdom, has beneficial purposes ordained by God. Behind this lies the covenant of works, and the covenant of common grace made with Noah for the benefit of failed humanity, which legitimizes the state and culture more generally, but has a temporal and provisional character. This then approaches the conceptuality of the two kingdoms without (apparently) Kline being aware of this. However, his view of natural law seems much more tenuous, indeed, hardly present at all, though VanDrunen does his best.


Many of the figures treated earlier in the book, from Calvin to Stuart Robinson, wererepresentative. But from Kuyper onwards the single (not representative) figures are thinkers who in their own right amend or overlook the classical view: Dooyeweerd, Van Til, and then (narrower still) Greg Bahnsen and Meredith Kline; the whole tradition comes to balance upon a pinhead. It seems to me that it might have been better to organise things not in terms of a kind of linear descent but a wholesale dissolving or abandoning of the tradition, or alternatively to note other post-Kuyperian figures such as Herman Hoeksema, or even (dare I say it?) adherents of the sister confessions of the Westminster Confession, such as the Baptist Confession of 1689. They too have the same two-kingdoms/natural law heritage. What has become of thinking about nature and grace in these quarters? Is there any? What about John Piper or Al Mohler or D.A.Carson or Mark Dever?

English church history witnesses the forced disestablishment of the dissenting congregations, whether they liked the idea of establishment or not, at the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which cemented the Great Ejection of 1662. So that these dissenting congregations were forced into a two kingdoms position, in rather the way that the American Constitution operated on the American churches. But this was compromised in England both by dissent’s continued loyalty to the Anglican Protestant establishment, and its petitioning of Parliament for relief from discrimination through the representations of the Protestant Dissenting Deputies, and, in the nineteenth century, their increasing commitment to the political agendas of Whig Liberalism. John Gill, though a Baptist, has his place in Richard Muller’s galaxy of Reformed Orthodox, and I think that it would be interesting to see what he has to say on these issues. Next month I hope to post a discussion of his views (which are themselves uncharacteristically short), and of English Dissent more generally.

In the Conclusion to the book VanDrunen helpfully raises a series of issues that present themselves as obstacles to the further revival of the natural law/two kingdoms tradition. There are five of these, some rather theologically arcane, others more practical. He is concerned about the Son’s distinct mediatorship of creation and redemption the extra calvinisticum. But this is not a novelty in Christology, going back to Augustine at least, as David Willis showed in his book Calvin’s Catholic Christology. Are there matters which God concerns himself with apart from the redemption of the race? Obviously so. Must not Christ, as God, concern himself with these, particularly in the light of the Johannine Prologue and Colossians 1? Then there is the question of the status of the Noahic covenant. What part does this play in a doctrine of common grace? Third, has Christ’s death and resurrection made a difference, as Oliver O’Donovan claims in his book The Desire of the Nations, and elsewhere. But the time when the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign for ever and ever (Rev. 11.15) and when Christ delivers the kingdom to God the Father, after destroying every rule and every authority and power, (I Cor. 15. 24) are surely future. Then there are a couple of questions about what exactly is meant by spiritual things which is, on the classic position, the realm of the church, and the ever-present danger of compartmentalisation between the character of a person as a church member and as a citizen. There is tension here, but that is how it should be.

VanDrunen also asks questions about the status and meaning of natural law in pluralist societies many elements of which are hostile to Christianity, and are in favour of moral relativism. Here I think that the Christian’s role in society is affected by the mood swings of societies. Christendom has left a legacy, a fund of moral capital which is presently running down. But just as politics is the art of the possible so is cultural engagement, surely. That is, to his cultural involvement the Christian should take with him a decent stock of what we might call cultural scepticism. It is surely foreign to the Christian ethos, whatever the context, to endorse political utopias, or messianic and redemptive views of politics, whether of the left or the right; we ought to be as suspicious of the Tea Party as of the Marxists. The ‘earthly’ of ‘earthly kingdom’ does not only denote its location but also its fallenness. The first is of the earth, earthy, and that earth soils the best endeavours of the Christian. So, no perfectionism.All politics is the politics of imperfection, and that applies also to the entire range of cultural endeavours, whether we call them 'Christian' or not.