Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Natural Law & the Two Kingdoms - Further Remarks

In some earlier posts we have been thinking about the two kingdoms view of the Christian, his faith and culture. Here I shall touch on two or three further issues.

The Two Kingdoms Tradition

It is important to stress that this is a tradition, beginning explicitly perhaps with Luther and Calvin, but having antecedents in Augustine and Gelasius. It does not invalidate the coherence and integrity of that tradition to note that the conditions under which the conceptuality of two kingdoms originated are not identical with present day circumstances, just as present-day conditions are not uniformly the same across the board. To think like this is to commit what I call the Occasionalist Fallacy, the view that the validity of a claim or idea or opinion, is confined to the context of its first utterance. Accepting this opens the door to a rather radical relativistic outlook.

Portability is inherent in the very idea of a tradition, which maps a continuity of thought and action through a changing world. It is a great good to be able to do this, even though we might be rather quizzical about what exactly counts as the tradition. What gives it its identity, through all the changing scenes of life? We can often provide answers such a question, even though any tradition may have fuzzy edges. At the other end there is need for sensitivity to anachronism, taking care not unwarrantably to impute conditions to the past which only obtain in the present.

These generalities of common sense have been suggested because, for example, it is said that Calvin’s distinction between the two kingdoms is different from such a distinction today, because in Calvin’s Geneva the church and the state were fairly coterminous, and so the relations between church and state were rather different from those in modern liberal democratic arrangements. And so, it is suggested (I think) that it is wrong to lift Calvin’s view of the two kingdoms from its Genevan habitat and parachute it into the present day. Indeed, it can’t be done.

Good point, perhaps? But not a point of sufficient strength as to overturn the integrity of the two kingdoms idea in nations, such as the U.S.A., or in many of the states in Europe and the former British Empire, in which the state is at arm’s length from the church, and where there is a measure of religious toleration, freedom of assembly etc. For the idea of two kingdoms, the one earthly and the other heavenly, with Christians with a foot in each, is sufficiently robust to withstand quite a bit of transplanting. As can be seen in this extract from Calvin.

The former species has its seat within the soul, while the latter relates to matters of the present life, not only to food and clothing, but to the enacting of laws which require a man to live among his fellows purely, honourably and modestly. The former has it life within the soul, the latter only regulates the external conduct. We may call the one the spiritual, the other the civil kingdom. (Inst. III.19. 15)

That seems pretty clear. I can’t imagine that Calvin thought that these views applied in Geneva, but not, say, across the lake in France, where the kingdom and the Reformed church were far from coterminous. In Calvin’s Geneva, the magistrate’s work in the ‘civil kingdom’ included the positive upholding of true religion by supporting the services and discipline of the church in various ways, though not by duplicating them or replacing them. It is obvious that Calvin’s view of the spiritual calling of the church is different from his notion of the magistrate’s role in civil society even in a situation in which, it is judged, the magistrate also has the duty to uphold true religion. On Sunday the magistrate takes his place in St. Peter’s, like any other professing Christian in Geneva.

Were it proposed that the magistrate’s duty vis a vis religion is rather different, as it was, say, by the time of another Frenchman, Pierre Bayle, then it does not follow that this change carried with it the collapse of the very idea of two kingdoms. It certainly didn’t in Bayle’s case, and it is hard to see that at this point he made some intellectual error. The idea of the two kingdoms did not drop dead, it morphed. It became a tradition of thinking about the faith and the surrounding culture, no matter the constitutional character of that culture.

English Dissent

Similarly, in the world of early English Dissent, in which the churches who declined to join the established Church of England in the form it took at the Restoration came to have a separate identity which was at one and the same time not supportive of (nor supported by) Anglicanism, while at the same time being intensely patriotic, upholding the Protestant character of the establishment. This situation is more complex than that of Calvin’s Geneva, but nonetheless there grew in nonconformity, just because of its dissent from the Church of England, congregations that were independent of the state, and whose culture developed through being denied the educational advantages (if that is what they were) exclusively enjoyed by Anglicans. For instance, the nonconformist constituency led to the creation of Dissenting Academies, and lay at the basis of the Whig Party, the party of industry and banking and personal liberty, rather than the Tory Party, the party of the landed establishment and Anglican hegemony, where the writ of Anglicanism ran more securely through the Vicar and the Squire than it did in the cities and manufacturing centres of the North of England. (I paint with a broad brush, you understand).

To my knowledge, the industry and culture of the Dissenters, the world of Bunyan and Defoe and Joseph Priestley, strengthened by the talents of the influx of Huguenot refugees, never regarded itself as ‘Christian culture’. If anything that might be thought to be much more of a temptation for the establishment, for whom church and state remained in strong association, and in which the elements of a ‘confessional state’ remained intact, at least until the passing of the Catholic Emancipation Act in 1829. Though there's little evidence of a self-conscious 'Christian culture' in this period, as far as I can tell.

Independents/Congregationalists and Presbyterians did not have to free themselves from a religious establishment in order to maintain the spirituality of the church. For after 1688 those individuals and congregations who were prepared to obey the Act of Uniformity were debarred from the establishment, while enjoying limited toleration by the terms of the Glorious Revolution in both its ecclesiastical and its political expressions. The law granting such toleration varied from time to time, but in general they were at first constricted in the manner in which they may freely assemble, and from centres of learning, such as Oxbridge.

As a consequence, the two kingdoms view finds fairly pure expression in the culture of Dissent, at least in its early years. So for them, clearly, there is Christ’s eternal kingdom, finding present expression in the congregations of Christendom, and there is the temporal kingdom, finding partial expression in the restored monarchies of England subsequent to 1662. The two kingdoms are clearly not the same. In some places this distinction between two kingdoms came to be weakened over the years, as Dissenting churches took on the role of providing primary and also secondary education, and entertainment, for the general populace.

The Visible and Invisible Church

It is suggested that to identify the spiritual kingdom with the visible church with the church as in ‘church and state’ shows confusion in that it goes against the clear practice of John Calvin who identified the spiritual kingdom with the invisible church.

But a glance at the Institutes will show that this is not the case. Take the quotation above, from III.19.15. Following this there is a short discussion in which he relates the spiritual kingdom to the church, in the following terms

Again because even in those constitutions which seem to relate to the spiritual kingdom, there may be some delusion, it is necessary to distinguish between those [constitutions] which are to be held legitimate as being agreeable to the word of God, and those, on the other hand, which ought to have no place among the pious…For the present, also, I defer speaking of ecclesiastical laws, because that subject will be more fully discussed in the Fourth book when we come to treat of the power of the church.

Ho! Ho!, what’s this, then? Calvin introduces the distinction between the two kingdoms and almost immediately, before needing to dip his quill into the ink again, he refers to the constitution of the church (as relating to the spiritual kingdom) and to its power. When we turn to his treatment of the power of the church in Book IV, what do we find? We find a chapter ‘Of the Power of Making Laws. The Cruelty of the Pope and His adherents, in This Respect, in Tyrannically Oppressing and Destroying Souls’ (Ch.10) And we find such remarks as these:

‘They [the Pope and his adherents] say that the laws that they enact are spiritual, pertaining to the soul, and they affirm that they are necessary to eternal life. But thus the kingdom of God, as I lately observed, is invaded’. So where are we? The kingdom? The church? The church, visible or invisible? In the realm of the church, the visible church, that spiritual kingdom where souls are saved, where God is worshipped, and so on. He goes on

What I contend for is, that necessity ought not to be laid on consciences in matters in which Christ has made them free; and unless freed, cannot as we have previously shown (Book.3.19), have peace with God. They must acknowledge Christ their deliverer, as their only king, and be rule by the only law of liberty – namely, the sacred word of the Gospel – if they would retain the grace which they have once received in Christ: they must be subject to no bondage, be bound by no chains. (IV.10.1)

Pretty clear, would you not say? In the church Christ rules his people by the perfect law of liberty, and it is vital, Calvin thinks, for perseverance and persistence in grace, that God’s people should be free of man-made chains. Calvin sees no 'dualism' between the the church, the present locus of Christ's spiritual kingdom, having rules, order, provided they no not impose non-scriptural requirements.

Duplex or Monoplex?

I’ve heard it said that the fact of the operation of natural law, which is a central plank of the platform of the two kingdoms view, is a revealed doctrine of Holy Scripture, and so is subordinate to it. This is rather like saying that the existence of the Sea of Galilee is a revealed doctrine. Scripture mentions the Sea, and asserts its existence, or uses language which entails such assertions. But the Bible is not an exclusive channel of knowledge that there is such a Sea. Likewise, the Bible, in places such as Romans 1 and 2, and Acts 14 and 17, asserts that there is a natural knowledge of God, giving instances of it. For stay-at-home, Bible-loving people, maybe these passages are their chief source of the view that there is a universal sensus divinitatis, or the operation of a conscience in every human spirit. But when Paul in Acts 17 quoted from Aratus and Epimenides the Cretan, he was using his general knowledge, just as earlyish Reformed theologians quoted the sentiments of heathens such as Cicero, or the reports of contemporary explorers, to the same effect. It is central to Paul’s argument (and to Calvin’s in Book I of the Institutes) that such knowledge is real and general, and hence empirically identifiable in the usual ways.

Besides, if we take the view that it is only from the Bible that we gain positive information about the universality of the sensus divinitatis, and the operation of natural law, we jeopardize a fundamental distinction in Reformed theology, the duplex cognitio dei, the two-fold character of the knowledge of God. This is sometimes expressed in terms of the distinction between general and special revelation. We find ourselves replacing it with the monoplex cognitio dei. General revelation is swallowed by special revelation.

I think we ought to hesitate before going down that particular path.