Thursday, March 17, 2016

Sacred and Secular

The late R. A. Markus, a former colleague at Liverpool, author of Saculum: History and Society in the Theology of St.Augustine

'Sacred and secular'. A well-used phrase. But what does it mean? Does it make a contrast between the religious and the non-religious?  Between the church and the world? The public square where everything that matters are discussed, and the private world of religious observance, imagination  and make-believe? You may suppose that members of the National Secular Society think like this. Their website says ‘Secularism is a principle that involves two basic propositions. The first is the strict separation of the state from religious institutions. The second is that people of different religions and beliefs are equal before the law’. So then ‘sacred and secular’ would mean ‘church-affected’ and ‘’church-unaffected’. It is a society that wants to keep separate things separate, and to uphold the rights of all, religious and non-religious, before the law. That seems to me to be admirable, but I don’t think it helps us much with the meaning of ‘secular’.

This is what Wikipedia says about that word saeculum from which our ‘secular’ is derived;

saeculum is a length of time roughly equal to the potential lifetime of a person or the equivalent of the complete renewal of a human population. The term was first used by the Etruscans. Originally it meant the period of time from the moment that something happened (for example the founding of a city) until the point in time that all people who had lived at the first moment had died. At that point a new saeculum would start.

A life time, or a series of lifetimes. The secular is concerned with what falls under this period of passing. By this measure, the NHS is a secular society, besides the Secular Society itself.  A hundred other secular societies come to mind. It seems helpful if we keep that bit of history in mind. From it it’s easy to see that the word ‘secular’ means ‘of the present age’ or perhaps it’s not stretching things to use ‘contemporary’. Not so much a political or social arrangement or stance, but pointing to the fact that such a thing is associated with the passing, and with the passing away of such an arrangement. Secular refers to the sort of things that news bulletins report.  The idea is that the secular is the mundane, the everyday, the ‘passing’.

The New Testament uses ‘passing’, too, in reference to the ‘world’, but in contrast with the affairs of the Lord Jesus Christ.  As in I Jn. 2.17.’…this world is passing away along with its desires….’ Similarly with ‘fashion’. Fashions of their very nature pass away. By contrast the activities of the Christian church are ‘sacred’. Set apart.  Writing to the believers in Corinth Paul urges on them to become ‘…those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it’. (1 Cor. 7.31) I like that ‘as though’ We have dealings with the world, inevitably so, but we are to live as though we had none. No. Paul thinks that it’s not make believe, but the honest truth about being a Christian.

As for sacred, the dictionaries say things like, ‘Made holy by association on with a god or other object of worship’. I say nothing to undermine the doctrine of the ‘common grace’ of God, nor of Christ’s Lordship over the passing world. But this is not the emphasis of the NT, is it? In the case of the sacredness of the Christian church, this is tied to ‘association’ (not quite the correct word) with the eternal God. With his word if promise. If the secular is concerned with the passing, then the sacred is concerned with what abides, abides because it is eternal. So the sacred is concerned with eternal matters, and with human concerns about these matters.

Paul contrasts Christian wisdom, the ‘secret and hidden wisdom’ with  ‘the wisdom of this age, or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away’. None of the rulers of this age understood this secret and hidden wisdom, ‘for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory…’ 1  Cor. 2.6f.

Two systems of lordship,  one which rules this age, passing away, and the lordship of the Lord of glory. In doing what they did, the crucifiers, Roman and Jewish,  unintentionally served God’s eternal purposes, for this Jesus ‘gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age’. That which is so characteristic of this present age, an act of political expediency, nevertheless has eternal consequences. To this God belongs the ‘glory for ever and ever. Amen’ Gal. 1.4.

So the contrast between sacred and secular by itself does not mean spiritual versus non-spiritual, but ‘of eternal moment’, of eternal  weight (‘an eternal weight of glory’) by contrast to the passing lightness ‘of the present age’.

Is this escapism? Well, it could be called that. Except that Christian people have continuing responsibilities and enjoyments,  including responsibilities and enjoyments of the eternal Christ. But Christ’s disciples have their treasure in heaven, where there are no moths, or thieves. They are to flee from the wrath to come. There’s more than a tinge of escapism in this teaching, isn’t there?

Though we may be confessing Calvinist Christians, we rather neglect or forget the doctrine of the eternity of God that is at the heart of our faith, and thus of our worship. Let us remind ourselves –

The Lord our God is but one living and true God; whose subsistence is in and of himself, infinite in being and perfection; whose essence cannot be comprehended by any but himself; a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts or passions, who only hath immortality, dwelling in the light which no man can approach unto, who is immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, every way infinite, most holy, most wise, most free, most absolute; working all things according to the counsel of his own immutable and most righteous will for his own glory; most loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin; the rewarder of them that diligently seek him, and withal most just and terrible in his judgments, hating sin, and who will by no means clear the guilty.

The places where this God is to be worshipped, in which the apparatus of worship is situated, and the people of God gather, are to be distinct from the secular world. In the present age and yet not of it. That’s a hard balancing act.

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

2K and Quietism

John Bunyan - Pastor, Pilgrim, Tinker

I don’t think I can take much more 2K versus ‘transformationalist’ journalism. Nor tired tirades against Socialism in the name of Christ and Capitalism. Nor the usual stuff about segregation in the South of the United States in years gone by, convictions formed with the help of current enlightened and insightful morality. Has anyone any idea what will be outlawed in 100 years?

Instead, here’s a more manageable sort of question. Does the recognition of two kingdoms or two cities require Quietism? Wikipedia says that Quietism is or commits one to devotional contemplation and abandonment of the will as a form of religious mysticism. Or, calm acceptance of things as they are without attempts to resist or change them. I think we’ll opt for the second view this morning.  Suppose the ‘things’ in view are political or those social or cultural things that Transformationalism fixes on. So the Quietism in view is the calm acceptance of political or social  or cultural things as they are without attempts to resist or change them.  So the question is, does 2K require or permit calm acceptance of such things as they are without attempts to resist or change them.  Does 2K commit one to the status quo, or even to a tendency to be such a quietist?  Does it require it? Does it permit it? At least it is to be preferred to ‘my forbears were more Christian than yours’  or  ‘Scottish Socialism is more spiritual than American capitalism’.

Quietism, then?

2K affirms the ideal of the spirituality of the church, holding that the business of the church through its confession and ministry is to prepare adherents and all who will hear for the spiritual kingdom, the kingdom of which the Apostle Paul said this it is not meat and drink; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost.  A kingdom whose maker and builder is God. And so on, and on.  2K's don’t adopt this view because it's a cop-out of some sort, but because they believe that it is an intrinsic part of the Christian church’s commission and confession. So the people of God are essentially pilgrims.

And they seem to have something on their side. After all, Jesus had things to say about the pre-eminence of his kingdom.  This is the kingdom (2Kers hold) that Jesus advises his disciples to pray for the coming of as they pray the Lord’s Prayer, ‘Your kingdom come’, a kingdom of which Jesus said ‘my kingdom is not of this world, else would my servants fight’.

Cultural transformationalists are eager to insist that Christianity must speak to  ‘the whole of life.’ And (2Kers hold) so it must, and does. For the Scriptures of the New Testament, from which these sentiments are taken, also have other teachings, affecting the Christians attitude to ‘the whole of life’.

Admittedly the New Testament does not have much of a view of  what usually passes for ‘culture’ in 'cultural transformation’: leisure and pastimes, painting and sculpting, the media, literature, academic research. But if the NT permits, say, bee-keeping,  (Is that permission derived from an argumentum ex silentio?), then forming beekeepers’ associations is OK. If you can earn a living as a teacher, then joining the teachers union is OK, since the  Bible does not (as far as I can see) forbid having friends.  It even permits those dreadful golf clubs, where seniors love to gambol. Some golf, others bee-keep, still others engage in both, or neither.

Consequences and silence

The oft-cited Westminster Divines’ ‘good and necessary consequence’ applies to what the Bible omits to say as well as to what it requires. [Note to 2Kers – don’t be bullied by those who say that on your view of the Bible does not speak to the whole of life. Tell them not to forget that there’s a hermeneutic of the silences os Scripture. Like dogs that do not bark in the night] So the positive and negative implications of the Bible are quite far-reaching as far as culture and society are concerned.  

And the Bible has much to say about human life. For it upholds the teaching of the moral law, and recognizes other  injunctions than those just referred to, to be part of the church’s ministry, and it expects its adherents to listen to and learn from that ministry. Does the moral law have to do with the whole of life? I should say so, though maybe the unwary, on their way to the Celestial City, suffering from a bout of the Neo-Calvinist Contagion, are in danger of slipping through the Crevasse known as the Nature-Grace dichotomy, or of being assaulted by Legalist.


Here are some of the ways that the New Testament addresses the Christian in society.

For starters,  the Christian has duties to the state - to honour the government, to pray for it. Do you mean pray for the success of its foreign policy, or the further success of its national health service, or tax policy?  Obviously not. Because praying for the government, according to Paul’s command, is part of the Christian’s concern for the prosperity and peace of the Church, Christ’s church. No persecution, no disruption to its business, that sort of thing. 'That we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way'.

But lest you fear the onset of a monkish seclusion, the Christian is explicitly told not to leave the world. And also not to shun the rights one may have by virtue of being a citizen of your country, but to use them wisely, as Paul did when he stood his ground and played his free-born Roman card.

Employment and business - To make business plans conditionally on the will of God, to pay taxes, to employ fairly, not to break contracts. We are not to be aggressively ambitious, lest we love this world, and become discontented with what we have, partcularly with the money we have.  But we may seek better opportunities as they come along; to be honest, and not to be idle, but to be wholehearted in whatever we do, living in the sight of God. Not the whole of life? Plenty to be getting on  with, surely. And more, to do good to all, especially one’s fellow members of the kingdom.

There are no apostolic words covering the sort of jobs  to look for. But there are instances of diversity, mentioned without adverse comment – from being a member in Caesar’s entourage, to being a tentmaker, or a seller of purple. A significant silence. There is no comment either way on military service. Nor is there any advice that is technical or professional in character, such as how to make tents, or to cook a rabbit. But there is also a  (welcome!)  absence of faddishness, e.g. in the matter of eating. More silences.

But comprehensive ideals are occasionally set out and urged on Christians, which may have general application to professional and other standards. Truth to tell, the Apostles treat their hearers as grown ups, and don’t interfere where they don’t need to. In their view there are more important matters.

There is teaching to the effect that some skills and abilities generally distributed to the people of God or others, are the gift of the Holy Spirit, distinct from his regenerating effects, and from his donation of spiritual gifts to the pilgrim people of God.  These are most explicit in the OT, but may be presumed, or are presumed,  to carry over to the age of the Messiah.

Those who advocate a Christian view of this or that fail to recognize the seriousness of what they are proposing. To  have a Christian view of X is to be committed to proclaiming it as the word of God which Christians have an obligation to uphold and propagate.


This brings us to the sociological side of things. The fact is that Christians differ in their tastes when given the current cultural and political menu and invited to make their choices.  And given this mixed reaction, how can anyone say that policies and trends in society at large are ‘Christian’, and so are to form part of the Christian message,  when in the eyes of many Christians,   judged by the standards of the New Testament, they are neither here not there, things indifferent, adiaphora.  Isn’t the unworldliness of the church, its being 'counter-cultural', one of its characteristic, unique  features, giving it an  attractive indifference to passing trends and policies? And is there not something uniquely attractive in the Christian socialist worshipping alongside the Christian capitalist, servants of the same  Saviour and walking the same pilgrim path?