Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Church and Kingdom

This evening I'd also like to initiate a dialogue with my friend Joe Brancaleone who writes at Pensieri di Brancaleone. Joe and I have had a few talks on the subject of the relation between the visible church and the invisible Kingdom of Christ. As I see it, how one conceives the relation between these two "spheres" is the issue lying at the center of the current "justification controversy" that is troubling the Reformed world at this time.

The dilemma can be formulated in the following way: Is the visible church the elect people of God or is it a provisional community of believers awaiting the establishment of the kingdom? If the visible church is the elect, how can Calvinism be true, since it is the case that some fall away and demonstrate a reprobate status? To affirm the election of the visible company of believers seems to entail admitting that individuals may loose their election. Also, since election and justification are inseparably linked (Rom. 8:30) , it appears that on this view individuals may fall from a state of justification. Therefore, the affirmation of "church election" and the "objective covenant" must be a betrayal of the Reformation and the assurance of salvation that was hard won by it.

According to the reasoning of those who would defend the Reformation, it is better to make a sharp distinction between the present church and the future Church that will be revealed from heaven as the spotless Bride of Christ, than to compromise the doctrine of justification. My friend Joe falls into this camp as is evident from the following:

...the NT definitely makes a distinction in this present age; one the hand the elect who are justified, receive full forgiveness of sins, and covenanted a kingdom glory. They are ones for whom Christ is the mediator of an eternal covenant and intercedes for all those whom he came to save by praying that their faith may not fail, and all of whom will one day feast with the king in the full glory of his eternal kingdom.

On the other hand there is a visible community where the general invitation is given to enter this kingdom by faith and baptism, a place where the Word of God is proclaimed, the hope of glory, and warnings are given against falling away from the Word which saves. [1/4/05]

It is here plain that the eternal kingdom and the visible community of Christians, while containing some of the same individuals are actually two distinct entities.

A consequence of this is that the visible church is not really the kingdom of God. It is a provisional society that has been gathered by the preaching of the Gospel, and sojourns as a company of pilgrims while awaiting the kingdom yet to come.

This conception of the church is summed by Joe in another place:

God's people are no longer characterized as a sovereign theocratic nation like Israel was. We are scattered and mixed across the world where we often find ourselves in a pluralistic bazaar of religions and ideas in the public square. [3/30/05]

According to this understanding, the church may be a kingdom of priests, but it is a spiritual nation, corresponding only analogously to the old covenant nation. The messianic kingdom of Christ is a spiritual reign in our hearts, which will be established as a social polity at the second coming when the kingdom is delivered up to the Father.

I hope I have characterized Joe's position fairly. If I have done so, then I am quite certain that his covenantalism is identical in principle to dispensationalism. The original dispensationalists taught that the kingdom only exists in mystery form at present, after a spiritual manner. They also split the New Covenant into "letter" and "spirit." (St. Paul was minister of the covenant spiritually, not legally. see 2 Cor. 3). For dispensationalists, the new covenant has not yet been established.

Likewise, I'd like to challenge Joe that his covenantalism pushes the substance of the New Covenant into the future, so that we do not in fact possess it. The covenant community is only in the process of being called, and therefore cannot be said to be God's own possession at present. At best we have the New Covenant in principle, i.e., in name only.

Both views deny that the reality of the kingdom is here, and posit a kind of half-way anticipatory economy in its place. The antidote to this Almost/Not Quite eschatology is to read what blessings are promised in the New Covenant and to read of their fulfillment in the Acts of the Apostles.

Herman Ridderbos has characterized the exorcisms performed by Christ and his disciples as signs that manifested a victory over Satan which had not yet been realized. Jesus' other miracles were of an "incidental" character of "temporary significance" for the real accomplishment that would take place later. The miracles were illustrative of his message and not the subject of it. (See The Coming of the Kingdom, pp. 113, 115.)

I am afraid this construction on the biblical data has unnecessarily postponed the kingdom to a future consummation day. It is at best a partial truth, because the consummation is wherever Jesus is. It is a gift given with the right hand, but taken away by the left.

At present, Jesus is not convalescing in heaven awaiting the time when he will be able to get around to the real business of his messianic rule. In actuality he has entrusted a mission to his church on the basis of his own authority, an authority he has already been endowed with by virtue of completing the course of his earthly obedience (See Matt. 28:18ff.; Heb. 1:3ff.).

The cosmic victory of Christ is only hidden to us who are on earth. But to the heavenly powers it is already manifest. Let us walk by faith and not by sight, following the example of the Old Testament saints "who through faith subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises" while not shrinking from the persecution that will inevitably be aroused in opposition(Heb. 11:33ff.).

The Law and the King

I'd like to express my thanks to my fellow parishioner Russ Smith for his willingness to engage in a dialogue about the relative merits of monarchy and democracy. His latest post over at Jack of Clubs provides a convenient opener for our discussion.

Russ begins his post by citing Instar Adood, an Iraqi citizen, who contrasted the situation in his country between Sadaam's regime and the rule of law established by the U.S. In Iraq, law really didn't exist under Sadaam, the operative principle in the dictatorship was Sadaam's arbitrary will.

Here Russ has set up the problematic that is common to all Enlightenment thinking: either rule by a person or rule by law. Either dictatorship or democracy. But I do not accept these alternatives.

Russ writes, "The default political philosophy throughout much of human history has been that the will of the king is the law. The biblical view that the king should be subject to a higher law would have been seen as controversial if not insane."

As a Christian I could never object to the proposition that kings should be constrained by the dictates of God's Law. But let's be perfectly clear, the true import of this thinking is that there should be no king. The uncontroversial truism that human government is accountable to divine rule has been used as a pretext to overturn all human authority. The thought runs: authority is too dangerous to be entrusted to mere mortals, because "power corrupts", etc.

To verify my basic point, in the same article Russ also cites the illustrious biblical scholar Tommy Paine himself! Here is the full quotation:
But where, says some, is the King of America? I'll tell you. Friend, he reigns above, and doth not make havoc of mankind like the Royal Brute of Britain. Yet that we may not appear to be defective even in earthly honors, let a day be solemnly set apart for proclaiming the charter; let it be brought forth placed on the divine law, the word of God; let a crown be placed thereon, by which the world may know, that so far we approve of monarchy, that in America THE LAW IS KING. For as in absolute governments the King is law, so in free countries the law OUGHT to be King; and there ought to be no other. But lest any ill use should afterwards arise, let the crown at the conclusion of the ceremony, be demolished, and scattered among the people whose right it is.
There is much that can be said in response to this rebel's rant, but I shall restrict my comments to address the possibility of rule by law alone. When we examine the substance of what Tommy Boy has actually said, we find there is nothing there. Rule by naked law does not, cannot, exist. The bottom line is that someone has to function as a final authority in human government since Jesus Christ has seen fit to reign from Heaven. In any situation, there are a number of laws that come to bear. In order to determine which law has priority in any particular case, judgment must be exercised, hence the need for judges.

As illustrated in the Schiavo debacle, judges are very powerful in this country. One county circuit judge can singlehandedly hold off the executive and legislative branches of his state, as well as the U.S. Congress acting in emergency session. Of course, backing this judge is the weight of the entire legal establishment.

Tommy Paine's ideal that law replace the king has been actualized in the real world as government run by lawyers, with all the attendant limitations of legalistic judgment, i.e., too much weight placed on the letter of the law, appeal to human law as ultimately authoritative, etc.

It may be reasonably asked then, are we not faced with choosing between either arbitrary judges or arbitrary kings? Isn't government a necessary evil, and shouldn't we opt for the system that disperses power among more rather than among few? Isn't decentralization preferable to concentration of power?

Not necessarily. A judge in our day is a lawyer and nothing else. But a king is more than a judge. He is also a father, and a father has more care for the well being of his own children than he does for someone else's. I would more readily trust my case to one who viewed me in some sense as a son than I would to someone who regarded me a stranger.