Friday, July 21, 2006

Response to Darryl Hart: The Complexity of Human Activity Means There Can Be No Sovereign Spheres

This post is slightly modified from a comment I made over at De Regno Christi. The added material is italicized.


Because Dr. Hart’s arguments reflect standard objections against establishment of Christianity to be found in Reformed circles today, he deserves a worthy response. I hope the comments below are helpful.

I have made the point that the “sphere” of the family is overseen by both church and state. As an example, I cited the solemnization of marriage performed by Church ministers. I also meant by this the on-going oversight that the church provides such as marriage counseling, arbitration and discipline. Until the sphere sovereignty people grapple with this messy reality, I think their views are more suitable for classroom theorizing than the real world.

The partitioning off of authority to various spheres can get pretty complex, especially on the Dooyeweerdian scheme. Ought decisions having widespread ramification be solely determined by the sphere authority of the “most characteristic modality”? According to Dooyeweerd, there are fifteen different modalities! Who is going to practically arbitrate all this? The only authority capable of making such complex decisions would be an absolute monarch possessing the wisdom of Solomon. Yes, Jesus Christ reigns from above, but I am talking about the practical working out of the system.

Dr. Chellis’ theses 56 & 57 say there are matters entirely secular and entirely holy. However, people are not permitted to assemble anywhere they please. Churches require property for buildings. Cities and surrounding neighborhoods have a say as to what kind of activities may take place in their vicinities. Churches need tax identification numbers to account for revenues. All kinds of laws apply, limiting churches’ activities in real ways.

Whether one favors the complicated Dooyeweerdian system or Kuyper’s three spheres or Kline’s cult/culture distinction, their logical compartmentalization of human life slams against the brick wall of our interconnected social reality.

Dr. Hart points to present practice to argue that ministers act as “agents of the state” in their “civil capacities” when officiating at marriage ceremonies. So, ministers of the Gospel have civil capacities? Or, more likely for Hart, are the ministers acting as private citizens? When doing so, are they wearing their robes of office and conducting ceremonies in sacred houses of worship? Oh, I forgot… there are no sacred places since the Reformation... Perhaps couples may opt to have marriage ceremonies that only appear to be religiously sanctioned.

Some states require religious ceremonies to be separate from civil. In the State of California, the ceremonies are combined. Marriage may not be sacraments per se, but do we want to cede all oversight of marriage to the civil realm? I agree that states have a legal interest in ensuring that marriages are lawfully entered into, but the Church has an interest as well. It’s hard for me to accept Dr. Hart’s qualification that he promotes secular government and not secularism, when he yields all juridical authority over marriage to the state, a purely secular realm in his view.

Dr. Hart made the remark that he has found from his own experience that work environments are more congenial when they are governed by “professional standards” rather than “assumed religious convictions.” However, it should be recognized that modern day professional standards mask utilitarian and scientistic ethical approaches to life. We should also recognize that these standards arose in a particular historical and cultural environment (inherited Christian morality, the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution). Professional standards are evolving at a rapid pace under the strong influences of our therapeutic culture and multiculturalism, and already hardly resemble their original shape. Unless counteracting measures are taken now, with ethics and institutions that are vigorously informed by biblical morality, the future condition of a thoroughly secular, technologically advanced society will be nightmarish beyond comprehension. (Just a little hyperbole here) Prudence dictates that the Church ought to take some collective measure in the interest of preserving even what we enjoy today.

To set the matter straight, I do not contend that the only legitimate kingdom is the Messianic Kingdom of Christ. Even nations that do not formally recognize the rule of Jesus are “legitimate.” The Roman Church, which views marriage between baptized persons as a sacrament, views other marriages as legitimate in some sense. My brief response is that particular social institutions may be legitimate but irregular. And there are and have been illegitimate states, quite apart from the fact that God is sovereign.

God’s sovereignty does not justify or endorse all particular states that have ever existed. To argue this way appears to smack not a little of hypercalvinism, a sort of fatalistic reliance on God’s sovereignty to justify inaction. God wills to accomplish his purposes through the free actions of men.

Concluding, Dr. Hart claims that a desire to see the rule of Christ more evident is prematurely immanentizing the eschaton, and incompatible with a theology of the cross. I am undisturbed by these objections. The Messianic Kingdom has been fully consummated, but is only veiled to our sight. The resurrection of Christ was a victory in which he was publicly vindicated, accompanied by legally compelling miraculous testimony here on earth. The ministry of the Church is to carry on Christ’s reconciliatory work. The generation that saw the conversion of Constantine had just passed through years of persecution and did not shirk their public responsibility when a Christian order was established (presumably under God’s sovereign control). The Church continues to suffer in all parts of the world, except, notably, where Christians have reached a comfortable accommodation with post-Christendom secularity.

Jesus himself confronted the powers, and Paul was sent to kings (Acts 9:15). The church that retreats to a sacred realm of the spirit is not the Church of the Bible or of history, not to mention that such a retreat is entirely impracticable for life in an embodied world.


Baus said...

You wrote:
Ought decisions having widespread ramification be solely determined by the sphere authority of the "most characteristic modality"? ...Who is going to practically arbitrate all this? The only authority capable... would be an absolute monarch...

To what widespread ramifications do you refer? How your family is governed has widespread ramifications, but you certainly recognize that familial authority over your familiy is delegated to you and no one else.

It's not a matter of having some absolute earthly monarch to say who is to govern what... Christ has already built these things into creation itself. We don't create ex nihilo authority for communities, but they are designed by God with various intrinsic responsibilities from the start.

Kuyper, of course, recognized more than three spheres. And neither he, nor Dooyeweerd, nor Kline suppose that the recognition of the distinctions between them was a matter of human logical imposition. These are realities God built into the world. The interconnectivity is not being overlooked in the least. But a monolithic "basically-all-one-kind-of-thing" view of society is what slams against the tremendous diversity God-normed societal life.

Andrew Matthews said...

Thanks for your reply, Baus. Perhaps I didn't clearly express my challenge. Let's say for the purpose of argument there are authorities for each sphere. Who is going to serve as the mediating arbitrator who will decide which authority has jurisdiction when a conflict arises?

Presumably we are having this discussion because conflicts have arisen in the past, and not everybody is clear about how the various spheres should relate to each other.

I am preparing a response to the point you made about familial authority that I intend to post later. Also, I'm developing my criticism of what I see as a fragmenting tendency in your system that leads to the dissolution of human society.