Thursday, July 06, 2006

Response to W.H. Chellis on the Sacred/Secular Distinction

The debate over at De Regno Christi (DRC) is clipping along rather nicely right now. I am very interested in the discussion, and would like to offer cheers and criticism from the sidelines here at UO.

It appears that all involved are committed to the notion of distinguishible spheres of sacred and secular, where matters may simply be assigned to either category. Thus, there are discrete matters that belong to secular concern, and others of sacred jurisdiction.

I disagree with this antithesis, and view it as the primary source of confusion over the nature of Christ's authority and what it means for the ordering of civil society.

Dr. Chellis, one of the main contributors at DRC, a ministerial candidate in the RPCNA and trained political scientist, was very kind to leave a comment regarding my initial thoughts about his debate. He has also just written a most excellent summary of his views here. I am honored to hear from Dr. Chellis and look forward to learning much from his participation at DRC.

I'm going to take this opportunity to respond to Dr. Chellis because he raises some important concerns. He writes:

The distinction between secular and sacred is necessary. By using these terms, I am not capitulating to modernism and suggesting a realm in which Christ is not King. Quite to the contrary. Rather, I am simply defending the unique place of the Church in relationship to all other institutions.

It is historically verifiable that the secular/sacred distinction was originally posed by Christians to protect church order from state politics. This arose from the concern that the Church’s freedom to be the Church ought not be compromised by the machinations of temporal powers (i.e., that church polity not become a plaything of the state). This is a real danger, as history attests, and I don’t want to minimize it. But, I think that the solution of apportioning some matters for temporal purposes and others for spiritual ends gives rise to other problems that are characteristic of our era.

The secular/sacred sphere distinction that I am criticizing should not be confused with political dualism like that of the Middle Ages. For instance, in Pope Gelasius I's famous letter to Emperor Anastasius, Duo sunt, the Pontiff articulated a doctrine of different authorities: priest and king. This precept did not divorce the two into separate spheres of jurisdiction, but rather supported the idea that the emperor was answerable to the Church in the person of Peter's successor.

Pope Gelasius may or may not have held St. Augustine's views on the origin and purpose of the state. In his City of God, the great doctor argued that the state belongs to the fallen teleological order of the city of man. I argue that Augustine's view has led to the Lutheran total secularization of the state, and consequently, of society.

I can appreciate that the Church's unique place must be asserted over and against all other institutions. However, I think the secular/sacred distinction as a defense strategy has outlived its usefulness. A better way to keep church and state distinct is to simply define them as different institutions with different functions. What's wrong with that?

May not two institutions have complementary functions for the achievement of the same purpose? (i.e., the conversion, nurture, and discipleship of mankind)

The state is limited ethnically and geographically while the Church transcends such boundaries. The state is concerned with the coordination of resources and human activity to defend and maintain the commonwealth, while the Church is always acting prophetically/sacramentally to orient human society to the eternal reign of Christ. One of the state's functions is to enforce law and execute justice, while the Church brings Redempton to bear, sanctifying human society to the Kingdom of God.

If you prefer a holy/common distinction rather than a secular/sacred this will work as well.

I like this even less, because everything should be holy to the Lord. There is no part of life that should not be blessed and sanctified to serve holy purposes.

As the Prophet Zechariah says,

In that day “HOLINESS TO THE LORD” shall be engraved on the bells of the horses. The pots in the LORD’s house shall be like the bowls before the altar. Yes, every pot in Jerusalem and Judah shall be holiness to the LORD of hosts. Everyone who sacrifices shall come and take them and cook in them. In that day there shall no longer be a Canaanite in the house of the LORD of hosts. (14:20,21)

If we consider Zechariah's prophecy in light of St. Paul's teaching on the sanctification of marriage and households (1 Cor. 7:14), we will see that Zechariah was prophesying about the present Church Age, the New Covenant order. Jews and Gentiles are made one in Christ, unbeliving family members are sanctified, and animals once unclean are now clean (Acts 10:15). The world has been redeemed! There is nothing in principle that does not already belong to Christ and nothing now that may not be claimed as his.

Now I do agree, that the distinction of these things must not be a divorced. Cult gives rise to culture. A very important point.

This is an essential point, and it is ignorance of it that vitiates Meredith Kline's contributions. The living water that nourishes all things flows out of the throne of God.

Yet, to reject the distinction will lead in one of two possible directions. First, the direction of the Papacy in which the Church rules over the civil authority (and all other "common" institutions) or Erastianism in which the state rules over the church.

The goal at the end of time is for the state to disappear & the Church to encompass all things. There will come a time when marriage as well as "dominion, authority, and power" will be abolished (see Matt. 22:30; 1 Cor. 15:24). The Church is Christ’s fullness which is to fill all in all. I don’t see how something like medieval Catholicism can be avoided if the New Covenant has been established. I am not advocating abolishing the family or the state in the present, but sanctifying them by bringing them into the Kingdom, and transforming them.

My theory is that the New Covenant is a universal order, world-wide in scope. This is because the whole world has been purchased by the redemptive work of Christ (2 Cor. 5:19). Even the unclean creation has been purified (Acts 10:14-16). I realize these are controversial claims to make in Reformed circles, but I think we need to distinguish between the redemption of the world (an accomplished and progressive reality) and persons (not all individuals will be saved). Any Reformed thinker who fails to make this distinction has misunderstood the doctrines of grace, in my estimation, misusing predestination to put limits on what God is capable of doing.

If the New Covenant is the present universal administration of God’s Kingdom, then it encompasses Church, nation, and family. In this order of things, all things are holy to the Lord, the Church acting as the legitimizing institution. All particular institutions not blessed by the Church have not achieved the perfection of their purpose, which is to glorify God to the greatest degree possible. When something has been appropriated for holy use, it has been re-oriented to its original created purpose. This is a crucial point Schmemann makes that I'd like to unpack at a later time.

I wish that those Reformed who currently agitate for secularism in non-ecclesiastical matters would also agitate to liberate the family from church oversight. Since the family is a common institution, how is it that ministers of the Gospel lawfully solemnize the marriage covenant? I am unaware of any New Testament license for this practice. Is this not a hold-over from medieval sacerdotalism? Why should the Church be any more involved in family than, say, business matters?

Contrary to such a slippery slope (we have fallen so far), it must be asserted that the New Covenant is a meta-covenant that includes all lesser covenants (like marriage covenants & national covenants) within its scope. Because of Christ’s work, all things are holy and it is the work of the Church of God to work to progressively sanctify the world. As God, in Christ, reconciled the world to himself and entrusted the ministry of reconciliation to the Church (2 Cor. 5:18-21), so it is no contradiction to say that something may be holy and also increasing in holiness. The secularist predestinarians say that nations are already under the dominion of Christ and so somehow kings are not now responsible to “kiss the Son.” But to argue this way, that there needn’t be further dedication of governmental authority to Christ, is to disallow any degrees to sanctification-legitimacy.

A genuine already/not yet eschatology will recognize the total redemption that has taken place. Christ’s redemption does not stop at some arbitrary line we’ve drawn between sacred and secular. There is nothing in principle that does not already belong to Christ and nothing now that may not be claimed as his. It is the Church’s glorious travail to bring the Kingdom to fruition, reconciling the world to God.


fidelity said...

Great discussion. This conflict is reaching its apogee now in the western world with the conflict between the Catholic Church's and other traditional church's view of marriage and the state's view.

How do we bridge this?

Andrew Matthews said...

Thanks for your interest, fidelity. looks like they are on the right track. I will add the site to my links and check there frequently.

I have been of the opinion that in respect to marriage the following things need to be done:

I. The Church should not recognize marriages that are solemnized by governments who have redefined the traditional definition of marriage.

II. The Church should not recognize marriages that are solemnized by apostate church ministers who are associated with organizations that have redefined marriage.

There should be a three-tiered categorization to account for this:

1) Orthodox churches
2) Heterodox churches that still practice valid baptism and marriage.
3) Heretic churches that solemnize invalid marriages. (My intuition is that invalid marriage invalidates covenant baptism, but I could be wrong.)

III. Governments and churches in the third category should be denounced by an official conciliar edict.

IV. Therefore, an ecumenical council should be called, requiring all orthodox churches to be represented. All churches that do not comply would knowingly place themselves in the third category.

V. All unions that aspire to marriage must subsequently be solemnized by an orthodox ministry and confirmed by lay witnesses.

If the Church does not speak with a united voice to defend the sanctity of marriage, her witness will be greatly diminished on this issue. This is something that traditional Christians can agree on, and to act authoritatively in this way may lead to better relations between separated brethren.

Who could call such a council together? Well, since Billy Graham is too old (!), perhaps Benedict XVI, the Archbishop of Canterbury, or a prominent Anglican Archbishop of the global south (Akinola comes to mind) could move.

Although the state lacks the competence to change what marriage has always been, it has to have a definition in order to accomodate marriage and family in its legal system.

The Church should do its job better to help the state arrive at a correct understanding of marriage. I daresay, if the Church and other institutions under her sway don't recognize the marriages performed by a particular state organization, quite a bit of pressure could be leveraged against that state to change.

This is a crucial matter, because as you mention in the subject line of your blog,,
marriage is the basis of all civil institutions. I actually recognize a more fundamental institution (kingship) but agree that all natural social institutions are derived from the family.

Jack said...

I think you are talking past the point that Dr. Chellis is making. If you apply the Zechariah passage to the current era, (ie that it is part of the "already" that you mention later in the post) it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the prophecy is false. The blessings that he promises have manifestly not come to pass. On the other hand, if he is a true prophet (which we both acknowledge), then the fulfilment must be in the "not yet". That being the case, the biblical distinction between the holy and the common (or sacred and secular) is still in effect, even if it is fading (which I hope to be the case). Working toward the place where the distinction will be meaningless is a laudable goal, and you do a pretty good job of promoting that ideal. But I think you are needlessly critical of those who would otherwise be allies by demanding that they dispense with the distinction prematurely.

Andrew Matthews said...
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Andrew Matthews said...

Thanks for the good challenge, Jack. I do regard Dr. Chellis as an ally in the cause of extending the social reign of King Jesus, and admit I am probably demanding too much too soon.

After all, I can't expect people to abandon a venerable position just because I happen to think it problematic. I recognize I am in a very small minority here.

On the other hand, I feel it is important to question the sacrd/secular presupposition. While agreeing that vast areas remain to be sanctified, my objection is leveled against those who argue that the "not yet" cannot in principle be actualized in the present.

Let's agree on a critical point and proceed from there:

Our Lord accomplished all that was needed to inaugurate the New Covenant.

So, are we in the New Covenant or not? Or, are we in some kind of anticipatory economy that is neither the old nor the new? My contention is that this latter position is dispensational fudging.

The New Testament, well, testifies that the New Covenant has been enacted. The Old Testament prophecies communicate certain expectations about this blessed economy & the New Testament writings affirm these.

The Zechariah prophecy is true prophecy precisely because it is not being deferred to a future economy. To apply some aspects of the OT prophecies of the New Covenant to the present and other aspects to the eternal state is to effectively split the covenant into separate covenants. This is dispensational special pleading to cover up a lack of imagination in understanding the present (in this age) fulfillment of prophecy.

Zechariah, being a new covenant prophecy, is true prophecy only because it will be fulfilled during the New Covenant era.

I contend for two important eschatological conceptualizations to explain how this can even be possible:

1) The eschatological consummation is where Jesus is.

2) This consummation is breaking into the present progressively through the Holy Spirit's communication of Christ's presence in the midst of his Church (eucharistically & corporately).

To conceive of the "already" and the "not yet" as static spheres, so that redemption is circumscribed in sacred "space" leaving the secular a law unto itself, is to falsify New Covenant prophecy. I think Dr. Chellis' system may be able to accomodate this insight. Perhaps it already does in a way I do not yet understand.

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