Thursday, August 23, 2007

Reply to Jason Stellman: Coerced Conversion vs. Covenant Enforcement

Pastor Stellman,

You say “our only options are to (1) bite the bullet and proselytize by sword-point, (2) reduce Christianity to a social gospel, or (3) let the State be the State, and the Church the Church.” I disagree that these are our only options.

According to Darryl Hart, Christian engagement with culture trivializes faith (point 4 of your last comment on 8/21). We should keep in mind that Hart’s is an historical judgment made by a fallible historian. Hart can martial facts that show how superficial Christianity often coincides with Christian engagement in politics. So what? I can martial mine and point to how the greatest victories of orthodoxy occurred in the context of Christendom. Who is right? Well, the OT prophets never attributed Israel’s unfaithfulness to the fact that church and state cooperated together. It was when both kings and priests were unfaithful that the people fell into apostasy. So there is no biblical argument that ecclesiastical engagement with politics compromises the faith.

I think a distinction should be made between proselytizing with the sword and enforcing covenantal sanctions with the sword. The first is definitely prohibited, but the second has historically been seen as lawful. There are indeed covenantal sanctions for apostasy in the new covenant (Heb. 10:27-31). It seems to me that the civil magistrate is perfectly within his authority as God’s minister to encourage national faithfulness to the covenant and eliminate threats to the nation’s covenantal constitution. Granted, the line can sometimes be crossed in the messy affairs of state, but that is due to sin—not because it isn’t theoretically possible to distinguish between proselytism and enforcement. Such enforcement need not necessitate requiring church attendance among the citizenry.

Responding to point 3 of your comment, I recognize W2K folks want people to become believers. As expressed in my last posted comment, I consider W2K proponents to be brothers in Christ—just misguided. I don’t believe the state’s job is merely to “seek the temporal welfare and peace of this present age” as you indicate, pastor. Such a definition of the state assumes that the state is a post-Fall institution, that it has no temporally transcendent orientation. Alternatively, I propose an understanding of the state that locates its origin in the governmental authority initially granted to Adam to fulfill the cultural mandate.

The dominion Adam was given was for the purpose of cultivating the earth in anticipation of future glory. In Kline’s terms, Adam was to build a garden-city megapolis under the covenant of works. Megapolis would be the highest development of civilization under natural conditions, but once man passed his probationary test, he would be eschatologically transformed along with his culture, indeed, all creation, into metapolis. We see then, that the divine intent for human culture was that it would eventually enter into a state of confirmed righteousness.

I see no evidence in Scripture that the cultural mandate was revoked, but quite the opposite. Beginning with the protoevangelion, various redemptive covenants affirm its abiding validity and contain instruction as to how it is to be carried out under post-Fall conditions. Even with the limitations imposed by the Fall judgment, the essential telos, or, goal, of the cultural mandate remains intact. (This Kline denies when he argues that the original mandate was “fractured” after the Fall.) Under the covenant of grace, believers can continue mankind’s cultural task with the knowledge that their “labor is not in vain in the Lord.”

Just as parents aren’t solely concerned with their children’s temporal needs simply because the family is a “common” institution, so also civil rulers have a legitimate oversight over certain spiritual matters socially. This spiritual role of the civil magistrate has to do with overseeing the temporal development of culture for God’s glory. As indicated, I don’t think this necessitates proselytism by the sword.

If a nation were to legally codify Christianity in its constitution (which could only be accomplished with the consent of the majority) a sacral national identity would be forged. I argue this would eliminate controversy over what social good the nation is committed to pursue. However, those who would aggravate discontent in order to erect an alternative social order for different social ends would incur the wrath of the governing authority. Such malcontents would be justly regarded as destabilizing threats to the established order and suppressed. Every legitimate government has the right to use force to maintain order and crush revolt. I am quite aware all this sounds harsh to modern ears. However, even liberals should be intellectually honest enough to recognize the difference between forced conversion and enforced conformity (as benign as possible, of course) to social norms.

The raison d’tre of human authority is for man to rule under God’s authority, on God’s behalf and for his glory. The introduction of the power of the sword to restrain violence and wickedness post-Fall (a negative purpose) did not compromise government’s essential function. In fact, the sword was granted so that government could continue to exercise its divinely commissioned vocation.

Those committed to the ideals of Enlightenment liberalism will never accept a theological rationale for human government exercised under God and in his name. To the liberally minded, theocracy can never be justified. But liberals have a problem with authority anyway, except, of course, the authority necessary to prop up their moral lawlessness. For the liberal, governmental authority is at best a necessary evil because it is the illegitimate imposition of one man’s ego over his equals, the means the powerful use to justify their control of the few. Liberals have no argument against Christendom except that Christian rulers sometimes exercised their authority wrongly, occasionally trying to enforce conversion through coercive means. And so far, I see very little difference between liberalism and W2K politics in principle.

Let us be clear on this: W2K propagates a specific political theory and agenda. W2K denies that political authority was originally granted for the purpose of fulfilling the cultural mandate. W2K also denies the original cultural mandate was perpetuated after the Fall. W2K shares with liberalism the suspicion that human authority is a necessary evil. W2K makes much of the sins of Christendom, but somehow the atrocities of the secular phase of western civilization don’t invalidate secularism. True, W2K is concerned for the integrity of the Christian confession, but it has not yet been demonstrated that a causal relation obtains between Christian culture and the trivialization of Christian confession. Emotional reactions against the sins of Christendom and the perceived apostasy of American evangelicalism are not proof at all. More is needed to establish an entire theory of church-state relations than the emotional intuitions of a few gifted historians and Reformed theologians. Reasonable demonstration from principles found in the coordinate testimony of general and special revelation must carry the day.


Mark said...

There certainly is a lot of good points to consider in this post.

At the very end of Matthew's gospel, Jesus meets the eleven on a mountain in Galilee and says: "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me."

The protoevangelion that Andrew sketched seems to fit quite nicely with the evangelion. (throat clearing)

What did Matthew mean by writing this? What did a first-century Christian Jew understand 'authority' to entail? Most likely the only authority the author ever saw was of course Roman authority. But now Jesus has all authority? To say that Jesus is Lord is to say that no one else or no other thing is. These are, at the very least, political sentiments, if not outright statements.

Our religion at its foundation is political. But unlike anything ever before(except in an imperfect way through Israel), Jesus demonstrates what politics, ethics, well everything in life is all about: love, service, hope, faith, healing, humility, etc. and He expects all of His followers to do the same.

The enlightenment has been lying to us for almost three hundred years.

The Faith is coming out of the closet, where it never should have been.


Andrew Matthews said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Andrew Matthews said...

Thanks for the helpful comment, Mark. The Gospel must be seen for what it truly is--the fulfillment of God's promise to redeem creation. This includes man's social and political life.

Hilary said...

Exellent post Andrew. Perhaps the best I have read all year.

Good work!

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.