Tuesday, March 3, 2009

My Own History with W2K

Prolegomena Part 2

I first encountered explicit W2K theology while taking John Muether's Church and World class at Reformed Theological Seminary. I really liked the course. Dr. Muether challenged me in particular to consider the full implications of the spirituality of the Church and the dangers of the Church taking political power unto herself. It was at this time that I was first introduced to Meredith Kline's "Intrusion" concept -- that Israel occupied a special niche within God's redemptive plan, so that the Law was a republication of the Covenant of Works, yet not for salvation but rather for corporate probation.


At the time I was just emerging from dispensationalism and into a Reformed understanding of the Covenants. Kline's hypothesis seemed far too similar to the dispensational view of Israel, and I mostly rejected it.

This opinion changed when I took Jeff Jue's Church History classes at RTS. Dr. Jue patiently explained the typological nature of the Intrusion and Kline's careful distinction between salvation by grace through faith through the Abrahamic covenant and the distinct corporate and typological probation of the nation-state of Israel. It was essentially what Muether had explained, but sometimes I have to hear things twice.

Dr. Jue also recommended reading Kingdom Prologue and The Structure of Biblical Authority. This I did, and came out the other side amazed at the depth of Kline's thought and his skillful coordination of disparate Biblical ideas. I wrote a paper for the class comparing Calvin's view of Church and State to Kline's (and yes, I went for the cheesy title pun on Calvin and Kline). In it, I argued that Kline was essentially rearticulating Calvin's theology of Church and State. The paper got an A-. Dr. Jue disagreed with my thesis, noting that my understanding of Calvin overestimated his degree of separation between Church and State. Years later, I agree with him. :) Calvin was not a W2K guy.

Still and all, I continue to be impressed with Kline's basic thesis: that the OT judicial law was canon for the nation-state of Israel only, and that Israel represented a special suspension of God's common grace, never to be repeated until the eschaton. For this reason, I have never been attracted to the Bahnsen, Chilton, or Rushdoony forms of theonomy.

For Kline, as I understand him in Kingdom Prologue, there is a basic distinction between the City of Man and the Kingdom of God. The City of Man, first built by Cain under God's sanction, is under the reign of common grace and is to be ruled not as a theocracy but according to common grace; the Kingdom of God (located post-Christ in the covenant community) is ruled according to the Scripture.

While I appreciate Kline greatly, I am still troubled by an abiding question that first struck me in Dr. Muether's class: if a Christian happens to find himself in the position of magistrate, how then should he judge? Assuming that the job of the magistrate is to restrain evil (Rom 13), on what basis should (s)he define the word "evil"?

That is, if we can agree that the Church has the calling to preach the Gospel rather than to directly transform society -- and I do agree to this! -- still and all, what guidance can Kline's W2K theology give to the Christian who happens to be the magistrate?

The question is not academic. My pastor is a former FDA administrator; various members of my church work in the Federal government in various three-letter agencies. There is a real need for Christians in government to understand how to carry out their jobs with integrity and obedience. This need is amplified when we consider that in America, everyone is a participant in government. L'Etat, c'est nous. So how should we govern?

This question came rushing back to me as I watched, and then jumped into, the dialog on GreenBaggins concerning Church and State. The answer I received from self-professed W2K-ers (Dr. Hart, Zrim, and Todd) was that Natural Law should be the basis for governance, exercised in Christian liberty.

I'm perfectly happy with the notion of "Christian liberty." To my mind, ecclesiastical laws that bind the conscience beyond the warrant of Scripture are anathema.

But coming as I do from a philosophical bent, the notion of "Natural Law" raises all manner of red flags with me. First, Natural Law ethics has been thoroughly discredited in philosophy. And second, an appeal to Natural Law as the basis for deciding right and wrong appears to either (a) be a cover for smuggling in the Scripture, much as Roman Catholics use "natural law" to smuggle in Church teaching, or (b) be an appeal to an entirely different ethical standard entirely -- a form of heteronomianism. There are other objections also which will come in part 3 of this dialog, but this point is central for me.

So I stand now at this point: While I fully support the goals of encouraging the Church to be the peculiar and obedient people of God, and of encouraging the Church to concentrate on its mission of taking the Gospel to the nations; still, Kline's W2K appears to me to run off the rails when we hit the question, "How then shall we govern?"

Finally, I owe Dr. Hart an answer to this question:

Jeff, if God’s word is sovereign over all of your life, and you are a plumber, what does the Bible say about your practice of plumbing?


Dr. Hart, what I think you want me to admit is that Scripture prescribes neither copper nor PVC, so that plumbing is a "common" enterprise, governed by Natural Law.

Unfortunately, I don't think in that framework. Instead, I consider John the Baptist to be illustrative. When asked by tax collectors what they should do to show the fruits of repentance, he told them how the 8th commandment applied to their profession: Don't collect more than you are supposed to. When asked the same question by soldiers, he told them to refrain from extortion and false testimony.

For JtB, the moral content of the 10 Commandments was translated into their situations into specific ethical advice. He certainly didn't dither around the issue of the "commonness" of tax collecting!

Likewise, the Scripture might not use the words "copper" or "PVC." But if it turns out that some material (like polybutylene) is junky, then the 8th Commandment requires me as a Christian plumber to use something else. In the case of lead piping, the 6th Commandment would apply!

We sometimes don't see this, because in America a shoddy workman is usually out of work. But in many countries, or in certain sectors in American business or government, the only incentive to do a craftsmanlike job is God's command to "work as unto God and not unto men." This implies that God's commands have their tendrils in all that we do, since loving God and neighbor are commanded whether in the "common" sphere or the ecclesial.

What I'm suggesting is classic Frame-ian ethics: the Scripture helps us to read out the norms and the situation in light of our existential motives; the meaning of those norms in our situation is what we ought to do.

Interestingly, this approach still retains a high degree of Christian liberty. Unlike the theonomist who might wish to divine specific instruction on copper and PVC from the text of Scripture (or the symbolism thereof!), I am suggesting that the individual bears a large responsibility for determining what the Scriptural norms mean in his particular situation.

Hence, an outside agent may not be able to provide specific blanket advice in all situations. Thus, your reading of me that I have an "idea of a biblical position on everything Christians do" is quite wide of the mark. The Scripture leaves many details unspecified; and yet, every action that we take is either of faith, or else not. Our actions come out of a love for God and neighbor, or else not.

So Scripture *does* speak to all of life, from a normative perspective. And yet, it does not specify all of life, from a situational perspective. On this latter point, we agree.

It remains to be seen whether we can find other points of contact.


JRC

11 comments:

Jeff Cagle said...

DGH, feel free to comment here on anything you wish. I'll try to set up a "part 2" that you can edit to allow you to give an exposition of W2K in whatever manner you see fit.

JRC

D G said...

Jeff,

Background for background. My encounter with 2k thinking -- actually the spirituality of the church -- came when reading Machen while a student at Harvard Divinity School. His combination of theology and politics struck me as bizarre initially. How could anyone oppose prayer and Bible reading in public schools? And then when you remember the public school is not bound by the same norms as the church it made perfect and Christian sense. In fact, I continue to think that Machen is far more relevant for our times than Calvin, Luther, Edwards, Owen and maybe even Kuyper because he was as well versed in American politics as he was in the Bible.

Being well versed in both seems to me to be key to being a citizen. Many Christians seem to think that because they are followers of Christ and have a higher loyalty to him, they have trump cards in public life and don't need to pay attention to things like the Constitution, state laws, or rules for Senate debate. Or if they become aware of the American polity, they feel compelled to justify that polity as ultimately biblical. Republicanism and federalism are not biblical forms of politics. Either monarchy or presbyterianism is. So the spirituality of the church is an effort to recognize the difference between church authority and state authority. Just because the Bible tells me to turn the other cheek, as an executioner for the state I have an obligation not to turn the other cheek. (The Anabaptist solution, to its credit, refuses holding the office of executioner.)

One more thought: on your appeals to the eight commandment and plumbing or taxes, I can't help but think that life and its many situations is more than ethics or morality. Do I watch a movie tonight or read a book? Is that a moral question? Do I pass legislation that outlaws smoking in public spaces or do I propose fiscal policy to increase tobacco production? These are questions that looking at life from an ethical perspective exclusively trips over.

I'm still having trouble knowing why the use of copper of PVC is a moral question. But the greatest objections to 2k seem to come from those who want all of life's issues to be moral.

Jeff Cagle said...

Yes, Dr. Muether had us read "Christianity and Liberalism." I found it a concise and far-reaching critique. He was certainly a man ahead of his time.

JRC

Jeff Cagle said...

Dr. Hart, in order to give you space for the exposition of W2K, I'll need to invite you to be an author (temporarily). To do that, I need an e-mail address.

JRC

Jeff Cagle said...

DGH: I can't help but think that life and its many situations is more than ethics or morality. Do I watch a movie tonight or read a book? Is that a moral question? Do I pass legislation that outlaws smoking in public spaces or do I propose fiscal policy to increase tobacco production? These are questions that looking at life from an ethical perspective exclusively trips over.

I wonder whether we are using the word "ethical" in the same way.

For certainly, we would agree with the Scripture:

So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. -- 1 Cor 10.31.

So from this perspective, we would agree, I hope, that our entire life is bound up in glorifying God; to be more specific, we are in all ways to love God and love neighbor.

So using "ethics" as I do to mean "what we ought to do", then all of life is governed by a principle of what we ought to do: to glorify God in whatever we do.

But perhaps you mean "ethics" in a different sense. Perhaps you use the word to mean "specified by law." If so, then I would agree with you. In fact, many issues are left unspecified by Scripture so that the believer has freedom with regard to those issues.

DGH: I'm still having trouble knowing why the use of copper [or] PVC is a moral question.

Well, if we focus solely on the copper/PVC issue, and the fact that Scripture is devoid of commands regarding copper or PVC, and if we take what I think is your definition of ethics, then I agree: there is no moral question.

But such a position is drastically incomplete. The choice of piping occurs within a context: situation and motive. It is not the copper pipe simpliciter that (possibly) entangles ethical questions, but the context in which the choice is made.

For example, if building code requires copper pipe in your situation, then using PVC would be flouting the authority of the magistrate.

And so it goes with all of our choices in life: if we focus on the mere, bare action, then it's hard to see that anything at all is at stake. But when we place the action within a context (as they always are), then ethical issues may pop up in surprising ways. Sometimes they don't, of course. But more often, we are oblivious to the issues at stake.

Walking past a man is not a sin; but the priest in the parable of the Good Samaritan was certainly sinning. Why? Because he was oblivious to the needs of his neighbor -- to the ethical obligations entailed by his situation.

So: is it a moral question, whether to read a book or watch a movie? That depends: what book? what movie? With whom? Why?

Consider some of the great the passages on Christian liberty:

"Everything is permissible"—but not everything is beneficial. "Everything is permissible"—but not everything is constructive. Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others.

Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, for, "The earth is the Lord's, and everything in it."

If some unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience. But if anyone says to you, "This has been offered in sacrifice," then do not eat it, both for the sake of the man who told you and for conscience' sake - the other man's conscience, I mean, not yours. For why should my freedom be judged by another's conscience? If I take part in the meal with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of something I thank God for?

So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God — even as I try to please everybody in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved. -- Rom 14


You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love. The entire law is summed up in a single command: "Love your neighbor as yourself." If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.
Life by the Spirit. So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law. -- Gal 5


Our freedom is real. It is freedom from the curse of the law; freedom from slavery to the sin nature; freedom from judgment by other men (Rom 14.4).

But it is not freedom to decouple our choices from their contexts, so that we ignore the needs of our neighbor or the commands of God as we choose PVC or copper. Rather, such choices are made by faith, relying on wisdom from God, with the goals of loving God and neighbor.

All of life *is* ethical -- it's just not spelled out in the Law.

Final thought: You asked,

Do I pass legislation that outlaws smoking in public spaces or do I propose fiscal policy to increase tobacco production?

In asking the question, you are asking for ethical advice: what should I do? By definition, this *is* an ethical issue!

JRC

D G said...

Jeff, I'm not sure where this line of exchange is going. I personally think that ethics is only part of glorifying God. I also find it odd that you, who seems to value John Frame's work, don't see some tension between Frame's views on worship (which is explicitly about glorifying God) and his disregard for the regulative principle of worship (which comes directly from the Law, as in the Second Commandment). I am also struck that your construction of ethics is overly concerned with motives - at times that may be fine, but it can breed the sort of introspection that I find suffocating among experimental Calvinists.

Be that as it may, I don't think we are going to resolve ethics, nor am I sure how it relates to your objections to 2k thinking.

So to put a point on this, say you're right that using copper or PVC may have motives at stake, the 2k argument wonders if the authority of the church extends to judging whether PVC or copper should be used, and even to whether a session should be questioning a plumbers motives. I also wonder if the state should engage in such inquiry. But the point of 2k is to recognize that the authority of the church is limited to its members and their spiritual lives, and the state is limited to its members and their civil lives. In other words, 2k is not about morality, it's about power. Who has it? How far does it go? Whose jurisdiction is it? I don't see the church having jurisdiction over plumnbing.

Jeff Cagle said...

DGH: I also find it odd that you, who seems to value John Frame's work, don't see some tension between Frame's views on worship (which is explicitly about glorifying God) and his disregard for the regulative principle of worship (which comes directly from the Law, as in the Second Commandment).

You're making an unwarranted assumption here. Appreciation of Frame does not entail blanket acceptance of all his views.

Contrapositively, Frame's (perceived?) errors on worship do not nullify his helpful work in other areas. If the test for usability is perfection, then we should burn all our theology books.

DGH: So to put a point on this, say you're right that using copper or PVC may have motives at stake, the 2k argument wonders if the authority of the church extends to judging whether PVC or copper should be used, and even to whether a session should be questioning a plumbers motives.

I think you're right to draw a line here. Notice that I've connected the practice of ethics together with a broad understanding of freedom. I think we might be able to find some common ground here:

While my conscience is not free to disregard context; nevertheless, my conscience *is* free from the commandments of men (not derived from good and necessary consequence, yada yada).

So it may be the case we could simultaneously affirm that "copper or PVC?" could be a moral question, under certain circumstances, and yet a question not subject to Sessional scrutiny.

Unless ... the practice of using copper (somehow?!) morphed into an issue of public sin.

JRC

D G said...

Jeff: Frame's idea that all of life is worship, with its application of disregarding the limits of the regulative principle, does make me wonder about how insightful his ethics are.

Be that as it may, I'm still not sure what any of this means for 2k arguments. You are uncomfortable with it because it seems not to tell FDA administrators or other govt. officials what to do. I assume part of your instruction is to tell them to be ethical. I don't see how that is at variance with 2k thinking necessarily. At the same time, as a respecter of vocations, I'm not sure I'd tell and FDA administrator any more than a plumber how to work.

Jeff Cagle said...

OK, well, I think I've said all that I have to say re: my experience with 2k.

I would like for you to have the space to exposit W2K, but in order to do so, you'll need to give me an e-mail address so that I can invite you as an author.

Or alternatively, you could post it below and I can move the text over to part 2.

JRC

D G said...

Maybe the place for this is over at oldlife.org. A couple of recent posts on neo- vs. paleo-reformed might be of use.

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