The M.O. of Christians in Church-State Relations

Most evangelicals and liberals are united in believing that the proper response to the state is to engage it by working in the system to transform it. I’m not sure that many wonder what would happen if a deep and pervasive transformation occurred — would it become a Constantinian state or would it be almost entirely Christian except in name with room for others? Regardless…

This is why J.K.A. Smith’s chapter in the book The Church and Politics is the most important chapter in the book — it sketches the dominant view among Christians in the USA (and in the West). We are looking at Amy Black (ed.), The Church and Politics: Five Views. She sketches the five views, using the categories of H. Richard Niebuhr (Christ and Culture) plus one (The Black Church View). But this needs to be observed: her posture of description is the posture of a mediation of Niebuhr and Kuyper. (Notice, the anabaptist view gets a negative description — separationist — while the seemingly most positive view is the transformationist view, which is the point: she stands more or less in that view.) The five views:

1. The Anabaptist View (Separationist) [Thomas W. Heilke]
2. The Lutheran View (Paradoxical) [Robert Benne]
3. The Black Church View (Prophetic) [Bruce Fields]
4. The Reformed View (Transformationist) [JKA Smith]
5. The Catholic View (Synthetic) [J. Brian Bennestad]

The transformationist view is given to J.K.A. Smith and he’s a solid and articulate spokesman for the Kuyperian approach to the transformationist view. The Reformed tradition is often spelled out as a theology, but Smith is right with this opening statement:

This stream of Reformed thought generated distinct political experiments in Geneva and the Netherlands as well as the Huguenots’ France, the Presbyterians’ Scotland, and the Puritans’ New England. The Reformation was not merely a soteriological manifesto that happened to impact politics; rather, the Reformers’ understanding of the gospel and Scripture included a distinct—and, they believed, biblical— understanding of “the political” as part of its DNA. 139

He outlines this Reformed theology of culture through the following vital themes, the first of which having special prominence because at some level it legitimates political activism as a form of the good life:

1. The Sanctification of Ordinary Life… In this climate, the really revolutionary impact of the Reformation issued more from Geneva than Wittenberg. Calling into question this two-tiered, sacred/secular arrangement, Reformers such as John Calvin and his heirs refused such distinctions. All of life is to be lived coram Deo, they would say—that is, before the face of God. All vocations can be holy, for allot our cultural labors can be expressions of tending God’s world. There is no “secular” because there is not a square inch of creation that is not the Lord’s. 141

A second theme is also vital — one that looks to the norm for life, for the political life, and for the Christian engagement. But notice that government — so it appears — is formed over time from the bottom up but it is responsible to God’s revelation:

2. Faithful Revolutions: Politics and/as Human Culture… The political is made from the bottom up, not received top-down. But as with the cultural mandate more generally, our making is a response to God’s call and is thus responsible to God. We are called to order our political life well, in accordance with what God desires for his creation. While the political is made by us, it is normed by God. 142

In the history of political thinking a significant element is whether one affirms human depravity or one veers toward the perfectibility of humans (e.g., more Rousseau-like, or even Thomas Paine). Consequently, government is not divine but can be so corrupted one must revolt:

3. The Structural/Systemic Nature of Sin …  In other words, the Reformers emphasized the all-too-human nature of government and political institutions precisely in order to point out the ways that they are disordered and harmful, infected by sin. Governments need to be reformed, perhaps even overthrown, precisely because they fail to conduct themselves according to God’s order for social, communal, and political life. 144

Eschatology, too, plays a part for Smith’s conception of the church and politics:

4. Thy Kingdom Come: Eschatology and Cultural Life … Calvinism, we have noted, unleashes a distinct impulse to reshape society. Indeed, according to Charles Taylor, “Calvinism is marked out by militant activism, a drive to reorganize the church and the world.” Taylor rightly notes that some observers are puzzled by this: Why would a stream of Christianity that so emphasizes the sovereignty of God and divine predestination give rise to a bottom-up desire to change things? Instead of “revolutionary activism,” wouldn’t one expect Calvinism to “produce only a fatalistic quietism?” 145

Smith’s argument is that this is not soteriological action but instead the impact of regeneration. The aim is shalom, and shalom is framed by what the Bible teaches about eschatology. This norms all behavior and culture and leads to political sanctification.

Kuyper himself developed his theory in the teeth of an increasingly prevalent pluralism, and hence Smith follows through with that theme:

5. Diversity and Development in Creation…  Human social life is not meant to be governed by one overarching organization; instead, creation itself calls for diverse modes and levels of social organization. Each of these is subject to the Lordship of the Creator known in Christ, and each has norms that are unique to its calling. In other words, the array of social institutions are all subject to God’s sovereignty while also sovereign “within their sphere.” Richard Mouw and Sander Griffioen helpfully describe this as “associational pluralism”—that is, a healthy society includes and fosters a plurality of human associations. 149

I’d like to see not only a theology of culture, which Smith has treated well, but a theology of “world” and “worldliness” and the powers in rebellion against God and how this is part of the cultural system.

In the second part of his chapter, Smith develops his theology of culture into more specfic relations to government and engagement. He begins with two themes:

1. Government Is Part of the Good Order of Creation

Central to the Kuyperian — and this veers then from the Niebuhrian and other forms of Christian transformationist theories — is the notion of “spheres of sovereignty”:

2. Both Church and Government Should Be Limited to Their “Sphere” [Thus: — I embolden words that are critical here.]

As institutions, the church and the state have different jurisdictions. But Christians formed in and by the church as institute are then sent (missio) as the church as organism to take up a variety of vocations—including some in government and politics—seeking to bend the kingdoms of this world closer to the kingdom of the beloved Son and the shalom God desires for his creation. As spheres, the church as institute is distinct from the state, but the church as organism is called to be faithfully present— and a reforming influence—in every sphere, including the state. 155

This (above) is the primary form of Christian engagement: entering into a sphere and shaping it toward the kingdom of God.

Two more themes are sketched:

3. Principled Pluralism and Christian Influence “in the Meantime’:

4. Common Grace: The Spirit Works Outside the Church, Too  [Another big one for Kuyper.]

Because of the Reformed tradition’s affirmation of “common grace”—a restraining operation of God’s grace outside the “special,” salvific grace extended to the elect—we are not surprised to find passionate advocates for justice and wise stewards of the common good outside the body of Christ. 157-8

The church is not the state, but the church bears witness to the state and sends saints from its formative space to be a leavening organism in the political realm, hoping (against hope) to bend the kingdom of this world toward the kingdom of our God. 162

 

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.


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