Is God a capitalist? (John Locke and the Romans Road)

Is God a capitalist? (John Locke and the Romans Road) December 10, 2012

One of the theories Doug Campbell advances in The Deliverance of God is that the “Romans Road” account of salvation which has dominated American evangelical Christianity for the past half-century cannot really be blamed on Martin Luther or John Calvin. The Romans Road is paved through the reconfiguration of the Reformers’ theology to fulfill the “decision for Christ” salvation formula of Billy Graham, Bill Bright, and all the sidewalk pamphleteers of the Four Spiritual Laws, who are more indebted to the 18th century political and economic philosophy of John Locke (and others like him) than the Reformation itself. In other words, the debate is not where we think it is: John Calvin vs. Jacob Arminius over the question of free will. They have both been repurposed according to a set of 18th century British presumptions about capitalism, rationalism, individualism, and liberal democracy.

Campbell does not claim to have a causal chain linking John Locke to Bill Bright, but what he does show are four major affinities between Locke’s thought and the assumptions framing the “decision for Christ” model for salvation (which is how I’m choosing to rename what Campbell calls “Justification theory”).

1) The primacy of the individual contract. “Salvation within Justification is attempted first in relation to the contract of works and then in relation to the contract appropriated by faith. As each individual makes that saving decision, another contract is in effect established with God. Hence, Justification is a thoroughly individualist system with different contracts in play in relation to each individual ” (303). This creates a very specific filter for talking about God’s various covenants with humanity. When a covenant is equal to a contract, it does not refer to a unilateral, unconditional promise on the part of God which he revises according to humanity’s misbehavior (covenant with Adam giving him the Garden of Eden sans fruit from one tree; covenant with Abraham promising to make him a nation; covenant with David establishing his line on the throne; covenant through Christ writing the law on our hearts; etc). As a contract, a covenant is conditional and retributive. So instead of naming humanity’s predicament in Romans 1-4 and the divinely-brokered solution in Romans 5-8, Paul is read to say you can either be perfect according to the law (natural or Mosaic) or sign a different contract through “faith.” This reading makes faith the contractual means of procuring salvation rather than the gift of God’s grace that is itself salvation. Campbell points out that if faith is the precondition rather than the result of salvation, then salvation might be unmerited but it is not unconditional.

2) Consent as the basis for rule. “Locke’s system repudiates human tyranny by arguing that only a freely consenting subject is rightfully ruled by another human… Any  unacceptable coercion of humanity by God is legitimately constrained by the role of consent within salvation; the fact that non-Christians may freely choose to believe — or not to believe — relieves God of any suspicion of such tyranny” (303). So basically Campbell is arguing that even though God isn’t a ruler who we vote into office, the idea that our relationship with Him has to be founded in a “decision” comes from our conception of democracy as rule by consent. Thus we force Calvin and Arminius to carry out their debate inside the presumptions of a anthropocentric decision-based soteriology on a playing field which highly favors Arminius since predestined decisions are not really decisions. Calvinism becomes a farce when we try to say that salvation is God’s response to a decision that He forces us to make or not make. It turns into a ludicrous puppet show that God performs for Himself, pretending to react to results that He planned before time.

3) Faith as individual propositional beliefs. “Justification mimics liberal politics’ confinement of religion to the private sphere… [Beliefs] must be free from traditional and institutional interference… Moreover, true religion does not progress significantly beyond such individual beliefs. To do so is to run the risk of lapsing back into the almost unforgivable condition of attempted justification by works” (304).  The reason that justifying “faith” must be manifested as propositional belief rather than “faithfulness” (which is a perfectly legitimate way of understanding pistis) is because the  faith/works duality has been snapped into the private/public duality of 18th century liberal politics. Faith is compartmentalized into the cognitive, private theoria that is dichotomized with bodily, public praxis. Though contemporary evangelicalism puts “faith” in the ideal realm and “works” in the material realm, this doesn’t have to be the way their duality is mapped. It could also be that faith describes a general disposition of fidelity to God in all of one’s actions while works describe specific ritual acts that are undertaken to prove one’s devotion.

4) Currency as the fundamental universal reality. “Locke tends to reduce all human relationships to exchanges regulated by currency, and so provides just the universalizing discourse that Justification theory needs in order to flourish at this point — in terms of an uncontested, intuitively true, but in fact deeply problematic financial trope for the atonement that turns out to function literally in terms of a payment.” This is the most important of the four affinities in my opinion. If economic exchange is presumed to be the fundamental truth of the universe, then the foundational principle for reality is that every debt must be perfectly paid. This makes a huge difference in how we understand salvation. Is the cross the means by which God avoids “default” in submission to a law of currency that is the foundation of the universe or is it the means by which God converts us from an economy of retribution to an economy of grace? Does Jesus’ sacrifice fulfill the logic of retribution in order to affirm it  or to help us move past it?

It’s important to note that Anselm’s account of Jesus’ cross as satisfaction of the divine king’s honor is entirely different than seeing the cross as the means by which God avoids sending the market into chaos by committing default. The welfare and safety of the entire population in a feudal society depended upon the honor of the king, who was (at least purportedly) the champion and protector of all. So the satisfaction of the divine king’s honor through the cross is an act of solidarity with the king’s subjects when we think in feudalistic terms. That solidarity is the telos of feudal satisfaction. An account of the cross’s satisfaction has become capitalist rather than feudal when divine retribution must be satisfied for its own sake as an abstract entity whose “objectivity” is “pure” due to the absence of any pragmatic benefit on the part of God’s creatures. When we describe divine retribution as an end unto itself, then we are thinking according to a purely capitalist cosmology to which Christ’s atonement must submit.


It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who reads my blog that I call it a crisis when the predominant American evangelical conception of salvation looks a lot like John Locke’s individualist, voluntarist thinking, because I think that Christian salvation is most fundamentally the renunciation of individualism, self-reliance, and retributive logic that happens when we have put our trust in God’s mercy instead. By exposing our distorting hermeneutical lenses in this way, Doug Campbell has helped me understand the fascinating phenomenon by which so many American evangelicals ideologically interweave the radically optimistic affirmation of human willpower in Ayn Rand’s libertarianism with the utterly pessimistic account of human helplessness in the doctrine of total depravity. My understanding of human nature is that our depravity increases in direct proportion to the degree that we cling to the delusion that we are self-made. The more we are children of Ayn Rand and John Locke, the less we are children of God. We do not have to put on an exhibition of spiritual masochism in order to be right with God. The more that we go on and on about how amazingly “sinful” we are, the more likely we are trying to earn something by saying it. We simply need to acknowledge that God is the author of every good deed that we do, and whatever holiness we come to embody is a reason to give God thanks. A life of perpetual thanksgiving is our duty and our salvation.

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