~This is a guest post by Peter Escalante.
In the conversation which began with Pastor Wedgeworth’s review of VanDrunen’s book, we encountered, unsurprisingly, opposition first from a de jure divino Presbyterian, then from a traditional Roman Catholic. It seems fitting, then, that the old troika of opposition to the classical Protestant position be completed by the appearance of a spokesman of a neo-Anabaptist sort of critique1. Brad Littlejohn posted here a reply to Davey Henreckson’s summary of our recent conversation. Mr Littlejohn’s views are admittedly in development, and thus it would be unfair to deal with them as though they were a settled and fully worked out body of opinion. Nevertheless, his views as of now are neo-Anabaptist, and I think they can be fairly taken as a representative of the kind of popular neo-Anabaptism becoming fashionable especially among academic theologians.
Mr Littlejohn, unlike Dr Hart, readily and rightly grants that we hold the classical Protestant position, in developed form. But he rejects that doctrine, in favor of what he calls an “Augustinian” alternative. His critique of us, unfortunately, is so far mostly just a reiteration of that original admission: he understands that we hold the classic principles; it’s just that he thinks he doesn’t like those. I can understand why he might think that: they are often made out to be other than they really are, and he himself admitted to finding them so profoundly unfamiliar that they seemed almost unintelligible at first; this simply reveals the degree of their forgottenness in the modern Protestant world. In further conversation, a number of the original misapprehensions became clarified, and it seems we are being better understood now. Nevertheless, serious differences remain. I will examine this nebulous alternative, and in the process, will address his critique of the classical position. Although Mr Littlejohn’s “two cities” view is still in development and isn’t very clearly worked out, we can nevertheless get some sense of what he’s getting at, and why he finds the possibility of the classic Protestant position being warmly welcomed an alarming one.
To his eyes, our position spells all kinds of trouble. The Church would be subordinated to the State, Christians would be sentenced to a schizophrenic existence of moral inner and amoral outer, the cruel cold world would roll ruthlessly on untransformed, the salt would lose its savor, the light go under a bushel, and Frodo, pathetically hacking, will die of smoke inhalation before he reaches the Crack of Doom.
Thankfully, none of this is true, though given what he’s working with, it’s easy enough to see why he might think this. Mostly this comes from a near total unfamiliarity with the classic position- a common enough problem in the theological academy, and everywhere, for that matter. Mr Littlejohn is hardly to be blamed for this. Further, although he does actually hold mistaken views of the church, much of the problem here is the effect of using terms which are either defined badly or not defined at all. So our first task will be to examine the words and their meanings.
In his opposition of Church and State, though he leaves his terms mostly undefined, he does give descriptions. What’s clear is that in his critique of us, he uses both State and Church as terms which stand for total and mutually exclusive commonwealths, which he also wishes to call, after the Augustinian usage, the City of Man and the City of God respectively.
Littlejohn’s Church is an alternative city, which rivals the commonwealth, and will eventually replace it, though it can coexist with it in a sort of begrudgingly cooperative truce. The State, according to Littlejohn, is organized around the libido dominandi and is only accidentally an agent of order, and is destined to fade away. He supposes that the State and the Church are wholly separate things. And there is indeed a great distinction to be drawn between the Magistracy and the Ministerium, a distinction of office. But for Littlejohn, the Magistracy and the Ministerium are not two representative offices within one people or commonwealth, they are rather representative of two entirely different visible and temporal commonwealths, what he calls State and Church, and which he identifies, rather unconvincingly, with Augustine’s “Two Cities”. What more closely resembles Littlejohn’s dichotomy, however, is not so much Augustine’s schema, but rather the Anabaptist absolute opposition of the “carnal” civic world, which they regard as the kingdom of Satan, and the organized pusillus grex, the kingdom of Christ. Our critic’s “church” is separatist, along Anabaptist lines; but unlike peace Anabaptism and like war Anabaptism, it is transformationalist. But peacefully transformationalist.
What are Church and State? We’ll examine this in greater detail shortly, but let’s begin simply. Since the State is only a part of the temporal commonwealth, for the parallel “City of Man/State, City of God/Church” to be symmetrical, “Church” must be used in a special sense, referring not to all the believers, but rather, to a part of the “City of God”.
Originally, State and Church meant magistrates on the one hand and ministerium on the other, two differently representative organs of a single people, a single commonwealth. If, however, Church and State are the representative organs of two distinct visible, temporal commonwealths, then the Church- in the sense of the ministerium- is a State. For Littlejohn, it is not a coercive State in any ordinary sense, because he says so; but he says it governs a truly distinct and sovereign commonwealth, which makes it a State.
Is this true? Has this ever been true?
To help decide that question, let’s consider what things would necessarily look like were the Church, in the general sense, a true distinct polis, governed politically by the ministerium. If this were the case, it would have to be a single political community, ruled by a single power; it would have to give laws comprehensive of all political life; it would have to enforce them, since men are fallen and need the direction of law, and need to be restrained from acts of violence and injustice; it could not share territory with other States; it would have to sponsor systems of production, transportation, and exchange within itself. 2 Clearly, none of these things are true of historic orthodox Christianity.
I am sure that our critic would object that most of these things are either irrelevant to his notion of the alternative polis, or directly contradictory of it. But all that means is that either that his position makes no sense, or that it can’t cash its rhetorical checks. There is another possibility, which involves some very strange assumptions about history and human nature, a possibility I will consider soon.
So briefly, some definitions.
The word church can indicate
a) the mystical body, which is indeed a perfect and consolidated communion of believers with Christ, their sole Head, and with one another in Him. This is the spiritual kingdom of Luther and Calvin.
b) it can mean all the living Christian professors in any place or worldwide, the totality of believing persons, the people of God.
This is what the medievals called the corpus christianum. In this sense it signifies a multitude, and this multitude is the most fundamental temporal profile of the mystical body, though, since it includes persons whose profession is false, it is not coincident with it. Prior to any organization, the church is just believing people; the section of humanity which has accepted Christ. It can be called the visible church, except that it is not in itself temporally gathered and ordered; it is the visibility of the invisible church. “If you have done it unto the least of my brethren, you have done it unto me.” This earthly multitude organizes itself for all sorts of purposes, including worship and civic government, and it underlies all those offices and functions.
Neither the local assemblies nor the ministerium “mediate” any believer’s relation to Christ. Christ is directly laid hold of by faith, and he is the sole Mediator. This fact establishes the corpus christianum as basic, and prior to any further churchly articulation. These articulations are indispensable aids and means to growing in faith and holiness, but they are in no way interposed between the believer and Christ. One is united to Christ immediately by faith; this immediate relation makes one a member of the Church, in the perfect sense of the mystical body, and public profession of the Name makes one a member of the corpus christianum.
c)the local assemblies of Word and worship, which reflect the unity of the mystical body but are not coextensive with it, and lack its purity.
These are the visible churches most properly speaking. It can also mean these visible assemblies taken collectively; but this collective sense implies no distinct political existence or organization, it is a class term.
d)by synecdoche, “the church” can also means the representatives of the people of God in sacred matters, the elders of the church, the official ministerium; and by extension, the developed organizational apparatus associated with ministerial and missionary functions.
e) by metonymy, “church” can of course signify a building dedicated to worship and teaching.
In a fully developed Protestant commonwealth, the visible assemblies are associations of the private sphere, that is, they are not departments of government. But in all this, the only real existents are persons: the communion of believing persons with Christ and each other in the Lord’s mystical body, and the earthly corpus christianum. There are only persons and their relations. The relations do not themselves constitute real actors. Unfortunately, Littlejohn, like many other who argue like him, goes for that collective sense of visible assembly and reifies it, and then transfers both the predicates of the mystical body and those of the visible assemblies to it. This creates an imaginary floating “Church”, universal, visible and institutionally defined, neither the mystical body on the one hand nor any actual given visible assembly on the other, which can then be credited with all good done by believing persons, and faulted for none of the failings, making for an unfalsifiable utopianism3.
It is indeed true, praise God, that “many of the dramatic social improvements and advances in ethical sensibility in Western society owe themselves to the work of the Christian Church”, but our critic is begging the question when invokes this fact as an argument for his position. These changes were initiated by Christian persons, not by a single incorporate local assembly, nor any by any politically organized union of local assemblies, and certainly not by a reified class term. And often as not, they were initiated by magistrates and by private persons, often against the sensibility of the “corporate public identity” of the time. Thus, the credit must to Christian persons, and to the mystical body of which they were true members, which is another way of saying, the credit goes to Christ. But it does not go to some nebulous but supposedly visible and political “distinct corporation”, to use Hooker’s expression.4
When we say “church” we distinguish between the mystical body of Christ whose only Head is Christ, and the visible assemblies. The church can also mean the people of God, which is simply the number of believers, considered not as gathered, but in daily life, regarded by household (married or single). Everyday people, so to speak. Which takes us to the next definition.
The State is the ministry of justice and temporal peace in a commonwealth; it is a universal institution though of various forms. But underlying this ministry is the people, whose most basic cell is the family. The union of the people in any place for purposes of common life is the commonwealth. The State is the architectonic representative body of the commonwealth, but it is also of divine appointment insofar as it is the representative of God’s will for impartial order; and in this latter aspect, it upholds God’s creational laws, without respect of persons. Any commonwealth will have a magistracy of sorts. And magistracy is an office of the commonwealth: which is to say, it is rooted in everyday people. If the State is intrinsically evil, than Christians can’t be staffing it. Of course, they have been staffing it, since well before Constantine.
The magistrate is committed by his office to impartial justice. The way we take the developed Christian political tradition, the magistrate is to ensure that justice for all in his jurisdiction, which means no separate standards of justice for the Christian and the non-Christian. The justice is universal in its ideal, though laws and customs vary by circumstance. Christian politics has only to do with principle: the rest it leaves to prudence. Christianity relativizes the commonwealth, but is lived in and through it.
So let’s look at an example. Our critic calls us “Erastian,” meaning that we want to subordinate the “Church” to the “State”. For him, given his neo-Anabaptist ideas of these things, the State stands for a whole commonwealth of darkness, which only accidentally does good, and the Ministerium stands for a whole commonwealth of light. If that’s true, then subordinating the Church to the State is pretty wicked. But bearing in mind the clarifications given above, that the offices are offices of one underlying people, one can see that saying that the institutional church is subordinate to the State in civic matters is hardly an outrage; it is the natural state of affairs. However, both are organs of the people, and are ruled by law.
To make all this clearer, consider that if Christians are a minority in a place, then it makes sense to posit a kind of tension or opposition between them and the civic structures of the unreformed commonwealth. But when they are the commonwealth, where is the opposition?
It is not between the State and the Ministerium, because both, in that case, are staffed by Christian persons in a single commonwealth. It is, rather, between man’s sin and man’s vocation. The line between sacred and profane runs right through the Christian heart, and nowhere else.
But what of the prophetic voice? Certainly the ministerium can be opposed to the State- not to the State as such, but rather to crimes of statesmen, or to a State which isn’t legitimate. But in that case, everybody should be opposed to it, and the ministers are not a higher meta-magistrate; they aren’t even the lesser magistrate, whose responsibility it is in extreme circumstances to lead the restoration of legal order. The prophetic voice is the gift and obligation of all Christians.
The State is manned by fallen men. Just as the visible assembly is always is need of reformation, so is the State. Our vision of justice, and our ability to apply in various and complicated situation, can always be bettered. But Luther was right against the liberation theologians of his day: this is a matter of justice, of the citizens and the magistrate getting better at their duties, not of “more Gospel” where “Gospel” is conceived as absolute political revolution, an irruption of eschatological judgment. Recognition of the Kingship of Christ means recognition of his death, and therefore, Christian polities cannot have God’s absolute justice as their aim. They are not to punish all sins as such, only crimes. The way of Christ demands that I forgive one who does me enormous violence; but it does not demand that a representative office, acting impartially on behalf of the common good, not punish him. Further, the way of Christ does not actually demand that I not defend myself- it simply demands that I do so without hatred or ego, that I do so, as it were, in the way the just State would, while also maintaining charity toward my attacker. That’s even harder than the Anabaptist proposal of sheer pacifism, I think.
Neither original sin nor human sociality and common grace are going to self-obsolesce, and thus neither will some sort of State, just as the family will not obsolesce over time.
Although Mr Littlejohn doesn’t define them, and would run into all sorts of problem and paradox were he to, it is now clear enough what he means, or means to mean, by Church and State. He means they are each total societies with different constituencies; but intuiting the problems which are going to follow from this, he proposes a “tension” and “selective cooperation”. However, the figure of Constantine does not represent a self-obsolescing principle, and “Church” and “State” are not mutually exclusive commonwealths. In a Christian commonwealth, the single people underlie both the visible worship assemblies, and the public offices.
Having already considered the meanings of Church and State, we can now consider Littlejohn’s purported comparison of them (taken from here), and see that they rest on equivocation in most cases, and also on radically different first principles in a few others. The first can be resolved by clarification; the second would involve his accepting orthodox principles.
When I look at what the Church is actually called to do in Scripture, it’s hard for me to see how it is not in “competition” with the State. Let’s look at some responsibilities of the State, or of political society. The State seeks to organize men into a community of shared identity and mutual responsibility. The Church does this too.
-As we’ve already seen, this is almost entirely a problem of names. By failing to identify the corpus christianum which underlies both State and ministerium, he uses church exclusively in the senses c) and d) as delineated above. Further, we see that through the false dichotomy and use of unspecified terms, the appearance of an argument is given when in fact nothing has been said at all.
Let’s consider this. The Boy Scouts or the Army or a college or a marriage seeks to organize people into a community of shared identity and mutual responsibility. Are these in competition with the State as organ, let alone with the whole commonwealth? Remember, for Littlejohn, it’s not just the State that’s the problem: it’s the whole commonwealth insofar as it is not under ministerial direction. Of course they aren’t in competition with either the State or the Commonwealth. Neither are the visible assemblies. And the mystical body certainly isn’t in competition with the visible commonwealth; living members of the mystical body have been staffing and running those for over 1500 years.
The State seeks to guide this community in pursuit of the common good of human flourishing. The Church does this too.
-Replace “church” with “pastorate”, and distinguish the temporal and eschatological ends of man, and the opposition vanishes. But let’s consider what follows if one doesn’t make those distinctions. Human flourishing involves enforced law, architecture, and industry. Does the church in the Sunday sense, let alone the ministerium in particular, really handle all those directly? Of course not. But the corpus christianum does; and the way it handles the first is through the State institution and the vocations. The magistracy and the ministerium have traditionally been viewed as cooperant (harmonia, “two-swords”, and so on) in direction toward the common good.
The State seeks to establish norms of social behaviour among its members. The Church does this too.
-The State deals only with external actions insofar as they bear on peace and order. The pastorate works to guide people in holiness and charity. But the primary teacher, the one who establishes moral norms, is the Spirit of God, Who indwells every Christian. And again, he is using “Church” to mean ministerium, whereas the general church, the multitude of believers, underlies both State and ministerium.
The State seeks to bring about a just relationship between its members, restraining the strong and protecting the weak. The Church does this too.
-The just State protects all, weak or strong, from injustice. The Church praises justice, but its primary message is not justice, it is rather justification: and justification is not obtained by our justice. The relation of justice the Church is concerned with is Christ’s relation to justice, and Christ’s purely gracious relation to us. The Church, in the sense of the ministers, does not enforce law on anyone’s account, either ours, or Littlejohn’s. The State does; and without this restraining and directive power, people would have no peace.
The State seeks to overcome the threat of external enemies. The Church does this too.
-The kinds of enemy are different. Just states are concerned to defend against unjust aggressors threatening bodily harm; but as Paul says, the church’s war is with powers of the air. States are able to deal with outside threats without presuming to judge them eschatologically. If one doesn’t distinguish between different kinds of defense and different kinds of enemies, what one will have is a Church which, as posited, is just like a State, except that it demonizes its external enemies; as with Leyden, or the army of Muntzer, or certain periods in the history of Papalism.
The State seeks to remedy the injustice wrought by evil men in its midst. The Church does this too.
-The pastors of the church do this by exhortation and discipline; the State does it by law. Unless one wishes to suggest that original sin is increasingly vanishing from human nature, there will always be a need for a legal order, until the Last Day. By the way, “seeks to remedy the injustice wrought by evil men in the world” could be said just as well of the good citizen as of the State: is the citizen now in competition with the State? Or with the Church?
The State seeks to ensure that all its members have their needs cared for. The Church does this too.
-Our critic is here supposing a rather totalizing sort of State. I would rather say that the role of the State is to ensure the legal and social conditions of people meeting their own needs.
But further, this an equivocation. The visible assemblies assist in meeting spiritual needs, and they even care for the bodily needs of hungry and sick. But is there a churchy medicine? Should you avoid doctors as part of the “civil” order? Is there a specifically churchy agriculture? Or a specifically churchy transportation system? Specifically churchy automobiles? Unless the congregations, as such, are going to be hospitals and car factories and film studios and farms, it is clear that we are talking about very different things, and the opposition once again vanishes.
And again, of course, what is missing is the idea of the corpus christianum, the multitude of professors which underlies both Church and State.
The Church is a visible body of people gathered out from among other people, united by various signs, rituals, texts, codes, ways of life, by mutual commitment to one another, in pursuit of a common end (an end that incorporates all of human existence). It is, in short, undeniably (to my mind) a “political society,” an “alternative city” in a very important sense.
-To say that the sense in which this is true is a “very important” sense gives us nothing specific about the sense, but specific is exactly what we need with claims such as this. In what way does the this is true, if religious community is ipso facto a comprehensive and sovereign earthly political organization, then, because of the meaning and needs of political community, we would expect some one Christian magistrate to be magistrate of all who profess those “signs, rituals, texts, codes”, rather as the Turkish Sultan claimed to be khalif of all the Muslims. In Christendom only the Pope did that, and on much the same principles, though the basic character of the Christian religion precluded that ever becoming a consistent position.
Further, it fails the thought experiment of majority or uniform profession. If everybody in a place professes Christianity, from which “other people” are they gathered out?
Separatists can’t have it both ways. When the majority of people are Christian, they form the sort of quotidian commonwealth one would expect; which separatists don’t want. On the other hand, if they want to be “gathered out” from that commonwealth, they have to acknowledge that they’re being “gathered out” from other Christians, which in practice usually means denying that those other Christians even are Christians.
But again this is a failure to distinguish. The corpus christianum underlies both State and Ministerium; and the eschatological end of man incorporates all of human existence without erasing nature or civic order; it rather presupposes and works to perfect it.
Of course, it is much more. It is not just this. This is just like the tip of an iceberg–its foundation and source of life is deeper and hidden. It is a city that lives by the presence of God himself in its midst. Moreover, although the Church is political, it is of course with a different kind of politics. Just because it is in a kind of competition with the State doesn’t mean it’s just another state.
-As mentioned earlier, when the “Church” is a reified class term which gets invested with all the predicates of the mystical body, this entity gets the credit for all the good Christian persons do, and gets the blame for none of the bad. When Littlejohn says the Church is not “just another State”, he means, it is so much nicer than the State, and wouldn’t ever do all the dreadful State things States do. But when States do dreadful things, they are not being good States, just as when institutional churches do dreadful things, they aren’t being good churches. And there are things the churches don’t do, because the State does them: for instance, the suppression of armed robbery. This does not mean that the work of a just State is dirty work; it it most certainly not; and the fact that the visible assemblies don’t do that work, doesn’t make them “cleaner”. If the State didn’t do that work and the ministers had to, they would ipso facto become “just another State”.
For instance, the end which it seeks, though it includes the flourishing of human life here on earth, transcends that and includes a higher end that no State can pursue. The Church too overcomes the threat of enemies, but it does so through self-sacrificing love, not violence. The Church too seeks to remedy injustice done in its midst, but by means of exhortation, penance, and reconciliation, not outward punishment. The Church too cares for the needs of its members, but it also goes beyond and serves those who are outside, to an extent that few states do.
–If he means the mystical body, then the Church is just another name for Christ, and everything he says here is perfectly true. If however he means the institutions of the visible assemblies, he is confusing ideal and reality in a shockingly naïve way. And once again, we see that the corpus christianum is erased in his account of things,
What is the church? Littlejohn’s comparison of the Church and State leaves the term undefined. Does he mean the mystical body? The local assemblies?
If he means the mystical body, he is right to say that it and the State of the commonwealth do similar things. His mistake then would be in failing to distinguish the ends of man, and thus he places the mystical body and the State in opposition. Christ alone is the head of the church, his body. As such, this is only seen by eyes of faith, and Christ works therein with perfect competence. But Christ is not only Lord of this aspect of the world, He is Lord also of its temporal and visible aspect. Thus, he asks kings, whose power had come from Him anyway, to recognize His rule. This means, serving as His proxies in the work of maintaining temporal peace and the conditions of temporal flourishing, a good in in itself until the Last Day, and also, a perpetual preparatio evangeliae. “The Church”, as a visible body, is simply “the blessed company of all faithful people”. Its members are marked by their amphibian character; they are citizens of an earthly commonwealth, and of a spiritual one. They do not constitute a distinct political entity on earth, as though Christ were here now among us. Thus, the visible churches, as bodies, are bodies of the temporal sphere, which is not to say, departments of State. It is right that they not be so; that was a contingent situation of the 16th century which lasted longer than it needed to, though the underlying principle, that the magistracy and the ministry are both representative of an underlying Christian people, is unchanging.
That clears things up considerably. Of course, it is not simply a matter of clarifying terms; neo-Anabaptists hold what they do not because they’re muddled about terms, but because they believe different things than we do about the nature of the Church. Littlejohn has said he isn’t comfortable with being defined as neo-Anabaptist; but that seems to express a hesitation about definition altogether. So it’s time to look briefly at Anabaptist principles, and see if the definition fits. We will turn to this in the next installment.
1What I mean by this is that his thought about the Church and about the civic order is, as we will see, Anabaptist . As Wedgeworth has already noted in discussion here, both he and I are using this term in the same general sense as Hunter. I do not mean to suggest that he or the authors who influence him-aside from Yoder- hold to rebaptism, which actually isn’t the crucial point of difference, nor that they belong to historically Anabaptist assemblies.
2The papalist system aspires in a way to this ideal, but it always assumes the older idea of a single commonwealth in which magistrate and minister are organs of a society, though inconsistently, since it also posits the ministerial corporation, and the “lay” in dependence upon it, as a visible “complete society” with ‘indirect power” over the temporal realm; its relation to the civic is thus one of outsourcing most of the work of everyday life, in order to support the ministerial and monastic corporation. This has always been a profoundly inconsistent ecclesiological deviation.
3Rather in the way that young upper middle class radicals in the 60s, like their 18th century predecessors, referred to “the People”, an postulated entity which supposedly stood behind those who professed to speak for it, or the way Marxists referred to the “Workers”, an entity the workers themselves didn’t recognize themselves in.
4Not to mention all the contributions of unbelievers to those social developments Littlejohn praises; apparently anyone on the Left is in the “Church”, a retroactive baptism many of those persons, such as Voltaire, would find a startling splash of water indeed. And many of the rights he mentions were secured precisely by the Protestant Christian secularity he claims to oppose, and do not follow from any other doctrine.