Neo-Anabaptism and the Kingdom (pt. 2)

~ This is a guest post by Peter Escalante

Now let’s look at the claim that the alternative view is “Augustinian.” As was pointed out in the ensuing conversation, a great many things can be fathered on Augustine; and his own idea of the Two Cities is hardly clear. On the one hand, as Pastor Wedgeworth has mentioned, the work of John von Heyking on Augustine’s view of civic order shows that the great bishop is considerably more sane on the question of Christian civic order than he as been made out to be. Further, the Protestant doctrine of the church is largely Augustine’s, put into a form free of contradictions. As Warfield famously remarked, the Reformation was the triumph of Augustine’s doctrine of grace over Augustine’s doctrine of the church- or more precisely, over Cyprianic atavisms in Augustine’s doctrine of the church. The Reformation doctrine, not the Anabaptist, is really the one with the strongest claim to be Augustinian in its politics; because finally, the “two cities” make sense only as a) the new Adam and the old, the line between which is drawn through persons, not between commonwealth and cathedral; or b) in a more positive sense, as the visible human order on the one hand, inclusive of visible worship assemblies, and the mystical body of Christ on the other, the immediate union of believers with Christ by faith.  Both those ways of taking Augustine are wholly consonant with evangelical teaching- but not with Anabaptist.

A note about Anabaptism.  I remember meeting two friends of mine, both extremely skeptical of Christianity, not long after the murder of Marian Fisher. They had been following the news reports. Struck by her example, and by the fact that her community, upon hearing that the murderer had killed himself, went to console his family, my friends asked me whether that was what Christianity was about. I was happy to be able to say yes. At their best, Anabaptists can be very radiant examples of Christianity; at their best, I could even say that they are best Christians in Christendom. The problem is, and it’s a very big problem, that they themselves don’t think they are in Christendom. In other words, they are schismatic.

The Anabaptist view is one of two different worlds: God’s kingdom, identified with the pure visible congregation, and the Devil’s, identified with the civic world “outside” the first. Thus, instead of our perfect righteousness being Christ in Heaven, the totality of whose death and holiness are imputed to us forensically until we enter the perfection of glory at the end of things, our righteousness is here, in the holy community of men “divine by nature.” This necessarily demands withdrawal from the common civic world, and constitution of a separate political entity.

Old Anabaptism separatism originally had two modes, one aggressive and one passive. Only the passive one remains in officially Anabaptist communities, though the ideology of the first recurs in certain other schools of Christian thought.  In either mode, Anabaptism thought that the common civic world was the kingdom of darkness, and made it a rule of salvation to separate from it, to literally live apart from it. Between the Kingdom of God, the visible church, and the rest of the world, there could only be opposition.

The old Anabaptists often expected the war between the saints and everyone else, and the final transformation of the world, to be settled apocalyptically, though some, like Thomas Muntzer or Jan of Leyden, undertook to effect the transformation themselves. They did it by war; usually, peace Anabaptism signalled a complete renunciation of the world into expectant separatism, uninterested even in working to gain converts. But one can imagine an extraverted peace Anabaptism, working to gain converts as well as to transform the public realm.

And one cannot only imagine it, one can see it. It underlies what Hunter calls “neo-Anabaptism” and, though it generally holds to the pacifism of Anabaptism, its rhetorical polarizations, self-righteousness, and sweeping demands for total change are certainly violent.

It is also not uncommon now to find Christians thanking God for the end of Christendom, because now, they think, shorn of all that compromise with daily life, the Church can go back to being “pure.” Much of this is simply a weariness, and a weakness; a weariness in the face of the task of dealing with secularism, and a weakness with regard to the assertion of truth. There is sometimes a good deal of foolishness in it too, insofar as some of these people think that secularism will just neutrally run the business of daily life, and make no demands on conscience1.

These people often find the Anabaptist model appealing, because it seems to be suited to the situation in which Christians supposedly find themselves now: a minority school, whose principles aren’t shared by the civic powers. They will further justify their position with an appeal to the early church, a small persecuted sect locked out of much of civic life.

This is not, in fact our situation.

But in any case this kind of appeal to the early church’s relation to Rome is misleading in several respects. First of all, with the destruction of Judea, and so soon after Pentecost, we have no real record of what Christian involvement in Jewish civil life would have looked like; but since the Jewish civil order was holy, such an example would have been extremely instructive.

Christian relation to pagan Roman order was necessarily mixed. It does not follow that the mixed relation of the Christians to a pagan civic order, which would itself be a mix of truth and falsity, hence the mixed Christian response, is the pattern for Christian relation to civic order as such. And most importantly, we must understand that Christian relation to the civic order is a question of personal bearing toward the civic order as a member of it; it is not a relation of one visible civic order to another.

If we are not to deem creation and the civic order intrinsically pagan, if we are not to identify the civic entirely with libido dominandi, if we are to acknowledge that Christ redeemed the world and the nations and inherits what He wrought in them by common grace while purging what was and is in them of idols, then we must give a legal answer to the question“how then shall we live?”

Civic order is necessary for human existence- unless one posits a transsubstantiation of man, either punctiliar or progressive, an option I’ll say more about shortly. The early Christians were excellent citizens, and they did not have to take the reins of office, and were in fact hindered from doing so by certain accidental features of the State, namely those arising from its paganism. But once the Christians were a majority, the problem was (and is)unavoidable: if you have a majority of Christians in a place, they are de facto running the government. So once the people are no longer pagan, to consistently hold the neo-Anabaptist position, one either comes right out and says that the civic realm as such is inherently “pagan,” and demands then that “true” Christians withdraw from it (as certain of the monks did, taking something like the third option in Mr Littlejohn’s Primer, in a kind of schism which left the “less perfect” Christians behind); or one mans up and recognizes that the maintaining civic order is going to be a Christian art.

There is no one clear Augustinian position. But what is clear in him is that civic order is a good. What makes the City of Man different from the City of God is motivation: the heart. These do not constitute two commonwealths, but two different ethical directionalities. If I am a postman full of charity, I live in the City of God. If am a postman full of resentment and self, I live in the City of Man. There needn’t be two different postal services simply because there are two different ways of being in that vocation.

Now we may qualify the goodness of the particular shape of the Constantinian settlement, either absolutely or relative to our own situation, but it is quite clear that something like it is unavoidable once the majority become Christian. When the majority of people are People of God people, they are having to take responsibility for the running the operation. This follows of necessity, unless one wishes to postulate that once a decisive majority of the people become Christian, a kind of utopia arrives, and the State “withers away,” in the words of Engels.

Not only has nothing like this happened in the last two thousand years, we also have in Scripture no indication of such an imminent historical condition: the only thing which looks like that in the Word of God is the world to come, and then other things follow. If one wants to get around the Constantinian problem, one must either wish perpetually small numbers for the Christian community, and live as Hutterites, or admit to apocalyptic politics, to chiliasm.

Chiliasm, of course, need not suppose a catastrophe, and Mr Littlejohn has posited a slow transformation of human nature, a slow withering of the State.

Historically, this makes little sense. It has been two thousand years since the passion of the Lord, and not only have men not become increasingly spiritualized, they haven’t even recovered the patriarchal measure of robustness. Their fallen passions remain what they were, and every baby is born with the same original sin as Cain. Though persons grow in sanctity by God’s grace and we have good reasons to believe that on the whole the world is getting better, there is no progressive eradication of original sin in human nature. Only the eschaton will purge that, and only the world to come will be free from it. Hence there will always be a need for State order. But a neo-Anabaptist “postmillenialism” implies a “withering of the State” in favor of the perfected people- an idea we find at the center of various gnostic-revolutionary programs. It is explicitly posited by Communism, itself the heir of radical gnostic sects of the Middle Ages.

The orthodox Christian position- and this is ecumenically true, it is held as firmly in Rome and Constantinople as we hold it- is that the nature of fallen man remains constitutionally unchangeable until the End, though persons and communities can of course be sanctified; this is why justification has to be forensic. With each new human conception original sin reappears in its original force; there is no Lamarckianism of holiness. Therefore, there will always be need of a legal order in the city, and of a State power.

It is true that the office of the magistrate is self-abnegating; that is the very nature of public office, which serves the common good, not the private good of the office-holder. But the office of the magistrate is not self-destructive or self-obsolescent, in favor of another political hierarchy. The self-abnegation of the Christian magistrate is twofold: one, in favor of the common good as distinct from his private good, and two, for the specifically Christian magistrate, his self-abnegation in limiting the scope of his authority to the maintenance of peace and order, punishing crimes not sins, and leaving jurisdiction over conscience to God, Who alone is competent in that realm, and works by persuasion and attraction in the Word, since it is only his opus alienum which works externally by dread.  But neither of these self-abnegations are acts of self-destruction. The magistrate and the diversified civic order does not at any point in history exit the stage in favor of a rule by a fantasy race of consistently holy and perfectly wise quasi-monks, spontaneously and harmoniously self-organizing people in whom only the faintest traces of sin remain, or perhaps, no traces at all. To think so is to believe in a kind of transsubstantiation of mankind, much like the old Anabaptist tendency to imagine that regeneration meant incorporation into a “heavenly flesh” of Jesus, and to deny that He took flesh of Mary.

For a full neo-Anabaptist and transformationalist position to work, it would have to posit not only a withering of the State, but indeed a withering of the family and of begetting. The Scripture says that in the world to come there will be no more marriage; if the fullness of the Kingdom is come in the visible church, then clearly marriage is being phased out within history. Further, since the family is the first moral nursery, if the Church is phasing out original sin, then for this reason too the family must be withering as much as the State. Do neo-Anabaptists really want to say that? It certainly seems implied by their position. This “postmillenialism,” then, ends not in an ecumenical harmony of baptized nations, but rather in the Ephrata Cloister, or the Shaker communes. But our concern is with the world in which we actually live.

The view under discussion strikes me as utopian, first because it seems to posit something like the progressive eradication of sin from human nature just discussed.

But there is another sense in which it is utopian; and this takes us back to the definition of the church. Given that neo-Anabaptists spare no adjectives in describing the “Church,” one would naturally want to know where it is. Is it the same as First Downtown Presbyterian? Why doesn’t Jehovah-Jireh Baptist Temple look exactly like it? And if they’re not exactly it, or not it at all, where should we look?

If what is really meant by “Church” is the mystical body or the corpus christianum, then it would make sense, and we can stop the hunt for this radiant visible institution they keep talking about, and get back to the everyday real business of loving the very imperfect people of First Downtown, and loving the world along with them.

So what and where is this “Church?” In our conversations, Mr Littlejohn clearly doesn’t mean the mystical body; he is very much referring to a distinct visible corporation of men. But which?

The mystical body of evangelical doctrine is as such unseen, but quite real; his supposedly visible corporation is, however, nowhere to be seen, exactly like the old Anglo-Catholic branch theory of the hierarchical church, whose supposed “branches” however weren’t in communion with one another, and all of which officially denied the branch theory.  The “Church” the more “catholic-minded” neo-Anabaptists speak of can be identified with no one visible assembly or federation of the same, nor can it be identified with them all collectively; they themselves would deny the theory which tries to, and surely they should have some say in the matter.

Let’s review the options:

First, it’s clear Mr Littlejohn isn’t arguing for the classic Protestant doctrine of the church; he admits that we hold that, and that he is at present averse to it.

Rome, then? Rome’s account of itself makes a sort of sense. It claims to be a single, visible, organized society, a sort of independent commonwealth ruled by law, whose principle of unity is the bishop of Rome, union with whom constitutes catholicity. All other formations of the baptized are schisms or “ecclesial communities.” But this clearly isn’t what is meant.

Old Anabaptism’s account of itself also makes a sort of sense, and he does share Anabaptist views of the “two commonwealths.” Withdrawing altogether from the civic world, and the Christian “compromise” with it, the old time Anabaptists live nearly autarchic lives, though dependent upon the State they reject for protection; a protection, admittedly, they don’t really ask for. But Mr Littlejohn certainly doesn’t seem to be proposing Anabaptist separation in the tough old sense; and couldn’t be. He speaks of an ecumenical Christianity, historically continuous (let us leave aside for now the fact that our position is much more historically continuous with Christian practice than his own); the true old Anabaptists will have none of that.

He doesn’t seem to mean Eastern Orthodoxy, which, with its Cyprianic notion of the church, can at best be agnostic about whether Western Christians are really in the church at all; this violates his ecumenical sentiments.

He most certainly doesn’t mean the corpus christianum; since that multitude has always inherited and anointed political rule wherever it was the majority, and Littlejohn is opposed to this; and further, the doctrine of the corpus christianum, a consequence of the truth that believers are immediately united to Christ by faith and as such require no hierocratic mediation or political incorporation, strikes him as “individualist.”

So in short: his separate, visible church corresponds to the self-understanding of no real Christian community. It is a visible polis, except that it turns out to be completely invisible. It is a State, except that it isn’t.

And this is why we call his present position utopian. It is not primarily, as he seems to think, a judgment that his view is fantastically idealist, though something could certainly be said about that point too. It is primarily that the “Church” he speaks of doesn’t anywhere exist. It is, literally, no-where.

He holds that Christians constitute a sovereign political community, one which however does not use any coercion. The relation of this polis to civic life, including that of historic Christendom, is a strange and basically incoherent hybrid of transformationalism and separatism; separatist in constitution, transformationalist in program. Since it does not use any coercion, it must count on a radical transsubstantation of man in time.

What does any of this mean in reality? It’s very hard to tell. The history of the Christian peoples looks almost nothing like what we would expect it to on Mr Littlejohn’s account; and the “church” he speaks of nowhere actually exists as he describes it.

Mr Littlejohn’s personal thought on these matters is admittedly developing, and our ongoing conversation has already resolved many misunderstandings and brought about a good deal of agreement. So back to neo-Anabaptism in general-

What is obvious is that confused as the discourse is, it is consistently, if unwittingly, secularist. It sounds optimistic and revolutionary, but as a cloud-castle ecclesiology, it has no political force; the bigger problem would be the effect it could have on ministers. First, it is complicit in the suppression of the original principles of the modern free order, Christian secularity; and that suppression is definitive of secularism. Further, like all neo-Anabaptism, its actual site is the radical private of secularism, standing in a relation of uneasy diremption from the public, but whose “prophetic” standing point “outside” the public realm simply reinforces the secularist disposition of political space.

Suppression of the original Christian principles of the secular civic order, is precisely what secularism is up to. And this is why our situation is not that of the early church. Nor can it be that of the old Anabaptists, for reasons made clear above. And this is why the neo-Anabaptist position(s), for all the excellent points its proponents make, is a dead end road.

What our situation in fact is, and what the wisdom of classical evangelical doctrine can tell us about how to negotiate it, will be the topic of the next discussion.


1Our friend Mr Littlejohn, however, is much too shrewd to make this mistake.


19 thoughts on “Neo-Anabaptism and the Kingdom (pt. 2)

  1. ‘Hence there will always be a need for State order’. Granted that civic order is a good, and that Christians can go about the work of maintaining that order; what I wonder is, do we need a ‘State’? See, when I hear that word, I immediately think of the State as we know it, and have known it in the West for a while now. The great Panopticon, the all devouring Leviathan, whether centered on the Sovereign King or the Sovereign Legislature, this beast seems set to do even greater ills than it has in the past.

    Now, granted finally that there never has been a golden age of sweet-smelling tranquilitas, still one must wonder if Christians aren’t, you know, allowed to ponder a means of maintaining civic order, and providing for the common good, that might, dare I say it, look different from the State as we now have it?

    What I am asking in such a long-winded, disjointed way, is this – need a Christian, thinking through questions of civic order and its maintenance, take what he’s given? We do live, after all, in the aftermath of a revolution. Looking around, however, I see that there are no Tribunes for the Plebs, no sanctioned officers to pull down the proud in their conceits. What if it’s left to us, good Christian citizens who only wish to lead quiet lives, to revolt in the name of the common good and civic tranquility? What if, finally, things really do get bad in the apocalyptic sense? My last rhetorical and over-the-top question, What if that’s already here (I wonder how many unborn children were murdered today in an orderly procedure given the sanction of law and the blessing of the State)?

    These are deeply personal questions for me as you might guess. I really don’t want an answer to ’em – then I might have to do something. I suppose, then, that once again I have cut a comment at cross-purposes to the post at hand, and therefore done nothing to advance the discussion. And a fine discussion it is – it’s made me think and question my easy assumptions, whatever conclusions I must draw. My thanks.

  2. Peter, that was a fabulous post.

    One question: Do you think one can speak of the visible “church” in the singular if the visibility is defined by common features rather than a common political identity? We speak of the “human race” in the singular despite differences in ethnicity and language and polis (etc). Similarly, might we speak of the “visible church” (singular) as defined by the visibility of word, sacrament and prayer across the diversity of congregations?

    This would not correspond to the self-understanding of all individual churches, but that is not a problem. For whatever reason they THINK they are the church, they might actually BE a church for different reasons. Analogously, many people define their humanity according to various structures of the brain or the possession of self-consciousness…whereas we would appeal more broadly to the “image of God.” They are human for reasons other than they think. And likewise, Catholic churches are part of “the visible church” for Protestant reasons. =)


  3. Brethren,

    I’ll deal with all three questions in one post, if that’s alright.

    Tim: secularity means the principle of living out one’s Christian life in and through the creational and civic orders, along with the mandate to cultivate the world. Further, it means that given the fact of justification by grace alone, the government does not have justification as its object at all, or holiness as its direct object. Thus, freedom of conscience as a civic principle. Secularism is the attempt to enforce a civic religion of irreligion as binding on all and definitive of good citizenship. I could give a much more detailed picture, but I think you know many or all of those details already yourself.

    Thomas: the question of what is a good commonwealth and what is a just State is one we still very much have the freedom to pose. I’d suggest we keep posing it. At the same time, celebrate the many goods we have and thank God exuberantly for them, and do what you can to make your neighborhood a happier and lovelier place.

    Joseph: brilliant. I wish I’d written a paragraph as clear as that on this topic.


  4. Joseph,

    You’ve indeed made a remarkable comment, and one that is perplexing on many levels.

    First, I would aver as a basic prerequisite for meaningful dialogue that you have to take people at their word, as they understand themselves. Otherwise, you run the risk of being either obtuse or patronizing.

    Deeper, it seems to me that your approach also implies a pusillanimous kind of rhetorical coercion in that it amounts to saying “we will simply not recognize and (therefore legitimate) those thing you are saying to us that we find unacceptable.”

    In some sense, such thinking even has the unhealthy savor of ideological systems of thought where the “other” is “reduced” or “deconstructed” in a manner not unlike the psychoanalytic or Marxist projects where no matter what you actually say, we on the contrary tell you the “real” reason you believe the way you do (e.g. sublimated libido or bourgeois consciousness, respectively).

    I mean, just listen to yourself:

    For whatever reason they THINK they are the church, they might actually BE a church for different reasons.

    Herein lies the more sinister aspect of the approach: the failure to engage with the truth of the matter asserted.

    If someone makes an assertion to be the “True Church,” one may vehemently disagree with and contest that assertion, marshalling devastating evidence and argument in one’s favor. However, it would seem that both a respect of persons and a manful regard for truth demand that we engage based on the substantive content of our beliefs.

    What you are contemplating may be a tempting “solution” to the problem of the current disunity among Christians but, for what it’s worth, I implore you not to go down that road.

    Of course, there are other problems with your approach: for example who decides what “word, sacrament, and prayer” is essential? Are Mormons in? Quakers? Unitarians?


  5. Mr. Hickman,

    Pusillanimous is a neat word. Had to look it up.

    More importantly, I think your response is problematic for context and content reasons. For contextual reasons: Some of the ethical failures you have attributed to me…(i.e. “a basic prerequisite for meaningful dialogue” and “it would seem that both a respect of persons and a manful regard for truth demand that we engage based on the substantive content of our beliefs”)…imply that I am dialoguing with RC’s about their own self-understanding here. I am not. I was asking Peter a question about how we as Protestants might characterize the RC’s being “churches.” I was taking for granted the Protestant position on the church because I was asking a question to a Protestant.

    With respect to content, I am not sure you understood what I was saying. The comparison to the Marxist critique of “why” someone believes this or that has no relevance to the particular claim I was making. My claim was not about states of belief but about the essence of a thing whatever someone believes about it. Note the analogy I gave. A human is a human for particular reasons. But there are many accounts concerning what makes us human. Your reply implies that I think those who claim to be human because of brain chemistry or those who think that they are the church because they are in communion with Rome are unaware of the actual reasons for their beliefs. But I’m not saying that at all. I’m assuming (for the sake of a question to a Protestant) that the content of those beliefs is wrong, but not that their individual belief is dishonest or even rooted in something pre-cognitive. I am then arguing that this does not preclude materialists from being human (on a Christian definition of “human”) or Catholic churches from being churches (on a Protestant definition of “the church”). But it would mean that they are humans and churches for different reasons than they would claim. If you think that is some form of illegitimate “deconstruction” of “the other,” do you think the same when we say that Peter Singer is a human for reasons other than he claims?

    This does not address your impression that I am then using this as some sort of “solution” for disunity among Christians. The issues of how to identify word, sacrament and prayer are interesting…but weren’t the context of the comment (and thus left undiscussed). I hope this helps!


  6. Joseph,

    Thanks for writing. Sort of thinking out loud:

    Just as thought, in order to be thought, must have discursive content, a church is constituted by a faith that must be articulable in basic propositions that require assent.

    At the human level, the content of its faith is what a church is.

    If it’s not this faith, then it is another church altogether for again, at the human level, a church is constituted by its faith.

    To deny the propositions of a given church’s faith can still be both manful and respectful (though it may put one’s salvation at risk) for you allow them a sort of spiritual self-determination.

    To selectively affirm, however, certain aspects of a church’s faith and to deny others is to “destroy,” in thought at least (thought being one absolutely crucial battleground of the faith in this world) that church as it was essentially constituted, performing a kind of ecclesial lobotomy, to use a macabre example fit for Halloween.

    And to disseminate the lobotomized “version” of the church through, dialogue and discussion, as it is were the church as actually constituted, by referring to it by the same verbal signifiers by which it refers to itself, is to perpetrate a type of legerdemain that is at best destructive of clarity and a contribution to the amount of confusion in society.

    At worst, although I do not mean to attribute such motives to you, it is certainly in keeping with our present state of human nature that some might engage in such “affirmation” of a church as a means to actually subvert and therefore denigrate the same, through a kind of polemical passive aggressiveness.

    On the other hand, some time ago it dawned on me:

    The less you believe, the bigger your church is.

    For this reason, often those with the best of intentions and the greatest pureness of heart are tempted to sacrifice truth for unity.


  7. Michael,

    I find it curious that for all your polysyllabic special pleading, you do exactly what you say we’re doing. Let’s review.

    At various points in the conversation, you have said that although the Reformers, and myself and SW, all profess to recognize the natural law, and in my case you even admit that I am not unlearned in the scholastic tradition, you still insist that despite all appearances we can’t “really” hold it, because we supposedly don’t hold the metaphysics behind it; but when we say we do hold that metaphysics, you deny that we do, because you seem to think that anyone holding to traditional philosophy must of necessity be a Roman Catholic, and yet we aren’t; therefore we can’t *really* hold the classical metaphysic and can’t *really* hold to natural law.

    Further, Rome does exactly what we do, from its own side. Rome says, Protestants *think* they have the fullness of faith, and *think* they are real churches, but they don’t, and aren’t: they are merely “ecclesial communities”, whose members bear some relation to the true Church in virtue of their baptism, but just don’t realize that they are schismatic and in some cases heretical.

    So, given that you both you and your church make the kind of judgments you energetically protest here, I think we have reason to ask how exactly that’s okay for you but not for us.

    Also, to say that a church is constituted by its official body of opinions is a very strange thing to say. The Church is constituted by union of men with Jesus Christ, on anyone’s account. Christians can be wrong about all kinds of things, even fairly important things, and yet be objectively united by faith to Christ. Your view suggests a gnostic and cerebralizing subjectivism, wherein one is saved by a system of articulated concepts, not by a Person.

    Philosophically, it is totally uncontroversial to say that participants in a certain reality may have false opinions about how and why they are participants in it. Obviously, on Rome’s principles, we evangelicals are misguided “ecclesial communities”, and on our principles, RC are regarded much as Joseph wrote above. People have principles, and judge by those principles.

    It’s more than a little strange to ask people to entirely bracket all principled judgment about whether someone else’s truth claims are true. For instance, if someone claims to be Napoleon, and claims that he recently arrived in California because he has conquered it with the French Army, he might very sincerely believe that, but his opinion of his identity does not constitute his identity, and I am therefore doing him no violence by saying, Look friend, I think you’re not in fact Napoleon, and you’re here because you arrived on a Greyhound bus.

    Another example. An atheist and I share some common experience. I work from that common experience, and principles of reason, to get the atheist to see why his body of opinions makes less sense than mine do in explaining the facts and contexts of our common experience. Of course I take him at his word that he is an atheist; that is, as you say, a condition of genuine conversation. But I don’t take his word for it that atheism is true. Likewise, we take RC at their word about what they believe; that doesn’t mean that we take their word for it that those beliefs are right.


  8. Michael,

    I’m not sure I understand what you said, but I think it was: Since Catholics define “church” the way they do…it is both (a) confusing and (b) violent (since churches are constituted historically by their confession) to say that a church is a “church” for reasons other than their own self-understand (such as a subset of their confession).

    A: In the context of THIS conversation, the statement was made from a Protestant to a Protestant…not to a Catholic. But even if it were, it is common knowledge that Protestants and Catholics mean something different by “church…” and as a Protestant, I don’t see it is confusing to try and ascertain the RC church as a real “church” by a Protestant definition. I am, after all, a Protestant. The word is commonly used this way and I don’t see why it would be confusing (in a context where these differences are well known).

    B: This is only violent if the Catholic doctrine of the church is assumed. Indeed, it is only violent THEN if the various ways that the word “church” are commonly used are not even available for use in dialogue. In sum, it is only violent if the Catholic doctrine is insisted upon AND if the RC church controls the grammar. I don’t believe that churches are essentially all the details of their confession. The details of their confession just make them THIS church as opposed to that church. Perhaps I am bastardizing Aristotle here, but I’ve been told that he makes a nice distinction (of which I am sure you are very aware) between the “what” and the “this” of a thing. Particular confessions don’t make the church “what” they are…but they certainly make them “this” church as opposed to that one. On Protestant principles, what makes a church a church (quiddity, right?) is word and sacrament. This certainly includes certain doctrines…and what I mean by that is worth discussing…but has little to do with the original conversation at hand. The distinction is made here only to suggest that your objection, beyond just assuming the RC notion of the church, seems to assume that we’re having a conversation that we’re not (at least yet) having. I was talking about the “what” from a Protestant perspective and you seem to want to talk about “this” from a Roman Catholic perspective (though admittedly there is less difference between the “what” and “this” in RC ecclesiology).

    Again, is it either confusing or violent to suggest that Peter Singer is a human being for reasons other that the ones he thinks he is? It is not confusing because we all aware that “human” is variously defined…and it would not be violent because, according to the Bible, Peter Singer is not “essentially constituted” by mere brainwaves, but by being in the image of God. Certainly part of what makes him Peter Singer (as opposed to Joe Minich or Michael Hickman) includes his doctrine that he is pure material. But this is not what makes him human (essentially) according to we Christians. And while there is no existence apart from identity…they are not the same thing.


  9. Peter and Joseph,

    I think you guys are making some fair points here and I have been thinking more about the matter in the last couple of days (in addition to taking the GRE).

    I have some firther thoughts but I have a computer at the moment for all of 2 minutes, so I will have to wait till next week to write more, if the conversation is still open. I hope everyone is having a good weekend.


  10. To finally say something–
    Peter, I appreciate your summary of historical Anabaptism. Somewhere along the way in the various responses I hope to eventually post, I should probably try to include one where I enumerate all the ways in which I would definitely part ways from historical Anabaptism.

    Regarding the withering away of the State, you have partly misunderstood me, but the fault there is mostly mine, and I have partly misunderstood myself, I think. This will be something well worth clarifying in subsequent discussion.

    Just one thing for now, though. To your concerns about my visible Church being “utopian” in the sense of not actually existing somewhere you could pin it down: first, it seems to me that something of the sort could be said about Minich’s description of the visible Church, with which you so heartily agreed. But, that aside, my concern is this–it seems to me that _any_ account that attempts to do justice both to the irreducible visibility of the Church and to its inescapable invisibility, any account that acknowledges that the Church must have a historical body of some kind, but which grants that God has not cast out the vast majority of it in our day of severed communions and micro-denominations, necessarily has a doctrine of the Church that is beset by tensions, _necessarily_ has a Church that it’s hard to point to or pin down. The alternative, it seems to me, is to give up on the notion of the necessary visibility of the Church (which seems to me theologically disastrous) or to give up (as consistent Catholics and EOs do) on large numbers of those who call on Christ as not part of the Church. No, I don’t have a neat solution to the problem, but in my experience, neither do any of the best theologians who take these problems seriously.

  11. Dear Joseph and Peter,

    Again, I do think you guys make some good points above, as far as they go. Surely no one can claim the right to define terms without appealing to the larger context of fact and history. Of course, to make that case here with regard to the church, although of vital importance, would be beyond the topic. On the other hand, I do think I can explain why my response was warranted, even without this larger case. And in some sense, this is the more interesting aspect at the moment.

    First of all, Joseph, I think that your phrasing did lend somewhat of a calculated, polemical approach to your new discovery that you were proposing to Peter. After all, why specifically discuss the erroneous “self-understanding” of others and how what they “THINK” about themselves is wrong, if you had simply arrived at a new and better definition of the church? Why not just say what your new definition is and that Catholics are wrong? Why the mind game? But enough about that already.

    The deeper issue to which I was responding is this: it is not simply differing definitions of the word “church” that is at stake. Rather, the important thing is the differing conceptions of what is religious truth that is entailed by the definitions.

    I submit, as an object for your reflection, the possibility that simply on its own terms, the Protestant view of “church” (I’ll use little ‘c’ instead of saying ‘Christian community’) is inherently constituted by certain erroneous notions of human nature and reason. I do not simply argue that the Protestant view contradicts the mandate in scripture to “all speak the same thing” and that we “be perfect in the same mind, and in the same truth” (1 Cor. 1:10) but that this view is intrinsically an eclipse of what is distinctly human, effected by separating the discursive content of belief (expressed also in sacraments, liturgy) from the personal “union” of men with each other and “Christ.”

    I most pointedly said that the Church is its beliefs at the human level (i.e. in this life, and as essentially corporeal beings). I most certainly did not say or imply that the Church was merely those things, but rather that the supernatural comes to us, as did God in Jesus, in incarnate form and is presented to us (and identified by) discursive propositions of belief.

    There’s nothing Gnostic, cerebralizing, or strange about maintaining the Church is a “pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15) rather than merely a society, community, or union of men with “Christ.”

    What is at stake here is the alteration of the definition of man from what is distinctive in him (vis a vis other corporeal creatures), namely, reason, to something else (sociability?).

    The obfuscation of the rational from the human level is precisely what gives the Protestant view its incipient modern character. It can be seen in the pre-Protestant kinds of piety and mysticism which hinted at a latent hostility between reason and holiness, and in movements such as the Brethren of the Common life, all of which would go on to influence some of the major Reformers. Today it flowers in the “Humanitarian Empire” where the greatest human good is seen as the alleviation of bodily suffering. It can certainly be seen in the tendency to denigrate dogma and doctrine as of secondary importance to “community,” “outreach” and “social justice.”

    Peter, I maintain that the view the church as a union of persons with a saving power distinct from its “system of articulated concepts” and “official body of opinions” is either:

    1) an adaptation of a religion to exigencies of a church bereft of an authority to pronounce on such matters or

    2) a church that presupposes a view of man wherein his rationality is either not involved in the definition of what he is, or is separable in some way from his life and even his salvation.

    One can see the short step it must have taken to go from the view of the church as a collection of folks divinized by their “union with Christ” to the idea, as held by your boy Feuerbach for example, that the whole of religion was really just a psychological projection of humanity’s own divinity.


  12. Dear Michael,

    I still don’t understand why you think my comment about “self understanding” is some sort of mind game. The reason to clarify this is precisely because some people confuse the self-understanding of a group with the actual identity of that group. This is precisely why I went on to discuss the same w/respect to the definition of humanity. We don’t struggle with the latter…but many (especially Protestants!) struggle with the former. That is, many Protestants assume that a Roman Catholic congregation cannot be a real Christian congregation because their claim about what makes them a church (i.e. communion with the bishop of Rome, etc) is rejected by Protestants as being a mark of the church. All that to say, if I was implicitly critiquing anything…it was a false move on the part of Protestants…not the actual claims of Catholics.

    You move on to speak of “the deeper issue” to which you were responding was “differing conceptions of what is religious truth that is entailed by the definitions” (of church, etc).I’m not sure how this legitimates your initial response because that was not “the issue” being discussed. The truth of the Protestant definition of “church” was assumed for the sake of the question. In any case, I’m willing to try and scratch your ecclesiastical itches. =)

    If I have understood you correctly, you object that the Protestant view of “church” implies a wrong understanding of human nature and reason because (a) it separates the content of belief from the fact of union with Christ and consequently (b) defines man in terms of sociability (or whatnot) rather than reason. Along the way, you defend yourself against the charge of reducing the church to the corporeal. And you conclude with a reflection of Protestantism’s suspension in “the modern” (rooted in pre-Protestant sources) and manifest today in the focus on alleviating bodily suffering overaddressing corrupted dogma.

    There is a lot going on here, so I’ll try to be brief. 1. (corresponding to A above): The content of belief is not separated from union with Christ. Confession (in the case of adults) is inseparable from union with Christ. What is not essential is “this confession” versus “that confession.” That Confession (cognitively in the case of adults and vicariously in the case of infants) is necessarily is a given. WHAT confession is necessary is debated. The Reformed tradition, after all, produced many confessions…which all recognized one another as participating in “the same faith.”

    2. (corresponding to B above): I have no idea how you are separating sociability from reason…nor why you are (seemingly) reducing reason to (particular?) confessions. The ability to be social simply IS the ability to be involved in reason, language, ritual, etc. Furthermore, there seems to be a confusion here about what we can predicate about “groups” and “individuals.” Why should a definition of a group (the church) imply that we have redefined individual human beings? Even if your contention about our definition of the group were correct, your conclusion would not necessarily follow.

    3. No-one said you reduce the church to the corporeal. But you do seem to reduce the church to a “this” rather than a “what.” Again, the objection was that we can speak meaningfully of human beings without speaking of “this” human being. This does not mean that the latter exists apart from its instantiation in the former…but the point stands nonetheless. And so while you don’t reduce the church to the corporeal, you (nevertheless) do not seem to think that you can speak meaningfully about it apart from particular instantiations (as opposed, from a Protestant perspective, to others). This would be analogous, from a Protestant perspective, to those who think of a portion of the human race as persons…and who (by implication) include in the essential characteristics of “personhood” (i.e. race, being out of the mother’s womb, intelligence, class, etc) that which does not essentially belong to it.

    4. Finally, your genealogy of “the modern” is extremely peculiar to me. Pre-Reformation mystical piety moving through Reformation leaders through to modern society? Most modern Reformation scholarship distinguishes between the anabaptist/pietist movements and those of the Magisterial Reformation (Lutherans/Anglicans/Reformed). The former were rooted in late medieval piety and were not essentially created by the Reformation…but only found place for civic or communal expression by the effect of the Reformation on European political/ecclesial circumstances. The Reformation order, by contrast, does not separate reason and piety but (per the discussion in the above posts) sees both as functioning withing certain boundaries in separate institutions (church and commonwealth) approrpiate to their separate ends. Without saying that I am completely on board with Steven and Peter on these issues, I nontheless think that the answer (from their perspective) is rather obvious. Protestants emphasize reason and piety differently in different institutions. They never separate them. The reason the modern state is weighted in its concern toward the body is precisely because that is what the state should be concerned with. This is guided by reason and should (I think they would say) be rooted in a general confession…but not the particular confession of any particular church. But this implies no underlying reductionistic anthropology precisely because the magistrate is not meant to give social expression to the entirety of human faculties. Different institutions give social expression to different aspects of human nature. They meet different needs. Analogously, would we say that Protestants are anti-sexual because they think people should save intercourse for domestic life rather than ecclesial or civic life?

  13. Pingback: The varieties of Christian politics « City of God

  14. Joseph,

    I appreciate your discussion here and you certainly have not shirked from the issue, for which I commend you. I’d like to try to focus the conversation a bit.

    You say:

    The content of belief is not separated from union with Christ. Confession (in the case of adults) is inseparable from union with Christ.

    This would reasonably seem to imply that you equate the “content of belief” with a “confession,” and you say that you do not separate this from union with Christ.

    But then you say:

    What is not essential is “this confession” versus “that confession.” That Confession (cognitively in the case of adults and vicariously in the case of infants) is necessarily is a given. WHAT confession is necessary is debated.

    Now if the particular confession is “not essential,” then the “content of belief” is not essential either, since they are the same. And to say that the content of belief is not essential is most definitely separating it from union with Christ, since what you are really saying is that what matters is that you believe and not what you believe.

    And of course if you say that the term “confession” means a certain minimum of common beliefs then I ask: 1) what are they and 2) by what authority should I believe them, since there are other differing claims.

    Moreover, in practice at least, one can easily see how your position deemphasizes and narrows the range of the propositions of the faith and thereby raises the “relational” element in priority, which is somewhat ironic since at the same time the differing positions on doctrine exert a disintegrating effect on the church.

    Moving on, you say:

    < I have no idea how you are separating sociability from reason…nor why you are (seemingly) reducing reason to (particular?) confessions. The ability to be social simply IS the ability to be involved in reason, language, ritual, etc.

    It’s true that my definition of sociability does not necessarily require reason, for I think that some non-human animals are also social. But this is not really the crucial issue for my larger argument, since even if only humans could be “truly” social (e.g. for reasons of free association or culture) I would not say that the ability to hold discursively articulated systems of belief is essential to sociability qua sociability. Rather, it is the non-discursive “relational” aspect which definitive, which is my point.

    More crucially, you say:

    …you do seem to reduce the church to a “this” rather than a “what.” Again, the objection was that we can speak meaningfully of human beings without speaking of “this” human being. This does not mean that the latter exists apart from its instantiation in the former…

    On the contrary, I would say that you seem to reduce the church to a “what” from a “this.” I agree that we can speak meaningfully about churches without speaking of “this” church but to exist is always more perfect than not to exist, and it is therefore not a reduction to go from “what” to “this.”

    But more immediately, what good is a mere definition of a church? Or what good is it for a church to meet the definition of being a church unless it is the true Church? If you say that all of the churches that meet the definition are true churches, then we are merely back where we were above, with the problem of the various confessions.

    Regarding church history, you say:

    Most modern Reformation scholarship distinguishes between the anabaptist/pietist movements and those of the Magisterial Reformation (Lutherans/Anglicans/Reformed). The former were rooted in late medieval piety and were not essentially created by the Reformation…but only found place for civic or communal expression by the effect of the Reformation on European political/ecclesial circumstances. The Reformation order, by contrast, does not separate reason and piety…

    I do not dispute that “distinctions” can be drawn between the two phenomenon of which you speak. On the other hand, I would argue that this distinction is overlays a common fundamental current, which even influenced some Catholics such as Thomas a Kempis and Erasmus (who, like Luther was educated in the pietism of Brethren of the Common Life). Even allowing for various personalities and polemical circumstances, I think it can be seen that the view of the relationship between faith and reason as held by, e.g. St. Thomas, was occurring at this time among a range of important thinkers. My fairly modest point was that the Reformation was generally bound up with this tendency.

    On the other hand, in a strangely parallel way, at he time of Luther the seed of the reform of this tendency had already begun to sprout and flourish in one of the Church’s greatest sons: St. Ignatius of Loyola.

    Finally, you say:

    The Reformation order, by contrast, does not separate reason and piety but (per the discussion in the above posts) sees both as functioning within certain boundaries in separate institutions (church and commonwealth) appropriate to their separate ends.

    If you are inclined, I think it would be interesting and on the topic here if you would further discuss how reason and piety function differently in the different spheres of church and commonwealth.


  15. Correction:

    I think it can be seen that [a modification of] the view of the relationship between faith and reason as held by, e.g. St. Thomas, was occurring at this time among a range of important thinkers.


  16. Michael,

    Your first point is summarized in the statement, “Now if the particular confession is ‘not essential,’ then the ‘content of belief’ is not essential either, since they are the same.” Contrary to what is implied in your response, I do not equate them. I simply said that they are not separate. Church confession is related to union with Christ in through the means of its relation to the content of an individual Christian’s beliefs. But this is not a one for one correspondence. We all have “the same” DNA structure (enough that we can be considered “a species”) instantiated in various human bodies. While only instantiated in bodies…we can think about the code in abstraction from them. Similarly, while the beliefs that are absolutely inseparable from union with Christ are only instantiated in ecclesial confessions, we can speak about (sometimes very) different confessions as having the same DNA which is more directly related to our union with Christ, to wit, basic Christian doctrine and piety.

    You move on to want to discuss the issue of “authority.” Since this is Steven’s blog, I’ll refrain from going down that alley. I’ll only say that the Protestant answer to these questions does not “de-emphasize” the propositions of the faith. And if it does “raise” the relational element, that is itself partially because of doctrinal claims…not a therapy making up for the loss of doctrinal certainty.
    You go on to defend your separation of the non-discursive relational dimension of human experience from the discursive element. For all the words, I still can’t see how these could possibly be separated. Taylor’s concept of “social imaginaries” comes to mind here.

    You write, “On the contrary, I would say that you seem to reduce the church to a “what” from a “this.” I agree that we can speak meaningfully about churches without speaking of “this” church but to exist is always more perfect than not to exist, and it is therefore not a reduction to go from “what” to “this.””

    I’m not sure what you mean by the first statement (that we derive our definition of the general from the particular?). As for the second statement, you argue that it is not a reduction to go from a “what” to a “this.” My argument, however, is that you seem to virtually collapse the two. At what point are the “this” and the “what” distinguished for you? Case in point is your following question: “What good is it for a church to meet the definition of being a church unless it is the true Church?” But this just begs the question. From a Protestant perspective, this is like asking, “What good is it to meet the definition of being a human unless you are also Michael Hickman?” Your move to then point to the “problem of the various confessions” is only a problem in the same way that it is a problem to define what humans are. Again, some people really disagree about this (drawing the line around race, etc).

    I think it is simply contrary to fact that the Reformation had a fundamental unity with the tendency you mention. Certainly there are various “Reform” movements that pre-date and post-date the Reformation (some of which were more a pre-cursor to the anabaptists than the Reformers), but…at the risk of sounding blasphemous…this seems about as historically meaningful to me as saying that early Christianity and the various Jewish cults of the first century are all part of the “same cloth” (i.e. religious movements within Judaism). The statement is too general to make a reliable genealogy. And at the level of the particulars, it seems obviously false.

    As far as reason and piety functioning differently in different institutions, I was only trying to state that the charge you seem to level against the position of Peter and Steven does not seem to match up to their claims. I was defending (what I perceive to be) their position from a “that” claim. Moving on to ask “how” things works out is a different discussion altogether.

  17. As for the Reformers’ relation to Aquinas on faith and reason, I can’t speak with a lot of confidence. I am aware of well-received attempts to show that the Reformers’ view of reason is far less problematic than is usually claimed. Case in point would be Brian Gerrish’s tome on the theme in Luther.

  18. Michael,

    What is distinct in man in the imago dei, and of the rational faculties named by philosophy that which most closely corresponds to that is intellectus, apex mentis, which is most definitely distinct from the discursive power. Although intellectus is intellectual, obviously, it is actually closer to the Biblical “heart” than to the discursive power. That heart is the organ of faith, and faith is that whereby we are united to Christ. This is Bonaventure, also Thomas at his wisest, and, as I recall, also the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Protestants are simply more consistent in their application of this common principle.

    Your argument actually defines man as basically discursive, and in this way you are unwittingly complicit with the Enlightenment “modernity” you profess to abhor.

    Even your own church sensibly acknowledges a “hierarchy of truths”, and the existence of theologoumena and adiaphora, and also the extreme difficulty of adequately expressing in discursive terms the deep divine mysteries. It just draws the scope of these things and problems differently, and on somewhat different principles.

    The consequence of your church’s canonization of its every magisterial-discursive expression is that it ends up having to backtrack on its “authoritative” pronouncements in ways which are at least inconsistent and at worst, mendacious and extremely violent to reason, given the gymnastics involved in “explaining” how the new things don’t actually contradict the old ones, even when the contradiction is evident (as with the case of Dignitatis Humanae).

    Further, the substitution of a conceptual system for Christ is of a piece with substitution of “vicars” for Christ, the so-called “ecclesiastical faith”, since Christ really can’t be the direct object of faith on the modern RC account. The mediator is mediated by the Church, for RC.

    We cannot be blamed, I think, for preferring Christ to substitutes.



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