~ 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.