Neo-Anabaptism and the Kingdom (Part 3)

~ This is a guest post by Peter Escalante.  The first two installments can be found here and here.

 

What we have in common with neo-Anabaptism at its best is love for the Kingdom of God, and love for the world. And neo-Anabaptist critiques of Christian compromise and complacency are very often apt. These should be heeded so far as they hit home.

But heeding these rebukes cannot mean accepting the schismatic and perfectionist principles of neo-Anabaptism, its rejection of ordinary domestic and life. For it is within ordinary life, within this very world, that the Kingdom of God grows by the Spirit.

The orthodox evangelical doctrine of the two kingdoms is a way of describing the dual reality of the Christian in the world, whose works will not save him but who works because he is saved by grace. And the work the Christian does is glorifying God, through praise above all, but also by service of neighbor and cultivation of the world.

Part of that work is political. Christianity does not leave the political untouched- it insists on the true natural law, the universal image of God in man, and the impossibility of human self-justification. Having the science of man’s origin and end, Christianity necessarily has political principles which perfect the wisdom of prechristian polities while rejecting the idolatries and confusions of them. All men are sinners, and the work of developing Christian civic order has been long and troubled; but the order the evangelicals worked to build was in the end a remarkable accomplishment, for the glory of God and the love of neighbor.

And we live in it still. Our problem is that we have come to think otherwise, like the Saxon settlers of Britain who thought the ruins of Roman architecture surrounding them were the work of trolls, rather than of the Roman men whose political and religious dependents the Saxons were. We are not nearly that far gone in fact, but we are very close to it in principle.

Our present situation is one of amnesia, not of antithesis. The origins of the civic order of the old Christian nations has been suppressed. Now, that civic order was never anything close to perfect; it was and is a world of sinners. But it was and is the best thing going, and to agree with secularism that the Christian civic order was never Christian, as neo-Anabaptism does, and as several other supposedly radical Christian schools of thought do, is simply to be complicit with the project of suppression. Only secularism gains by that.

Neo-Anabaptist exaltation of the saving visible “Church,” is in fact denigration of the actual Christian people, and of the actual legacy of reformed Christendom which was the creation of the Christian people. Worse, such rhetorical exaltation is an idolatry. Only Jesus saves us from sin and death, not the Church- the Church is the community of the saved, it is not itself the savior. And neither does the visible Church save us from politics, or save the polis from its problems; the problems of the polis will show up in the visible Church, for they are made up of the same constituents.1 We are not to be saved from the polis, nor to save the polis; we are rather to serve in it. And the traditions of our fathers, for all their imperfections, are a school of service, and themselves a work of service.

It is in those traditions of evangelical political and philosophic wisdom that we should school ourselves, if we aim to be of service today.

There is a saying attributed to Luther, probably apocryphal2 but expressing the man’s spirit exactly: “even if I knew that the world would end tomorrow, I would still plant my apple tree today.” Like Luther, we know that the end had already happened, Christ has won, and now we, thanks to Him and in order to give thanks to his Father, are in the business of planting trees.

———————————

1This is true even now.

2It is not attested, so far as I know, before the middle of the 20th century.

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11 thoughts on “Neo-Anabaptism and the Kingdom (Part 3)

  1. A few questions for you Peter:

    1) Is there any particular or unique “Christian school of politics”? Is there any program or particular plan which all Christians should share? Or are you saying that we are basically “ok” with the current political system?

    2) Is our current economic system “ok,” or does the Bible have principles for what some have called “Christian economics”?

    3) What about the magistrate for today? Must he be a Christian?

    4) To what extent can religious diversity be allowed?

  2. Peter,

    That was you best post yet, in my view. I especially appreciate your sharing your insights into our historical position.

    I too have a couple of questions, which I trust will not require treatise-length responses. They are really clarifications to help me understand more where you are coming from.

    1) Do you see your position (the “Evangelical” position?) as a golden mean of sorts with regard to political involvement with the world, with the Neo-Anabaptists on the one extreme with too little political involvement and Roman Catholics on the other extreme, who are overly enmeshed in politics? Or are there principles at work in your view that preclude seeing the issue as a matter of degree? If so, which ones are primary?

    2) You spoke of the “origins of the civic order of the old Christian nations” which has been “suppressed,” and also of the “reformed Christendom,” which was the creation of the “Christian people.” Obviously, as you point out, we do not expect perfection in the civic order, but can you point generally to the time(s) and place(s) where this reformed Christendom was best actualized?

    Thanks,

    Michael

  3. Steven,

    Couldn’t one posit another alternative in your first two questions? i.e., the Bible teaches specific things about politics and economics (so it is not a misnomer to speak of biblical/Christian politics or biblical/Christian economics), but that does not mean no one could come to the same positions without studying scripture. Even the Recons obviously recognized the Austrians got a lot of economics right, for example.

    And don’t we have to be wary, at least a bit, of thinking that because the ministerium only has authority in sacra, and the state only circa sacra, that the bible therefore only teaches us about things in sacra, and that circa sacra issues must therefore be decided sheerly apart from scripture on natural law alone?

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

  5. Like Luther, we know that the end had already happened, Christ has won, and now we, thanks to Him and in order to give thanks to his Father, are in the business of planting trees.

    A priest in Michael Flynn’s excellent “Medieval science fiction” novel Eifelheim rebukes a perfectionistic friar this way: “You’d rather spend your time pulling up the weeds than making the plants grow.” Interesting how many Protestants today have reverted to the old “Romanist” cultural perfectionism, even while proclaiming themselves to have superior fidelity to “the Gospel.”

  6. Hey Peter,
    Thanks for this last installment, to which I had been very much looking forward. I must say, though, that this seems more like an attempt to put up a very big tent, under which as many as possible can congregate, than an attempt to carefully distinguish and differentiate your project from all potential rivals. This is stated in terms expansive enough that I could agree with almost all of it, and which more or less gloss over the dramatically different ways of trying to put these basic principles into practice which exercised the Reformers and their descendants.

    And indeed, although the theoretical starting-point is clearly different, the practical conclusion seems awfully similar to what I ended up calling for in my “Primer on Christian Citizenship,” particularly in summary statements like, “We are not to be saved from the polis, nor to save the polis; we are rather to serve in it.” I sympathize with a lot of what’s expressed in these words and in this post, at least if they’re saying anything like what Kasemann says on Romans 13 about the Christian’s service in the social order (I just blogged this here: http://www.swordandploughshare.com/main-blog/2010/11/12/set-free-for-service-kasemann-on-rom-13.html).

    I just don’t want to go as far as you do in cutting out the tension of the presence, however incomplete, however imperfect, however proleptic, of an alternative political order in the midst of those of this world, a Church which models a different kind of politics precisely through its service.

  7. Brad,

    I think that given what I wrote in earlier posts and in comments, I’ve drawn quite a few boundaries. And even here, there are lines. If you agree with me that

    “neither does the visible Church save us from politics, or save the polis from its problems; the problems of the polis will show up in the visible Church, for they are made up of the same constituents”

    Then you must have come pretty far from your earlier positions, a move I’d cheer for, of course, but a move nonetheless.

    I think I’ve made it quite clear here and elsewhere that serving in the polis is not done as if we didn’t fully belong to it, temporally speaking: we are the polis, along with others. But the position you’ve argued for- and perhaps no longer are arguing for- is for a visible church “separatist in constitution, and transformationalist in agenda”, as I wrote before. It is evident throughout everything I’ve said that I preclude such a view.

    I also wonder whether you actually agree with my claim that our legal and civic traditions are already Christian, though imperfect (imperfections partly remediable through informed legislation and change of custom, partly irremediable due to sin), and that the Church is not a separate political entity half-in and half-out of that Christendom, but that Christian persons are rather wholly in the civic order, and wholly in the mystical body, at once? If you do agree with me there, then that seems again to be a move from earlier; and again, I’d cheer it, but it would be a move, and a move across a line I very distinctly draw.

    So, not such a big tent after all.

    I will be getting much more specific in reply to Steven’s questions here- unfortunately, I have had almost no time for the forum this past week.

    peace
    P

  8. Michael,

    I will be replying to your questions too, after addressing Steven’s, which were posed first.

    peace
    P

  9. Steven,

    Since it seems we have a bit of down time while Mr. Escalante prepares his responses, I thought I would solicit your thoughts on a somewhat general question about our topic.

    Given your position, as articulated in our conversations, what would you make of an analysis such as the following by Brian Tierney, in his book The Crisis of Church & State 1050-1300 ?:

    “We may be disconcerted by the pretensions of popes who tried to depose emperors or of emperors who expected to appoint bishops, but, in fact, a theocratic ordering of society is a very common pattern of human government…The most common solution has been to endow the ruler who controls the physical apparatus of state coercion with a sacral role also as head and symbol of the people’s religion…The truly exceptional thing is that in medieval times there were always at least two claimants to the role, each commanding a formidable apparatus of government, and that for century after century neither was able to dominate the other completely, so that the duality persisted, was eventually rationalized in works of political theory and ultimately into the structure of European society. This situation profoundly influenced the development of Western constitutionalism. The very existence of two power structures competing for men’s allegiance instead of only one compelling obedience greatly enhanced the possibilities for human freedom.”

    Now it would seem to me that, given your conception of this issue, you would have to say that what Tierney describes as an intrinsic (and in this case fruitful) tension between the spiritual and temporal authorities is completely illusory since, after all, there is no tension between the two, because the Spiritual Kingdom is intrinsically not in any way in tension with the temporal power. And this is true because the church is completely identified with the invisible Spiritual Kingdom and not with any visible and historical institution.

    Or perhaps you will say that the “tension” described by Tierney, though illusory with regard to the religious reality, was indeed helpful in facilitating human flourishing but was merely a fortuitous (or Providential) stage of progress in history and can now be safely discarded with greater enlightenment?

    Your thoughts? (or anyone else’s)

    Michael

  10. Hey Peter,
    I’ve been meaning to reply to your comment for forever and a day. Perhaps it is too late for anyone to notice now, but little enough has transpired on this blog in the meantime that I hope that in this case, late is better than never.

    So, to briefly reply:
    “‘neither does the visible Church save us from politics, or save the polis from its problems; the problems of the polis will show up in the visible Church, for they are made up of the same constituents’

    Then you must have come pretty far from your earlier positions, a move I’d cheer for, of course, but a move nonetheless.”

    Well, there is some ambiguity here, no doubt. In my earlier positions, I certainly never claimed that the problems of the polis wouldn’t show up in the visible Church as well. We’re fallen people, whether organized as the United States of America or as the Body of Christ, and hence greed, power-lust, manipulation, coercion, selfishness, etc., will all rear their ugly heads in the Church as well. I’ve never been under any utopian delusions that we got a pass from all those problems merely by laying claim to the label “The Church.” However, I do think that the visible Church is singularly equipped and singularly promised to transcend these problems to a greater extent than the polis can. So, perhaps we still disagree there.

    As far as the visible Church “saving us from politics”–well, I agree with you here in two senses, at least. First, that phrase implies that politics as such is the main enemy that the Church is supposed to save us from, which is not really what I have meant to say, though I have perhaps been willing to say that this-worldly-politics is part of the worldly way of life that the Church calls us away from. Second, it implies that being in the visible Church frees us from having to have anything to do with politics, which I certainly don’t think. Politics will find its way into the Church, and the Church is called, in any case, to engage with the politics of the world, being in it though not of it.

    I do think the visible Church is supposed to work to save the polis from its problems–injustice, violence, hate, lust, greed, etc. That much seems pretty obvious. But I don’t think that happens all at once or overnight. So, I guess I’m a bit curious to figure out exactly what you meant with this particular clause, before saying whether I’d agree.

    We do still clearly differ when it comes to saying just how it is that we are servants of the polis. Do we serve as fully members thereof, or as strangers and aliens in it? You say the former, I say the latter. So yes, we still disagree there. But I wanted to be clear that we did not disagree when it came to answering the question of whether Christians are to see themselves as fleeing from vs. serving in the social order.

    “I also wonder whether you actually agree with my claim that our legal and civic traditions are already Christian, though imperfect.”

    Well, again, we probably disagree when it comes to fleshing out just what we mean by that. But I freely admit that many of the legal and civic traditions that we benefit from today are the legacy of Christendom, the legacy of Christian conviction transforming the civil sphere. I gratefully acknowledge that legacy, I’m just not convinced that it’s satisfactory. Just as, for instance, I’m grateful for the legacy of the Reformation, in which I believe the Spirit was truly at work. I just don’t think we should rest satisfied with it. While you would of course admit that neither the legacy of Christendom or the Reformation is perfect, you’re clearly on the whole satisfied with them in a way I’m not.

    “and that the Church is not a separate political entity half-in and half-out of that Christendom, but that Christian persons are rather wholly in the civic order, and wholly in the mystical body, at once? ”

    You’re right, I don’t think I agree with that claim of yours, but that is not something that you stated explicitly in the post, so far as I can tell.

    So my point in my objection was not at all to say, “Oh look, actually we agree 100% after all.” Indeed, although the challenging discussions with you over the past six months have forced me to refine a number of positions, and to abandon some unexamined assumptions as ultimately untenable, I am as convinced as ever that we do not agree on some essentials, and I don’t expect we ever shall. My point, though, was to challenge the favorite rhetorical ploy that says, “I shall now define my position, as opposed to all those other positions” and then proceeds to state the position in eminently reasonable terms, such that it seems that any sensible person ought to agree, when in fact, the reason why it seems that way is because in fact the position has been stated in such reasonable and broad terms that the opposition does in fact agree. There is an inadvertent dishonesty in this (of which I’m sure I’m frequently guilty as well–indeed, it’s almost impossible to avoid in these kinds of discussions), as it leaves the reader assuming that the opposition must disagree with the position as stated, and therefore the opposition must be singularly unreasonable; when in fact, the opposition only disagrees with 10% of it. I wanted to push for the lines to be drawn more tightly and clearly, to make it clear just where your position was quite specifically _your position_, and where it was something that all, including “neo-Anabaptists,” would agree on.

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