Thursday, November 30, 2006

Thinking about Civil Government, Part I

I meant to get back to Wayne's question a lot earlier than this. I mean, sure, I've been busy, but my reluctance is also a result of not having entirely settled opinions right now. I'm unsure, however, whether my unsettledness reflects any change in what I think about God and government, or whether it stems from a general disgust with politics at the practical level of governance in Washington and other places.

As an abstract matter I concur unequivocally with the Augsburg when it states: "It is right for Christians to bear civil office, to sit as judges, to judge matters by the Imperial and other existing laws, to award just punishments, to engage in just wars, to serve as soldiers, to make legal contracts" & etc.

At the same time, as a practical matter, I am repulsed by everyday politics, by most Christian involvement in politics, whether from the bitter and hateful anger that, in my opinion, provides much of the motivation to the Christian Right in America, or the smug self-righteousness that, in my opinion, motivates much of the Christian Left in America. And, of course, I am not at all immune to these motivations as I try to think some of these things through, so I'm repulsed by that as well.

Beyond this, I'm disgusted by what I think is the entirely cynical use of Christians by politicians of the left and of the right. I've been close enough to this to know it personally -- by and large, those in power scorn and mock Christians as clueless boobs, even (or especially) those who hold power by ostensibly appealing to Christian sentiment.

Further, while I agree that someone needs to pay attention to civil matters, and that those who do so doing God's work in doing so, I can't help also but to believe that what really matters is the spiritual war against spiritual forces. Hence my criticism of the Wrightian argument that much of the New Testament is written with a backdrop of struggling against Rome's imperial cult. While I agree that Christ is a threat to the imperial cult, I just don't see that the imperial cult threatened Christ. The spiritual powers of this age -- the worldly system -- are what the Church wars against through the Gospel, and that that's the only thing that is really important. Caesar is just a piffle.

So I just want to follow Jesus by going to church, going to prison, going to work, and hanging out with and discipling my family. And I want to say to hell with the rest of it. I'm exaggerating, a bit.

So I've been pretty happy just fighting the local demons -- I think it was Ignatius of Antioch who said that every time the church celebrates the Eucharist the dark powers are shaken. The world will go on as it is whether I nail down the right application of God and government to this age.

So it seems to me that the corruption of power is a real threat to Christians and to the church. From the idolatrous sermons from Whig pastors at the time of the 1776 revolution (idolatrously gliding from freedom in Christ to political freedom), to the idolatrous equivocation of American with the "city on the hill," to the idolatrization of power, to the almost ubiquitous presence of American flags in sanctuaries.

Nonetheless, I can't help but be interested in the abstract question of God and government, and I've wrestled a bit with what the Lutheran confessions have to say. So I want to post a few observations, and hope to do so every now and then over the coming weeks. Wayne (and others) might have to help me out by providing links or comments about the invocation of the "two powers" doctrine in current Reformed controversies. I am of course aware of the dispute over the "New Perspective on Paul" and related (or not so related) issues, but I haven't heard of use of (or responses to) the two-powers doctrine in that argument.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks, Jim.

I really resonate with your disgust and completely agree with you.

As I mentioned, I've had some local interaction with somone who is passionately interested in this subject. Perhaps, it's his passion that turns me off the most - you know, the "converts are always the worst."

Anyway, where he's coming from can best be illustrated by this person's blog:

His influence is from the WTS/CA crowd. Like this:

As I've said before, I'm not really sure what to make of it. This hasn't really come up in the context of any NPP issues, so apart from your comments about NTW and "secular power" (with which I agree). I think these are separate issues.

December 01, 2006 8:08 AM  
Blogger Jim said...


Interesting. I wonder whether a bit of the problem is that this abstract category, "transformation," becomes the lightening rod.

On the one hand, transformation is expected on an individual level (Ro 12.2, 2 Co 3.18). If there are a bunch of individuals like that in a society, you'd think that the society would look different than a society with only a few individuals of that sort. So it seems to me that society can't help but be "transformed." Nonetheless, social transformation is the fruit of personal transformation in Christ.

Secondly, the "first use of the law" in Lutheran theology is this: "that external discipline and decency are maintained by it against wild, disobedient men (Solid Declaration, VI).

Whether one wants to call this transformationist or not, the first use manifestly aims at "external discipline and decency." Presumably, a society that implements that idea would place legal restrictions and some types of "wild, disobedient" behavior, and so there would be less of it than there would be if the society did not implement those restrictions.

I have some additional thoughts as well, although I should just post them instead of write them in the comment section. E.g., Luther counsels magistrates to punish moderately -- i.e., to be willing to show mercy in their official capacities because they are Christian.

This then relates to big questions, like: Is it "transformationist" for a (largely) Christian society to show mercy to poor folks by having the government provide financial charity to them? This behavior seems to me to be a type of the Gospel in the OT. Does the policy NOT reflect God's grace then if implemented in the NT? To be sure, it's not typological, but can it not reflect the Christian orientation of the society (assuming it is a Christian orientation, and assuming the policy does not trench on other values as well).

More to chew on.

December 01, 2006 10:55 AM  

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