Thursday, December 07, 2006

Thinking about Civil Government, Part II - Transformationism

Lutherans aren't big on transformation. The motivation for this isn't always that it's convenient if we're forgiven yet no one expects anything to change for the better. Rather, the idea is that we need to keep the message of the Gospel as clean from obstruction as possible, otherwise people get confused about how they are forgiven, and this leads them to be enslaved all over again.

This is especially true about Christianity and government. Lutheran Confessions do not promote a "transformationist" view of government. But it is critically important to understand what Lutherans mean by that, and what they don't mean by that.

The transformation brought by the Gospel is ministered through preaching and the sacraments, and only the church has those. The civil government is only the agent of law, and can never be the agent of the Gospel. (If it were to try, because of its nature, then it would turn Gospel into law, and the message of the Gospel would be lost.) So Christians should not try to use the government to spiritually transform culture through the Gospel. The attempt only obscures the Gospel.

Spiritual transformation occurs only through the Gospel, and the Gospel is solely committed to the church.

This does not mean, however, that Lutherans do not believe that the civil government cannot transform behavior, or that culture will not be transformed as a result of what the civil government properly does. Indeed, Lutheran theology commends the civil government precisely because of its transformationist effects. And the Confessions commend the importance of this transformative effect that the civil government can bring. It's just that the transformation that the state accomplishes is not redemptive. This point is critical, so let me repeat it: In the Lutheran Confessions, the civil government properly transforms society for the better, it's just that this transformation is not redemptive, and "for the better" means "better" in regard to civic righteousness, not God's righteousness.

Let's look at some passages from the Confessions.

Apology of the Augsburg Confession, art IV.22-23:

"For God wishes those who are carnal [gross sinners] to be restrained by civil discipline, and to maintain this, He has given laws, letters, doctrine, magistrates, penalties. . . . [W]e cheerfully assign this righteousness of reason the praises that are due it . . . yet it ought not to be praised with reproach to Christ."

So the whole point of civil discipline is to "restrain" gross sinners. As I show below, this is repeated throughout the Confessions in their statements about the "first use of the law." This restraint does not, and cannot, save sinners. All it does is limit the damage they can do. Nonetheless, it is within the sphere of civil government to "restrain the unspiritual" (as another translation puts it). And, as a result, the expectation of the Confessions regarding the civil government is that it can transform the tone of the public or civic life of a society by legally suppressing gross sin. While this transformation is not redemptive, the Confessions are clear in calling this limitation on sin a good thing.

So the Lutheran rejection of a politics of spiritual transformationism -- understood in the sense of the government extending the Gospel -- cannot be understood to commend a modern-like secular/sacred division aligned between the state (secular) and the church (sacred). The Lutheran Confessions naturally comprehend the government to be involved with questions of sin and morality. They simply reject -- completely reject -- that this involvement ministers forgiveness to sinners.

The "first use of the law" in the Confessions reiterates the governments proper domain in this area of law:

"[T]he law was given by God first of all to restrain sins by threats and fear of punishment" (Smalcald Articles, II.1).

"The law has been given to men for three reasons: (1) to maintain external discipline against unruly and disobedient men . . ." (Epitome, art. VI.1).

"The law of God serves (1) . . . to maintain external discipline and decency against dissolute and disobedient people . . ." (Solid Declaration, VI.1).

"To restrain open lawlessness is the responsibility of princes and magistrates" (Large Catechism, 1st Part.249).

Of course, that government has a power does not mean that the government must or should use that power. Use of power must be informed by a host of practical, prudential judgments about the costs and benefits of a policy. Nonetheless, the Lutheran Confessions openly and repeatedly identify civil government as an institution with the charge to restrict public sin. And it does so while completely rejecting the notion that the government can do anything spiritually to transform society by advancing the forgiveness of sins offered in the Gospel. The state restricts sin while the church offers forgiveness. (It is in this sense that, in Lutheran theology, just as law is the alien work of Christ, I would think that the preaching of the law is the alien work of the church.)


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Cool. I really liked that. Almost thou persuadest me to be a Lutheran.

December 07, 2006 4:17 PM  
Blogger Jim said...

There's a little more I plan to post when I get the chance.

December 08, 2006 5:36 AM  
Blogger Jim said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

December 08, 2006 5:36 AM  
Blogger Jim said...

I hit "publish" twice, so my comment appeared twice. Which looks idiotic. Then I tried to erase the comment by hitting delete. But the message left makes you ask, what did someone post that was so bad they had to remove it? So now I feel really idiotic.

Is there really no way to erase a comment entirely?

December 08, 2006 5:44 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think all you can do is bury it with more posts and hope that no one you esteem will stumble upon it. :-)

December 09, 2006 7:50 AM  

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