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Theo-politics have been somewhat of an uninterrogated reality for me. As a conservative evangelical, growing up, I sloppily and haphazardly went the way of the Republican party as “the lesser of two-evils” in our representative government in North America. As time has progressed, and I have developed more (at least I like to think that) I have become what might be called unenthralled and agnostic when it comes to politics, but the reality is that this just cannot be. As a Christian politics is always a present reality; the fact that Jesus is Lord (kyrios) is in itself a call to action, and to be engaged in such a way that requires that I be intentionally thoughtful about theopolitical action. The theo attached to the political is of upmost and adjectival significance for me; it might be better, just for sake of clarity and specificity to call this concern christopolitical. So this has caused me a bit of anguish—although the realities of daily life often keep me preoccupied such that I have less time to critically contemplate such verities with the type of acuity that I’d like—as a result I keep seeking ways to think about my relation to the state as a member of Christ’s church (catholic).

In seminary I took a class called Church and Culture; this class was taught by Paul Metzger, and in it we worked through Karl Barth’s concepts on the relationship between the sacred and secular—we spent our time working through Metzger’s PhD dissertation on the subject helping him get it ready for publication. It was in this class that I really began to see a critical way to think theopolitics, but that remained an inchoate reality for me; nevertheless the frame was set for thinking such things through the analogy of the incarnation and the Chalcedonian pattern which the hypostatic union provided the component concepts towards. Not too long ago I read Barth’s book Against the Stream, which represent some post-second world war talks and lectures he gave, as I recall, in Hungary and Poland. In these published lectures I gained an even better grasp for what I was introduced to in Metzger’s class; in regard to how to think of the relationship between the state/church in a Christic frame. Most recently (like tonight) I have continued to read through Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink’s Christian Dogmatics, and have come to the section where they are sketching the various approaches that have developed in the history of ecclesial interpretation in regard to how Christians have thought the relation of church/state together. Here I want to share two of the four frames that I find most attractive (and leave the other two frames to the side since they are less attractive to me). What you will find is that Barth’s approach juxtaposed with a sort of Reformized Anabaptist tradition is what comes to the fore in my own proclivities relative to thinking state/church, and ‘kingdom theology’ together (and apart in some ways). Here is what Kooi and Brink have to offer us:

The church as a Christ-confessing church for all people. After the Second World War the Dutch Reformed Church promoted the ideal of a Christ-confessing church for all people; in this way it tried to connect distance from and commitment to public affairs. The model followed Barth’s proposal that the church, by its proclamation, should fulfill a public role for the common good. This “theology of the apostolate” has also been referred to as proclamation-theocracy: the church does not directly interfere in the government and does not attempt t usurp its powers but rather, on the basis of the Bible, holds up a prophetical-critical mirror before those who govern. The ideals of the World Council of Churches and other efforts to have the church assume a prophetic role in the world also belong in this category. The supporters of this view were optimistic about its possibilities, but in the Netherlands their attempt failed because the forces of secularization were stronger than expected.[1]

They continue with the fourth frame, which is that much more amenable with an Apocalyptic theological frame that I am oriented from (see Philip Ziegler’s new book Militant Grace: The Apocalyptic Turn and the Future of Christian Theology); but also with an Anabaptist tenor in the flux of this frame of understanding.

The church as a counterculture or contrast community. A recent and popular image for the church’s role in the public domain proposes that it be a “contrast community” (Yoder, Hauerwas; but also  more and more theologians from mainline Protestant churches feel attracted to  this model; e.g., see Bruijne 2012). That is, the church is not primarily an association with some good ideas; its vitality is found by living under a new life order, namely, that of the kingdom. This kingdom produces its own politics, a structure of practices in which people bless each other, wish each other well, forgive each other, and reject all forms of violence. It only bears witness of the heavenly kingdom but is itself a witness through its praxis. This praxis, in fact, answers the question of how the church may speak.

This position strongly emphasizes the difference between the church and the world; it may indeed be called Anabaptist to the extent that the orders of heavenly and earthly citizenship are kept far apart. Practically, it leaves the political order to its own devices. But it can also take a more Reformed or Catholic shape through a new appreciation of the Augustinian doctrine of the two kingdoms—by recognizing, in other words, that in real life the two realms cannot be totally separated. They are intertwined here below and will be separated by God only in the eschaton. (see Matt 13:29-30). In this world Christians must live with this tension. When they try to escape and eliminate that tension (as in the Anabaptist view), they withdraw from the ongoing course of history, in which God ordains that his church live. A real continuity connects the fallen world and redemption, and the work of the Holy Spirit is not confined to the domains of the church and believer; it seeks to have an impact upon the world. What we noted in chapter 8 about a responsible doctrine of sin is relevant at this point. It enables us to take a realistic view of the world and to implement damage control from the perspective of God’s new reality. This attitude differs from that of older Protestant positions in consciously leaving behind the quest for relevance, and with it the majority strategy that for many centuries burdened and plagued the church in the public domain.[2]

Between these two frames, particularly the latter paragraph in the latter frame emerges a semblance of my own approach to the relationship between the state/church-secular/sacred. I alluded to Ziegler’s work in his book Militant Grace, the themes he identifies and develops therein also provide the sort of theological depth that I like to appeal to in order to thicken what these sketches only present in introductory form. What’s at center for me in all of this, from a theological perspective (what other perspective is there for the Christian?), is that the doctrine of the primacy of Jesus Christ orients all considerations about Everything. In other words, this whole discussion takes place, for me, between the two poles of protology and eschatology, original creation and disruptive recreation in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. There still yet remains agnosticisms in regard to how all of this gets applied in daily life, and in my own perceptual encounter with the complexities foisted upon us by the travail and groaning that this old creation, and the human governments therein present; but this ought to let you in on how I intend to approach this world, in its highly charged christopolitical context, for the glory of God in the name of Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.

[1] Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink, Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2017), 636-37.

[2] Ibid. 637-38.

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An important insight from a former seminary prof of mine, Paul Metzger.

. . . There is no such thing as a non-dogmatic or non-theological engagement of the biblical text, or of any text or language for that matter. Moreover, anti-Trinitarian frames of reference lead to holy_biblefundamental problems for approaching the Bible and revelation. To illustrate by way of a historical parallel, the early Socinians, whose orientation was supposedly non-dogmatic, advocated an inspired and trustworthy Scripture, yet were closed to a Trinitarian perspective. They sought to divorce Scripture from its Trinitarian frame of reference. Their Unitarian view of God had repercussions for Scripture’s authority and inspiration. Perhaps it is the case that the seed of liberalism is sown on orthodoxy’s soil. That is to say, an over-objectified view of the Bible leads ultimately to radical objections to the Bible. A Trinitarian frame of reference is important for developing a doctrine of revelation, including Scripture’s status in the revelational framework, for God reveals God by God through Scripture in the life of the church. Scripture’s content, even the means through which Scripture is mediated, is ultimately Trinitarian. Once this view is lost, the radical objectification process is bound to begin. – Paul Metzger, ed., Trinitarian Soundings in Systematic Theology: Chpt. 2 The Relational Dynamic of Revelation , A Trinitarian Perspective, 23-24.

This whole Syria thing is really a big deal to me, as I am sure it is for many of you as well. It reflects a genuine ethical dilemma for the Christian. And for me, things, unfortunately, are not as clear as they seem to be for others. I cannot obamaunclesamhelp, for example, to get the genocide that happened in Rwanda out of my head. I remember watching the movie that depicted it, Hotel Rwanda, and how the United Nations really was unable to provide substantial protection for the women and children being slaughtered all around them by the sharp edge of the machete. There are plenty of people, and Christian people, decrying the usage of military force to intervene in the Syrian crisis (which has been ongoing for 2 years); they are advocating for peace, and non-violent solutions. This is noble, and I do believe it follows the ethic of Christ to advocate for peace. But I still wonder what in the world can be done in order to help these people in Syria, who are being slaughtered, in a genocidal fashion, by their oppressive government? I really don’t know! And I do wonder why Obama, and cronies, at this moment, are all of the sudden doing an about face, and seeking to intervene in Syria with military force (but only in a way, apparently, that is intended to punish Assad, but not actually take him out—this would be like taking part of a cancerous tumor out, but not the whole thing. There must be something more going on than concern for the Syrian people. I mean over 100,000 people have already died (and counting) in Syria; how they died (by what material means), seems unremarkable (i.e. in the sense that whether they died by chemicals or bullets really is not the issue, the issue is, is that they are dead and dying).

And so upon further reflection, as I have been hashing through this on Facebook the last couple of days, and just in my own thinking; I have to wonder what this whole move by Obama is really all about? I mean there is a real potential for this to spark World War 3—Russia, China, and Iran have said as much. And so why would Obama, knowing this, risk all of this (WW3), just to punish Assad? This is really a strange thing …

Having said all of the above, there remains a clear and resounding reality in all of this; genocide is immoral, and it cannot be overlooked. I find it extremely naïve to believe that the United Nations is the answer—Rwanda (among other things) won’t allow me to conclude this. Obama’s plan (to start WW3), to merely “punish” Assad with a few hours of bombs, will actually only exacerbate the problem (and genocide), and not squelch it. This is a dilemma, indeed! Come Jesus!

And so this begs the question (one that I have been wrestling with, as I have noted, as I am sure you have been, over the last few days); how ought the Christian to respond? How ought the Christian think of her and his relationship to the State (whatever State that is for you)? I do believe with my brethren and sistren, that the ethic of Christianity is ‘peace’, how peace comes about is where we have debate (in the penultimate details, not in the ultimate detail … we all agree the ultimate is the consummation of Christ’s coming kingdom). I do not believe Obama’s apparent strategy will create peace, but then neither do I think the UN will either; so a dilemma. This said, I think Christians have a ‘witness’ bearing (if not prophetic) role to play in relation to the State. I follow a constructively conceived Barthian understanding (surprise) of the relation of Church to State, and as such, I see both Church and State in the one kingdom of God in Christ (in the sphere and orientation of His life in Christ for us, all of us!). And as such, using the hypostatic union of Jesus as the analogy, I see the Church and State as still distinct, and yet inseparably related one to the other. And so this has impact upon the way I think the Church should act towards the State. In this specific instance, I wouldn’t expect the State to act like the Church, and I don’t expect the Church to act like the State; and thus, we ought to avoid conflating the two, as if we think the State should make its decisions as if it were the Church, in a special relation to God in Christ. That said, given the distinctiveness of the Church, and its ethic of shalom (peace), realized in Christ, I believe, as the Christian Church (His bride), that we ought to model the eschatological life of God in Christ, which is full of grace and truth. We should picture for them, the State, how we, the Church, are known by love (which is sacrificial, and self-given); we ought to be able to point to an alternative reality from the broken one the State lives out of. How this takes concrete form, though, is hard to say (i.e. through activism, through modeling it somehow in a transparent way, etc.). But I do believe this is how it ought to work. Here is how a former prof of mine from seminary, Paul Metzger, sketches this kind of constructive Barthian understanding of the relation between Church and State, and with this I close:

. . .Thus, as stated above, the church should resist any temptation to attempt to impose its will on the state. Now why is this? The reason is that when the church demands privileges and an audience in the secular sphere it forgets its own vocation and that of the state as well, thereby abandoning its freedom in the process. “Whenever the church has entered the political arena to fight for its claim to be given public recognition, it has always been a church which has failed to understand the special purpose of the state,an impenitent, spiritually unfree church.”

Now if the Church were to demand that the state accept its Word, would not the church in effect displace the state? If so, how could the church continue to serve God and the state in a nonpartisan way? Its word would then be bound, not free. Only as a church remains a spiritual institution will it have secular, political responsibilities, namely, those of exemplifying the ideals of the kingdom to the state and proclaiming God’s Word of the kingdom to the state. However, the reverse is not the case. If the church functions as a secular institution, it will forfeit its responsibilities in a sacred sphere. . . . The church must call on the state to listen to its Word, the Word of the kingdom, since the message of the kingdom concerns the state. But it must not demand that the state listen. The church must not use force, the instrument of the state, imposing its message on its hearers, but must seek to persuade its addressees of the need to receive its message through reasoned argument alone in the event of Christian proclamation, appealing to the state to take to heart its word rather than compelling the state to do so. The church must not demand but discuss, not presume upon but reason, appealing to the state to take its claims to heart, claims not about the centrality of the church, but about the centrality of the kingdom which both church and state are parts. Now if in God’s providential workings the state bestows on the church certain benefits and rights, even taking the church’s message to heart, the church must not come to expect such benefits, rights, and respect as irrevocable, permanent privileges, which must be preserved at all costs, but rather as gifts from God’s hand, gifts which may last but for a season. (Paul Louis Metzger, “The Word of Christ And The World of Culture: Toward a Synthesis Of the Sacred and Secular in the Theology of Karl Barth,”[dissertation form] 225-227 )

I obviously have an inner tension, and conflict going on within me about this whole thing. I am highly concerned for the people in Syria (and for that matter, anywhere were people are living under repressive despotic regimes), and yet there seems to be no real and viable answer; except to wait for Christ. But ‘how’ we wait remains the question. We pray, but as the Lord of hosts said to Joshua:  ‘…“Get up! Why do you lie thus on your face?”‘; so not only do we pray, but we act. But in this instance (of Syria), how, and what? That remains the question for me. Obama is obviously acting, but for some ulterior reason. What that is, I don’t really know; but it obviously is not out of concern for Syria, there is something else. The UN will act by way of its usual bluster, and hemming-and-hawing. There is really, at this moment, one act to be made for the Christian, we must pray for wisdom, and for the Divine intervention of Yahweh in Christ for, in this instance, the people in Syria. This is how we personally acted when I was faced with my cancer (for which there was no real treatment). We implored the LORD, and He acted in a way that only He could. And so I know He can do the same for the people of Syria, and I pray that He will!

Here is a snippet from Paul Metzger’s (now published) PhD dissertation on the ‘Sacred and Secular’ in Karl Barth’s theology. In this quote, Metzger is developing Barth’s ‘One Kingdom’ model, and how that relates to political engagement today. I thought this was still a fitting season to mention this; plus I just used this quote in response to someone I have been interacting with on Facebook:

. . .Thus, as stated above, the church should resist any temptation to attempt to impose its will on the state. Now why is this? The reason is that when the church demands privileges and an audience in the secular sphere it forgets its own vocation and that of the state as well, thereby abandoning its freedom in the process. “Whenever the church has entered the political arena to fight for its claim to be given public recognition, it has always been a church which has failed to understand the special purpose of the state,an impenitent, spiritually unfree church.”

Now if the Church were to demand that the state accept its Word, would not the church in effect displace the state? If so, how could the church continue to serve God and the state in a nonpartisan way? Its word would then be bound, not free. Only as a church remains a spiritual institution will it have secular, political responsibilities, namely, those of exemplifying the ideals of the kingdom to the state and proclaiming God’s Word of the kingdom to the state. However, the reverse is not the case. If the church functions as a secular institution, it will forfeit its responsibilities in a sacred sphere. . . . The church must call on the state to listen to its Word, the Word of the kingdom, since the message of the kingdom concerns the state. But it must not demand that the state listen. The church must not use force, the instrument of the state, imposing its message on its hearers, but must seek to persuade its addressees of the need to receive its message through reasoned argument alone in the event of Christian proclamation, appealing to the state to take to heart its word rather than compelling the state to do so. The church must not demand but discuss, not presume upon but reason, appealing to the state to take its claims to heart, claims not about the centrality of the church, but about the centrality of the kingdom which both church and state are parts. Now if in God’s providential workings the state bestows on the church certain benefits and rights, even taking the church’s message to heart, the church must not come to expect such benefits, rights, and respect as irrevocable, permanent privileges, which must be preserved at all costs, but rather as gifts from God’s hand, gifts which may last but for a season. (Paul Louis Metzger, “The Word of Christ And The World of Culture: Toward a Synthesis Of the Sacred and Secular in the Theology of Karl Barth,”[dissertation form] 225-227 )

Hope you found that interesting.

How should the Christian function as a prophet to the State, and even herself? I find this account of Barth’s answer to this question, provided by Paul Metzger, instructive:

[T]hus, as stated above, the church should resist any temptation to attempt to impose its will on the state. Now why is this? The reason is that when the church demands privileges and an audience in the secular sphere it forgets its own vocation and that of the state as well, thereby abandoning its freedom in the process. “Whenever the church has entered the political arena to fight for its claim to be given public recognition, it has always been a church which has failed to understand the special purpose of the state,an impenitent, spiritually unfree church.”

Now if the Church were to demand that the state accept its Word, would not the church in effect displace the state? If so, how could the church continue to serve God and the state in a nonpartisan way? Its word would then be bound, not free. Only as a church remains a spiritual institution will it have secular, political responsibilities, namely, those of exemplifying the ideals of the kingdom to the state and proclaiming God’s Word of the kingdom to the state. However, the reverse is not the case. If the church functions as a secular institution, it will forfeit its responsibilities in a sacred sphere.

The church must call on the state to listen to its Word, the Word of the kingdom, since the message of the kingdom concerns the state. But it must not demand that the state listen. The church must not use force, the instrument of the state, imposing its message on its hearers, but must seek to persuade its addressees of the need to receive its message through reasoned argument alone in the event of Christian proclamation, appealing to the state to take to heart its word rather than compelling the state to do so. The church must not demand but discuss, not presume upon but reason, appealing to the state to take its claims to heart, claims not about the centrality of the church, but about the centrality of the kingdom which both church and state are parts. Now if in God’s providential workings the state bestows on the church certain benefits and rights, even taking the church’s message to heart, the church must not come to expect such benefits, rights, and respect as irrevocable, permanent privileges, which must be preserved at all costs, but rather as gifts from God’s hand, gifts which may last but for a season. (Paul Louis Metzger, “The Word of Christ And The World of Culture: Toward a Synthesis Of the Sacred and Secular in the Theology of Karl Barth,”[dissertation form] 225-227 )

A quote from Paul Metzger (one of my profs in seminary) on the importance of reading scripture Trinitarianly, and seeing Scripture located within the triune speech act of God:

. . . There is no such thing as a non-dogmatic or non-theological engagement of the biblical text, or of any text or language for that matter. Moreover, anti-Trinitarian frames of reference lead to fundamental problems for approaching the Bible and revelation. To illustrate by way of a historical parallel, the early Socinians, whose orientation was supposedly non-dogmatic, advocated an inspired and trustworthy Scripture, yet were closed to a Trinitarian perspective. They sought to divorce Scripture from its Trinitarian frame of reference. Their Unitarian view of God had repercussions for Scripture’s authority and inspiration. Perhaps it is the case that the seed of liberalism is sown on orthodoxy’s soil. That is to say, an over-objectified view of the Bible leads ultimately to radical objections to the Bible. A Trinitarian frame of reference is important for developing a doctrine of revelation, including Scripture’s status in the revelational framework, for God reveals God by God through Scripture in the life of the church. Scripture’s content, even the means through which Scripture is mediated, is ultimately Trinitarian. Once this view is lost, the radical objectification process is bound to begin. (Paul Metzger, ed., “Trinitarian Soundings in Systematic Theology: Chpt. 2 The Relational Dynamic of Revelation , A Trinitarian Perspective,” 23-24)

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Hello my name is Bobby Grow, and I author this blog, The Evangelical Calvinist. Feel free to peruse the posts, and comment at your leisure. I look forward to the exchange we might have here, and hope you are provoked to love Jesus even more as a result. Pax Christi!

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A Little Thomas Torrance

“God loves you so utterly and completely that he has given himself for you in Jesus Christ his beloved Son, and has thereby pledged his very being as God for your salvation. In Jesus Christ God has actualised his unconditional love for you in your human nature in such a once for all way, that he cannot go back upon it without undoing the Incarnation and the Cross and thereby denying himself. Jesus Christ died for you precisely because you are sinful and utterly unworthy of him, and has thereby already made you his own before and apart from your ever believing in him. He has bound you to himself by his love in a way that he will never let you go, for even if you refuse him and damn yourself in hell his love will never cease. Therefore, repent and believe in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour.” -T. F. Torrance, The Mediation of Christ, 94.

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