Last Wednesday night I went to an interesting lecture put on by the Reformation Society of the Twin Cities (whose web site needs updating). They are the local chapter of a nationwide organization sponsored by the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals (on whose list of council members appear some names that make me a little nervous but that nonetheless seems to have a very interesting mission.)
That speaker was D.G. Hart, an academic and ruling elder in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and a huge fan of J. Gresham Machen.
It was one of those interesting lectures that one hears from time to time, in that I completely agreed the critiques with which he opened his talk, but couldn't have agreed less with his reasons for disagreeing or his proposed solution.
He was addressing the role of the church in the politics of the world and began with some anecdotal but accurate critiques of movements like the Moral Majority or the social gospel and other attempts by Christians to formalize support of a particular political party, or throw their weight univocally behind a certain political platform, or narrow political agenda.
OK. Good. (At least fine with me.)
But then he blamed this on not only the neo-Calvinists and Abraham "There-is-not-a-square-inch-in-the-whole-domain-of-human-existence-over-which-Christ,-who-is-sovereign-over-all,-does-not-cry:-"Mine!" Kuyper but also on any attempt by Christians to have a say in forming culture beyond the doors of the church! He argued against the integration of the sacred and secular into one holistic Christian vision and in favor, explicitly, of a pretty strict church-culture dualism.
It had just been so long since I had heard anyone argue for such dualism that it took me back a bit. Hart tried to argue for a consistent and sharp distinction between the sacred and secular, the spirit and the body, and the church and the world in which the church had everything to do with the sacred and the spiritual and absolutely nothing to do with culture, with the creation of a more just society, with environmental concerns, etc.
He called for a return in the more conservative Presbyterian churches (OPC and PCA) to a robust and consistent faithfulness to the doctrine of the "spirituality of the church."
He had some interesting things to say along the way, including an illuminating account of the disputes between Hodge and Thornwell, but mostly I just sat there shaking my head.
Here is a quote from one of Hart's books referring to the "Old School" formulation of the doctrine of the spirituality of the church, which as far as I can tell Hart buys without emendation:
"The church was not commissioned to make the world a better place in which to live. It had no business telling the government how to rule the body politic. It was not to feed the hungry, or provide houses for the homeless, or protest social injustice. These political and social temptations only distracted the church from its spiritual calling." Seeking a Better Country
There were several big problems, to my mind, with the content of his presentation.
First of all, in making such a sharp dualistic distinction between the sacred and the secular (or the holy and the profane), Hart leaves no room for a robust theology of new creation and restoration in Christ that has any real implications outside of personal salvation. And this seems to simply out of step with the very language of a New Creation, New Adam, New Heavens, New Earth, etc. that the New Testament is full of.
Secondly, Hart is forced to create a radical distinction between Israel and the Church that seems to me to make all of God's work with his people prior to the Cross some ridiculous experiment in futility and misguided intentions.
Third, the above seems really out of keeping with faithful, orthodox historical Biblical scholarship such as that done by N.T. Wright. One would have to reject almost all of Wright's insights into the Old Testament background of the mission of Jesus and the apostles (all twelve of them ... coincidental?). And having read Wright, I simply can't do that. I don't know yet what I think of some of the theological implications Wright draws (though I am intrigued by and open to them), but his historical scholarship is brilliant, impeccable and tremendously helpful in understanding the scriptures.
Finally, I think the biggest mistake Hart makes is creating a false dichotomy between Christian marriage to the vulgar political power and complete disengagement from the creation of a culture.
What I would propose for the Reformed tradition (and for all Christianity here at the end of Christendom) is neither feeble attempts to compromise with worldly power and win back the political influence lost with the collapse of Christendom nor a cowardly retreat into the vapid "spirituality of the church."
What I would propose is the creation of a robust contrast society, a new city in the shadow of the old. Let us wrestle as Christian society towards a new way to care for one another into old age, to raise children, to educate them, to settle disputes, to do business, to integrate art into our lives, to think about and practice our sexuality. Let us wrestle towards a new way of being human, towards the restoration Christ won for us in becoming the New Adam. Then we will be a city on a hill, a light that cannot be hidden.
I would further propose is that we simply ignore to the greatest extent possible the aims and political structures of this present darkness. Yes, God has ordained them. Yes, civic order is a good to be enjoyed. Yes, it is a function of practical wisdom to obey the civil authority wherever possible. But need we enter into its aims, its ambitions, its motivations or its methods? No.
As Americans, I propose that we use our citizenship as the Apostle Paul used his, that is to advance the Kingdom. Let's milk this cow called religious freedom. And as long as they're going to let us vote, let's vote for things that maximize that freedom. But let's not confuse this with the direct aims of Christian society.
(On a sidenote, this is why I'm a classical libertarian. In my opinion, that political vision maximizes the freedom of "free associations" in the eyes of the state to create whatever culture they darn well please and so enables Christian communities to be minimally interferred with.)
When needed, we should also "speak truth to power" in the vein of Stanley Hauerwas, John Howard Yoder and, as this article by Hauerwas on Bonhoeffer points out, my son's namesake.
We need be neither compromisers or cowards. Instead, we must be revolutionaries with a whole gospel vision so informed by Christ and so totally transforming as to make Babylon's Dark Towers irrelevant in the end, be those towers the mosques of Iran or the megamalls of middle America.
In the interest of fairness, I should note that given their intentions to read and discuss a Timothy Keller book later this fall and the inclusion of Pastor John on their council, it is likely that many of the members of the Reformation Society of the Twin Cities would share my criticism of their featured speaker. Consider, for instance, our church's global diaconate. I regret that I couldn't hang around for the question and answer, which I hope was lively!