24 February 2012

Renewed Part 1. A Church Historian Looks at the Church & Politics

Tonight's Westminster Reformed Presbyterian Church Renewal Conference lead-off speaker was Carl Trueman (see earlier post here). As he had stated in his book, Republocrat, Trueman's thesis was the danger that the American evangelical church would be reduced to a took in contemporary cultural and political conflicts and would, in turn, lose sight of the message of the gospel. The reality that the broadly Christian culture that had once prevailed in Western Europe has disappeared and will be gone from American in the next 50 years. Two common responses--despair or histrionics--are equally unhelpful, Trueman argued. Trueman suggested that instead of giving up and retreating into sectarian enclaves or throwing in their lot with a particular party and fighting to the bitter end, evangelicals would be better served by looking at how the Church dealt with an even more precarious position during the days of the Roman Empire.

Trueman noted that three aspects of the dominant first century Greco-Roman culture and political system were particularly challenging to the early Church: its syncretism, the civic function of Roman religion, and its pragmatic understanding of that religion. In addition to these ever-present burdens on Christian belief and practice were the culture's anti-Christian values, notably regarding sexual mores, and the empire's occasional open hostilities in the form of sporadic but intense persecutions. The first four of these matters are, according to Trueman, characteristic of contemporary American culture while political oppression remains in the future.

Turning to the Pauline correspondence, primarily the Pastoral Epistles, Trueman teased out what he sees as Paul's response to these pressures and suggests that evangelicals follow them today. Sexual libertinism in the Church was met with a firm Pauline "no," which carries equal weight today. The physical persecution meted out to Paul was, in turn, met most notably with the injunction in 1 Timothy to pray for those in authority so that the Church would be left in peace to preach the gospel. Notable by its absence from Paul's correspondence was any suggestion that the Church or Christian individuals seek some sort of political solution for their situation. Even more significant for Trueman was the Apostle's recurring emphasis on the threat to the Church of internal heresy and false practices to which the Apostolic response was to remind the Church to appoint good leaders. The real problem did not come from outside the Church but from within; the primary struggle is for ecclesiastical purity not cultural reform.

With a quick nod to the work of the Greek Apologists and a reference to the similar epistolary Prefaces to each of the editions of John Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion, Trueman argued that the Church has historically followed Paul's example to focus inwardly and look for little in the way of cultural change.

Of course there's only so much that can be done in 45 minutes but one might hope for a more balanced approach to the topic of the relationship of the Church to the world of politics. One might be forgiven for wondering if Trueman in his role as vice president of academic affairs (and now provost) of Westminster Theological Seminary is aware of what the New Testament faculty is teaching. I doubt that they are quite so ecclesially-centric as Trueman posits the New Testament teaches. Unless there's been a remarkable about-face, I suspect that those who work with the text and theology of the New Testament (rather than the history of the Church) find its center in the Kingdom of God. And what of the Old Testament? Does it have nothing to say to Christian political ethics?

Even the history of the Church suggests a far more robust role for Christian political action. One doesn't need to raise tradition to the level of Scripture to understand that it was the Church around which Western civilization was reorganized after the fall of Rome. And it was the Church that successfully fought for its independence from Medieval political powers in the Gregorian Revolution. And it was Calvin's immediate followers who led the political fight for many civil and political rights; and it was Trueman's English (and theological) forbears who lopped of the head of Charles I in the seventeenth century.

None of these criticisms of Trueman's limited remarks should be taken to justify current Christian political action. The willing co-optation of American evangelicals by the Republican Party is embarrassing at best and syncretistic at worst. From what I can see, the typical evangelical (at least those over 40) believes in American capitalism and property rights with every bit as much fervor as he or she believes in the Trinity and its implications for social order. All of which should not cause us to deny that the Christian faith has political implications. After all, it was the same Apostle Paul whom Trueman cites for quietism who also penned the words, "Jesus is Lord," which were politically explosive in their day (and should be today).

Trueman's critique of contemporary American evangelical political action is spot on. However, his truncated understanding of the scope of Christ's Kingdom is not the solution. A far better one would be to take seriously Christ's claims of cosmic authority as well as to acknowledge the complexity of appropriate modern political and social action.

1 comment:

  1. Early Christians did not have certain temptations common to our day. Namely, those that came into play just before Constantine, and involved an inevitable tendency toward an idolatrous admixture of the two kingdoms. I would contend that there was a certain inevitability to this, but that optimistically, today we can look back and recognize the errors and try to avoid them today. I would also suggest that avoiding them becomes more likely when we better grasp the non-coercive love at the heart of the gospel, or better, when it grasps us.