09 December 2012

Rhetoric of The Kingdoms

Warning: Way Inside Dutch Reformed and Presbyterian baseball.

I've posted perhaps too often on the topic of the resurgence of two-kingdoms theology among conservative Presbyterian types. (Go here and here for some examples.) Conservative Presbyterianism is only one strain of Reformed/Calvinistic Christian thought and worship in America today; the other descends from the Reformed tradition in the Netherlands. The intersection between the largely one-kingdom Dutch Reformed types and the two-kingdom Presbyterians generates a lot of heat but only occasionally some light.

There is, however, an example of an enlightening discussion in the September 2012 issue of Pro Rege here where you can find Jason Lief's "The Two Kingdoms Perspective and Theological Method: Why I Still Disagree with David VanDrunen" as the lead article. Lief is responding both to VanDrunen's book, "Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms" (NL2K for short) (and as a bonus, get a link to my published review of VanDrunen's book here), and his article in the March 2012 Pro Rege (here). (VanDrunen's article in turn was a thoughtful reply to the intemperate remarks in yet two earlier issues of Pro Rege but I hope this enough "front matter" to satisfy any reasonable level of curiosity.) 

Lief begins his piece by acknowledging the historical and exegetical foundations of VanDrunen's NL2K conclusions:
Overall, VanDrunen makes a strong argument that brings together insights from the Reformed tradition and Scripture, offering a Reformed perspective of cultural engagement that provides an alternative to the Kuyperian [one-kingdom] emphasis upon cultural transformation.
In particular, Lief observes that one-kingdom Kuyperian deployment of "creational norms" is substantively equivalent to how two-kingdom folks like VanDrunen deploy natural law. Lief also asserts that one-kingdom "common grace" is functionally the same as the two-kingdom covenant of works. I think he's wrong about this but that's beside the point for now.

Well, with these public displays of affection, why does Lief go on to subtitle his piece "Why I Still Disagree with David VanDrunen"? As I read him, and in spite of the block quote above, Lief believes that VanDrunen misreads both the Bible and the history of the Reformed tradition. To be clear, Lief doesn't so much discredit VanDrunen's exegesis of the relevant texts (biblical and historical) as such but argues that VanDrunen has misapplied them in light of his "interpretive choices." In short, VanDrunen (not to mention everyone else in the NL2K world and, I daresay, most everyone on the Kuyperian one-kingdom side) has given short shrift to the rhetorical significance of the relevant texts.

What is Lief getting at? 

First, the answer depends on the nature of the text. With respect to the biblical record of Genesis 1, 2, and 9 (the principle texts on which VanDrunen relies when in coming to his NL2K conclusions), Lief believes that VanDrunen has failed to treat the texts as part of salvation history but instead has read them as straight-off chronicles from which the biblical exegete is free to draw his or her own theological conclusions.  To the contrary, Lief argues, the rhetorical use to which Genesis 1, 2, and 9 are put by Moses is as a "poetic and theological testimony to the salvific work of God that points ahead to the Exodus event and the creation of Israel, culminating in the work of Christ." Moses' use of the Genesis texts for his first-generation Israelite audience provides us with an authoritative interpretation of the texts, and VanDrunen's application of the texts is inconsistent with Moses's redemptive focus.

Two responses: First, Lief could have observed that since the beginning of the 20th century conservative, orthodox theologians have come to appreciate the literary context of biblical texts as part of responsible exegetical efforts. The canonical use of the events of history and earlier biblical texts is as authoritative as the later canonical texts themselves. But here Lief is caught on the horn of his rhetorical criticism: Moses' use of Genesis 1, 2, and 9 as well as later canonical uses of those texts reveal applications that are equally as consistent with VanDrunen's NL2K conclusions as with Lief's more narrow salvation-history understanding. Consider, as I believe was the case, that Moses was aiming to teach Israel that YHWH was the God of creation and providence every bit as much as he was teaching them that YHWH was the God of their miraculous redemption. And second, consider the record of Jesus' use of the creation account in Matthew 19 in connection with marriage and divorce, a use that was hardly obvious from Moses' application in Deuteronomy 24. Both of these observations suggest that VanDrunen's use of the creation and Flood accounts in Genesis as "factual, quasi-scientific accounts" is consistent with Lief's own preferred rhetorical exegesis.

Second: With respect to historical texts (e.g., John Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion), Lief draws almost exclusively on Serene Jones's Calvin and the Rhetoric of Piety to make the point that we should understand 
the rhetorical and metaphorical power of Calvin’s language by tapping into the hermeneutical and rhetorical nature of his work. This perspective recognizes that “reality” is constituted through that act of interpretation ....
In other words, pay less attention to what Calvin said and more to how he said it, and draw your contemporary theological conclusions from the latter rather than the former. (For my "non-rhetorical" look at Calvin's use of natural law go here.)

Two responses again: First, Jones's work with Calvin has come in for some significant criticism (see David F. Wright's review at 49 Journal of Theological Studies 882 (1998). Second, and more important, is Lief's implicit constructivistic account of reality, including moral reality. After criticizing VanDrunen for using natural law to "impose a form of metaphysical, or ontological, moral truth upon the social and cultural world," Lief goes to admit that the Kuyperian one-kingdom folks often do the same. Then he concludes with the following rhetorical questions:
What are the creational norms for each creational sphere? What constitutes a “family?” Who decides what is normative with regard to gender roles or sexuality?
One might think that the answers in all cases is "God" or perhaps the "Christian tradition" or at least the confessional standards of his own church. But instead of these, Lief leaves his readers hanging. To be fair, Lief cabins his constructivism within the confines of three-party dialog among Scripture, tradition, and each other but Lief's unduly narrow rhetorical paradigm (the Bible as heilsgeschichte and not much more) and his effective eviscerating of tradition ultimately leave all the dialogic cards in our hands. And if that's where we're left, heaven help us.(For those interested in another three-sided interpretive framework (mine), check my Mission Possible piece here. Let me know if you think I'm on the slippery slope to constructivism.)

No one should take my critique of Lief's piece as taking sides in the "how many kingdoms" debate. I continue to remain in the #numberkingdoms closet and hope to write less about the kingdoms than to live better as a subject of the kingdom(s).

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