A Reformed Baptist Perspective on Public Theology: The Ministry of Paul, Part II

You can read earlier posts in this series by clicking on the links below:

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In the previous blog, we began our discussion on the public theology of Paul in Acts by examining the events during Paul’s first and second missionary journeys. We observed how Paul confronted the idolatry present in various Gentile cities from Lystra to Athens. We also observed how Paul’s ministry of preaching not only affected the individual lives of converts, but it also affected social activities within various cities such as Philippi and Ephesus. The last quarter of the book of Acts deals with Paul’s journey from Jerusalem to Rome. Unlike his previous missionary journeys, Paul’s primary audience was not the crowds, but specific rulers themselves. This section gives us particular insight on how Paul interacted with authority and how Paul wisely took advantage of his Roman citizenship.

Paul Before the Roman Tribune and the Council

When Paul arrives in Jerusalem in Acts 21, he is quite aware that he is going to face hostility from the Jewish people. When he enters the temple, he addresses the Jewish crowd in the Hebrew language, explaining his testimony and how the Lord commissioned him as the apostle to the Gentiles (Acts 22:1-20). Once Paul mentioned his calling to the Gentiles, the crowd stopped listening and shouted for his death. The Roman tribune ordered him to be brought into the barracks, saying that he should be examined by flogging to find out why they were shouting against him like this. At this point, Paul asked a question to the officer, “Is it lawful for you to flog a man who is a Roman citizen and uncondemned?” (22:25) Since Paul was a Jew (who was currently in a low station in life), the Roman officer questioned how he obtained so valuable a distinction; Paul told him that he was born a Roman citizen (22:28-29). Clearly, this is part of God’s wise providence. Paul’s status as a Roman citizen gives him privileges that many people did not have – namely he was exempted from all trials and punishments which might force him to confess himself guilty. Therefore, the Roman officer unbound him and brought Paul before the Sanhedrin.

Paul’s interaction with the Sanhedrin gives us insight into how one should interact with authority. When Paul addressed the Sanhedrin, the high priest commanded those who stood by to strike him on the mouth. Not knowing that he was addressing the high priest, Paul retorts in a very disrespectful way (22:3). Upon learning that he was addressing the high priest, Paul replies,” I did not know, brothers, that he was the high priest, for it is written, ‘You shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people.’ ” Paul receives a firm rebuke for addressing the high priest in a disrespectful manner and Paul accepts this correction. This scene illustrates that Paul’s natural disposition towards leadership (whether godly or ungodly) is that of submission. Thus, when Paul seeks to defend himself for the sake of the gospel, he does so not out of defiance to authority, but by appealing to authority.

Paul Before Governors and Kings

When Paul is brought before Felix at Caesarea, the Jews laid their case against Paul as “one who stirs up riots among all the Jews throughout the world and is a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes” (24:5). Giving due respect to Felix, Paul cheerfully makes his defense. He claims that no one found him disputing with anyone or stirring up a crowd (24:12-13). Moreover, when Paul entered the temple, they found him purified in the temple without any crowd or tumult (24:17-19). After his defense, Felix gave orders to the centurion that he should be kept in custody (with some liberty) in hopes that Paul would bribe Felix (24:26). In spite of this, it is said that Paul “reasoned about righteousness and self-control and the coming judgment” to Felix (24:25). In all, Felix left Paul in prison for two years.

When two years had elapsed, Felix was succeeded by Festus. As Paul is brought down to Caesarea, he continues to assert his rights as a Roman citizen by appealing to Caesar (25:6-12). After some days had passed since Paul’s appeal, King Agrippa greeted Festus and agreed to hear Paul’s case. Paul’s defense before Agrippa is an example of the words of Jesus in Matthew 10:17-20:

“Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles. When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour. For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you” (ESV).

In his appeal, Paul tells of his conversion and preaches the gospel. This indicates that Paul’s primary intention is not his own integrity, but the proclamation of the Word. He states directly that he stands on trial “because of my hope in the promise made by God to our Fathers” (26:8; ESV) – namely the resurrection of Jesus. In explaining his conversion, he concluded that he was disobedient to the heavenly vision, but first declared to those in Damascus, then in Jerusalem, and throughout all the region of Judea, and also to the Gentiles that “they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with their repentance.”

After hearing Paul’s defense, Festus is convinced that Paul has lost his mind, whereas Agrippa is persuaded to hear more of his case. These events lead to Paul’s trip to Rome in which he can make his appeal directly to Caesar. The book of Acts concludes with the following words:

“He lived there two whole years at his own expense, and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance” (28:30-31, ESV).

Concluding Thoughts

What conclusions can we derive from Paul’s interactions with Roman officials? The most important principle that we should derive concerns the principle of appealing to authority. Paul’s disposition towards authority is expressed well in The Westminster Larger Catechism, Question 127:

Q. 127. What is the honor that inferiors owe to their superiors?

A: The honor which inferiors owe to their superiors is, all due reverence in heart, word, and behavior; prayer and thanksgiving for them; imitation of their virtues and graces; willing obedience to their lawful commands and counsels; due submission to their corrections; fidelity to, defense, and maintenance of their persons and authority, according to their several ranks, and the nature of their places; bearing with their infirmities, and covering them in love, that so they may be an honor to them and to their government.

In other words, men in authority ought to be given due honor and respect because of the position in which they hold. Thus, it would be considered sinful to stubbornly resist and to make any display that brings shame and dishonor to their person and authority. This is expressed well in The Westminster Larger Catechism, Question 128:

Q. 128. What are the sins of inferiors against their superiors?

A. The sins of inferiors against their superiors are, all neglect of the duties required toward them; envying at, contempt of, and rebellion against, their persons and places, in their lawful counsels, commands, and corrections; cursing, mocking, and all such refractory and scandalous carriage, as proves a shame and dishonor to them and their government.

This answer implies that our first response to any authority in which we may disagree should be to appeal to authority, not to defy or rebel against it. Appealing to authority implies that we have certain rights as citizens and to appeal properly, we must persuasively take our case to the authorities. This concept of respecting and appealing to authority will be elaborated on in much more detail as we discuss the public theology found in the Pauline epistles.

A Reformed Baptist Perspective on Public Theology: The Ministry of Paul, Part I

You can read earlier posts in this series by clicking on the links below:

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In the previous blog, we examined the public ministry of Peter and John in order to develop an understanding of the public theology presented in Acts. As most readers of this blog know, the primary figure in the narrative of Acts switches from Peter to Paul after Acts 13. In this blog, we will begin our discussion on the public theology of Paul as presented in Acts. In particular, we will focus on four events during Paul’s first and second missionary journeys.

Paul at Lystra

We begin by examining the events surrounding Paul’s first missionary journey with Barnabas. In Acts 14:8-18, Luke records the account of a lame man being healed by the hands of Paul (much like the healing of the lame beggar in Acts 3). However, the major difference between Acts 3 and Acts 14 was the audience. In Acts 3, Peter is largely addressing a Jewish audience who has the same essential worldview that he does; however, in this scene, Paul is addressing a Gentile audience whose worldview is thoroughly influenced by the religious pluralism of the Roman Empire. The miracle astounded the crowd and the crowd believed that Hermes and Zeus have appeared in the likeness of Paul and Barnabas, respectively (v. 11-12). This illustrates that the Lycaonians were not intellectual philosophers like the Athenians, Corinthians, or Romans. They were most likely simple villagers who gave a spontaneous instinctive response consistent with their adherence to Greek mythology and superstitions. Based on the belief of the crowd, the priest of Zeus brought animals to Paul and Barnabas (v. 13). As individuals who believed in strict monotheism, Barnabas and Paul found this to be blasphemous and idolatrous. Paul used this example of clear paganism and heathenism to preach to the crowds.

Paul directly confronts the Lycaonians by calling their gods, nothing more than vain idols (v. 15). Here, we see that the preaching of Christ directly conflicted with the religious worldview of the Lycaonians. In other words, Paul’s preaching confronts the idolatry of the Lycaonians and calls them to repentance. Instead of give obeisance to Zeus and the various other gods accepted in the Roman system, Paul calls them to turn to the living God – the Creator of all things (v. 15). Here, we see the general pattern of Paul’s message: the call to repentance and the call to faith in Christ.

Paul at Athens

Some readers may think that Paul’s approach to the Lycaonians is based upon the pretext that he is addressing a religiously primitive people, which would be very dissimilar to a 21st century post-Christian culture. When Paul enters Athens in Acts 17, he enters a city which is renowned for its learning, philosophy, and fine arts, which would be much more similar to our culture today. However, he also observes that the Athenians are functionally just as superstitious as the Lycaonians because the city was wholly given to idolatry and philosophical speculation. In other words, the Athenians fit the description of fallen man as described in Romans 1:22-23

Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

As Paul observes the idolatry around him, his spirit was provoked within him, until he could not forbear to speak any longer (v. 16). He immediately begins to reason and debate with Jews, devout persons, philosophers, and all others who would hear him concerning Jesus and the resurrection (v. 17-18). When he was finally brought to the Areopagus, he now gets to opportunity to address the seat of the venerable supreme court of Athens.

First, he directly addresses their superstitions since they have an altar built to the “unknown god” (v. 22-23). Second, he proclaims to them the one, true living God as the Creator and Sustainer of all things. Third, he directly confronts their folly in believing that “the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man.” (v. 29). In each of his points, Paul is directly assailing their worldview of the Athenians. He then calls them to repentance because of the testimony of the resurrection. In many respects, Paul’s commentary to the Athenians (who are known as highly educated and philosophically sophisticated) is not much different than his address to the simple Lycaonians.

Paul at Philippi

Not only did Paul’s proclamation of the gospel confront the idolatry of his day, but it also interrupted the commerce in the cities that he visited.

One of the first cities that Paul visits in his second missionary journey with Silas was Philippi. After receiving the Macedonian vision in Acts 16, he begins to preach the gospel in Philippi, which is a major city in Macedonia and a Roman colony. Paul initially preaches the gospel on the Sabbath to god-fearing women who had come together for a time of prayer and the Lord opened the eyes of Lydia in order to pay attention to what was said by Paul (v. 13-14). At this point, it appears that Paul’s preaching did not disrupt the normal activities of Philippi. However, Paul’s consistent preaching of the gospel in this town eventually interrupts commerce in the city.

While preaching in Philippi, Paul and Silas were met by a slave girl who possessed by an evil spirit. Because the slave girl was disrupting the preaching of the gospel, Paul commands the unclean spirit to come out of the girl. This is important for at least two reasons: (1) The casting out of evil spirits is evidence that the kingdom of God is present among the Philippians (cf. Luke 11:20) and (2) The slave girl was believed to have a spirit of divination, which implies that she brought her owners much gain by fortune-telling (cf. Acts 16:16). In other words, men could tolerate varieties of worship or the speculations of philosophers, but they were roused to madness by that which threatened their business. Consider Albert Barnes’ notes on this section:

The charge which they wished to substantiate was that of being disturbers of the public peace. All at once they became conscientious. They forgot the subject of their gains, and were greatly distressed about the violation of the laws. There is nothing that will make people more hypocritically conscientious than to denounce, and detect, and destroy their unlawful and dishonest practices. People who are thus exposed become suddenly filled with reverence for the Law or for religion, and they who have heretofore cared nothing for either become greatly alarmed lest the public peace should be disturbed. People slumber quietly in sin, and pursue their wicked gains; they hate or despise all law and all forms of religion; but the moment their course of life is attacked and exposed, they become full of zeal for laws that they would not themselves hesitate to violate, and for the customs of religion which in their hearts they thoroughly despise. Worldly-minded people often thus complain that their neighborhoods are disturbed by revivals of religion; and the preaching of the truth, and the attacking of their vices, often arouses this hypocritical conscientiousness, and makes them alarmed for the laws, and for religion, and for order, which they at other times are the first to disturb and disregard.  

Paul at Ephesus

The above commentary from Albert Barnes also explains the events which occurred during Paul’s missionary journey in Ephesus. When Paul arrived in Acts 19, he initially preached the gospel and the kingdom of God in the synagogue and due to the opposition of the Jews, he was forced to continue preaching in the hall of Tyrannus (v. 8-10). Unlike many other regions in which he traveled, Paul stayed in Ephesus for two years, which means that the Word of God (accompanied with various signs and miracles) went forth throughout the entire city for an extended period of time. God used the preaching of the Word to bring many of the Ephesians to faith (v. 21). At this point, there is no controversy concerning Christianity within Ephesus; however, as Luke narrates, a number of believers who formerly practiced magic arts brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all (v. 18-20).

The preaching of the word of God not only affected the private lives of believers, but it also affected the local commerce in the area. In particular, the spread of Christianity in Ephesus affected the craftsmen who profited from religious pluralism of the day (v. 23-27). Consider Matthew Henry’s commentary of the section:

Persons who came from afar to pay their devotions at the temple of Ephesus, bought little silver shrines, or models of the temple, to carry home with them. See how craftsmen make advantage to themselves of people’s superstition, and serve their worldly ends by it. Men are jealous for that by which they get their wealth; and many set themselves against the gospel of Christ, because it calls men from all unlawful crafts, however much wealth is to be gotten by them. There are persons who will stickle for what is most grossly absurd, unreasonable, and false; as this, that those are gods which are made with hands, if it has but worldly interest on its side. The whole city was full of confusion, the common and natural effect of zeal for false religion.

The threat of the gospel to the business of the merchants eventually leads to a riot in Ephesus (v. 28-41).

Concluding Thoughts

What might we conclude about Paul’s interactions with the public on his first and second missionary journeys? First, we must realize, as Henry van Til famously quipped, that culture is religion externalized. In other words, the conscious or unconscious relationship to God in a man’s heart determines all of his activities, such as philosophy, morality, aesthetics, and other cultural activities. This means that we should observe the culture around us as it truly is – as implications of a society’s religious worldview.

Second, we should reject the notion that any culture (or sub-culture) is religiously neutral and we should engage and confront the people of any culture with Christian truth and the worldview that is consistent with Christian truth. Whether we live in a primitive culture (like the Lycaonians) or a philosophically sophisticated culture (like the Athenians), the preaching of Christ challenges all human cultures because ultimately all human cultures have the same existential problems, which is sin and depravity.

Third, we should note that when God transforms and saves any person, it does not simply affect one’s personal, private life, but it affects the whole person. In other words, we expect that when the word of God transforms the individuals inside of a culture, it cannot be fully contained within the private life of the individual, but rather it will affect his cultural activities and how he relates to a given culture. It’s important to note that Paul did not have to preach on all of the various cultural issues of his day in order for there to be discernible changes within a given culture (such as commerce within Philippi and Ephesus). Paul focused his attention on the preaching of Christ and it was through this preaching that the private life of individuals and the social life of various cities were changed. Therefore, we should not be naïve to believe that public opposition to Christianity is based purely upon philosophical or intellectual reasons. If Christians live in the Kingdom of man as salt and light, then it will have a direct effect on public affairs (with a direct emphasis on dishonest businesses).

A Reformed Baptist Perspective on Public Theology: The Ministry of Peter and John in Acts

You can read earlier posts in this series by clicking on the links below:

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In the previous blog, we provided an introduction to the public theology within the book of Acts by examining the historical setting of Acts and by examining how the content of the apostles’ public teaching produced significant clashes with the pluralistic society of the Roman Empire. In this blog post, we will focus our attention on the public ministry of Peter and John after Pentecost. In Acts 3:1-10, Luke records the account of a lame beggar being healed by the hands of Peter. Like all of the miracles performed by the apostles, this healing was done publicly to verify and authenticate the gospel message which Peter preached in Acts 2. The miracle caused all of those who were present to be utterly astounded and this presented Peter with the opportunity to address the Jewish crowd (3:10-11). With this opportunity, Peter deflects attention away from himself and preaches the gospel (3:11-26).

Peter’s Message to the Nation

For the sake of this blog, it is important to note the content of Peter’s message. First, we note that Peter denies that his own power and piety healed the beggar (v. 12), but rather, Peter draws attention that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob glorified Jesus through this healing (v. 13, 16). Second, we note that Peter places the blame of the death of Jesus – the Author of life – at the feet of the Jewish nation (v. 13-15). Third, we note that Peter also proclaims that although they acted in ignorance, the sufferings of Christ were foretold by the mouth of all of the prophets (v. 17-18). After exposing the guilt of the Jewish nation, he calls them all to repentance so that “times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that He may send the Christ appointed for you” (v. 20). In other words, the absolute necessity of repentance was solemnly charged upon the consciences of all who desire that their sins may be blotted out so that they may share in the refreshment of God’s pardoning love. According to Peter, there is no other option for the people, for Jesus is the great prophet who was prophesied by Moses (v. 22-24). Finally, Peter indicates that Jesus has been raised from the dead and ascended into the heaven until the time of restoration as foretold by the prophets (v. 21). The Jews who heard Peter’s message would have been brought under deep conviction because they knew that they delivered up the Christ – God’s anointed – whom they have been anticipating for numerous generations. Hence, many of those who had heard the word believed.

It’s important to note that Peter’s message was confrontational and it was primarily soteriological in its intent. Any reference to the political impact of the gospel was aimed at eschatological concerns, in which the blessedness of the eternal state and the final judgment was briefly discussed. However, since the ministry of the apostles was done openly and publicly, there was outright opposition against the message. The first group who opposed the apostles was the Sanhedrin, which was the supreme council of the Jewish people. The origin of this assembly is traced back to the seventy elders whom Moses was directed to help him in the government of the Israelites (cf. Numbers 11:16-17). As mentioned in Acts 4, the Sanhedrin appears to be constituted of chief priests, elders, and scribes. This indicates that the Sanhedrin served both a judicial role as well as a religious role to the Jewish nation.

Peter’s Message to the Leaders

After imprisoning the apostles for their teachings, the Sanhedrin inquired by what authority do the apostles perform their works. It’s important to note that a similar disingenuous question was asked of Christ by the same council (cf. Matthew 21:23), which probably indicates that the tone of the question was that of contempt. Instead of being intimidated by the Council, Peter directly addressed the leaders. It’s very important to note that Peter does not change the content or the tone of his message as he addresses the leaders. He proclaims that God glorified Jesus in the healing of the beggar (4:10), calls the council into account for delivering Jesus to death (4:10), and proclaims that there is no other name in which salvation is found (4:12). Moreover, Peter declares that “this Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has becomes the cornerstone” (4:11), which is the same condemnation given to the Sanhedrin during Jesus’ earthly ministry (cf. Mark 12:1-12).   

Instead of responding with faith and repentance, the Sanhedrin added to their guilt by charging Peter and John not to speak at all in the name of Jesus (4:15-18). The response of Peter and John has many applications to us today. First, we should note the tone of their response. Peter and John did not treat the council with flippancy, but addressed them properly in accordance with the authority given to the council. Second, their words assert the right of conscience, recognizing that human authorities must be resisted when it opposes divine authority. The apostles are compelled by divine authority to proclaim the gospel. Third, the apostles are willing to accept the punishment that comes from following conscience. In particular, we should note that the disciples rejoiced that they were counted worthy to suffer for the name of Jesus (cf. 5:41). Fourth, they acknowledge their human weakness by praying to God to give them boldness to continue to speak His Word in spite of the opposition (4:23-30). The prayers of the apostles were answered as they continued to perform signs and wonders among the Jewish nation (5:12-16). The apostles continued to preach the Word with boldness and they continuously faced opposition from the Jewish leaders. They were imprisoned numerous times and yet God delivered them so that they would continue to preach the Word (5:17-26). Their message to the Jewish authorities remained constant: we must obey God rather than men. This is the same disposition that was found from the OT prophetic witness (cf. Daniel 3).

Summary and Conclusions

What can we draw from the public ministry of Peter and John today? First, the message that the apostles were entrusted with (and thus, the message that the Church is entrusted with) is the gospel. It’s a simple, obvious point, but it is a point that many are drifting from today. When it comes to confronting the numerous cultural issues of the day, we must remember that the Church has no other message to proclaim but the gospel. If the Church does not herald this message and explain its implications, then our witness in the world is useless (cf. Matthew 5:13). In emphasizing the centrality of the gospel, it’s also important to recognize the need for law preaching both in the public sphere and in private conversations because the Law, when proclaimed rightly, is the tutor that leads others to Christ. Apart from the Law, the gospel loses its brilliance. This is evident by noting that Peter and John always calls their audience into account for delivering Jesus to death before proclaiming the forgiveness of sins promised in Christ.

Second, we must realize that the message of the gospel applies to every person in every station of life, even if it’s a public official. In other words, the confrontational nature of law and gospel preaching from the Church should not be diluted for those who are public officials. If we are willing to call our neighbors and friends to repentance and faith in Christ, then the same message should be given to our leaders. Third, if we are willing to proclaim this message, we should expect sharp opposition. In other words, the message of the gospel itself will always be opposed because it addresses the common existential problems of all peoples and societies. For some individuals, this opposition may come in the form of physical persecution, but for others, it may come in the form of imprisonment, ostracization, and mockery. Like Peter and John, we should expect this opposition and rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that God counts us worthy to suffer dishonor for Christ. Finally, we need to pray for boldness so that we will continue to proclaim the Word. Praying for boldness is a clear and humble acknowledgment that we are prone to fear and intimidation from the world around us. We should pray that we will not fall into temptation of passivity and assimilation in confronting the world around us.

In the next blog, we will focus on the particular interactions of Paul in his public ministry.

A Reformed Baptist Perspective on Public Theology: Introduction to the Book of Acts

You can read earlier posts in this series by clicking on the links below:

After examining the continuities and discontinuities associated with the incarnation of our Lord, we will now further ground our discussions on public theology by examining the behavior of the apostles in the book of Acts.

In Luke’s first book (i.e. the Gospel of Luke), Luke reported “all that Jesus began to do and teach” (cf. Luke 1:1); therefore, the implication is that Luke’s second book (i.e. the Acts of the Apostles) will carry the narrative forward, showing what Jesus continued to do and teach after His ascension to heaven. He continues to act through the presence of His Holy Spirit and through the ministry of His apostles (cf. Acts 1:2). This means that the book of Acts is a retelling of the continuation of redemptive history, in which the ministry of the apostles was done openly (cf. Acts 26:26).

Background: Roman Empire and Christianity

Because of the expanse of the Roman Empire, the Roman Empire became a very pluralistic society in which numerous religions existed alongside each other peaceably. During the apostolic period, the non-Roman religions were divided into religio licita (“licensed worship”) and religio illicita (“unlicensed worship”). However, while this distinction officially existed, the Roman Empire was generally very tolerant to other foreign religions. Generally speaking, any people settling at Rome were permitted the liberty of its own native worship in so far as the exercise of it did not interfere with the peace of the state or corrupt the morals of society. Roman citizens soon discovered the fascination of oriental and Greek mystery religions, and devoted themselves to foreign gods while maintaining the necessary formalism towards the religion of the state. Consider the commentary from the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia:

It should not be forgotten that the original moral elements had fallen out of Roman religion, and that it had become simply a political and military religion for the welfare of the state, not for the salvation of the individual. The individual must conform to certain prescribed rites in order to avert calamity from the state. This done, the state demanded no more, and left him a large measure of freedom in seeking excitement or aesthetic pleasure in the warm and more social foreign mysteries. Thus, while the Romans retained the distinction of religiones licitae and illicitae, they seldom used severity against the latter. Many unlicensed cults were never disturbed. In fact, the very idea of empire rendered toleration of non-Roman religions a necessity. Practically, though not theoretically, the empire abandoned the idea of religions illicitae, while it retained it upon the statute-book to use in case of an emergency … Not only the government was tolerant, but the different varieties of religions were tolerant and on good terms with each other. The same man might be initiated into the mysteries of half a dozen divinities. The same man might even be priest of two or more gods… 

This is the background into which the Holy Spirit was poured out among the church at Pentecost. In some respects, our current society’s attitude toward religion is similar to the Roman Empire. Practically, all religions are socially permissible in our society as long as it does not disturb the public order. Perhaps, more accurately, any faith is permissible (or even commendable) as long as it is fully privatized. This is the concept of the “freedom of worship” that has become popularized with the past decade.

Despite the general toleration of religions within the Roman Empire, it was well-known that Christians were persecuted within the Roman Empire. This persecution initially began with the Jewish authorities which providentially forced the apostles to take their message to the Gentiles. The persecution then grew locally and regionally in Gentile regions until it became officially mandated in the reign of Domition. This background and this concept lead to the following question: if the Roman Empire instituted such a universally mild and tolerant policy toward various gods and cults, why was Christianity strongly persecuted? It could not be because it was a religio illicita because other unlicensed religions grew in the empire without persecution. It could not be simply because Christianity believed in proselytism because other religions (like Mithraism) were militant and aggressive and yet were tolerated. In my view, the answer to this question is based on the content and proclamation of the apostles’ message.

The Message of the Apostles

First, it should be noted that the apostles were unequivocal in asserting that the society for which they were waiting and laboring was a kingdom. Note that Luke summarizes the forty days of final instruction from Jesus to His apostles before He ascended: “He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God (1:3). Moreover, this is the content of the teaching by Philip in Samaria (8:12) and Paul in Ephesus (19:8; 20:25). Luke ends the book of Acts with this account of Paul’s stay in Rome:

He lived there two whole years at his own expense, and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance. (28:30-31)

It’s important that we don’t forget how dangerous such a message was in the Roman Empire. This point wasn’t missed by an angry crowd in Thessalonica who complained that the believers were causing trouble all over the world and that they were defying the decrees of Caesar by proclaiming Jesus as king (17:7). Much like the apostles did initially, the Roman Empire likely interpreted the Kingdom of God primarily in political terms rather than in redemptive and eschatological terms.

Second, the apostles refused to render formal obedience to the religion of the state, which incensed the Roman governors. This was done by proclaiming Christ as both Lord and Christ (2:36; 5:30-31; 10:36; 11:20; 17:7; etc.). Calling Christ Lord was an affront to the religion of the state (which required the confession Caesar is Lord). Like the prophets before them (such as Daniel), the apostles refused to privatize their faith; rather, they must “speak of what we have seen and heard” (cf. 4:20). Coupled with the preaching on the Parousia of the Lord, this led many (including some Christians) to believe that a new society as a kingdom was to be set up upon the earth with Christ as king, which would in essence overthrow the Roman government.

Third, the apostles were not content with an uncompromising withdrawal from the practices of heathen worship – they also actively assailed the pagan cults by proclaiming that the worship of idols is vanity (cf. 14:15-17; 17:16; 17:23-21; 19:25-27). The apostles clearly disturbed the cozy relationship between all of the various religious cults based on the content and claims of their message. From the Roman point of view, the Christians were considered atheists and since religion was a political concern for the welfare of the state, atheism was likely to call down the wrath of the gods. Thus, when disasters began to fall upon the Roman Empire, the blame was laid upon the Christians. This is part of the reason why Paul was expelled from various Gentile cities.

Conclusion

To summarize what has been said, the apostolic ministry is a ministry of witness. The apostles were eyewitnesses of Christ Jesus and were recipients of the Spirit’s outpouring on the Church. This witness was spread worldwide (i.e. to Judea, to Samaria, and to the end of the earth), was inclusive of all kinds of people (i.e. Jews, God-fearing Gentiles, Samaritans, pagan Gentiles), and was often accompanied by various signs and wonders. The witness to the gospel always called for a response and this is why the ministry of the apostles was a public witness. Because of the claims of the gospel and because of the public nature of the apostolic ministry, it would have been impossible NOT to have the opposition from the surrounding the world.

The same essential message applies to the Church today. When the Church performs the Great Commission, it is always a public ministry. In other words, it is impossible for Church to maintain its faithful witness and character while retreating from the public sphere. We must never assimilate into the religious customs of our day – in which we called to privatize our faith If we are to follow in the footsteps of the apostles, then we must proclaim His Word publicly.

In the next blog, we will focus on the particular interactions of the apostles in their public ministry.

A Reformed Baptist Perspective on Public Theology – The Prophet Amos

In the last blog, we examined the public theology of John the Baptist who was the last Old Testament prophet. A question that we asked concerning our discussion was: Did John the Baptist operate according to the principles outlined for us in these days? In other words, are John the Baptist’s actions in the gospel accounts normative for the Church? In our article, we argued that there was much that we, as the Church, can learn from John the Baptist’s interaction with the religious leaders and the Roman leaders of his day. In this blog, we are going to examine another Old Testament prophet who dealt with numerous matters of social injustice in his time – the prophet Amos. This blog will primarily answer three questions: (1) How did Amos respond to the culture in his day? (2) Is his response to the culture normative to the church?

A Word of Caution

We must first start this discussion with a statement of caution. With regards to Amos, we must keep in mind that Amos is writing in a time when Israel was still supposed to function as a theocracy within its borders, both geographical and ethnic. In other words, Israel was still formally under the Mosaic covenant as the moral law and the law of the land. This fact governs our interpretation and application of the prophet Amos. This point is discussed in Chapter 19, Paragraphs 3-5 in the 1689 London Baptist Confession:

  1. Besides this law, commonly called moral, God was pleased to give to the people of Israel ceremonial laws, containing several typical ordinances, partly of worship, prefiguring Christ, his graces, actions, sufferings, and benefits; and partly holding forth divers instructions of moral duties, all which ceremonial laws being appointed only to the time of reformation, are, by Jesus Christ the true Messiah and only law-giver, who was furnished with power from the Father for that end abrogated and taken away. (Hebrews 10:1; Colossians 2:17; 1 Corinthians 5:7; Colossians 2:14, 16, 17; Ephesians 2:14, 16 )

  2. To them also he gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the state of that people, not obliging any now by virtue of that institution; their general equity only being of moral use. (1 Corinthians 9:8-10)

  3. The moral law doth for ever bind all, as well justified persons as others, to the obedience thereof, and that not only in regard of the matter contained in it, but also in respect of the authority of God the Creator, who gave it; neither doth Christ in the Gospel any way dissolve, but much strengthen this obligation.

Paragraph 4 is most relevant to our discussion. Based its scriptural justification, Paragraph 4 suggests that the general equity of the civil and ceremonial law applies most pointedly to the covenant community of the church, not unbelieving civil magistrates, since Christ’s first advent. However, Paragraph 5 states that moral law binds all persons, whether it is the church or unbelieving magistrates. Whatever principles we apply from the prophet Amos to the culture at large must keep these considerations in mind.

The Background

Amos was a shepherd from a rural area in Judah whom God called to preach at Israel’s royal sanctuary. His prophesying took place during the reign of Jeroboam II and lasted only a few days. Amos found in Israel great social extremes of comfortable prosperity and abject poverty. His message was against the wealthy. The poor were being exploited and cheated. Merchants were greedy and dishonest. The judicial system was corrupt. There was religious arrogance, as well, and even the attempt to corrupt some of the religious leaders. In essence, affluence had lulled the wealthy into such apathy that they refused to recognize the sickness of their society. Amos’ warning to the worshipers at Bethel was that, because of their sins, destruction was coming upon them from both Egypt and Assyria, a prophecy all the more bold because the international scene was relatively quiet, and Assyria was still in a period of decline. Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, made it clear to Amos that he was not welcome and that he should go home to his own country. Amos refused to back down, explaining that he was not a professional prophet, but he was there solely because God had sent him.

The Judgments on the Nations

Before addressing the sins of the covenant community, Amos delivers a series of six oracles from God, showing that no one can escape the consequences of his action. Hence, the major theme of the nations is the universal justice of God.

Amos pronounces his first oracle to Damascus in 1:3-4. In using the picture of separating grain kernels from their hulls, Amos says that Syria has treated the people of Gilead as though they were nothing but a pile of grain, crushing them to the ground. For this ill-treatment and extreme cruelty of the people, the Syrians were being sent back to where they started (Kir) with nothing to show for the intervening years.

The next three oracles deals with how the surrounding nations dealt with the capture and sale of Israelites during the reign of Jehoram (2 Chronicles 21:16-17). Amos pronounces his second oracle to the Philistines in 1:6-8. The Philistines are condemned for selling a whole population of Israelites into slavery. In his third oracle, Tyre is accused of the same inhumanity as the Philistines in 1:9-10, but it is considered more heinous because they repudiated the covenant of brotherhood with Israel. In his fourth oracle in 1:11-12, Edom is judged for their perpetual and implacable anger, which extended at least as far back as Israel’s journey from the wilderness to the plains of Moab.

The next two oracles demonstrate the fact that the judgments on the nation is not due to ethnicity, but on the basis of the universal judgment of God. In the fifth oracle, the Ammonites are accused of a horrific human rights atrocity – they have “ripped open pregnant women in Gilead that they might enlarge their border”. This particular atrocity was also practiced by Hazael of Syria (2 Kings 8:12), Menahem of Israel (2 Kings 15:16), and Assyria (Hosea 13:16) with the intended goal of eliminating descendants who might try to reclaim the land. In the sixth oracle, Moab is accused of burning the bones of the King of Edom, which seems to be a sign of special contempt for the Edomites.

In all of these oracles, God brings judgment through the Assyrians via exile or death. From the prophet Amos, the picture is abundantly clear – no person, king, or nation escapes the judgment of God.

The Judgments on the Covenant Community

At this point, one can imagine that Amos’s Israelite hearers were very pleased with his message since he was reinforcing exactly what they believed. The “Day of the Lord” was coming to the godless nations. However, the last, and by far the longest opening oracle is addressed to Israel. Israel is guilty of gross social injustice and sexual immorality.

First, Israel is accused of “selling the righteous for silver and the need for a pair of sandals.” This appears to be a direct reference to the corruption of Israel’s judicial system in which judges are willing to convict the innocent upon payment of a bribe. In the Law, the Lord placed a special concern for needy so that their basic rights are protected (Exodus 23:6; Jeremiah 5:28). However, because of the corruption of the judicial system, the needy are being sold into slavery even for insignificant debts (i.e. “a pair of sandals”). The point here is that Israel committed the same sort of social injustice as the surrounding neighbors and as a consequence, they will also be judged.

Second, Amos decries unbridled sexual immorality in Israel. In Israel, a “man and his father go into the same girl, so that my holy name is profaned.” Such behavior is contrary to the sexual ethics defined in the moral law (Genesis 2:21-24; Matthew 19:4-6) and would be otherwise forbidden through the Mosaic law (Leviticus 18:6-18). Their sins of sexual immorality are compounded in that they have slept on clothing taken as pledges for loans to the poor (Amos 2:8). According to the Mosaic Law, such garments are not to be kept overnight (Exodus 22:26; Deuteronomy 24:12-13).

After addressing Israel’s guilt and punishment, Amos turns his indictments to the wealthy citizens of Israel. Amos provides an extensive cataloging of their sins, which includes

  • The matrons of the wealthy Samaritans oppressing the poor and crushing the needy (Amos 4:1).
  • Trampling on the poor and exacting taxes of grain from them to build the own houses of luxury (Amos 5:7, 11).
  • Taking a bribe to afflict the righteous and turning aside the needy in the gate (Amos 5:12).
  • Living in luxurious ease without concern for sin and evil in the land (Amos 6:4-6).
  • Using false balances to unjustly profit from the poor (Amos 8:4-6).

It’s important to note that although each of these social injustices is definitely addressed within the Law of Moses, these sins are not peculiar to the nation of Israel (unlike the sins described towards Judah in Amos 2:4-5) – rather these are basic sins against humanity. These sins are violations of God’s moral law and thus are applicable to all peoples at all times. In particular, it is sinful for any judge to use their position of authority for self-aggrandizement and for their own glory, ease, profit, or pleasure. It is required that we should all act truthfully, faithfully, and justly in our contractual and business relationships with our fellow human beings so that we give to all what they deserve, rather than exploiting them. Moreover, we are to make restitution for anything we have unlawfully acquired from its rightful owners. Finally, we must do our best, by all just and lawful means, to acquire, preserve, and increase our own and others’ possessions.

Our Response

Many of the social injustices described in Amos occur within our American society and in our world in general. The basic question is: how should Christians respond to this? I think we can learn much about how we should respond by examining how Amos responded to these things. Amos did not simply call for judgment, but he pleaded with the judges and wealthy.

“Seek good, and not evil that you may live; and so the LORD, the God of hosts, will be with you, as you have said. Hate evil, and love good, and establish justice in the gate,” (Amos 5:15).

And again

“Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream,” (Amos 5:24).

Amos’ response was to address the sin directly and to call the guilty to repentance. Amos is compelled to directly address this sin – “The Lord GOD has spoken, who can but prophesy?” (Amos 3:8). Even when Amaziah the priest tells Amos that he should go back to his own country (Amos 7:12), Amos remains resolute in his call. This is similar today to the idea that Christians should keep the law of God and the Scriptures out of the public sphere and only speak about them among other Christians in church (i.e. the so-called “freedom to worship” vs. “religious liberty” debate).

Some may say that it is not enough to simply call out the gross sins of our culture and to call them to repentance – there must be tangible social activism attached to it. It is at this point in which we can learn much from Amos. Amos is not a professional prophet, nor is he a wealthy Israelite. Amos was simply “a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore figs” who was called to prophesy to Israel. In dealing with the great social evils around him, Amos realizes that the only weapon that he has is the prophetic Word. He doesn’t have a coalition of faithful Israelites around him who can rally to the cause – all He has is the prophetic Word which he proclaims. Amos reproves the guilty and labors to persuade them of their guilt by the prophetic Word.

The same basic principle applies to the Christians in the public sphere. If we were honest, we would acknowledge that we hold a minority position in our culture. Today, we are not only considered backwards and outdated in our beliefs, but today, our views are considered immoral within our culture. We don’t have tactical allies that we can pull together to change the hearts of people; the weapon that we have is the prophetic Word, which is the written Word. We have the full counsel of God in the written Word – the Law and the Gospel. It is through the Law that we expose the sinfulness of man in the public sphere (such as the social evils that is discussed in Amos); however, it is through the Gospel that we found our deepest motivation to confront our society and that we call men and women out of darkness and into His marvelous light. It is only through the Gospel that lives are transformed by the grace of God. Since Christ is the Great Prophet, the Church is the steward and guardian of both messages and it is His Word that we proclaim, admonishing and warning every man. We confront, exhort, reprove, and persuade every man through His Word, relying on God to accomplish His purposes through it.

A Reformed Baptist Perspective on Public Theology – John the Baptist

Read the first eight posts here, here, here, here, here, herehere, and here.

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It’s been a long road to get here, but now we move into the section of our discussion of Public Theology where we observe pertinent biblical texts. There are several places in Scripture where one might start but, for our purposes, an examination of the life of John the Baptist will help us to understand some of the more important questions to ask as we proceed. The first glimpse that we see of John’s approach to Public Theology can be found in his interactions with those who came to him for baptism.

“So he began saying to the crowds who were going out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruits in keeping with repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father,’ for I say to you that from these stones God is able to raise up children to Abraham. ‘Indeed the axe is already laid at the root of the trees; so every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’ And the crowds were questioning him, saying, ‘Then what shall we do?’ And he would answer and say to them, ‘The man who has two tunics is to share with him who has none; and he who has food is to do likewise.’ And some tax collectors also came to be baptized, and they said to him, ‘Teacher, what shall we do?’ And he said to them, ‘Collect no more than what you have been ordered to.’ Some soldiers were questioning him, saying, “And what about us, what shall we do?” And he said to them, ‘Do not take money from anyone by force, or accuse anyone falsely, and be content with your wages.’” (Luke 3:7-14; NASB).

General Depravity

The first thing that we notice is John’s assertion of the universal depravity of mankind. John understood that all men, whether they be Jewish leaders, the Jews themselves, or Greek converts, were a “brood of vipers.” All men are born of Adam. We are all born into the City of Man and, therefore, we all have been blinded by the god of this world. A proper understanding of Public Theology, then, must start with a proper understanding of our inability to reason with a proper, biblical rationality.

John understood that the crowd that was coming to him for baptism—a crowd comprised of all types of men: tax collectors, soldiers, Jewish leaders, etc.—was coming to him with flawed thinking. The first thing they needed to understand was that they were the offspring of Satan, a “brood of vipers.” Only after they rightly understood their spiritual poverty could they rightly assess the riches of Christ. And understanding the riches of Christ, His mercy and His kindness, is what leads us to repentance.

John came preaching a message of repentance: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” (Mt. 3:2; NASB). Notice also that this is the same message Christ Himself came preaching (Mt. 4:17). However, the repentance they preached was not devoid of specificity. Once the hearts of the people were pierced to the core by the gospel John preached, they naturally wanted to know specifically what repentance looked like for them. John addressed them one-by-one according to the sphere of influence in which they operated. What should be observed here is that John the Baptist directly applies God’s moral law to the sphere of influence of each individual person.

Children of Abraham

For the Jewish leaders, it was important that they not teach a false hope in fleshly inheritance. Christ would prove to be the Seed of Abraham (Gal. 3:16) in Whom all who believe as did Abraham would come to be descendants of Abraham. Thus, for the Jewish leaders to insist that they were the rightful heirs of Abraham’s promises, due to their heredity or the circumcision of their flesh, was to rob Christ of His rightful position as Covenant Head. Therefore, John called for the Jewish leaders to repent of their heresy:

“Therefore bear fruit in keeping with repentance; and do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father’; for I say to you that from these stones God is able to raise up children to Abraham” (Mt. 3:8-9; NASB).

The Faith / Works Principle

Secondly, John addressed the entire group who asked, “Then what shall we do?” He responded, “The man who has two tunics is to share with him who has none; and he who has food is to do likewise,” (Lk. 3:11; NASB). John was not here teaching works-based salvation. Rather, he was demonstrating what true, faith-based repentance looks like. As the apostle James explained, “What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,’ and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself,” (Jas. 2:14-17; NASB).

John wanted the people to understand that mere lip-service to the Savior is not genuine faith. Faith without works is dead. If a man truly has faith in God, true saving faith, it will change the way he lives. He will love God, and he will love his neighbor. He will not merely say to his neighbor in need, “Go. I have faith that God will be with you in your affliction.” Rather, the true Christian, saved by faith alone, will act in love to help his neighbor. This is the evidence that he truly has saving faith.

It’s important to note that John’s message is consistent with the message of previous Old Testament prophets. As Moses instituted, “If among you, one of your brothers should become poor, in any of your towns within your land that the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be.” (Deuteronomy 15:7-8). Here, we have specific application of the Law given to the crowd.

Tax Collectors

Thirdly, John addressed the tax collectors. Tax collectors were agents for the government who were notorious for exploiting the people. Many of them were Jews themselves and were seen as traitors for the way they took advantage of their fellow countrymen. When John saw these tax collectors coming, he had specific instruction for them as well concerning their repentance: “Collect no more than what you have been ordered to.”

Notice he did not tell them to stop being tax collectors. He did not tell them that a true Christian would have no part in government affairs, so they should find a new job. He did not tell them, as the Jehovah’s Witnesses would, that governments are run by Satan, so they are working for Satan and must repent. Rather, he told them to take only what they were ordered to by the civil magistrates. In other words, one can be a Christian while living and operating in a public office. However, being a Christian means that we will operate according to Christian principles in that particular sphere of life. For tax collectors, this meant that they would not rob their fellow countrymen.

It’s important to note that John the Baptist is holding them accountable to the eighth commandment, even when they are operating in public office. The eighth commandment requires us people to act truthfully, faithfully, and justly in our contractual and business relationships. Previously, these tax collectors violated this trust with the people, but repentant sinners, the entire ethical code for tax collectors should change. Instead of being extortioners, they should be individuals who “love justice” (cf. Mic. 6:8) and refuse to oppress the poor through exploitation (cf. Zech. 7:8-10).  This message should continue to be proclaimed since we live in a day where numerous politicians enrich themselves off of the poor.

Soldiers

Fourthly, John addressed the soldiers that came to him: “Do not take money from anyone by force, or accuse anyone falsely, and be content with your wages.” Now, it might be observed that these principles are universal principles to be observed by all Christians. However, they have specific significance for the particular groups John was addressing.

It could be noted that soldiers in a land of occupation have a unique vantage point from which they can exploit the people being occupied. If a soldier is not content with his wages, he might be prone to take the possessions of those under occupation, either by force or by false accusation. This was likely a very common practice in John’s day, so he instructed these men to love their occupied neighbors with integrity rather than with wicked hearts.

Unbelieving Magistrates

Now, it might be observed that John is here instructing people who had come to him for repentance, so we as Christians might seek to instruct Christians in similar positions in a similar way. However, since John was talking to converts and instructing them on how they should repent, it would be improper to talk to our pagan neighbors who have yet to repent in a similar way. Rather, we should speak only the gospel to our unconverted neighbors. At first glance, this seems a glowing, gospel-centered policy to have when formulating one’s Public Theology. However, was that really the approach of John the Baptist? Let’s look at another instance in which John calls a pagan to repentance:

“For Herod himself had sent and had John arrested and bound in prison on account of Herodias, the wife of his brother Philip, because he had married her. For John had been saying to Herod, ‘It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.’ Herodias had a grudge against him and wanted to put him to death and could not do so; for Herod was afraid of John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he kept him safe. And when he heard him, he was very perplexed; but he used to enjoy listening to him. A strategic day came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his lords and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee; and when the daughter of Herodias herself came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his dinner guests; and the king said to the girl, ‘Ask me for whatever you want and I will give it to you.’ And he swore to her, ‘Whatever you ask of me, I will give it to you; up to half of my kingdom.’ And she went out and said to her mother, ‘What shall I ask for?’ And she said, ‘The head of John the Baptist.’ Immediately she came in a hurry to the king and asked, saying, ‘I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.’ And although the king was very sorry, yet because of his oaths and because of his dinner guests, he was unwilling to refuse her. Immediately the king sent an executioner and commanded him to bring back his head. And he went and had him beheaded in the prison, and brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl; and the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about this, they came and took away his body and laid it in a tomb” (Mark 6:17-29; NASB).

So we see that John not only called converted Christians to a specific repentance, but he even called unconverted pagans to repent of their specific sins. His call for repentance even rose to the ears of Herod himself, whom he rebuked in strong terms. This rebuke was not a safe rebuke. He did not simply, generally tell Herod to turn from sin. He called out Herod for his specific sin, and it cost John his life.

Questions Moving Forward

There are several questions this study of John the Baptist raises. In the articles to come, we hope to answer several of these by looking at other texts in the word of God. These questions may include:

  • What is the role of government?
  • What is the role of the moral law in relationship to government?
  • What is the role of the church in relationship to government?
  • Did John the Baptist operate according to the principles outlined for us in these last days?
  • Does the church have a mandate to preach anything other than the gospel to our pagan culture and pagan magistrates?
  • What is the role of activism in our Christian witness to our culture?
  • What expectations should Christians have of our pagan magistrates?
  • What Christian principles might be governing John the Baptist’s approach to Public Theology that may help us govern ours?

A Reformed Baptist Perspective on Public Theology – Redemption and Creation in Kuyper

Read the first seven posts here, here, here, here, here, here,and here.

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In our last blog post, we presented some of the core beliefs regarding Abraham Kuyper’s public theology, which can be summed up in one sentence: Jesus Christ is Lord of all, and because of that fact, our allegiance to Him should shape not only the private but also the public aspects of our lives. In Kuyper’s vision, Christ is not just the Lord over ecclesiastical matters, but He is also Lord over public matters like art, science, business, politics, economics, and education. Based on this core conviction, Kuyper served as prime minister of the Netherlands, founded a Christian university, started a newspaper, and wrote influential books on theology, politics, and other topics. In recent years a new generation of Calvinists has further developed Kuyper’s original vision of Christ’s lordship over all matters. To understand these recent developments, we must understand neo-Kuyperian theology concerning the relationship between redemptive grace and creation.

Creation and Redemption

In the neo-Kuyperian theological vision, redemptive grace both renews and restores nature. In this vision, God covenanted creation (“nature”) into existence and ordered it by means of His word. At creation, God instructed his image bearers to be fruitful and multiply (interpreted as a social command), till the soil (interpreted as a cultural command), and have dominion (interpreted as a regal command). His image bearers would glorify him by multiplying worshipers, bringing out the hidden potentials of creation, and lovingly managing his world. However, Adam and Eve were seduced by the word that the serpent spoke against God’s word. Since the first couple’s sin, all of humanity has been under the sway of sin.

This original sin can be interpreted as the antithesis to God’s covenant Word. However, more generally, the antithesis is any word spoken against God’s word. It misdirects the human mind and affections by pointing them toward idols rather than toward the one true and living God. So this world is corrupted, but it is not corrupted in its structures, but only in its direction. Consider the words of Bruce Ashford as an explanation of this point:

In other words, sin and evil were not able to corrupt God’s created order structurally or ontologically. Satan and sin are not as powerful as God’s word and therefore cannot destroy creation. They cannot make purely bad what God created originally good. All they can do is misdirect. Thus creation remains good structurally (in its existence and basic order) but has been made bad directionally (as humanity brings out the hidden potentials of creation by building society and culture, but does so in an errant manner, directing it toward idols rather than God).

For these reasons, God sent his Son to restore nature. The salvation provided by the Son is offered to God’s image bearers, but extends beyond them to the whole creation. According to an interpretation of Romans 8:19-22, Christ will liberate creation from the bondage it is now experiencing because of the Fall. One day, He will return to renew and restore his good creation, purifying it of corruption and misdirection, and placing in its midst a majestic city – the New Jerusalem (cf. Revelation 21:1). This New Jerusalem is not simply a heavenly city, but it is thoroughly cultural, characterized by architecture, art, and music. Thus, the metanarrative of Scripture (creation-fall-redemption-consummation) applies not just to the individual Christian, but it appeals to all of creation.

Cosmic Redemption

This view of cosmic redemption has two broad implications in this vision. First, since God will liberate creation from its bondage—rather than annihilating it— this affirms that sin did not have the power to corrupt creation ontologically. The created order, even though it has been misdirected, remains God’s good creation. He will renew it and restore it, instead of replacing it.

Second, in this vision, our eternity unfolds in our present universe. This affirms the enduring goodness of the physical and material (i.e. cultural) aspects of our lives. In this vision, God’s redemptive grace is not opposed to nature in that God will completely replace this world with another world. Rather, God accomplishes cosmic redemption by renewing and restoring nature – making it what He always intended it to be. Consider the words of Abraham Kuyper:

For if grace exclusively concerned atonement for sin and salvation of souls, one could view grace as something located and operating outside of nature….But if it is true that Christ our Savior has to do not only with our soul but also with our body…then of course everything is different. We see immediately that grace is inseparably connected with nature, that grace and nature belong together. Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader, 173.

Redirecting the Culture

This vision presents a distinctive view of the way a Christian should live in the world. In this vision, believers are called to be transformative or redirective in our social and cultural activities. Within every single vocation that God calls believers, we desire God’s Word to shape our words and activities. Hence, believers inquire about God’s original creational design for a certain activity, then discern the manifold ways it has been misdirected by sin, and finally find ways to redirect that activity or realm towards Christ.

This is done out of love for Christ and our neighbor, as a matter of obedience, and a matter of witness. Since Christ’s lordship extends to all of creation, then it must extend to all cultural activities. Thus, Christ’s saving Lordship should be conveyed not only by our words but by our cultural deeds. And we do so as a preview of Christ’s coming Kingdom, when he will renew this heavens and earth. God’s redemption and restoration transforms us in the totality of our being, across the entire fabric of our lives, and redirects our lives comprehensively. Kuyper writes,

In short, everything is his. His kingdom is over everything….His kingdom is a kingdom of all ages, of all spheres, of all creatures. On Kuyper, 147-148.

Thus every act of obedience—whether in prayer or in politics, in evangelism or in economics—is a part of Christian mission, a manifestation of kingdom work. Because the antithesis is operative as a misdirecting agent in every part of creation and culture, we should draw upon God’s thesis (i.e. God’s word) to redirect all activities in our lives.

Redirecting Public Theology

Most importantly for the sake of our discussion, this vision has a distinctive view of public theology. If God’s sovereign authority holds for every sphere of life and if his word is relevant to every sphere, then politics and the public square are no exception. Kuyper exemplified this conviction in his own life. He drew upon the “grace restores nature” framework in order to shape his understanding of politics and the public square.

First, this vision has a distinctive view of how a Christian should do academic scholarship. It views every academic discipline as an opportunity to view God’s world through the lens of his Word. Kuyper writes,

He who lives from, and consistently within, the orbit of Revelation confesses that all Sovereignty rests in God and can therefore proceed only from Him; that the Sovereignty of God has been conferred absolute and undivided upon the man-Messiah; and that…every…sphere of life recognizes an authority derived from him. Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader, 468.

A Christian scholar who believes that redemptive grace restores nature will recognize that his field of study, has an authority derived from Christ. His discipline operates within a sphere that has a unique God-given principle at its core, shaping the discipline’s goal as well as its appropriate parameters. It is within this framework that Christian higher education can thrive.

Second, this vision strongly encourages believers to approach any aspect of public life by discerning God’s creational design for that aspect (thesis), discerning the various ways in which these aspects have been corrupted and misdirected by sin (antithesis), and working to redirect them toward Christ. Similar to the views of Luther and Calvin, our engagement in the public sphere cannot and should not be done in reliance upon general revelation alone. Christians should allow our specifically Christian beliefs and commitments to inform our views on social, cultural, and political issues.

Third, this vision causes us to avoid an improperly coercive relationship between church and state. Kuyper’s answer to the church-state relationship was the sphere sovereignty concept discussed in our last post. Kuyper argued that God ordered creation in such a way that there are multiple spheres (such as art, science, religion, and politics). God is sovereign over the spheres and each sphere exists directly under God’s authority (rather than under the church’s authority).

Fourth, this vision makes a distinction between the institutional church and the organic church, and applies that distinction to public square activities. The church, as an institution, gathers weekly to preach the word and to administer the sacraments. However, the church is also an organism – a covenantal body of believers who scatter throughout society and culture during the week. While the institutional church may have indirect influence on politics and the public square by shaping its members into Christian disciples, it should not exert direct influence. However, the organic church—the covenanted members of the church—may exercise direct influence in politics and the public square, by applying their discipleship to public matters when opportunity arises and expertise allows.

Conclusion

Much more could be said here, but the “grace restores nature” framework provides the theological foundation for discussion Kuyper’s (and neo-Kuyperian) public theology. There are many who interpret this vision as “redeeming the culture” or “transforming the culture”. However, this would be a mischaracterization of the views of many neo-Kuyperians. Many neo-Kuyperians understand that any cultural transformation will be neither comprehensive nor enduring, until the day when Christ Jesus transforms the world. All of these activities are done out of love for Christ and our neighbor, as a matter of witness and obedience, and in the hopes that the Christian community can provide a preview of Christ’s coming kingdom. Kuyper applied this vision in a very helpful way to politics and the public square. He emphasized God’s sovereignty over every sphere of culture, including church and state. He provided a way for church and state to relate to one another properly, without one domineering the other. He sought to avoid the twin extremes of a naked square on the one hand, or a theocracy on the other. Kuyper grasped one great truth—that Christ’s lordship is universal—and sought to apply it wisely and consistently to life on this earth. And from that we can all benefit.

A Reformed Baptist Perspective on Public Theology – Sphere Sovereignty in Kuyper

Read the first six posts here, here, here, here, here, and here.

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In our discussion of a Reformed Baptist perspective on public theology, we have recently been examining the Reformed confessions. In today’s article, we will begin our discussion of some more recent developments regarding Reformed perspectives of public theology. In our view, no modern discussion on Reformed public theology can be presented without discussing the contributions of Abraham Kuyper. By becoming familiar with Kuyper’s approach to public theology, readers should be in a position to evaluate the politics of writers like Francis Schaeffer, Tim LaHaye (and many of the members of the Christian Right movement), and Tim Keller – all of whom owe an intellectual debt to Kuyper.

As a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church and a leader in the first modern Dutch political party, the Anti-Revolutionary Party, Kuyper sought to re-create a Christian perspective on politics and society that would form the basis for Christian social action. He envisaged this as an integral part of a comprehensive Christian worldview based upon the Scriptures and their interpretation within the Augustinian-Calvinist tradition. Although he wrote copiously in Dutch on theology, art, politics, education, and a host of other topics, only a few of his writings are available in English translations. The most comprehensive statement of his position in English is to be found in the Stone Lectures, which were delivered at Princeton Theological Seminary in 1898 and are published under the title Lectures on Calvinism. This article will consist of a brief exposition of Kuyper’s views as set out in these lectures.

Calvinism as a Worldview

For Kuyper, Calvinism is “a theory of ontology, of ethics, of social happiness, and of human liberty, all derived from God” (p. 15). Thus, Kuyper saw Calvinism, not merely as a system of doctrine, but a comprehensive worldview. In its essence, the heart of Calvinism (and any other worldview) revolves around three fundamental relationships: “(1) our relation to God; (2) our relation to men; and (3) our relation to the world” (p. 19). As example of this interpretation, Kuyper argues that Paganism is a distinct worldview that worships god in the creature. This worship results in a distortion of man’s other relationships by allowing some men to become demi-gods and thus creating caste systems in society. At the same time, too high an estimate is placed on the idea of nature, which leads to a deification of the world. Kuyper offers similar interpretations of Islam, Roman Catholicism, and Modernism – all of which he contrasts with Calvinism. It is in Calvinism alone, he argues, that one can find the proper balance between these vital relationships.

According to Kuyper’s understanding of Calvinism, God enters into immediate fellowship with mankind. So, according to this doctrine, our entire human life is placed immediately before God, ensuring the equality of all men before God and with each other (p. 27). The world itself is to be honored not because it is divine, but because it is a divine creation – the handiwork of God. Practically, this means for the Christian that “the curse should no longer rest upon the world itself, but upon that which is sinful in it, and instead of monastic flight from the world the duty is now emphasized of serving God in the world, in every position of life” (p. 31).

The third lecture in the series is entitled Calvinism and Politics. Here we find a brief, but dense outline of Kuyper’s political theory distilled from his great work, Ons Programme (Our Program, 1878). He argues that the foundational principle for Calvinistic public theology is “the Sovereignty of the Triune God over the whole Cosmos” (p. 99). From this statement, he deduces three realms of sovereignty which he calls “spheres”: the State, Society and the Church. In this way he speaks about his political principle as the application of the principle of “sphere sovereignty” to politics (p. 116).

The Sphere of the State

The first application of this notion of sphere sovereignty is to the State, which seems to refer to the civil government. Kuyper sums up Calvinistic political thought in three theses:

  1. God only – and never any creature – is possessed of sovereign rights, in the destiny of the nations, because God alone created them, maintains them by His Almighty power, and rules them by His ordinances.
  2. Sin has, in the realm of politics, broken down the direct government of God, and therefore the exercise of authority, for the purpose of government has subsequently been invested in men, as a mechanical remedy.
  3. In whatever form this authority may reveal itself, man never possesses power over his fellow man in any way than by an authority which descends upon him from the majesty of God.

Kuyper argues that mankind is organically related by blood so that one humanity exists throughout all time. However, because of sin and the Fall, mankind’s original unity has been fractured, and political life has become a necessity. If the fall did not exist, there would have been no need for the establishment of the structures of the State. Rather, all men would be governed through family relationships. Thus politics and the State are unnatural developments in human history – the State being a mechanical structure imposed upon the natural organic relationships that bind men together. “God has instituted magistrates, by reason of sin” (p. 102). Therefore, from the viewpoint of God’s original creation, the State ought not to exist, but in the light of the Fall, it must exist to restrain evil and make life in a fallen world tolerable – a view reminiscent of Augustine’s Two Cities.

In arguing for his third thesis, Kuyper does not believe that any one form of government is in itself right for all times and places. Rather, the form that government takes is bound up with changes in historical and social circumstances, which is a position he traces back to Augustine. Christians are to seek godly government without demanding a set form. In saying this, Kuyper rejects the idea of a theocracy, which he argues was restricted to ancient Israel.

The Sphere of Society

Building on this foundation, Kuyper goes on to discuss the sphere of society. Society, he declares, is not one whole, but a number of diverse parts which includes the family, business, science, the arts, and etc.. In particular, Kuyper divides the social sphere into four main groups:

  1. the sphere of social relationships where individuals meet and interact with each other;
  2. the corporate sphere, which includes all groupings of men in a corporate sense such as universities, trade unions, employers, organizations, companies, etc;
  3. the domestic sphere, which deals with family, marriage, education, and personal property; and
  4. the communal sphere, which includes all groupings of men in communal relationships such as streets, villages, towns, cities, etc.

Each part of these spheres, Kuyper argues, has “sovereignty in the individual social spheres and these different developments of social life have nothing above themselves but God, and the State cannot intrude here” (p. 116). In society “the chief aim of all human effort remains what it was by virtue of our creation and before the fall – namely, domination over nature” (p. 117).

By contrast to this view of society as a natural, organic institution, government is a mechanical device, which is set over peoples. Its essential characteristic is its power over life and death, which ought to be exercised in the administration of justice. This has a twofold application: 1) to maintain internal justice; 2) to care for the people as a unit at home and abroad. However, since government is mechanically imposed upon the organic spheres of society, friction occurs between different social areas and the government. Kuyper says “the government is always inclined with its mechanical authority to invade social life, to subject it and mechanically to arrange it” (p. 120). At the same time, Kuyper argues that the various social spheres will endeavor to throw off all restraints of government. Thus men will be continually faced with the twin dangers of statism and anarchy. But Calvinism, Kuyper maintains, avoids these extremes by insisting on the sovereignty of God and the rightfulness of a plurality of social spheres “under the law”, which is maintained by the government (p. 121).

Thus, in relation to the social sphere, the State itself has three duties to perform. They are: 1) to draw a boundary between the different social spheres to avoid social conflict. Thus, there is a boundary between the domestic and the corporate life of man. For example, the worker should never be misused by his employer in such a way as to deprive him of a home life or private interest, because such a development would mean that the corporate sphere has illegitimately invaded the domestic sphere; 2) to defend individuals and weak elements within each sphere; 3) to coerce all the separate spheres of society to support the State and uphold its legitimate functions. Thus, each sphere has an obligation to render whatever dues necessary for the maintenance of the overall unity of society as protected by the State (p. 124-125).

The Sphere of the Church and the Individual

Kuyper’s final sphere is the sphere of the Church. While admitting that a divided church presents many problems, he believes that implicit in the doctrine of the liberty of conscience is the ideal of a free church in a free society – hence, the motto “a free Church for a free State”. While acknowledging the benefits of a genuine unity between churches, Kuyper argues that the government must suspend judgment in this area and allow divisions to exist amongst Christians because “the government lacks the data of judgment and would infringe” on the sovereignty of the Church (p. 136). He concludes from this that while extreme forms of church order are to be avoided, allowances must be made for historic and cultural differences between denominations.

Kuyper concludes with a short section on the “sovereignty of the individual person” in which he argues that “conscience is never subject to man but always and ever to God Almighty” (p. 139). This argument leads him to declare that “liberty of speech and liberty of worship” (p. 141) are essential in a just society. Yet, like John Stuart Mill, Kuyper seeks to limit such liberty to “mature men”, and doubts that “backward people” can be granted such liberty. In this, as in all his arguments, Kuyper’s overall aim is to enable “every man to serve God according to his own conviction and the dictates of his own heart” (p. 142).

Concluding Thoughts

Kuyper’s discussion of sphere sovereignty has a number of similarities with Luther’s Two Kingdoms model of public theology, but there are some important differences. Kuyper’s concept of sphere sovereignty deals with different areas into which human life under Christ’s lordship are to be divided; they do not designate the eschatological distinction between this age and the age to come, which is central to the doctrine of two kingdoms. Thus, the concept of sphere sovereignty should be interpreted as a sociological concept that may be consistent with, but different from the two kingdoms doctrine. The two kingdoms model not only represents two spheres (because they denote two governments), but they also denote two overlapping ages.

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In the next article, we will develop these points in more detail and examine how Kuyper (and many current neo-Kuyperians) grounded his understanding of public theology based on an emphasis on creation-fall-redemption and the relationship between grace and nature.

A Reformed Baptist Perspective on Public Theology – The Reformed Confessions (Part III)

Read the first five posts here, here, here, here, and here.

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In our discussion of a Reformed Baptist perspective on public theology, we have recently been examining the Reformed confessions. In the last two posts, we examined two Reformed confessions’ assertions regarding the relationship of the civil government to the church: The Belgic Confession and The Baptist Confession (1644 / 1646). In today’s article, we will conclude our discussion of public theology in the Reformed confessions by examining two more confessions: The Westminster Confession and The Baptist Confession (1677 / 1689).

The Westminster Confession (1647)

In 1647, a year after the 1646 revision of The Baptist Confession, the Westminster Assembly published the second Reformed confession to be adopted in England: The Westminster Confession. In this Confession, they too addressed the topic of the civil magistrate. However, they returned to the language of the earlier Belgic Confession on the matter.

“The civil magistrate may not assume to himself the administration of the Word and sacraments, or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven: yet he hath authority, and it is his duty, to take order, that unity and peace be preserved in the Church, that the truth of God be kept pure and entire; that all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed; all corruptions and abuses in worship and discipline prevented or reformed; and all the ordinances of God duly settled, administered, and observed. For the better effecting whereof, he hath power to call synods, to be present at them, and to provide whatsoever is transacted in them be according to the mind of God” (WCF 23.3).

The Westminster Confession then denied the right of the state to step in and administer the word and sacraments, but argued that it was the duty of the state to oversee and ensure “that unity and peace be preserved in the Church, that the truth of God be kept pure and entire; that all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed; all corruptions and abuses in worship and discipline prevented or reformed; and all the ordinances of God duly settled, administered, and observed.” In other words, the Westminster view of the state’s role was one of enforcing ecclesiastical order and discipline.

On this front, the Reformed began to see a clear divide in regard to public theology. Both credobaptists and paedobaptists among the Reformed agreed that the church had a duty to speak to the state. However, where English Particular Baptists argued for the state’s role to be one of ensuring liberty of conscience on matters of church practice, the paedobaptists in England as well as on the continent were arguing for more of an enforcer role for the state.

The Baptist Confession (1677 / 1689)

In the latter part of the 17th century, a new generation of Baptists convened to draft a new confession of faith. This Confession would be more robust than the first, but it would take a shape much closer to that of the Westminster Confession than that of the previous Baptist Confession. This change of shape is often mistaken for a change of substance, but nothing could be farther from the truth. Though things are stated differently in the Second London Baptist Confession, it represents the same basic theological framework on which the Particular Baptists operated in the early 17th century.

Notably, the 1689 Confession presents a much more streamlined doctrine of the civil magistrate. The emphasis on duties of the civil magistrate toward the church and regarding liberty of conscience is not as strong, but it is certainly still present. In particular, the laws of the state are put in subjection to a greater, more absolute law.

“Civil magistrates being set up by God for the ends aforesaid; subjection, in all lawful things commanded by them, ought to be yielded by us in the Lord, not only for wrath, but for conscience’ sake; and we ought to make supplications and prayers for kings and all that are in authority, that under them we may live a quiet and peaceable life, in all godliness and honesty” (LBCF 1689, 24.3).

What is suggested in the language “in all lawful things” is the idea that there may be certain unlawful things commanded by the state that would force Christians to violate their consciences. If the question arises as to which to follow, man or our Spirit-led, Bible-informed consciences, we are to choose our conscience every time. As such, the Baptist Confessions are unanimous in promoting (even demanding) liberty of conscience and, when the state violates the conscience of the believer, civil disobedience along with the consequences that follow. There is a higher law to which we are called, so we are to subject ourselves in all things which do not violate that higher law. Even the confessional Presbyterian Americans eventually came to agree with their Baptist brothers on this view altering their own Westminster Confession to allow for liberty of conscience in their public theology.

Conclusion

From our study of the Reformed confessions, we see that there are certain universal principles that must be granted for any truly Reformed approach to public theology. First, God has given the sword to the civil magistrate for the purpose of punishing evil and promoting good. Second, in affirming this biblical truth, the Reformers confessed the duty of the church to speak directly to the state concerning its duties and responsibilities. Third, Christians are to subject themselves to all lawful ordinances of the state (meaning laws not requiring sin or disobedience toward God on the part of Christians). Fourth, Christians are to render respect and honor to all those who are in authority as men and women placed in authority by God to rule over us. Fifth, Christians are to pray for our magistrates in all matters as will lead to the comfort and prosperity of the state so that we might lead quiet and peaceful lives.

Where the confessions disagreed was in areas of ecclesiastical dealings and liberty of conscience. Where The Belgic Confession and the early Westminster Confession both argued that the state should have an enforcer role in the church and that it could force on the people a particular church’s views on the sacraments, the Baptist confessions endorsed a view that removed the state’s power to enforce church matters and promoted liberty of conscience. The Particular Baptists were careful to avoid intermingling of the Two Kingdoms, while not removing the prophetic voice from the church. Eventually, in America, the Particular Baptist perspective on public theology won out even for most paedobaptist churches. Thus, at least in the West, the Baptist view came to be the predominant view of the Reformed. Semper Reformanda!

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Having laid a confessional foundation for our discussion, in the next article we will begin our discussion of some more recent developments regarding Reformed perspectives of Public Theology.

A Reformed Baptist Perspective on Public Theology: Two Kingdoms in Luther

Read the first two posts here and here.

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In the previous article, we discussed Augustine’s classic work City of God as a means of demonstrating how the Church interacts with the culture in the public sphere. Now, we will examine Martin Luther’s development of Augustine’s ideas.

Much of Luther’s public theology can be examined by interacting with Luther’s 1523 essay Temporal Authority: To What Extent It Should Be Obeyed. In this essay, Luther taught that the temporal authority (i.e. the civil state) exists by divine ordinance (cf. Genesis 4:14-15; 9:6), having existed since creation and having been confirmed by Moses, John the Baptist, and Christ Himself. Luther divided the human race into two groups, one belonging to the kingdom of God and the other belonging to the kingdom of the world. Luther argued that the citizens of the kingdom of God need neither law nor sword, whereas the citizens of the kingdom of this world need both. In light of this need, God has established two governments (one spiritual and one temporal). The spiritual government is for the Holy Spirit to produce righteous Christians under Christ’s rule, and the purpose of the temporal government is for restraining the wicked and non-believers by the sword.

Kingdom vs. Government

It’s important to note here that Luther introduces an important distinction between kingdom and government. The two kingdoms are mutually exclusive (reminiscent of Augustine’s Two Cities), but the two governments are not mutually exclusive. As Luther articulates the idea of the two governments that rule these two kingdoms, Luther makes clear that the temporal authority, which executes the legal and coercive government of the earthly kingdom, brings Christians and non-Christians under its sway. In Luther’s thought, we have a supplement to Augustine’s doctrine of the Two Cities, which David VanDrunen describes this way:

To some degree, Luther’s adding the nuance of two governments to the two kingdoms template accounts for the constructive development of Augustinian thought. For example, Luther’s two governments framework gives the two kingdoms an institutional expression – in church and state – that lurks just below the surface in the City of God but is never unambiguously expressed (Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms: A Study in the Development of Reformed Social Thought, pp. 60).

Moreover, by means of this added nuance of the two governments, Luther taught the validity and legitimacy of Christians participating in civil government, something not clearly articulated by Augustine. Consequently, according to Luther, Christians ought to heartily embrace their roles in the civil realm as an expression of their Christian love. For Luther, public society was a forum for the expression of Christian love and duty. In continuity with the medieval tradition, Luther taught the existence of natural law, of which the Ten Commandments is the primary summary; however, Luther moved beyond the medieval tradition by stating that natural law is the source, judge, and standard of all human laws.

Vocation in Luther’s Thought

It’s important to note that Luther’s Two Kingdom approach to public theology belonged to an entire theological system built around the Reformational doctrine of sola fide. The two governments (spiritual and temporal) relate to two kinds of righteousness (the righteousness of faith and civil righteousness), each of which in turn relates to gospel and law, respectively. Faith directs us upward toward God, while love drives us outward toward our neighbor. As persons we stand before God, while we hold various offices in the world as we live before others. One important application of Luther’s public theology was his doctrine of vocation. Luther saw that non-religious vocations (such as the baker, the shoemaker, and the soldier) came to be seen as equally God-pleasing as religious vocations (such as preachers and clerics). The various callings in human society, ecclesiastical and non-ecclesiastical, could now be fulfilled under God and His Word, and alongside one another with equal value.

Some modern advocates have interpreted Luther’s Two Kingdom doctrine as a justification for a twofold ethic for Christians, one for the spiritual government and the other for the temporal government. For example, one can find Luther saying that if a person is called to be a courageous soldier, that person must obey the summons, not as a Christian, but as a citizen subject to the state. In this view, there would be no such thing as a “Christian soldier” since the ethic of this occupation (associated with the temporary government) is distinct from Christian ethics (associated with the spiritual government). It is our contention that historical accuracy requires a more nuanced and careful analysis of Luther’s 1523 essay; in particular, it’s important to consider large sections of Luther’s teaching, which point to the integration of Christian faith and public service.

Luther’s Counsel for Princes

Consider the following discussion in Luther’s essay, in which he discusses the proper conduct of a Christian prince:

What, then, is a prince to do if he lacks the requisite wisdom and has to be guided by the jurists and the lawbooks? Answer: This is why I said that the princely estate is a perilous one. If he be not wise enough himself to master both his laws and his advisers, then the maxim of Solomon applies, ‘Woe to the land whose prince is a child’ (Eccles. 10:16). Solomon recognized this too. This is why he despaired of all law-even of that which Moses through God had prescribed for him-and of all his princes and counselors. He turned to God himself and besought him for an understanding heart to govern the people (I Kings 3:9). A prince must follow this example and proceed in fear; he must depend neither upon the dead books nor living heads, but cling solely to God, and be at him constantly, praying for a right understanding, beyond that of all books and teachers, to rule his subjects wisely. For this reason I know of no law to prescribe for a prince; instead, I will simply instruct his heart and mind on what his attitude should be toward all laws, counsels, judgments, and actions. If he governs himself accordingly, God will surely grant him the ability to carry out all laws, counsels, and actions in a proper and godly way.

According to Luther, the Christian prince must govern by trusting in God, praying constantly for a right understanding found in divine wisdom that enables the implementation of human laws and counsels in a “proper and godly way”. As a side note: Notice also how Luther not only offers his counsel as to how a prince ought to rule, but even sets himself up as counsel to the prince in question. He writes: “…instead, I will simply instruct his heart and mind on what his attitude should be…” Not only did Luther see that it was right and proper for a Christian to serve in public office but, in the instance that a “so-called” Christian comes to hold public office, Luther saw it necessary for him as a pastor to offer counsel to such a man. Now, one may raise the question: “What is the proper and godly way for a ruler to govern?” This “proper and godly way”, according to Luther, is by following the example of Jesus Christ. Luther continues in his essay:

First. he must give consideration and attention to his subjects, and really devote himself to it. This he does when he directs his every thought to making himself useful and beneficial to them; when instead of thinking, ‘The land and people belong to me, I will do what best pleases me,’ he thinks rather, ‘I belong to the land and the people, I shall do what is useful and good for them. My concern will not be how to lord it over them and dominate them, but how to protect and maintain them in peace and plenty.’ He should picture Christ to himself, and say, ‘Behold, Christ, the supreme ruler, came to serve me; he did not seek to gain power, estate, and honor from me, but considered only my need, and directed all things to the end that I should gain power, estate, and honor from him and through him. I will do likewise, seeking from my subjects not my own advantage but theirs. I will use my office to serve and protect them, listen to their problems and defend them, and govern to the sole end that they, not I, may benefit and profit from my rule.’ In such manner should a prince in his heart empty himself of his power and authority, and take unto himself the needs of his subjects, dealing with them as though they were his own needs. For this is what Christ is to us [Phil. 2:7]; and these are the proper works of Christian love.

Throughout this portion of his essay, Luther appeals to Scripture for instruction on attitude and approach, for example, and for encouragement to rule well as a Christian prince. The same principle would naturally apply to Christian mayors, councilmen, and other Christians in political office. For Luther, “love and natural law” must guide the rule above and beyond all law books and jurists’ opinions for the Christian prince. Although love is a universal norm and love corresponds to deeds that conform to natural law, both love and natural law require the illumination of Scripture. This is not true only for Christian politicians, but for Christians in numerous other vocations. Consider the following thought from Luther

The book [Scripture] is laid in your own bosom, and it is so clear that you do not need glasses to understand Moses and the Law. Thus you are your own Bible, your own teacher, your own theologian, and your own preacher. If you are a manual laborer, you will find that the Bible has been put in your workshop, into your hand, into your heart. It teaches and preaches how you should treat your neighbor. Just look at your tools—at your needle or thimble, your beer barrel, your goods, your scales or yardstick or measure—and you will read this statement inscribed in them. Everywhere you look, it stares at you. . . . All this is continually crying out to you: ‘Friend, use me in your relations with your neighbor just as you want your neighbor to use his property in his relations with you.’

Conclusion

When one surveys Luther’s writings, the overwhelming impression is that for Luther, the Christian faith did not exist alongside public life, but came to expression and functioned within public life. Luther knew how to distinguish between the spiritual government and the temporal government, but he never separated them. Luther entered the world’s domain in the name of God with the Word of God. In this way, Luther’s public theology is thoroughly Augustinian. It is true that one cannot rule the world with the gospel, just as much as the City of Man cannot be transformed into the City of God. However, this does not mean that that Christians are permitted to ignore instruction from the Scripture, like the exhortations from the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon on the Mount touches a person’s heart and conscience, but from this inward life flows outward conduct so that true humanity finds expression in public life.

In our next post, we will examine how the Reformed, from Calvin to the English Particular Baptists, developed these ideas in brought their own nuances into the development of Public Theology.