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 – 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 I)

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

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When discussing the idea of the Two Cities and Two Kingdoms paradigms for understanding public theology, many leave a tremendous gap between Luther and modern scholarship. We would be negligent to do so here, though. For a uniquely Reformed Baptist perspective on these issues to be well informed, one must be aware of the fact that there is more than just a Lutheran perspective of public theology to draw upon. There is also a Reformed tradition, which just so happens to be the tradition from which Baptists sprung.

Luther’s further development of Augustine’s paradigm certainly plays a large role in the development of Calvinistic, Reformed, and Reformed Baptist approaches to public theology. However, Calvin and his predecessors did not adopt Luther’s theology without some contributions of their own. Luther’s views on the subject evolved throughout the course of his life and the life of Saxony. The same could be said of Zwingli in Zurich, Calvin in Geneva, and the Dutch, British, French, German, and American Reformers that would follow in their footsteps.

According to Oliver O’Donovan and Joan Lockwood, Calvin intermingled aspects of the patristics, the scholastics, and Luther in the development of his public theology with ideas and methods he’d received from classical political philosophy as well as humanist literary, historical, and legal scholarship (O’Donovan and Lockwood, From Irenaeus to Grotius, 662). Calvin’s take on public theology took into account not only the collective wisdom of church history and Western Civilization, but it also brought several disciplines to bear on the matter. Thus, it would be highly inappropriate to attempt to transplant Luther’s theory into the Reformed tradition without any consideration of nuance or further development by Calvin and his theological predecessors.

Recognizing the willingness of the Reformers to shift understandings of these matters to meet the ever changing political structures of their times and cultures, it’s important that we as 21st century Westerners seek to discern as best we can the most universal elements of the Reformed take on Public Theology. Perhaps the best place to look to find these universal elements are in the development of the Reformed confessions of faith. For the purposes of this series, we will look at four such confessions that particularly pertain to the Reformed and Reformed Baptists: The Belgic Confession, The Baptist Confession (1644/1646), The Westminster Confession, and The Baptist Confession (1677/1689). As we examine these confessions, we will see how historical considerations over time forced the Reformed to continue to revisit the biblical texts most pertinent to the subject matter at hand and further Reform their views on public theology. Semper Reformanda!

Separation of Church and State

Some would take issue with there even being a chapter on magistrates in the confessions. They argue that there should be a complete separation of church and state neither where the state speaks with authority to the church nor where the church speaks with authority to the state. Sam Waldron has offered a response to such reasoning.

“Does it surprise you that the Confession contains a chapter on the subject ‘Of the Civil Magistrate’? Are you inclined to ask, ‘What does politics have to do with Christ?’ If that is something of your response, may I suggest that you are a victim of a religious background which has retreated from its social responsibilities under a wrong view of the separation of church and state? Such an attitude has virtually denied the sovereignty of God over all areas of life. To restrict Christianity to the ‘spiritual’ realm is, ultimately, to destroy it” (Waldron, A Modern Exposition, 284).

The concept of the separation of church and state was a concept unique with Baptists in England and America. It was framed as a larger concept in which to set the gemstone of liberty of conscience, yet another uniquely Baptist doctrine. This concept was never meant to be taken as a separation of God and state. It is important to note at this juncture that not all Reformed confessions championed these concepts. Of course, we’ll see that quick enough as we examine our first Reformed confession: The Belgic Confession.

The Belgic Confession (1619)

589Reformed confessions have always dealt with the subject of the civil magistrate. Specifically regarding this subject the Reformed confessions are in general agreement that the role of government is to wield the sword granted them by God for the punishment of evil and the promotion of good (cf. Romans 13:1-7). Also, shared among the confessions is the recognition that duty is owed by the governed subjects to their magistrates, those magistrates having been given their office by God. The Belgic Confession goes quite a bit further than this, though.

“And the government’s task is not limited to caring for and watching over the public domain but extends also to upholding the sacred ministry, with a view to removing and destroying all idolatry and false worship of the Antichrist; to promoting the kingdom of Jesus Christ; and to furthering the preaching of the gospel everywhere; to the end that God may be honored and served by everyone, as he requires in his Word” (The Belgic Confession, Article 36).

Thus, the Confession most commonly held by the Dutch Reformed community promotes the use of the magistrate to enforce church discipline and promote the furtherance of the gospel. Without doubt this is seen, at least in seed form, in the practices of Zwingli and Calvin. In fact, it was over this issue that Zwingli’s disciples eventually separated from him birthing what would eventually come to be called the Anabaptist movement in Switzerland. Tellingly, The Belgic Confession takes a clear stance against the Anabaptists, anarchists, and revolutionists in its pronouncements.

“Moreover everyone, regardless of status, condition, or rank, must be subject to the government, and pay taxes, and hold its representatives in honor and respect, and obey them in all things that are not in conflict with God’s Word, praying for them that the Lord may be willing to lead them in all their ways and that we may live a peaceful and quiet life in all piety and decency.

And on this matter we reject the Anabaptists, anarchists, and in general all those who want to reject the authorities and civil officers and to subvert justice by introducing common ownership of goods and corrupting the moral order that God has established among human beings” (Ibid.).

This being the earliest of the Reformed confessions, the Westminster Assembly and the Particular Baptists developed much of their public theology upon it. While an argument can be made that it is the most Reformed position, in that it is most faithful to the views and conduct of Calvin and Zwingli, such an argument does not allow for the application of the Semper Reformanda (always reforming) principle. As circumstances changed in Luther’s and Calvin’s political and cultural situations, their understandings of these matters adapted. The Reformed tradition moving forward into the 17th century also adapted to the changing times, returning again and again to the Scriptures to determine the best approach to new considerations as they arose.

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In our next article, we will continue our discussion of public theology in the Reformed confessions by examining developments in some of the English confessions of the 17th century.

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.

A Reformed Baptist Perspective on Public Theology: Augustine’s Two Cities

Read the Introduction here.

 

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Augustine wrote City of God as an apologetic in response to those who were crediting Christians with the downfall of Rome. They argued that Christianity as a religion weakens cultures and makes them susceptible to overthrow by foreign powers. Augustine argued to the contrary that, whereas faithful commitment to the God of Scripture has always brought about flourishing in particular cultures, increased rebellion against Him has always resulted in their downfall. Within these cultures, Augustine recognized that there were two types of citizens: those of the City of God and those of the City of Man (also known as the city of this world or the earthly city).

A Necessary Dichotomy

Augustine distinguished the City of God from the City of Man. These two cities are organized societies with citizens who are respectively distinguished by the standards by which they live. Citizens of the City of Man live by the standard of the flesh, whereas citizens of the City of God live by the Spirit (cf. Galatians 5:13-26). Augustine emphasizes that what ultimately distinguishes the two cities are their loves: “We see then that the two cities were created by two kinds of love: the earthly city was created by self-love reaching the point of contempt for God, the Heavenly City by the love of God carried as far as contempt of self.” (Book 14, Chapter 28).

It’s important to emphasize that, for Augustine, there is no dual citizenship – in other words, each individual member is a member of one city, and one city only. Augustine reiterated Jesus’ teaching that while Christians live in the City of Man, they do not belong to the City of Man (cf. John 18:36). Their presence in the earthly city is like that of strangers sojourning in a foreign country (cf. 1 Peter 1:1-2). The City of Man is not our true home; rather, our citizenship is in heaven (cf. Philippians 3:20) and it is to that Heavenly City that we owe our affections and our ultimate loyalty.

As some have rightly observed, Christians are in a very similar situation to that of the church during the period of the Assyrian Dispersion and the Babylonian Exile. We remain citizens of Zion while we sojourn in a foreign land and seek, in our occupations and conversations, to enable flourishing, both our own and that of those around us. As part of our goal to aid in the flourishing of the land shared by these two competing cities, the City of God necessarily speaks the truth in boldness when addressing the City of Man.

Augustine’s Critique Centered on Virtue

Some have interpreted Augustine’s words as a justification for the withdrawal of Christians (and a Christian worldview) from the civil and political sphere of society, but this would be a misreading of Augustine. Augustine strongly believed that the blessedness of civic life would be enhanced if the majority were to hear and embrace the Christian precepts of justice and moral virtue. Consider the words of Augustine in Book II, Chapter 19 of The City of God:

If ‘the kings of the earth and all nations, princes and all the judges of the earth, young men and maidens, old men and children’ [Psalm 148.11f.], people of every age and each sex; if those to whom John the Baptist spoke, even the tax gatherers and the soldiers [Luke 3.12f.]: if all these together were to hear and embrace the Christian precepts of justice and moral virtue, then would the commonwealth adorn its lands with happiness in this present life and ascend to the summit of life eternal, there to reign in utmost blessedness.

Augustine also emphasized that the City of God and the City of Man are competing, intermingling loyalties within the same culture. It is at this aspect of the City of Man that Augustine’s critique is most pointed.

The City of Man always seeks stability, if for no other reason than to maintain its own power, and as a result, it legislates at the level of the minimal standards needed to preserve society. The City of Man, therefore, emphasizes tolerance of differences (as long as they don’t interfere with the government’s power) in order to avoid conflict. For the City of Man, this passes for peace, albeit distorted by greed and selfishness. The City of Man is dominated by self-love and built around the lowest common denominator in society, which is self-indulgence. Virtue is absent since the citizens of the City of Man love themselves more than others, though good behavior may be enforced by social customs or by coercion by the state. In this environment, the state is necessary to restrain evil. Herein lies the dilemma: the problem is, the government itself is part of the City of Man and is itself dominated by self-love. The State is more interested in self-promotion and power than it is in promoting the good. In the City of Man, the State is nothing less than organized oppression, and maintains its power through violence and threats.

In contrast to the City of Man, the City of God is built around love of God and therefore love of neighbor. Because of this focus on love, all true virtue resides in the City of God. The City of God also seeks peace, though of a different and more profound sort. Whereas the City of Man uses terror to compel good behavior and to protect good people from the wicked, the City of God relies only on penitence, grace, and mercy, not compulsion, to advance its goals. Augustine emphasized that the City of Man cannot accomplish its penultimate ends (i.e. safety, peace, etc.) if its ultimate ends, means, and motivations (i.e. domination, pride, and self-love) are fundamentally disordered. This is a reality that is understood by citizens of the City of God and because of our love for our neighbor, we have a responsibility to speak this truth in boldness to citizens of the City of Man. In this way, the City of God can influence citizens of the City of Man by addressing the moral conscience of the City of Man. In this role, the citizens of the city of God become a prophetic voice to the State – forth-telling the God’s truth as revealed in Scripture.

In the next blog, we will consider how Augustine’s Two Cities has been applied throughout Church history by examining the thoughts of Martin Luther on the subject as well as the modern advocates of Two Kingdoms theology.

A Reformed Baptist Perspective on Public Theology: An Introduction

Disclaimer: The present series is a presentation of the thoughts of two Reformed Baptists (Gabriel Williams and William Leonhart) on the relationship between kingdom and culture. This series is to be taken neither as the view of all Reformed Baptists nor as the view of all contributors to CredoCovenant. Reformed Baptists are a diverse group with a wide variety of perspectives on this issue.

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Paying attention to the news, one will have noticed that 2015 has been a year marked by numerous stories that have deeply affected American cultural life in the present and will doubtless have many ramifications in the future. The following list is a quick rundown of just a few major stories that have gained attention in 2015 (so far) throughout social media.

A cursory examination demonstrates that many of the news stories mentioned above involve matters of social justice and politics. This raises a significant question for Christians to consider: What is the proper Biblical approach regarding matters of social justice and politics? This question is one that addresses fundamental aspects of public theology.

Considerations

Before answering it, we’re compelled to acknowledge the complexity of the question. Its answer demands a discussion on the relationship between the Church and State, the relationship between individual Christians and the institutional Church (i.e. a discussion of ecclesiology), and an honest discussion regarding numerous Biblical passages. Moreover, this discussion will also lead to a discussion on economic theory and political theory.

The purpose of this blog series is to present a biblical approach regarding matters of social justice and politics using Reformed and Baptistic presuppositions and to apply this biblical approach to a number of pressing issues within our American context. Our position on this matter can be summarized by the following ten points:

  1. Christians are truly citizens of the Kingdom of God and we owe our affections and our ultimate loyalty to the Heavenly City where righteousness dwells.
  2. Christians live in this present, evil age and our presence in this earthly city is like that of strangers sojourning in a foreign country.
  3. The Kingdom of God and the kingdom of this present, evil age are competing, conflicting, intermingling loyalties within the same public sphere with antithetical worldviews.
  4. Unbelievers are truly citizens of this earthly city with a nature that is governed by the flesh, rather than the Spirit, and thus have a nature that is antithetical to the Kingdom of God.
  5. Because unbelievers have disordered affections, they cannot have properly ordered penultimate ends (such as peace and justice) and thus, it should not be expected that they will rightly exercise citizenship in the public sphere.
  6. Because this present, evil age is set in opposition to the Kingdom of God, Christians cannot “redeem the culture” or transform the earthly city into the Kingdom of God.
  7. The Kingdom of Grace is already present in the invisible church, while we await the ultimate fulfillment of the Kingdom of God in glory (William Collins, “The Baptist Catechism,” Q.109).
  8. Christians are called to engage the citizens of the earthly city in the public sphere as those who have been transformed by the Spirit and to serve as a prophetic voice to our culture, forth-telling the truth of God as revealed in the Scripture.
  9. Within our American culture, if we desire to speak prophetically to the ruling class of our day, we must do so by going directly to the people, for they are the ruling class in America.
  10. The separation of Church and state means that the state is not permitted to intrude into matters of conscience nor matters of church government.

The Approach

In this blog series, we will examine the biblical warrant for each of these ten points. We will begin by discussing historical perspectives on this topic. The knowledgeable reader will recognize that our ten points are strongly grounded in Augustine’s insights into public theology. It is our contention that any discussion of how the Church interacts with the culture in the public sphere must start by interacting with Augustine’s classic work The City of God.

We will discuss various perspectives from important historical figures (such as Martin Luther, Abraham Kuyper, Herman Dooyeweerd) and from modern voices (such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, C.S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, David VanDrunen, D.G. Hart, and James K. A. Smith). After conducting a historic survey of Christian thought on this issue, we will also conduct a survey of Scripture to examine biblical theology and biblical precedence on this matter. Finally, we will discuss how our position can be applied to various contemporary issues involving social justice and economic justice.

The Desired Tone

Our goal in this series is not first-and-foremost to critique other views on Christian social theory. While we may respectfully disagree with many of our contemporaries in both the theonomist and the modern Two Kingdoms camps, we will place more emphasis on the respect than on the disagreement. We do recognize that we cannot establish one position without discussing its disagreement with other positions. However, we recognize those with whom we disagree as our brothers in Christ.

As such, our goal is to enter the conversation with a positive argument for our position. It is not our goal to engage in a heated debate with a negative argument against the positions of others. We have respectfully chosen to leave that debate for another time and another place. While we do not mean to discourage debate from those who disagree with us, we do ask that you hear us out in full before responding in the comments section. There are several posts to come.