In 1520 Martin Luther published one of his most influential treatises, On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church. in it he attempted to set the church free from bondage to human opinion by unleashing again, as it were, God’s Word as the sole rule for the Christian faith and the Christian life. One of the great problems Luther saw in the medieval church was that she was precise (in canon law and traditional practice) where she should have granted liberty and she was tolerant, i.e., she granted latitude, where she should have been more precise (e.g., on the sacraments). The medieval church had arrogated to herself power to add to what Christ had instituted.
The problem of being strict where we should be loose and loose where we should be strict did not end in 1520. It continues to trouble the Reformed churches almost 500 years later. In November, 2009, I wrote, in this space, a post addressing the problem of being precisionist where Scripture grants latitude and being latitudinarian where Scripture requires precision. In the earlier episode the question was that of Christian schools. More recently we saw another example of such confusion. Recently, a leading advocate of the self-described Federal Vision movement criticized me for being too strict on the doctrine of justification and too loose on social issues. He has it exactly backwards.
Not that it matters but my political philosophy tends to free market, social conservative, libertarianism. I’ve argued here for things like religious liberty, private property, natural law, and against homosexuality. Apparently that doesn’t pass his test. As the kids say, “whatever.” When it comes to social questions, I’m willing to tolerate views other than my own even when I disagree strongly with them.
When it comes to matters of the Reformed confession, considered narrowly, however, i.e., when it comes to a status confessionis (a state of confession), I am a precisionist. According to the Reformed confession (e.g., Belgic Confession articles 22-24; Heidelberg Catechism QQ. 21, 56, 60; WCF 11; WLC 70-74), there is only one Christian doctrine of justification (acceptance with God). Sinners are justified by God’s free favor, on the basis of Christ’s righteousness imputed, and that received through resting, receiving, trusting in Christ and his finished work alone. No sanctity that the Holy Spirit works in us and nothing that we do counts for anything in the justification of a sinner before God. In contrast, this advocate of the FV movement thinks it’s fine to say that baptism unites the baptized person to Christ and that retention of the benefits of baptism is conditioned upon our cooperation with the grace given in baptism. The Reformed churches deny this error categorically. He admits infants to holy communion (his denomination encourages it). The Reformed churches uniformly confess and practice the opposite. He’s a latitudinarian on the question of baptism (infant baptism vs believer’s baptism; his denomination accepts both). The Reformed churches, however, are unanimous about the question of infant baptism.
Yes, the social questions we face are significant. I understand that we don’t live in heaven, that we live in this world, and that we must make our way in this world. I understand that religious and social conservatives are unsettled and uncertain about the future and their place and the well being of their families and congregations. Reformed Christians, however, are not just a sub-species of religious and social conservatism. We have things in common with religious and social conservatives but the agenda of religious and social conservatism does not define the Reformed faith and identity. God’s Word as confessed by the churches defines the Reformed faith and identity.
Recently I was astounded to read a quite vocal critic of a “two-kingdoms” approach to relating Christ and culture say, in print, that the issue is not whether God administers his sovereign providence in two distinct ways. “Really?” I thought to myself. That’s remarkable because it seems to me that is exactly the issue. Once more I’m reminded of Emily Litella. I’m waiting for the “never mind.” This inversion, this social precisionism and theological and ecclesiastical latitudinarianism, is precisely why it’s important to distinguish between the two spheres of the administration of God’s sovereignty. The social sphere is a common sphere, a sphere shared by believers and non-believers. It’s what used to be called “secular” before the word “secular” became a pejorative and the antithesis of “religious.” The proper antithesis of religious is pagan or atheist or something on that order. Properly, “secular” denotes “non-ecclesiastical.” It is still used this way in the UK but in the USA the connotation of “secular” as “opposed to God” has overwhelmed the older usage. Allow me to use it in the older sense of “non-ecclesiastical” to make a point. The common or the secular sphere is, in God’s sovereign providence, governed by general principles (laws) revealed by God in nature and in the human conscience. The Apostle Paul teaches us as much in Romans 1-2 and in Romans 13. The Apostle Peter teaches this throughout 1 Peter. Neither Peter nor Paul laid out an agenda for the civil magistrate (Caesar) because there was no need. They knew that Caesar already knew what to do: punish evil doers and protect the innocent.
The sacred sphere represented by the chief visible, institutional manifestation of the kingdom, the church, is not common. It is governed not by general principles revealed in nature. It is governed by God’s extensive revelation of his law and gospel in Holy Scripture. This is why the Apostles wrote at such length to the churches, not about the great civil problems of the first century, but about the great ecclesiastical problems of the 1st century, about getting the gospel right, about not confusing the law with the gospel, about church discipline, about who is eligible for special office in the church and the like. The Apostles were positively precisionist. They were not latitudinarian about these things. Paul did not say to Peter, “Look, we both believe in justification by grace we just have different ways of expressing it and working it out.” Not at all! He remonstrated with Peter and then recorded (under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit) the rebuke for posterity in Galatians 2. Paul was not tolerant at all of differing views of justification. The Apostle Peter wasn’t tolerant of people who lied to the Holy Spirit. The Apostles weren’t tolerant of those who attempted to buy the Holy Spirit. Their response to such sins was not only intolerant but even brutal. In one case people lost their lives and in another a fellow was told, in effect, where he could go with his money.
This is about first principles and priorities. We must resist the temptation to confuse the two spheres of God’s sovereign administration of his providence. His general, common (to believers and unbelievers) providence (Matt 5:48) is one thing and his special providence, administered in his church, is another. We must learn to distinguish the sacred and the secular (as defined above) properly. We must learn to be precisionist where Scripture (and the Reformed churches following Scripture) are precisionist and tolerant where Scripture is tolerant. We face some great, long-term social issues but if we fail to make proper distinctions the churches will also face crises and those are, ultimately, of greater consequence. To be latitudinarian where Scripture is precise and to be precise where Scripture grants freedom is sentence the church to another Babylonian Captivity.