Dear Mr _______, I’m grateful that you’re reading Recovering the Reformed Confession and that you took the time to write. I don’t know that I will be able to satisfy your concerns. It may be that we disagree on some basic issues.
Let me try to reply briefly to your first point re the use of Scripture as a “as sort of textbook of policy and civil-legal questions….” I would encourage you to take a look at the broader context but I stand by my argument. The Bible is not intended to be used as a textbook for civil policy any more than it is intended as a “playbook” for sports. That does not mean that God’s law does not apply to contemporary social and civil issues but it is not faithful to Scripture to use it in a way that it does not intend to be used. That is one of the great differences between the confessional Reformed appropriation of Scripture and the non-confessional. The latter do not see themselves as bound to respecting the divine intention for Scripture. We understand, however, that Scripture is God’s holy, inerrant, infallible, normative, Word. It is not the servant of our social agendas (right-wing or left-wing). My concern that too often Christians, of whatever political persuasion, come to Scripture with an agenda and they use it to further their own ends. They may not even be aware that the are doing so. They may even sincerely believe that what they are doing and saying is just what Scripture says, but Scripture is being abused nonetheless.
God’s law is revealed in two places, Scripture and nature (see Romans 1-2). The law obligates civil authorities to preserve and pursue civil justice as God’s ministers but Scripture does not spell out exactly how that is to be done. The Apostle Paul did not prescribe civil policy to those civil rulers with whom he spoke but he did preach the gospel of the resurrection. Nowhere does the NT advocate a particular form of civil polity nor does it advocate specific civil policies. It does say explicitly that Christians are to pray for rulers and to live quietly (1 Tim 2:1-2; 1 Thess 4:11; 1 Pet 2:12-16). The NT speaks repeatedly about the need for Christians to live quiet, godly lives. We’re to pray for those in authority over us. We’re to submit to them. This isn’t quietism it’s the clear and explicit teaching of God’s Word. This is because of the progress of redemptive history and revelation. Israel was a theocracy but, according to WCF 19, that system “expired” with the death of Christ. It was never intended to serve as a detailed pattern for post-canonical civil life except insofar is the “general equity thereof” is instructive.
All this is to say that I think the American system is the right system. Christians have a right to advocate for various policies on the basis of the general principles of the second table of God’s law. We ought to be pro-life, we ought to encourage civil rulers to punish criminals, but we ought to be very careful about giving the impression that we have God’s policy manual. We do not, beyond the moral law, to which even the rankest pagan has access in his conscience. That’s the teaching of God’s Word.
John Calvin articulated a basic distinction that is very helpful:
Therefore, in order that none of us may stumble on that stone, let us first consider that there is a twofold government in man (duplex esse in homine regimen): one aspect is spiritual, whereby the conscience is instructed in piety and in reverencing God; the second is political, whereby man is educated for the duties of humanity and citizenship that must be maintained among men. These are usually called the “spiritual” and the “temporal” jurisdiction (not improper terms) by which is meant that the former sort of government pertains to the life of the soul, while the latter has to do with the concerns of the present life—not only with food and clothing but with laying down laws whereby a man may live his life among other men holily, honorably, and temperately. For the former resides in the inner mind, while the latter regulates only outward behavior. The one we may call the spiritual kingdom, the other, the political kingdom. Now these two, as we have divided them, must always be examined separately; and while one is being considered, we must call away and turn aside the mind from thinking about the other. There are in man, so to speak, two worlds, over which different kings and different laws have authority (Institutes, 3.19.15).
This is why we confess in WCF 19:
Synods and councils are to handle, or conclude nothing, but that which is ecclesiastical: and are not to intermeddle with civil affairs which concern the commonwealth, unless by way of humble petition in cases extraordinary; or, by way of advice, for satisfaction of conscience, if they be thereunto required by the civil magistrate.
Christians ought to be active in civil life but the church, as church, has been called by her Lord to be an embassy for an eternal kingdom. Christians, as Calvin said, live in both kingdoms simultaneously. They have different responsibilities in each kingdom. Both are under the sovereign Lordship of Christ and both are subject to God’s law, but in different ways.
This leads me to address your second point: Christian liberty. I can’t find anywhere that I used the expression “personal liberty.” I did write, “that some of us really do take the Scriptures as a guide to civil government and moral renewal for American society and not chiefly as the infallible and inerrant revelation of God’s saving work and Word in history. This episode is an example of the attempt to achieve epistemic and moral certainty on questions that are properly matters of liberty.” Again, I stand by what I wrote. The Scriptures explicitly teach a doctrine of Christian liberty (James 1:25; 2:12). Because the law is God-given and objective it protects each of us from the subjective whims and opinions of others. Paul defended the Christian liberty of the gentile believers (Gal 2:4; 5:1, 13; 1 Pet 2:16; 2 Pet 2;19).
The doctrine of Christian liberty was one of the foundational issues of the Reformation. The medieval church prescribed rules on all sorts of matters to which God’s Word does no speak explicitly or implicitly. The medieval church imposed a calendar, sacraments, rules, and orders that have no warrant in God’s Word. One of Luther’s great treatises of 1520 was on The Freedom of the Christian Man. The legalism that Luther and Calvin fought has never gone away and American Christianity and Reformed Christianity is replete with examples of it. In some congregations it is required that one send his child to the denominational school. In others it is required that one home school. In some it is required that one drink and in others the culture requires that one abstain. In some congregations it is required that one vote a certain way or affiliate with a certain party. These are examples of the violation of the liberty Christ earned for us and examples of where the church, as an institution and as organism, exceeds its proper boundaries. Christians are free to advocate points of view that they believe to be consonant with or implied by God’s Word, but the church as church may not require believers to adhere to such things so long as they neither taught by Scripture explicitly nor declared by the churches (in the confessions) to be good and necessary consequences. I am particularly concerned about the erosion of Christian liberty in the matter of worship. Increasingly congregations seem to require their members to engage in practices in stated worship services that have never been confessed by the Reformed churches and that are not taught in God’s Word.
Of course your two questions dovetail. The other issue here is the nature of Scripture. Is it, as I claim, the inspired record “God’s saving work and Word in history” or is it a manual for contemporary civil life or a detailed guide to the length of the creation days? Scripture itself teaches us that it principally testifies to God’s saving revelation and work in Christ (Luke 24; 2 Cor 1:20; John 8:56). The Israelite theocracy is expired. Our Lord did not command us to go and establish a new civil order but to preach the gospel, to make disciples, and to baptize. Yes, Christians must develop and live out of a Christian worldview, but that worldview is a basic set of convictions that guides their daily life. It is not a detailed web of policy prescriptions, however beneficial one might believe those policies to be. So, I cannot accept the easy equation of the bible with coach Pelini’s playbook. God’s holy Word, as we both know, is much more than a playbook. It is, in the gospel, the power of God unto salvation.
So, we may have two different prescriptions for how to avoid fads. I think the way to avoid the sorts of fads you mention is to get back to what we actually confess. If our congregations were well-grounded in God’s Word, if they understood what we confess it and why, they would be prepared to see things like the FV movement for what they are. I agree that too many professing believers live no differently that their non-Christian neighbors but the answer is not detailed social policy prescriptions but for them to be confronted with the law as law, with their own sin, their need for a Savior, and the consequent moral obligations entailed by faith in and union with Christ. Then there is church discipline. If our Lord has given the keys of the kingdom to his church (and to her officers; Matt 16 and 18) then the church (as an institution) should be practicing discipline. If members are living impenitent, ungodly lives, they need the correction of the church and, if they remain impenitent, they should be excommunicated in order that God might convict them of their sin and need for a Savior.
I think every believer should read Mike Horton’s three volumes: Christless Christianity, The Gospel-Driven Life, and The Gospel Commission. These are the antidote for the things ailing the churches. As to engagement in the civil sphere, I think my colleague David VanDrunen has addressed this well in his volumes Living in God’s Two Kingdoms and Bioethics and the Christian Life. These are attempts to set forth the implications, in daily life, of a Christian worldview.
There can be no question that the requirements of God’s holy law must be pressed upon those who confess faith in Christ. As a faculty we seek to prepare our students to do just that. This is why we held a conference in 2007 on The Law of God and the Christian. This is why I spent a fair bit of RRC attempting to persuade ostensibly Reformed folk to re-embrace the substance of what we confess on the sabbath and worship. These things are beginning steps. How will professing believers think like Christians if they cannot even understand that God has, as a matter of creation, set aside on day in seven for rest and worship? That would seem to me to be a basic element in a Christian worldview. As I wrote in RRC, I am concerned that we have become “creationists” but no longer really believe in creation, i.e., that God has established basic creational patterns in the world.
Finally, your penultimate paragraph suggests that we are operating out of quite different paradigms. I have no confidence that, after the death of Christ, God has any specific, special relationship with any nation or civil entity. Your letter seems to assume that if a nation will obey God’s law, he will bless it materially etc. That was true for national Israel but that temporary, typological national covenant has been fulfilled by Christ and, to quote the WCF again, has “expired.” There are no such national promises after the end of national Israel. Will things go better for a nation/state that conforms more closely to God’s moral law? Surely, but that is a matter of God’s general providence not a special covenantal relation between God and a nation.
Ministers must prepare God’s people to be faithful in response to his Word but they do that best by first preaching the law to drive sinners to Christ, by preaching the unalloyed Gospel of free acceptance with God by faith alone, in Christ alone, by grace alone, and then by preaching the abiding validity of God’s moral law in all its fullness, recognizing that believers live under God’s sovereign rule, by his design, in two distinct (but related) spheres. One of them is eternal and the other temporal, both are important but one is everlasting (Phil 3) and the church, as an institution, is called to pay attention to that kingdom even as it prepares Christians to live in both kingdoms simultaneously.