19 December 2015

Abraham Kuyper's moment

Nearly a century after his death, Abraham Kuyper’s moment may finally have arrived. It was a long time in coming.

I find it odd to recall a time when I myself had not heard of Kuyper. My ignorance of the great statesman and polymath might be surprising because I grew up in an Orthodox Presbyterian congregation with many Dutch and Frisian surnames among its members – CRC expats I would imagine. In fact, I discovered much later that the father of an elderly widow in our church had delivered groceries to Kuyper back in the Netherlands. And still I somehow managed to avoid hearing his name.

Until just short of my twentieth birthday, that is. I was studying at a Christian university in Minnesota and had switched my major from music to political science several months earlier. The Turkish invasion of Cyprus the previous summer had forced my paternal relatives from their homes, and I was suddenly interested in seeing justice done, especially to those unable to defend themselves.

After a brief flirtation with anabaptism and pacifism, a friend alerted me to the writings put out by the old Wedge Publishing Foundation and the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto. Among other things I read H. Evan Runner’s Scriptural Religion and Political Task and The Relation of the Bible to Learning. Runner’s dictum that life is religion strongly resonated with me, as did Kuyper’s commitment to the comprehensive lordship of God in Christ over the whole of life. Here was something worth celebrating. Biblical truths that had previously been in the background for me suddenly came alive and made sense in a new way.

But almost none of my Christian friends and family had heard of Kuyper or knew of the vibrant intellectual tradition associated with his legacy. They knew Billy Graham and D. L. Moody and a host of well-known mostly English-speaking missionaries to foreign lands. But the notion of a Christian statesman seeking to honour God in concrete political service was far from view.

The turning point may have come just before the turn of the century, when Nancy Pearcey and Chuck Colson published How Now Shall We Live?, in which they succeeded in raising Kuyper’s profile in the larger evangelical community in North America. Another milestone was reached when James Bratt’s highly readable biography, Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat, was published two years ago. Then there are Richard Mouw’s Abraham Kuyper: A Short and Personal Introduction, and Jan de Bruijn’s handsomely illustrated Abraham Kuyper: A Pictorial Biography, worthy of gracing the coffee table in any family’s living room.

Of course, many of Kuyper’s writings are still locked away in the Dutch language, inaccessible to the Anglophone world. But the Abraham Kuyper Translation Society is working hard to change this, with the assistance of a number of people, including my friend and emeritus colleague, Dr. Harry Van Dyke. Co-sponsors include the Acton Institute, Christian’s Library Press and Kuyper College of Grand Rapids, Michigan.

As of now three volumes have been released of Kuyper’s Common Grace, published by Christian’s Library Press, with more to come. Ons Program (Our Program), the program of Kuyper’s Anti-Revolutionary Party, was released in 2013 under the title, Guidance for Christian Engagement in Government.

In October of this year Lexham Press announced the publication of several of Kuyper’s most important works in English to be spread over twelve volumes in both print and digital formats. Together these constitute his Collected Works in Public Theology, the first of which is now available.

Kuyper’s moment may at last have come. And just in time for Christmas when so many of us are puzzling over what to give to the Kuyperians among our loved ones. My hope is that, with the increasing availability of Kuyper’s writings in English, more North American Christians will immerse themselves in his world and in his distinctive piety. At a time when an increasingly aggressively secularism is challenging a biblical witness in so many areas, Kuyper once again offers the tools we need to live obediently as redeemed sinners in the public realm – every square inch of it.

David T. Koyzis is the author of the award-winning Political Visions and Illusions (InterVarsity Press). He teaches politics at Redeemer University College. This originally appeared in the 14 December issue of  Christian Courier.

24 November 2015

Socialism in America? Why people no longer fear it

Virtually every western constitutional democracy has one or more major parties claiming to represent the principles of socialism. Britain has its Labour Party, France has its Parti socialiste, and Germany has its Sozialdemokratische Partei. Even Canada, where I've lived for thirty years, has its own democratic socialist party, the New Democratic Party, which has governed half of Canada's provinces and managed to form the official opposition at the federal level between 2011 and this year. The NDP's first federal leader, Tommy Douglas (better known south of the border as actor Kiefer Sutherland's grandfather), is considered a national hero due to his role in establishing this country's system of universal health care.

But the United States is almost alone in lacking a functioning socialist party. There are many theories behind this absence, the Hartz-Horowitz thesis getting the most play in Canada. According to Louis Hartz and Gad Horowitz, as people moved from Europe to the Americas, they brought with them only fragments of the full political cultures of their respective homelands. Furthermore, when the United Empire Loyalists left the newly independent American states in the 1780s, they robbed Americans of an older Tory tradition, leaving behind a lopsidedly liberal individualist society. Because Canadian Tories were more communitarian than individualist, they were open to another communitarian ideology, viz., socialism, while their American cousins were much less so. The late Seymour Martin Lipset discussed this issue in his book, It Didn't Happen Here: Why Socialism Failed in the United States, adducing multiple causes for this American exceptionalism. Among the plausible reasons why socialism failed to make an impact in the U.S. may be the success of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal in stealing the thunder of the old Socialist Party of Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas.

There were exceptions, of course. Milwaukee, with its German immigrant influence, had three Socialist mayors between 1910 and 1960. More recently, Congressman Ron Dellums, a professed socialist, served in the House of Representatives under the Democratic Party between 1971 and 1998, and as Mayor of Oakland, California, from 2007 to 2011. But these figures were at the margins of American political life.

Now there's Bernie Sanders, former mayor of Burlington, Vermont, and currently Senator from the Green Mountain State since 2007. From my vantage point outside the country, I have been surprised that someone so ready to wear the socialist label has come so far in his quest for the White House. When I was growing up, Americans regarded socialism with a mixture of fear and bemusement. To be a socialist was to be unAmerican at the very best. Moreover, during much of the twentieth century, the socialist label was invoked by two of the most heinous and murderous political forces in history: national socialism, or nazism, and communism. If Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin could both claim to be implementing socialism in some fashion, and if we were rightly repulsed by their brutal treatment of so many millions of people, then any hint of bringing socialism to America could only elicit a sensible aversion to an ideology that had proved so obviously destructive elsewhere.

Why then have Americans lost their fear of socialists such that many are prepared to put one in the Oval Office? The major reason, I believe, is that the generation that lived through the totalitarian experiments of the last century is gradually passing from the scene. For the rising generation born after the Cold War's end, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany alike have joined the Roman and Ottoman empires as distant historical episodes outside their lived memories. Though many experienced observers were sounding the death knell for socialism in the 1990s, few political ideas — even bad ones — stay dead for good. For the older generations, the rhetoric of socialism may seem stale, but for younger people it may still carry a fresh scent, especially when joined to the winsome populism and iconoclasm of a Senator Sanders.

Yet despite Sanders' identification with a communitarian ideology, he does so very much as an individual, and in this he is still typically American. He could be the star of a Frank Capra film, struggling as a lone outsider against entrenched special interests for the good of the nation as a whole. Accordingly, we will not expect to hear a summons for the world's workers to unite and throw off their chains. Neither are we likely to see the establishment of a highly disciplined organization capable of commanding broad support for a socialist agenda. If socialism ever comes to America, it will arrive in severely diluted form as the rather idiosyncratic preoccupation of someone more resembling Jimmy Stewart than Lenin or Trotsky.

David T. Koyzis is author of Political Visions and Illusions and We Answer to Another: Authority, Office, and the Image of God. He teaches politics at Redeemer University College in Canada. Cross posted at First Thoughts.

17 November 2015

Abraham Kuyper and the 'bearer of principle'

What might Abraham Kuyper teach us as Americans prepare to go to the polls next year? I believe that he can help us to vote more intelligently by clarifying the true nature of representation in a democratic political community.

Canadians and Americans alike are blessed to live in representative democracies. Every two to four years we elect people to represent us – to govern on our behalf – in our legislative bodies. But what exactly is representation? Political scientists generally have two answers to this question.

First, a representative may act as a trustee of the public interest. A trustee does not vote on instruction from those she is called to represent. Rather she employs her own good judgement and does what she believes to be in the best interest of the public she serves. In a country divided into electoral districts or ridings, the member of legislature looks out, not just for those in her district, but for the entire political community.

Of course, this may not always be popular with those who elected her. The 18th-century statesman Edmund Burke discovered this while attempting to gain re-election in Bristol, the riding he represented in the British House of Commons. In a meeting with the Bristol electors in 1774, he articulated his position as follows:

His unbiased opinion, his mature judgement, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. . . . Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgement; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.

For all Burke’s undoubted eloquence, he failed to persuade the people who had just put him in office and was defeated the next time around.

Second, a representative may be considered merely an agent or delegate of the voters. During a candidates’ debate at Redeemer University College in late 1988, a member of the audience asked the prospective office-holders how they would vote if an abortion bill came before them and a free vote were allowed in the Commons. Most avoided taking a stance on such a divisive issue by stating that they would poll their constituents and vote accordingly.

This was the approach of the old Reform Party under the leadership of Preston Manning, who favoured free votes in parliament, thereby enabling MPs more easily to channel their constituents’ wishes into public policy. South of the border Ross Perot supported this agent or delegate approach during his third-party presidential campaigns in 1992 and ’96. The use of referenda goes even further and removes the middle man, which is what the agent or delegate amounts to, thus permitting citizens to vote directly on the issues of the day. If we were to follow this approach, our own political systems would approximate the direct democracy of Athens or the New England town meetings.

Kuyper treated representation in Ons Program, published in 1879 as the programme of the newly established Anti-Revolutionary Party in the Netherlands. The delegate conception he titled the “imperative mandate,” in which a member of the States General acts “in keeping with what the voters have ordered and mandated him.” By contrast, the “trusted man” governs “without any tie to the voters” and keeps the electorate in a permanent state of immaturity, much as a lord relates paternalistically to the serfs on a feudal estate.

Kuyper believes that neither of these is adequate for understanding the task of representation. Better, he argues, that a member of parliament be a “bearer of a principle” with a “moral bond” to the electorate. True, the people may lack the political expertise of their leaders, but they do possess a certain political instinct which the leaders are bound to respect. They may not know the ins and outs of specific policy prescriptions, but they have a general understanding of the principles which ought to guide the making of such policies.

During an election candidates for public office are obligated to inform voters of their support for these principles, thereby enabling them to vote intelligently. It is not enough for a party to raise up “trusted men” and ask the people to follow them blindly based on this trust alone. Even trustees are in the grip of a worldview which the people deserve to know in advance.

“Trust us” is insufficient as a campaign promise, particularly if we have no assurance that the party seeking our support understands the principles of limited and just governance in the context of a pluriform society. Yet neither do we want our representatives to abdicate leadership and simply do our bidding. Instead we need our political parties to inform us honestly of their guiding principles, to stop telling us what they think we want to hear, and to govern in accordance with these principles. Anything less than that is unworthy of representation in a democratic polity. Kuyper understood this, and so should we.

David T. Koyzis is the author of Political Visions and Illusions and We Answer to Another: Authority, Office, and the Image of God. Ons Program has been translated into English as Our Program and is available as the first volume of a series of Kuyper's Collected Works in Public Theology. This post is an adaptation of a column in Christian Courier.

16 October 2015

What hath Carver wrought?

In our society few organizations are entirely self-governing. Managers generally must answer to an independent board, whose members are either appointed by the previous board or elected by the organization’s stakeholders. The board may appoint a chief executive officer, who is responsible for his or her conduct to that board. But how exactly should a board and management relate to each other? And how should both relate to the other stakeholders? Each organization must find its own path here, and there is no single right way.

In 1990 Dr. John Carver published a book, Boards That Make a Difference, which set forth a seemingly fresh model for board governance, known as the Policy Governance® model or, more popularly, the Carver model. Traditionally members of a board would meet on a regular basis and, during these meetings, would have to wade through massive amounts of documentation related to the conduct of the organization’s business since the previous meeting. Despite the best of intentions, these boards would almost invariably get so bogged down in specifics that they were unable properly to move the organization forward to well-defined goals.

Carver sought to rectify these deficiencies with his own model, which he deemed particularly applicable to nonprofit and public boards, including those of schools, hospitals, chambers of commerce, local church congregations, and professional associations. While boards of business corporations are governed by the profit motive, the goals of nonprofit and public entities are not nearly so obvious and thus require more direction from their respective boards. By applying his principles, Carver believed that governing boards can indeed make a difference.

They do so primarily by being proactive and initiating policy, rather than merely responding to policies made by management. As Carver sees it, “the governing board is the guardian of organizational values.” Accordingly, “what goes on at and below the level of chief executive is completely immaterial” as far as the board is concerned. The board sets broad policies in accordance with those values and charges the chief executive with realizing them within the organization. The board governs, while the chief executive manages.

There is much to be said for the Carver model. First, it establishes what appears to be a sensible division of labour between governance and management. Second, by allowing the board to establish in advance criteria by which to measure the performance of the chief executive, it seems fairer than the older models, in which board governance is haphazard at best, the chief executive often being held to ad hoc standards thought up by individual board members on the spur of the moment. Third, it seems more efficient and businesslike, enabling governing boards to find their own voice and to articulate their expectations for the conduct of the chief executive.

Yet there are significant drawbacks to the Carver model as well, and these should make especially Christian organizations reluctant to adopt it wholesale.

First, governing boards are usually composed of volunteers, often working in fields unrelated to the organization’s mission. One expects, of course, that they will already sympathize with that mission, but it is unrealistic to expect that they will all be equally committed to it or adept at articulating it. The board chair usually functions as the voice of the board but may not necessarily be skilled at consensus building and might not represent the majority if the board should become divided.

Second, and more seriously, the Carver model places the board members at a potentially troublesome distance from the life of the organization and from the very staff who are undertaking to live out its mission. While Carver himself obviously thinks this is a good thing, one of its negative side effects is to erect an artificial barrier between board and staff, whose responsibilities and well-being are deemed “completely immaterial” to the board. In reality, of course, the welfare of the staff is of utmost importance for the organization’s success, and a board would be unwise to pretend otherwise. Furthermore, this very distance holds out the prospect of fragmenting the unity of the organization.

Third and finally, the Carver model is excessively hierarchical, concentrating too much power in the hands of the chief executive, who is, for all practical purposes, the sole link between the board and the organization. As such it places an inappropriate level of confidence in a single individual, something we would never tolerate in a political system, where authority is more properly dispersed among several offices. If the chief executive is less dedicated to the vision than the board thinks he or she is, then, in the absence of effective internal checks on that office, the organization risks losing its way sooner rather than later.

Christian organizations, especially those standing in the Reformed tradition, should be wary of adopting a form of board governance which in significant ways contradicts the principles of that tradition. While Carver may have much to offer, we would do better to adopt a governance model which (1) takes seriously the multiplicity of authoritative offices throughout an organization, (2) provides a means by which they can be heard at the highest levels, and (3) generally facilitates communication among these offices rather than artificially cutting it off.

David T. Koyzis is the author of We Answer to Another: Authority, Office, and the Image of God (Pickwick Publications, 2014), an exploration of the central role authority plays in human life and society. He teaches politics at Redeemer University College. This post appeared as Koyzis' monthly column, "Principalities & Powers," in the 12 October issue of Christian Courier.

04 October 2015

Creatio ex nihilo: a temporal or supratemporal act?

“In the beginning God created the heaven and earth.
Genesis 1:1

I believe in God the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth . . . .
Apostles' Creed

On this basic confession virtually all Christians agree. Where we disagree is over when and how God created. In the 17th century Archbishop James Ussher of Ireland famously asserted with confidence, based on the genealogies in the Old Testament, that God's initial act of creation occurred on the evening of 22 October 4004 BC, that is, slightly more than 6,000 years ago. While young-earth creationists may not necessarily accept this precise time, they nevertheless date God's initial creative act back only thousands or tens of thousands of years. Moreover, according to the modern rabbinic Jewish calendar, this year is 5776, which effectively dates the beginning of creation to 3761 BC. The Septuagint chronologies similarly date creation to 5509 BC.

Obvious difficulties abound with all of these chronologies. To begin with, we know that the light of the most distant stars visible on earth has been travelling for some 13 billion years prior to reaching us. This would appear to give us a readily discernible date for the beginning of the cosmos as we know it, often referred to as the Big Bang. Furthermore, the last of the dinosaurs died off some 65 million years ago, and the first hominid species appeared several million years ago, far too early for assigning such a late date to that initial act of creation.

Recognizing these realities has brought into being old-earth creationists who believe that that initial act of creation must be pushed back much, much further into the past. Perhaps the Big Bang marks the initial act of creation, when the universe initially exploded and began expanding outwards, as it continues to do today. Those Christians arguing for an old earth have considerable empirical support on their side, including the geological record, the length of time light takes to travel from one part of the universe to another, carbon-14 dating, and fossil and genetic evidence for the evolution of species across long stretches of time.

Which of these is correct? I strongly suspect that both are equally wrong in locating God's initial act of creation within or even at the beginning of the temporal succession of events. Could the Bible's “in the beginning” be atemporal or supratemporal? After all, if time is the creature of God, then he would have had to call time into existence as part of his initial creative act. But if we try to pinpoint a time when time was created, we are inadvertently proposing that time is not a creature at all, pre-existing or perhaps co-existing with God. This would effectively ascribe divinity to time, much as the ancient Greeks worshipped old Chronos (Χρόνος) himself. That, of course, would make God a subordinate being and less than fully God. No faithful small-o orthodox Christian could accept this possibility.

What then is the alternative? Admittedly, I am not a theologian and have no aspiration to become one. Thus what I propose here I do with due caution and modesty, and will not stake my reputation on it. I am, of course, open to correction. But could it be that that initial act of creation cannot be located at all along the temporal continuum of past, present and future? The Big Bang is not a satisfactory candidate, because the theory behind it still presupposes that matter pre-existed the Big Bang, which goes against the biblical notion of creatio ex nihilo, creation out of nothing. The Big Bang better fits into Plato's cosmology as set forth in the Timaeus than into a biblical worldview. Thus it cannot be the initial point of creation. It is often objected that six-day creationists assume that God brought everything into being a few thousand years ago and gave it the appearance of age by planting fossils and exposing the earth to starlight appearing to be billions of years old. They would thus seem to make God into a grand deceiver, tricking people into believing that the cosmos is older than it really is.

Yet what if God brought everything into being at once while giving it, not just the appearance of age, but a real history capable of being detected by his image-bearing human creatures? We may not be able to locate the temporal beginnings of matter and energy, but they nevertheless have their origins in the God who is outside history while nevertheless choosing to act within it, particularly in the person of Jesus Christ. Thus the moment before God created is a transcendental before, not to be located in the remote past but outside time itself within the nihil, or nothingness, of everything that is not God. This transcendental before is inaccessible to the human mind and experience; therefore it cannot properly be the object of theoretical thought any more than darkness can be visible to a blind eye or silence audible to the deaf.

Although a two-dimensional diagram may not be the best way to portray visually God's creative activity, the following may serve to illuminate my proposal:

If my proposal is correct, then the argument between young-earth creationists and those holding to an old earth may rest on a false dichotomy. If God's initial creative activity cannot be located along the temporal succession of events, then it may be time (!) at last to lay this verbal conflict to rest and to come up with a fresh way to articulate an ancient truth.

14 September 2015

Revelation 20 and the thousand years

Although I have an ongoing interest in biblical eschatology (see, e.g., my recent review of Richard Middleton's excellent A New Heaven and a New Earth), I have written next to nothing on the biblical millennium briefly mentioned in the 20th chapter of Revelation.  It may be time to weigh in, however tentatively, on this vexing issue. Here is the relevant passage:

Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain. And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be released for a little while.

Then I saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom the authority to judge was committed. Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and those who had not worshipped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended. This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years (verses 1-6).

Because this is the only place in the entire Bible where this mysterious "thousand years" is mentioned, most biblical commentators over the past two millennia have seen fit not to attach too much significance to it. Taken somewhat literally, it would appear to indicate that, following certain cataclysmic events described in the previous chapters, the saints of the Lord will be raised from the dead and reign with Christ for one-thousand years, after which Satan will again foment rebellion and finally suffer permanent defeat. The end of chapter 19 would seem to imply that Christ will have returned to establish his kingdom before these events, but, curiously, he has not yet scored a definitive victory over sin and death.

Interpretation of these passages has generally divided Christians into three camps: premillennialists, postmillennialists and amillennialists. Premillennialists generally believe that the events encountered in these chapters are to be understood chronologically, despite the inevitable difficulties in the attempt to do so. Postmillennialists generally anticipate that, sometime within the current historical age, the kingdom of God will advance to such a degree that we might anticipate a very long period of peace and prosperity owing to widespread obedience to his will. Then Christ will return to bring his kingdom to its ultimate consummation. Amillennialists generally interpret these passages figuratively, assuming that the thousand years stands for the present age of the church. None of these successfully answers all the questions raised by these perplexing passages.


It seems to me that premillennialism, whether in its historic or dispensationalist form, improperly applies too literal a hermeneutic to a book whose language is obviously highly colourful and metaphorical. Every attempt to impose a schedule of events on the Revelation has met with seemingly intractable difficulties. For example, how many resurrections of the dead are to take place in the last days? Revelation 20 implies an initial resurrection of the righteous (20:4-6) and a final battle in which the unrighteous are destroyed (20:7-10). In other words, they die but are quickly brought to life again for the last judgement (20:11-13), but then are destroyed once again shortly thereafter (20:14-15). All of this apparently follows events recounted in the previous chapter, in which we read of the Great Marriage Supper of the Lamb, an event presupposing that the resurrection of the righteous has already occurred. We also see reference to a battle and to the ultimate destruction of the wicked (19:19-21). It should be evident to even the casual reader that, just as the gospel writers freely reordered the events in Jesus' earthly ministry for their own purposes, so also did the author of the Revelation describe his visions with little thought to chronological consistency. Indeed it seems likely that God gave him these visions without intending them to be in chronological order.

Moreover, Hebrew literature is filled with stories told twice but from different vantage points. The two stories of creation recounted in Genesis 1 and 2 are generally thought to reflect different authors, one describing God as Elohim and the other YHWH (rendered LORD in most English translations). But it is just as likely that a single author could have told both stories in succession to present a fuller account of God's creative work from two different angles. Moreover it is well known that the Psalms employ a certain parallelism, repeating a thought twice in two different ways. For example:

For behold, the kings assembled;
    they came on together.
As soon as they saw it, they were astounded;
    they were in panic; they took to flight (Psalm 48:4-5).

Even the casual reader will notice that the italicized phrases restate the thought of the unitalicized phrases, thereby creating a sense of fulness of expression lacking in a single statement to the same effect. Could it be that the Revelation employs a similar literary technique? If so, then attempting to read it chronologically is a potentially serious error. Premillennialism, by reading the apocalyptic passages too literally, may not do full justice to scripture in its literary and historical context.

Nevertheless, premillennialism has the advantage of interpreting the coming kingdom as a concrete and tangible reality, at least for a time.


A few years ago I read Loraine Boettner's 1957 book, The Millennium, in which the author argues for Christ returning after the thousand years. While there is much in Boettner's argument that is compelling, it is difficult to escape the impression that for him Christian hope is in danger of becoming mere optimism. For example:

The redemption of the world is a long, slow process, extending through the centuries, yet surely approaching an appointed goal. We live in the day of advancing victory, although there are many apparent set-backs. As seen from the human viewpoint it often looks as though the forces of evil are about to gain the upper hand. Periods of spiritual advance and prosperity alternate with periods of spiritual decline and depression. But as one age succeeds another there is progress. Looking back across the nearly two thousand years that have passed since the coming of Christ we can see that there has indeed been marvelous progress. This Process ultimately shall be completed, and before Christ comes again we shall see a Christianized world. This does not mean that all sin ever will be eradicated. There always will be some tares among the wheat until the time of harvest – and the harvest, the Lord tells us, is the end of the world. Even the righteous fall, sometimes grievously, into temptation and sin. But it does mean that Christian principles of life and conduct are to become the accepted standards in public and private life. . . . Skeptics sometimes point to present day evils and tell us that we are living in a post-Christian age. But, no, there has never yet been a truly Christian age, nor has so much as one nation ever been consistently Christian. The age in which we are living is still pre-Christian.

One would not wish to deny that progress has occurred in a number of fields. But Boettner's description of progress at times appears to conflate the Cultural Mandate of Genesis 1:26-28 with the redemptive trajectory of history, as seen in the following passage:

A revolution has occurred in transportation, communications, home furnishings, etc., within our own lifetime. Our modes of travel and transportation have changed more within the last 150 years than in the preceding 2,000. George Washington, using the horse-drawn stagecoach which was the best means available in his day, traveled in much the same manner as did the ancient Persians and Egyptians. The automobile, hard-surface highways, electrical power for lighting and other household uses, the airplane, radio, television, etc., are all comparatively new. And now the new sciences of atomic and solar energy with the prospect for extremely cheap power, and the whole new field of electronics, in which we have as yet hardly more than scratched the surface, give great promise for the future. A leading industrialist recently said: "America is about to enter a new golden age of prosperity which will hinge upon the harnessing of the atom, and the advent of the electronic age." One new discovery follows another, and we see more and more clearly the tremendous potentials that are available for good, potentials that through all these many centuries have remained largely unused.

These developments are all well and good, of course. But they are the ripe fruit of man's implementing the Cultural Mandate, and, due to sin, they are often misdirected. Atomic energy can power our cities or it can destroy them, as it did Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Technical progress does not necessarily amount to or flow out of the advance of the gospel and a general obedience to God's will. In fact, technological development has often tempted human beings to imagine that they are sovereign and can get along without God. Is it mere coincidence that the most technically advanced countries of western Europe and North America are the most secularized?

At the same time, the hope characterizing postmillennialism is definitely alluring. This article seems to lend some credence to this hope: Is the World Getting Better? The accompanying map illustrates the phenomenal growth of evangelical Christianity throughout most of the world, with huge implications for the future global expansion of the gospel:

If we in North America find it difficult to be hopeful, it may be due to our lagging behind the remainder of the world, as indicated in the map above. But this appears to be a purely local phenomenon.


Nevertheless, the growth of the gospel, even when it has appeared impressive, has not infrequently suffered setbacks. The largely christian lands of the eastern Roman Empire were eventually overrun by muslim armies in the 7th century. The majority christian populations were gradually replaced by muslim majorities by the 14th and 15th centuries. And in the first quarter of the 21st century, the few christian communities in what we now know as the Middle East and North Africa are close to extinction. The animated map below illustrates these advances and reverses over the course of 2,000 years:

Here is where I believe we do well to follow St. Augustine, who understood better than many that throughout history the city of God and the city of this world are living out the implications of their own loves and that this process will continue until the return of Christ. This means we will see both genuine progress towards the coming kingdom and movement away from that kingdom, and these will occur at the same time and perhaps even in the same places. Thus while we have witnessed a huge expansion of the gospel outside of the west, we have also witnessed such human-engendered tragedies as the Rwanda genocide and, in the past century, the two world wars and the rise of destructive political illusions violently eliminating more than one-hundred million people. From one angle the world appears to be getting worse, while from another there has been undoubted progress.

Am I an amillennialist then? Perhaps, but I am not particularly happy with the typical amillennial conclusion that the thousand years refers to the present reign of the souls of the righteous in heaven with God. That seems an excessive "spiritualization" of God's kingdom, which thus takes on something of an ethereal form. For all the difficulties in the alternative positions, "premils" and "postmils" at least have the virtue of  understanding God's kingdom in concrete creational terms.

The best path may be to maintain a certain benign agnosticism concerning the meaning of the thousand years in Revelation 20, recognizing that, so many centuries after it was written, we lack the resources to give it a definitive interpretation. Nevertheless, this in no way alters our faith that, in God's good time, Jesus will return to bring his kingdom to fruition. This is our ultimate hope, and however he decides to accomplish it we can safely leave to his sovereign will.

12 September 2015

Authority, Citizenship, and Public Justice

North Americans famously esteem freedom but are ambivalent about authority. Authority strikes many of us as too constricting and insufficiently supportive of our desires and aspirations. Yet I believe that authority is key to understanding our humanity and the meaning of our creation in God’s image. This has profound implications for our status as citizens within a democratic political framework.

Consider the case of a hypothetical undergraduate at a typical North American university. It is Monday morning. Michael, a third-year student, has washed up, dressed himself, and headed out the door. He walks to the cafeteria a quarter of a mile away for breakfast. He joins two friends from his 9 o’clock class at the table, and afterwards they walk together to the building next door where the class will begin shortly. They arrive five minutes early but are unable to find seats because some of the chairs were removed the previous evening by the drama club.

Their professor, Dr. Stepanic, asks the three students to bring in more chairs from outside. After class he will phone maintenance to see that the university’s policy concerning the removal of furniture is reiterated and enforced. Class begins. Dr. Stepanic reads a short passage from Shakespeare’s King Lear and begins lecturing on the literary theories of a well-known British scholar. A young woman in the second row raises her hand and asks a question on the assigned reading. Dr. Stepanic asks whether anyone else in the class might be able to address the question. An animated discussion ensues. Near the end of the hour, he tells the students that the class will not be meeting on Wednesday because he will be away at a conference. In the meantime, they are to keep up with the readings, on which he will give a short quiz when they next meet on Friday.

When does Michael first encounter authority? I pose this question to my students, and they generally respond that he does so when entering Dr. Stepanic’s class, because he is now obviously under the instructor’s authority. When I push them further and take them through each sentence of this account in turn, they begin to notice things they had missed. “It is Monday morning.” Who says? Well, the short answer is “everyone.” From the very outset, Michael’s life is organized around the days of the week, whose names and number were set – authoritatively – long before he came onto the scene. The fact that he is a third-year student means that he has accepted the authority of the university’s academic calendar which sets the terms for progressing from one year to the next.

The fact that Michael washes, dresses, and heads out to breakfast indicates that he implicitly accepts the authoritative character of a particular routine that governs even the most mundane elements of life. Typically, when my students begin to pull apart the strands of Michael’s day, pinpointing manifestations of authority, the hour comes to an end before we make it much past that first sentence. It turns out that authority appears at every juncture. It is unavoidable.

The lesson, of course, is not that Michael is a mere slave lacking the ability to order his own life and is subject to the whims of others. He is nothing of the sort. He is fully responsible for his actions, even as he habitually defers to authority at every turn. Moreover, Michael himself is an authoritative agent, possessing all of the authority that God has granted his human image-bearers. This is set forth in the first chapter of Genesis:
And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food” (Gen. 1:28-30).
Often referred to as the Cultural Mandate, this text indicates God’s grace in granting an authoritative office to his human creatures, one which is under his ultimate sovereignty but also entails considerable leeway with respect to how human beings live their lives as individuals and in community. To be human is to be an office-holder in God’s creation. This has two implications for understanding how we live politically.

First, as Richard Middleton has pointed out, the biblical understanding of the image of God stands in marked contrast to the beliefs of ancient Israel’s Near Eastern neighbors, who believed that only the ruler was the image of the gods. This reinforced a hierarchical political order in which subjects were permanently subordinate to the ruler in every respect and in every walk of life. By contrast, we might say that the Old Testament radically democratized the image of God to include all human beings and not only their royal overlords. The image of God is a grant of responsibility to all persons – male and female, rich and poor, prince and peasant – as stewards of the earth. This biblical understanding may not explicitly support democracy, but historically it has facilitated a worldview in which human beings assume co-responsibility for the direction of their political communities rather than leaving this to their superiors.

Second, this authority is further dispersed into a variety of authoritative offices related to the diversity of activities in which we are engaged and to the many communities of which we are part. In the body politic, we might tend to assume that presidents, prime ministers, members of congress, court judges, and civil servants are the ones who bear authoritative offices. Yet this is a partial truth at best. The citizen is a political office-holder and bears genuine authority within that context. Of course, it is not the same authority as that of the president, yet it is authority in the full sense of that word. Citizenship does not exhaust who we are as image of God, but it is a significant office all the same, especially in a democratic political system.

Let us return to Michael once more. Michael possesses more than one authoritative office. He is son to his parents and brother to his siblings. He is a member of the Phi Beta Kappa Society. He is a representative of his class in student government. He is a member of a church congregation. And, of course, he is a citizen of the United States. Although he is only one person in more than 300 million, as he comes of age, he increasingly recognizes that he needs to discharge the duties that come with citizenship. He is now able to vote. To be able to vote intelligently, he needs, among other things, to understand the nuts and bolts of government, to read the Constitution and to comprehend its role in the system as a whole, to keep informed on the public issues of the day and, last but not least, to nurture an appreciation for the importance of public justice and to work against injustice along with his fellow citizens when he becomes aware of it.

So, no, it is not only kings and princes who bear political office. As those created in God’s image, we too bear political authority. If this is so, then far from being ambivalent about authority, we should thank God for it and hold it in high regard, as we live lives of service to God and to our neighbors.

David T. Koyzis is the author of We Answer to Another: Authority, Office, and the Image of God. He teaches politics at Redeemer University College. A slightly different version of this was published at Capital Commentary.

19 August 2015

Interview by Yago Martins

Yesterday I was interviewed by Yago Martins, a director at the Academia de Formação em Missões Urbanas in Fortaleza, Brazil, and a student at Sibima (Seminário e Instituto Bíblico Maranata), on the subject of political ideologies in the Brazilian context. The interview is posted here: Entrevista exclusiva com David Koyzis sobre ideologia política e o cenário brasileiro. Here is the interview in English:

Martins: Among Christians in Brazil the most popular view is that Christians do not need to think about or be involved in politics. Some religious groups even think that it is a sin to be a politician. Can we be politicized (or politicians) and still be Christians?

Koyzis: Many Christians in North America think the same thing, but during my lifetime their numbers have decreased. And that is a very good thing. This reflects the biblical understanding that those who are granted political authority have a high calling to govern according to God's laws, especially those laws mandating the doing of justice. For example, Deuteronomy 17:18-20 says:

When [the ruler] has taken the throne of his kingdom, he shall have a copy of this law written for him in the presence of the levitical priests. It shall remain with him and he shall read in it all the days of his life, so that he may learn to fear the Lord his God, diligently observing all the words of this law and these statutes, neither exalting himself above other members of the community nor turning aside from the commandment, either to the right or to the left, so that he and his descendants may reign long over his kingdom in Israel.

Furthermore, if you read John Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion, you will see that the very last section of the book treats the civil magistrate, of which he speaks in unusually glowing terms: “Its function among men is no less than that of bread, water, sun, and air; indeed, its place of honour is far more excellent.” Politics is an important part of life, and our walk with God extends to the whole of life, including politics.

What is a political ideology and how does it differ from a simple political vision?

Everyone is animated by a vision of life, or what might be called a worldview (cosmovisão), which governs the ways they live out their callings before God. Even pragmatists, who claim to reject visions altogether, are living out a vision that privileges results over principles. We cannot avoid these visions, even if we fail to recognize them or admit their influence on us.

An ideology, as I see it, is a particular vision that fastens on to one element in life and improperly raises it to a position of preeminence above the rest. As such, an ideology is inescapably idolatrous. St. Augustine said that virtue is the right ordering of things loved. Those who are in Christ love God above everything he has created. But an ideology takes something good out of God's creation, e.g., individual liberty, national solidarity or popular participation, and effectively makes a god out of it. This leads to a distorted vision that is fundamentally out of touch with the realities of God's world. Such a vision may endure for a while, but eventually people lose their faith in it and seek something better. One hopes they will find the true God who is already seeking them, but they are just as likely to pin their hopes on another ideological vision. In other words, people tend to move from one idol to another.

As a young man I visited what was then called Czechoslovakia while the communists were still in charge. I quickly discovered that virtually no one believed in the official ideology anymore. So when the end came in 1989, I was not all that surprised. As soon as the Soviet Union relaxed its grip on the country, the people went their own way. But with what have they replaced the old idols? New ones, sad to say. That is good enough reason to pray for wisdom to see and love the truth, not only for Czechs but also for Brazilians.

In your book, you propose a supra-ideological perspective on politics. But is that really possible? Might not your critics say that you're proposing a christian ideology, but an ideology just like the others?

Yes, they could easily say this. It is certainly true that Christians have followed these distorted ideological visions, despite their faith. Animated by an idolatrous nationalism, for example, the Afrikaners in South Africa established the destructive apartheid policy between 1948 and 1994. And they did so for what they thought were good christian reasons. But, as the Bible says (Matthew 7:20), by your fruits you will know them. Apartheid led to obvious injustices against nonwhite South Africans and effectively destabilized the entire society.

There has never been a society which has followed a biblical way in its entirety. But I believe that there are at least two Christian traditions that have articulated an understanding of what I have labelled societal pluriformity, which, at least in principle, avoids the distortions of ideological thinking and practice. These are the social teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, as set forth by Popes Leo XIII, Pius XI and John Paul II, and the notion of sovereignty in its own sphere as articulated by the great Dutch statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper. The advantage of these approaches is that they recognize that the state is the state, the church is the church, the family is the family, and so forth. In other words, they recognize that the various communities cannot be reduced to the wills of individuals or to arms of the state or nation. They accept the legitimate diversity of God's creation, including his human creatures, and work with it rather than against it. 

Our politicians in Brazil are almost all Marxists in some sense, even if they don't explicitly appeal to Karl Marx's ideas. Our public and private universities, even our schools, are dominated by Marxists and adherents of the Frankfurt School. How can Christians behave in this political context?

It is not easy to have influence in a hostile political environment. Ideally, it would be good for Christians to organize for political purposes. A christian political party? It's been tried in some countries, such as the Netherlands. But in a country like Brazil, I think the best approach for now is probably to build a culture animated by the biblical story of creation, fall and redemption in Jesus Christ. This would entail establishing and nurturing institutions to carry the story, to explore the implications of the story for the whole of life, and to see it handed down to the younger generation. This means that both education and evangelism must be top priorities for the christian community.

In response to marxist hegemony, a lot of groups have popularized the thinking of the Chicago and Austrian schools of economics, with men like Milton Friedman, Adam Smith, Ludwig von Mises and F. A. von Hayek. Is this a good thing for Brazil? Can Christians embrace this political view as a christian approach?

The virtue of the Chicago/Austrian school is that it understands in some fashion the limits of politics. There are many things that the state simply cannot do, and if it tries to do so, it risks doing harm. On the other hand, the Chicago/Austrian school is not very good at understanding the normative character of the state as a political community of citizens and government under the divine mandate to do public justice. Like Marxists, libertarian economists tend to be anti-political and assume that economics drives politics. But the reality is more complicated than that. Here in Canada, for example, we have the recurring issue of Québec separatism, which does not fit comfortably into either a marxist or Chicago/Austrian framework. The separation of Québec from the rest of Canada does not make much economic sense, yet it is a political reality in that people in the province genuinely believe in it.

Moreover, the Chicago/Austrian approach is really a variant of the larger liberal ideology, which privileges the individual and his wants above all else. Consistent liberals wish to expand individual freedoms at the expense of the communities of which these individuals are part. They try as much as possible to reduce communities to mere voluntary collections of individuals. And these collections are to be governed by John Stuart Mill's famous harm principle: “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”

This sounds good at first, but in the real world no society has ever operated on this principle. A society such as Brazil's or Canada's consists of multiple communities of all kinds, each of which has its own identity and standards for membership. There is a wonderful article by Douglas Farrow called “The Audacity of the State,” which shows how this libertarian principle, far from producing liberty, actually empowers the omni-competent state. This is something I address in my second book, We Answer to Another (which is only in English thus far). So, no, over the long term the Chicago/Austrian school is definitely not the solution. It simply tries to turn back the clock on the development of liberalism, but it does not break with the underlying assumptions of the larger liberal project.

It may be possible to make common cause with Chicago/Austrian libertarians on some issues, such as parental choice in education, but it would be most unwise to adopt their approach wholeheartedly. In the long term it will backfire on us.

In the end, do Christians need to abandon the identification with any political ideology to propose a true christian view of politics? In your book, you note that some conservatives have rejected ideologies. Should we then maybe propose a christian conservatism and be supra-ideological on this?

Here again we need to be cautious. Conservatism is too vague a label and can mean a variety of different things depending on context. If it simply means to stick with institutions and customs that have served us well over the course of history, then there is obviously much to be said for it. But traditions are multiple and contradict each other. We necessarily have to decide which traditions to maintain and which to modify or even abandon. And this means further that we need principles to enable us to choose wisely. This is what I try to articulate in my Political Visions and Illusions, especially in the final chapters.

We have a lot of protests taking place in many cities against our president, Dilma Rousseff. Her approval rate is now below 8%, the worst since the end of the military dictatorship. A lot of people are calling for her impeachment. Someone has called this a “Brazilian Spring,” which is, of course, a reference to the Arab Spring. What message can you bring to Brazilian Christians who are living through this moment in our history?

It is remarkable that Ms Rousseff has become so tremendously unpopular so soon after winning last autumn's presidential election. If this is indeed a “Brazilian Spring,” we can only hope and pray that it will not lead to the instability that has plagued so many Middle Eastern countries in the wake of the Arab Spring. As for a message to my Brazilian brothers and sisters, I suppose the place to begin is with the book of Daniel:

Blessed be the name of God forever and ever,
to whom belong wisdom and might.
He changes times and seasons;
he removes kings and sets up kings;
he gives wisdom to the wise
and knowledge to those who have understanding (2:20-21).

Moreover, a refrain repeated throughout Daniel tells us that, despite the troubles we see around us, God is still in charge: “His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and his dominion endures from generation to generation” (4:3, cf., 4:34, 6:26). This doesn't mean we don't have to work for justice in our political communities; we definitely must do so. But we do so as those whose ultimate hope is not in our fallible political leaders or even in our own purported wisdom, but in the God who has redeemed us in Jesus Christ.

15 August 2015

By what authority? The limits of Niebuhr's transformational Christianity

Apart from the Bible, I am reasonably certain that I have read H. Richard Niebuhr's Christ and Culture more times than any other single book. I read it first as an undergraduate and have kept coming back to it over the decades, as it lays out with great clarity the principal approaches that the various Christian traditions take to culture. Niebuhr's five types rang true to me and helped me as I was developing my own understanding of the role the Christian community has historically played in the shaping of culture. The categories are familiar to many of us, but for those who do not know them, they are worth repeating:
  • The adherents of “Christ against culture” view the Christian community as a permanent counterculture characterized by a set of principles at variance with the larger culture. Tertullian and Leo Tolstoy are the typical proponents of this view, as are, to update Niebuhr, Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder, Stanley Hauerwas and those who see themselves as articulating and living a prophetic witness from outside the secular polis.
  • The “Christ of culture” position identifies the cause of Christ with everything that is good in the larger culture, as judged by that same culture. Niebuhr's examples include Peter Abelard, modern liberal protestantism, gnosticism (in its extreme form), and the German protestant theologians Albrecht Ritschl and Friedrich Schleiermacher.
  • “Christ above culture” describes the synthetic approach of scholastic philosophy and theology. Proponents are neither for nor against the larger culture; they freely accept the philosophical paradigms of, say, Aristotle or the stoics, affirming that the latter can take us only so far in their use of unaided reason. Divine revelation is required to lead us the rest of the way—to truths that lie beyond what unaided human reason can grasp. Clement of Alexandria and Thomas Aquinas are the typical exemplars of this position.
  • The champions (if they can be called such) of “Christ and culture in paradox” approach the issue dualistically, holding in tension the demands of the Gospel and the imperatives of the larger culture. Christians are members of two kingdoms and owe loyalty to both. Certainly fidelity to the Gospel is paramount, but as sinful human beings we are still subject to the earthly powers that be, whose commands may nevertheless stand in considerable tension with the Gospel. According to Niebuhr, the Apostle Paul (though obviously not the Paul of the New Perspective), Marcion, Luther and Kierkegaard fit most comfortably into this category.
  • Finally, there is “Christ the transformer of culture,” whose followers aim at nothing less than the conversion of the world. For all their diversity, Niebuhr groups the author of John's Gospel, Augustine, Calvin, Wesley, Edwards and the English Christian Socialist F. D. Maurice in this category.
As a young man I found all this tremendously exciting. Niebuhr had come up with what seemed to me to be an enduring typology that served to aid us in understanding why, say, one group of Christians were conscientious objectors while another willingly fought in the military when called upon to do so, why Christians in one tradition might eschew public life while those in another might take it up with enthusiasm.

It didn't take me long to place myself in the transformational camp. Yes, of course, Christ would have us transform the culture in his name and for his glory. It took me much longer to see the potential drawbacks in Niebuhr's approach.

First, it turns out that nearly everyone ends up identifying with “Christ transforming culture,” no matter which tradition is their own. And why not? Who wants to be accused of being satisfied with the way things are when the world is so obviously off kilter in many ways? No one would willingly admit to parking their ultimate commitments to the side while participating in the workplace or public life. The lure of a holistic life is too strong for most of us. We want to live lives of integrity and consistency, if only for the sake of our own consciences.

Second, Niebuhr is unclear about the authority for his vaunted transformational Christianity. He is not necessarily claiming it to be more biblical than the alternatives because he quite openly divides the biblical witness among them. As Niebuhr sees it, Paul's epistles support the paradoxical position, while certain passages in the Gospels, e.g., “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's” (Matthew 22:21), are more characteristic of the “Christ above culture” position. Similarly, First John might be said to manifest an attitude of “Christ against culture.” But if the biblical witness is really as divided as Niebuhr believes it to be, on what grounds does he choose the transformational position? Since he makes no claim to having received a private revelation, we are left to wonder whether this transformation is little more than a personal preference on his part.

Third, if the moral basis for transformation is really this thin, it is not particularly clear why anyone would sign on to the project. Every ideological vision has transformative aspirations, whether its followers claim the liberal, socialist, nationalist, or conservative label. Yet in a democratic polity proponents must content themselves to accept means and procedures taking seriously the objections of opponents. This means that it is unlikely that all of our aspirations will ever be entirely fulfilled or even if, through some miracle, most are, they may be subject to reversal at some point in the future. Why? Because political debate is never ending. Coalitions shift, public opinion changes, and plans often fall afoul of unexpected contingencies.

Fourth, if we are unclear as to the authority for our transformative efforts, we run the risk of being transformed ourselves by the very culture we hope to change. In which case, there will be little difference between “Christ transforming culture” and “Christ of culture.” Critics of the notorious Jesus Seminar have observed that the “historical Jesus” its member-scholars claim to have uncovered bears an uncanny resemblance to themselves, namely, western and educated, with liberal democratic sentiments. If such a Christ were to transform our culture, would we be able to tell the difference? Not if he does no more than to parrot the conventional wisdom of a late modern worldview, a distinct possibility if we remain unclear as to the ultimate authority for our knowledge of Christ. Niebuhr himself recognized that the “Christ who speaks to me without authorities and witnesses is not an actual Christ; he is no Jesus Christ of history” (pp. 245–246).

Fifth and finally, although the hope of transformation is a heady one attractive to idealists and would-be social reformers, I myself have more recently been praying, not so much that we will be able to change the world for Christ, but that things will not get any worse than they are now. The many political illusions that have swept across the global landscape over the past two centuries have accomplished their own transformations, beginning with the French Revolution and leading up to the more recent sexual revolution. It is easy to lose heart in such a context, as evidenced in recent discussion amongst orthodox Christians of the “Benedict option” of communal withdrawal and regrouping.

This is perhaps where we need most to return to Augustine, whom Niebuhr placed in his transformational category. It may not be obvious that the Bishop of Hippo can be so easily claimed for this position, even if his own writings did contribute hugely to the creation of a new civilization in the wake of Rome's collapse. Nevertheless, he did recognize with particular clarity that the coexistence during the present age of the civitas Dei and the civitas terrena means that we cannot expect either city to score a definitive triumph prior to the return of Christ. This may be vexing to those of us impatient to see God's kingdom advance more quickly, but we may have to content ourselves with the biblical promise that, however strong the forces of evil may seem at the moment, they will not ultimately defeat his kingdom. Our own efforts may thus not amount to full transformation along Niebuhrian lines, but they will not be in vain either in so far as they keep alive a flicker of light in otherwise dark times—a light which, we are assured, will not be extinguished.

David T. Koyzis is the author of We Answer to Another: Authority, Office, and the Image of God and of Political Visions and Illusions.

11 August 2015

Liberalism and the church: how mere spirituality leaves the ego in charge

A century ago the Protestant churches in North America were divided between those who sought to defend the confessional integrity of their churches and those who believed that some form of compromise with the modern worldview was inevitable and desirable. The latter became known as liberal Protestants, and they would earn notoriety for denying cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith, such as the virgin birth, the divinity of Christ, and his resurrection from the dead. Typically they lauded the morality of the Gospels while denying anything that might conflict with a scientific approach to the world.

Yet liberalism in religion covers more than just the denial of the miraculous. A liberal Christian may be willing to affirm that Jesus literally walked on the water (Matt. 14:22–33) or rose from the dead, yet he still retains the right as an individual to accept only that which supports his own experience of faith. J. Gresham Machen, who was forced to combat liberalism within his own Presbyterian Church in the 1920s and 1930s, well understood the nature of this individualism and its impact on the larger Christian community. While liberals in his denomination claimed to accept the authority of Christ, it was a Christ remade in the image of the cultural prejudices of the day. According to Machen, “The real authority, for liberalism, can only be ‘the Christian consciousness’ or ‘Christian experience’ . . . truth can only be that which ‘helps’ the individual man.”

Of course, experience varies from one individual to the next, which is the principal difficulty with this approach. There can be no common faith professed by a community of Christians, each of whom retains for himself or herself the sovereign right to decide what he or she can manage to affirm within the larger deposit of the faith. From this comes the caricature of the eccentric and barely-believing cleric who crosses his fingers behind his back while reciting the Nicene Creed, confessing a shell of the faith while effectively denying its substance.

Is there a connection between this religious liberalism and political liberalism? There is indeed, and we see it already in the writings of the seventeenth-century English political philosopher John Locke. In his Second Treatise on Civil Government, Locke famously asserts that political authority is rooted in a social contract among individuals, who establish a civil magistrate to protect their life, liberty and property. If this civil magistrate fails to live up to the terms of this contract, the people may take up arms against him in what Locke euphemistically calls an “appeal to heaven.”

Locke did not limit this social contract to the state but applied it to the institutional church as well. In his Letter Concerning Toleration, Locke puts forth his own definition of the Church: “A church, then, I take to be a voluntary society of men, joining themselves together of their own accord in order to the public worshipping of God in such manner as they judge acceptable to Him, and effectual to the salvation of their souls.” While there are undoubtedly many Christians, especially those in the free-church tradition, who would implicitly agree with Locke's definition, the mainstream of the Christian tradition has viewed the Church as the covenant community of those who are called to belong to Jesus Christ, who is its savior and head.

Moreover, the gathered church, as distinct from the body of Christ which is more encompassing, has been generally recognized to be an authoritative institution with the power to bind and loose on earth (Matt. 16:19, 18:18). As such it is more than the aggregate of its members but is a divinely-ordained vessel bearing the Gospel to the world and especially to those who are in Christ.

Tellingly, the voluntaristic ecclesiology of liberalism is by no means limited to liberal Protestant denominations here in North America. Even evangelical churches claiming faithfulness to the Bible implicitly communicate to their members that their own expressed needs are sovereign and strive to meet them above all else. Drawing on a consumer model, such congregations will hold multiple and different styles of worship services each Sunday to appeal to the varying liturgical tastes of adherents. If this entails toning down confessional distinctives and mounting concert-style litur-tainment, so be it.

It is common these days to hear people claim to be spiritual but not religious. Mere spirituality leaves the ego in charge, and successful churches try their best to appeal to this ego. On the other hand, religion implies a certain binding (Latin: religare) of the person to a particular path of obedience not set by the person herself. Just as the state is called by God to an irrevocable task of doing public justice, so also is the institutional church called by God to proclaim the Gospel in its fullness, administer the sacraments and to ensure that its members are living up to their calling before the face of God, who has redeemed them in Jesus Christ.

David T. Koyzis is the author of the award-winning Political Visions and Illusions and We Answer to Another: Authority, Office, and the Image of God. He teaches politics at Redeemer University College. A slightly different version of this was published in Christian Courier.


Blog Archive

About Me

My photo
Contact at: dtkoyzis at gmail dot com