Brett Vaden is my long-time friend and co-blogger at Philomythois. In his previous post, he invited me to “bring it on” and respond to his post, and several weeks ago, in a private conversation, he also asked me to demonstrate how a particular doctrine can have both a short summary and a broad metanarrative. Here I will both “bring it on” with a negative argument against Brett’s non-partisan national dream, then I will give a positive argument for a broad metanarrative of justification that sets apart the politics of the kingdom of God. Lastly, I will make a constructive argument for a way forward for fostering unity and peace in the holy nation called, the church. But be warned: This is a long post (upwards of 3000 words), and political theology is not for the faint of heart.
I will begin by summarizing Brett’s argument as I understand it. Brett, please correct me if I am misreading or misrepresenting you at any point in this summary.
- America should be a non-partisan nation.
- Non-partisanship consists of unity, peace, constructive conflict, and humble alignment.
- Christians and churches should work towards the formation of non-partisanship.
- They can do this by agreeing to face all the issues, repent of hard heartedness, and implementing good organizational structures.
First things first, I agree with the heart of Brett’s argument. I too desire a non-partisan nation, I too want the church to repent, and face the issues with peace, humility, and unity. My rebuttal is not a dismissal of those desires, but a charter for a somewhat different path ahead towards the realization of those desires. What follows is a public, theo-political, conversation between two friends. Cheers.
Negative Argument: Get Used to Disappointment
America will never, ever, not in a billion years be a non-partisan nation. Ever. For one simple reason – she lacks what is necessary for the formation of peace and unity.
The founding fathers theorized about what was necessary for a society to be just and free as well as what would be necessary to keep said society just and free. The Bill of Rights is a charter of sorts for what their vision for the necessary stipulations for such a society. It was a noble effort, but no cigar. During the 2016 election, I had numerous conversations about what is necessary to keep America from anarchy or tyranny: “A just society must be an informed society, therefore we need freedom of the press”; “A free society must be a religious society, therefore we need a separation of church and state”; “A free society must be able to defend itself from tyrannous government, therefore we need the right to bear arms”; “A just society must protest injustice, therefore we need the right to peaceable assembly”; etc., etc.
However, there is only one thing necessary to make and keep a society free and just – virtue.
Is America a virtuous society? I hope my answer here is not unnecessarily offensive. I mean no disrespect, and I say this simply as a matter of fact – No (by the way, neither are any of the other nations).
This is by no means to say that America (or any other nation) has no virtues. It does, but the presence of virtues does not make a person or a nation virtuous. However, as Stanley Hauerwas argues, “[democracy assumes] that a just polity is possible without the people being just.” President Jimmy Carter promised to give America “a government that is as good and honest and decent and competent and compassionate and as filled with love as are the American people.” Unfortunately, that is the best the kingdoms of this world can produce and no better. Sometimes dimly and sometimes radiantly, the kingdoms of this world can approximate God’s righteousness, but they can never be or become a virtuous society.
Why? Because there is one thing necessary for a society to be virtuous: the presence of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is present in one, single society: the kingdom of God.
Therefore, the reason America will never, ever, in a billion years, ever, be a non-partisan nation is because America is not the kingdom of God. That name is reserved for the new exodus assembly of Jews and Gentiles known as the church.
Positive Argument: The Metanarrative of Justification
In the beginning, God made the heavens and the earth. In seven liturgical days, God ritually performed a covenant establishing the realm of the heavens to be ruled by the greater and lesser lights, the realms of seas and skies to be ruled by the sea serpents and birds, and the realm of the lands to be ruled by the man and woman. The Sabbath is the sign of the covenant which God deposited in the morning and evening cycles of the sun and moon so that they function as an endless liturgical calendar of the enthronement of God as the Great King, the Lord of all creation. Throughout the creation account the Trinity is at work: The Father creates through his word, the Son creates through fashioning, and the Spirit creates by giving life. As the Niceno–Constantinopolitan Creed confesses of the Holy Spirit, “[He is] the Lord and Giver of life”
When the human race falls into wickedness and the earth becomes filled with violence, God grieves over his creation and vows, “My Spirit shall not justify humans forever” (Gen. 6:3). God rains down judgement and destroys the whole earth with the flood. Like the beginning of the first creation in which the Spirit hovered over the face of the waters (Gen. 1:2), the end of the flood is like a new creation in which a dove hovers over the waters until he finds land. After God delivers the ark from destruction, he makes another covenant with his creation, in which he promises to never again destroy the earth in a flood. He sets his war bow in the heavens facing upward, towards himself, as a visible sign of his covenant with creation. After the flood, the nations are scattered over the whole face of the earth, and God elects one man to be the father of God’s kingdom. The Lord makes a covenant promise to Abraham, “’Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them….So shall your offspring be.’ And Abram believed the Lord, and he judged it to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:5-6). God changed Abram’s name to Abraham and gave Abraham a visible sign of their covenant – circumcision.
Centuries pass and Abraham’s descendants are slaves in Egypt. When God comes in judgment, it is both deliverance from oppression and judgement of the oppressors – Pharaoh and the gods of Egypt. With each plague against Egypt, God judged Pharaoh and Pharaoh’s gods. After the tenth and final plague, God justified his people by delivering them from oppression and bringing them into right status – celebrated by the Israelites in the Passover feast – and God gave his law to his people so they may live out virtuous action – celebrated by the Israelites in the feast of Pentecost.
When we come to the New Testament, we find that God’s people are oppressed again. They have sinned and are under the covenant breaking curse; they have worshiped false gods and their land is filled with demonic powers, and they have been conquered by the Roman Empire and are under the rule of Caesar. During the feast of Passover, God’s Spirit empowered agent, Jesus the King of Israel, dies as a representative for his kingdom. He takes the death-curse of his covenant breaking people, is slain by the dark powers of the accuser, and dies at the hands of Roman authorities. Three days later he is justified by the Spirit in his resurrection, thereby destroying and reordering all judgement under himself. Sin no longer reigns, Satan is no longer the ruler of this world, Caesar is only allowed secondary and momentary authority, and Jesus is exalted to the highest throne that is over every throne and given the name that is greater than any name in heaven and earth. That name is Lord.
Like God’s covenant after the flood, the new covenant is accompanied by a visible sign – Baptism. And like God’s covenant at Sinai, the new covenant is accompanied by a celebratory feast – the Eucharist. 2000 years ago, during the feast of Passover, a new exodus began. As with the first Exodus, God delivered his people from oppression and established them in a right covenant status. And 50 days later, during the feast of Pentecost, the Spirit sealed the law of Christ in the hearts of his new covenant people. Abraham is the father of a great kingdom, but it is not a kingdom limited to his biological descendants marked by circumcised flesh. It is God’s chosen kingdom, comprised of Jews and Gentiles who are marked by the presence of the Holy Spirit. Who, like Abraham, are judged righteous by faith. As with the first Exodus, God gave his law to his people so that they may live out virtuous action. Right status and right action are two sides of the same coin, and both go by a single name. Dikaiosunē is the word for justification as well as the word for righteousness. This is not an accident, sometimes dikaiosunē means right status, and sometimes dikaiosunē means virtuous action. Both are through the Spirit of God and for the Kingdom of God.
Three Question Excursus
Question – Is the Church the Kingdom of God?
Answer – Yes! Almost all biblical scholars translate basileia tou theou (kingdom of God) as “reign of God” referring to the universal dominion of God as King. Most biblical scholars then try to nuance the coming of God’s reign into two eras – the already and the not yet. God is already reigning in some paradoxical sense, while the fullness of God’s reign is not yet realized. In this view, the church is an entity that exists in the middle between the dawning and the coming of God’s reign. However, the problem with always translating basileia tou theou as “reign of God” is that the Bible itself does not do that.
When the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek (the Septuagint) melukah (kingdom), malkuth (reign), and mamlakah (realm), three distinct yet overlapping Hebrew words, were all translated into a single Greek word: basileia. Thus, when the New Testament writers are using the word basileia, they are not using it in a uniform Greco-Roman sense in which basileia almost always means “reign”, but in a dynamic Jewish sense wherein greater exegetical precision is required. When a New Testament writer says basileia, sometimes they mean “reign”, sometimes they mean “realm”, and sometimes they mean “kingdom”. And sometimes when they mean kingdom, they are talking about the church.
Question – Does that mean that the church has replaced Israel as God’s kingdom?
Answer – To quote the ever-quotable Karl Barth, “Nein!” As I have shown above, justification is of the Spirit (1 Tim. 3:16) because salvation is from the Jews (John 4:22-23). The reason a Gentile like me is justified is because King Jesus has taken the curse of death for his unfaithful covenant kingdom – Israel. And in his resurrection, he has defeated death, the weaponized power of the rebellious rulers – Sin, Satan, and Caesar. As Peter Leithart says, “‘Justification’ occurred two thousand years ago.” Thus, through his death, King Jesus takes the covenant curse for Israel’s unfaithfulness. Through the resurrection, King Jesus is justified as righteous along with his kingdom, Israel. And by faith – the loyalty of heart, mind, and will – the citizenship of the Gentiles is incorporated into God’s covenant kingdom whereby they share in the justification of Israel’s Messiah.
Question – Since the church is the kingdom of God does that mean it is uninvolved and disinterested in the affairs of the state?
Answer – That depends on what time it is in a given culture. H. Richard Niebuhr discusses the historical cycles of the church in a culture, and Timothy Keller helpfully builds on Niebuhr’s work discussing the seasons of the church in a culture. In a winter cycle, the culture is against the church, and it is a season of persecution. In the spring cycle, revival is happening in the culture. In the summer cycle, the values of the church and the culture are so closely aligned that it is difficult to tell the difference between the two. During the autumn cycle, the culture becomes resistant to and disenfranchised with the church, leading back into the winter cycle. I think this is a helpful model that is both historically insightful and offers guidance for the church’s engagement of the culture during a particular season. It is quite possible that I am wrong about this, but my hunch is that Christians in the West are living in autumn. Does that mean that the church in the West is uninvolved and disinterested in the affairs of the state? Maybe, but it is not a lazy disinterest, but a prophetic one. As Oliver O’Donovan says, “The worship that the principalities and powers seek to exact from mankind is a kind of feverish excitement. The first business of the church is to refuse them that worship. There are many times – and surely a major Election is one of them – when the most pointed political criticism imaginable is to talk about something else.”
Let’s Talk about Something Else: The Partisan Politics of the Fractured Church
Evangelicalism is not known for its sacramentality or its concern for the ecumenical movement. However, there is a largely unrealized correlation of the Evangelical movement’s passion for the gospel with the ecumenical movement’s pursuit of visible unity. These two passions converge in the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist.
The sacraments are simultaneously visible signs of union with Christ (prized by Evangelicals) and of the unity of Christ’s body (valued by the ecumenical movement). Baptism is a sign of our union with Christ (Rom 6:4) and of the washing away of our sins (Acts 22:16). It is also a sign of the unity of the body of Christ: “For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free” (1 Cor 12:13). Similarly, the Eucharist is the sign of the new covenant in Christ’s blood (Luke. 22:20) and of the forgiveness of sins (Matt 26:28). At the same time, it is a sign of Christian unity: “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Cor 10:17).
This suggests that the pursuit of visible unity among the Christian traditions that all confess “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Eph. 4:5) is, indeed, a gospel concern. Therefore, an Evangelical theology that sets all doctrines in orbit of the euangelion possesses a unique and largely unrealized opportunity for the ecumenical movement—namely, an emphasis on the gospel meaning of the sacraments as simultaneously signs of union with Christ and as signs of the unity of Christ’s body.
Evangelicals can foster ecumenical unity at three levels: denominational, pastoral, and layperson. At the denominational level, there must be corporate and public repentance before there can be corporate and visible unity. The violence of historical religious wars and present denominational bitterness, slander, and mutual indifference divides Christ (1 Cor. 1:13) and grieves the Holy Spirit (Eph. 4: 29-31). Just as the body of Christ is corporately justified in the one gospel, so also the body of Christ must pursue corporate sanctification through the gospel. Second, evangelical pastors can form collegial unity with local pastors inside and outside of their own tradition, whereby they can foster mutual care and collaborating with one another to discover the unity of their common gospel confession in the plurality of their church traditions. Lastly, laypersons can foster unity by worshipping alongside believers outside of their own tradition. All Christians can lament and pray for gospel unity in the churches that are out of sacramental union with one another. There are reasons why the various churches do not recognize the validity of each other’s sacraments, important reasons. But those reasons, no matter how important, cannot be the grounds of sacramental division between the churches that all confess the one gospel together. The church must share in one baptism and one bread, because we are the one body of Christ.
The bottom line is this: The gates of hell will prevail against every nation on earth, with a single exception – the kingdom of God. If you work towards non-partisanship in any other kingdom, get used to disappointment. If you want to see visible unity in the kingdom of God, then work for it. The powers of Sin, Satan, and Caesar are against the peace and unity of God’s kingdom, and the power of the Spirit is against the divisions present in the church.
But the power and grace of one is irresistible.
 Jean Carmignac, Le Mirage de l’Eschatologie, 13-16.
 The context of the quote is as follows: “To use some common Reformed terms, justification is not merely a matter of ordo salutis or application of redemption; it is also, and most fundamentally, an event in the historia salutis. ‘Justification’ occurred two thousand years ago. Paul does use the term ‘justify’ to describe what happens in the life of a sinful human being who is judged righteous, but this is not the only context in which Paul uses the term, and theologically it is not the most fundamental referent. The limitation of the concept of justification to the application of redemption distorts Paul’s theology and confuses the interpretation of particular passages.” Delivered from the Elements, 182-183.
 H. Richard Niebuhr, “Towards the Independence of the Church” in The Church Against the World, ed. H. Richard Niebuhr, et al.; Timothy Keller, Center Church, p. 237ff.