Tag Archives: Political Theology

Calvinism and Democracy

In 2012 a group of scholars gathered at Princeton Theological Seminary for a conference titled, “Calvinism and Democracy.” The purpose of this conference was to reflect upon the neo-Calvinist legacy, to explore its theological roots, and to assess in what ways this tradition might provide resources for democratic criticism and renewal. The Kuyper Center Review (Volume Four): Calvinism and Democracy represents the published proceedings of this conference.

Although this collection of essays covers a wide range of topics there are two themes that tie all eleven essays together: 1) The notion that democracy today is facing a crisis and 2) The fact that neo-Calvinism has always had a complicated relationship with democracy. Despite these unifying themes this variegated collection of essays lacks coherence. Since there does not seem to be a strong organizing principle behind the arrangement of these essays, for the sake of the review I will divide these essays into three categories: historical essays on Abraham Kuyper, prescriptive essays based upon Kuyper’s theology, and essays examining other theologians.

The historical essays include contributions by seasoned Kuyper scholars George Harinck and Harry Van Dyke, as well as an essay by Clifford Anderson. Harinck contributes the first essay in this collection by exploring the reasons behind neo-Calvinism’s complicated relationship with democracy. Anderson makes perceptive observations regarding the logic behind liberalism and democracy. He argues that the Kuyperian notion of divine sovereignty rather than popular sovereignty allows us to hold these two ideologies together. Finally, Van Dyke makes two contributions; the first is a translation of correspondence between Willem Groen van Prinster and Kuyper regarding Kuyper’s election to parliament. The second is an essay addressing the nature of Kuyper’s democracy and his role as an emancipator of the kleine luyden in the Netherlands.

However, this collection does not limit itself to looking back at neo-Calvinism’s historical and theological roots; in the group of prescriptive essays Jeffrey Stout, Michael Bräutigam, and Michael DeMoor look to Kuyper as a resource for democratic criticism and renewal. Stout turns to Kuyper’s The Social Problem and the Christian Religion in order to prescribe a course of action for addressing the problems of poverty, domination, and exploitation. Bräutigam makes the case that Kuyper’s distinction between the church as an institution and as an organism “provides a significant motif for Christian political involvement” (p. 67). Finally, DeMoor calls upon other political theologians to develop a specifically neo-Calvinist conception of deliberative democracy rooted in the God’s sovereignty.

The final group of essays are focused on theologians other than Kuyper. David Little argues that Calvinist theology has made “a significant, if sometimes very ambivalent contribution” to the rise of modern constitutionalism (p. 24). He makes this argument by turning to the political theology of John Calvin, John Cotton, and Roger Williams. In “Distinctively Common,” Clay Cooke utilizes the thought of Herman Bavinck to develop ways to hold on to Christian peculiarity and the common good in the public square. James Eglinton also looks to Bavinck’s theology and shows how Bavinck could support the democratic development of the Netherlands while insisting that churches ought to be organized around principles that differ from democracy. Finally, Brant Himes shows how Kuyper’s and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Christology and doctrines of creation enable them live our their convictions that Christianity demands “public discipleship.”

Calvinism and Democracy is a superb collection of essays that will serve to stimulate further theological and political reflection upon its subject matter. Many of these essays provide avenues for further scholarly research. For instance Clay Cooke’s essay suggests that Bavinck sees cruciformity as a political virtue. One might want to further investigate what it looks like in practice to engage in politics in a cruciform manner. Michael Bräutigam’s essay “The Christian as Homo Politicus” explains how Kuyper used new forms of media to stimulate political action among the kleine luyden. It would certainly be a worthwhile project to see how new forms of social media, including twitter and blogs, could be used to continue Kuyper’s legacy of stimulating political action within the church. In addition to stimulating further research, this collection will also serve ministers who are attempting to form their own theology of political action within the church. Clay Cooke’s and Michael Bräutigam’s essays will be especially helpful. Both essays move beyond mere theory and develop practical courses of action for the church.

Despite possessing these strengths, this collection certainly has its flaws. One weakness of the collection as a whole is its lack of organization. There is no apparent logic as to how the individual essays were organized within the collection. Several essays also have major flaws. For instance, DeMoor’s essay does not make any significant contribution to neo-Calvinist scholarship, here merely calls for someone else to develop a neo-Calvinist model of deliberative democracy. The essay would have been stronger if he had developed it a model himself. Little’s essay also has a serious flaw; although he addresses John Cotton’s and Roger Williams’s political theories he never specifically addresses their distinctive Calvinist theology. This certainly undermines his thesis. Despite these drawbacks Calvinism and Democracy is a valuable collection that will stimulate further scholarly work and encourage ministers to develop their own theology of political action.

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The Government’s Mission is to Serve Christ

The title of this post seems ridiculous – especially in this post-Christian world. But its true.

The Government’s Mission is to Serve Christ.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, pastor, prophet, martyr, spy – gives the rationale behind this idea:

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

The mission of government to serve Christ is at the same time its inescapable destiny. Government serves Christ no matter whether it is conscious or unconscious of this mission or even whether it is true or untrue to it. If it is unwilling to fulfill this mission, then, through the suffering of the congregation, it renders service to the witness of the name of Christ. Such is the close and indissoluble relation of government to Christ. It cannot in either case evade its task of serving Christ. It serves Him by its very existence. – Ethics, 337

Whether the government knows it or not. Whether it wants to or not – the fact is that at the end of the day everything that happens in the realm of government serves to promote Christ’s goals and intentions for this world. The key thing to remember is that we may not have the eyes to see how the government serves Christ. Regardless of the how, the church’s call is to remain faithful to the one who is over all things, remembering that we serve Christ above all others.

The Kuyper Center Review – Calvinism and Democracy

The Kuyper Center Review - vol 4 - Calvinism and DemocracyIn 2012 a group of scholars gathered at Princeton Theological Seminary for a conference titled, “Calvinism and Democracy.” The purpose of this conference was to reflect upon the neo-Calvinist legacy, to explore its theological roots, and to assess in what ways this tradition might provide resources for democratic criticism and renewal. The Kuyper Center Review (Volume Four): Calvinism and Democracy represents the published proceedings of this conference.

Although this collection covers a wide range of topics, there are two themes that tie all eleven essays together: (1) the notion that democracy today is facing a crisis. and (2) the fact that neo-Calvinism has always had a complicated relationship with democracy. Despite these unifying themes this variegated compilation of essays lacks coherence. Since there does not seem to be a strong organizing principle behind their arrangement, for the sake of the review I will divide them into three categories: historical essays on Abraham Kuyper, prescriptive essays based upon Kuyper’s theology, and essays examining other theologians.

You can read the rest of my review of The Kuyper Center Review (Volume 4): Calvinism and Democracy in the Journal Themelios.

I Pledge Allegiance To….

Over the last few weeks I have been answering some common questions about Christianity and Culture. Today I turn my attention to the other subject one is never supposed to talk about in a proper setting. Thankfully this isn’t a proper setting – so lets talk politics!

How does Christian allegiance intersect with national allegiance? Does national allegiance pose a challenge to Christian values in any way?

In Christ and Culture Revisited (a book that I have mentioned several times in the last few weeks), D.A. Carson succinctly articulates his position when he says that

The texts (i.e. the Scriptures) encourage good citizenship within the Empire while insisting on the Christian’s primary allegiance to a heavenly citizenship. The proclamation of the gospel transforms people….sooner or later such transformation will either improve the state or excite its opposition. (172)

I wholeheartedly agree with Carson’s position.

Throughout the Bible, especially in the New Testament (and also in the exilic period) there is definitely a sense that one is to submit to the authorities that God has placed above oneself. In the modern day this can range from teachers, to police officers, to the federal government. However, it is also clear from the Bible that one’s primary allegiance is to God himself, anything else would be idolatry.

The Bible is clear that one’s primary allegiance is to God alone, anything else would be idolatry.

Usually this is not a problem, the government (at least in the United States) does not usually legislate in such a way that Christians are forced to choose to act in a Christian manner or in an American manner. However when such legislation does occur, Christians have the responsibility of refusing to bow the knee before anyone other than God. It is in these situations that Christians must express the fact that their allegiance is not towards America but to God. One such situation that immediately comes to mind is immigration. The immigration debate is often framed in light of what is best for America, but as a Christian who believes that my allegiance is to God and his purposes before it is to America and its purposes there are situations where I will have to deviate from American foreign policy. This deviation from American policy will likely be unpopular in the eyes of those (even Christians) who think in terms of what is “best” for the United States. It might even incite opposition from these people, but that is to be expected. In my opinion, this is an issue of idolatry. Who or what is worship directed to? Is it to God or is it to our state?

Some questions for you to chew on (courtesy of an anonymous friend at Church):

  1. In the lives of Daniel and his friends, we see that they clearly obeyed the laws of the land in almost every circumstance, despite the fact that Babylon was clearly their enemy…
    1. Are there any laws you find yourself being tempted to disregard? If so, why?
    2. How does it detract from our witness when we are not living in submission to authorities?
  2. As Christ followers, our sole allegiance is to God, and there is a limit to our submission to our country.
    1. Keeping in mind the examples of Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednago, what are 2 or 3 examples of when we should stand against our own government?

Book Review – Political Theology by Fiorenza, Tanner, and Welker

Political Theology is currently a flourishing field, with even atheists like Slavoj Zizek contributing to the task. This book, Political Theology: Contemporary Challenges and Future Directions, edited by Francis Schussler Fiorenza, Klaus Tanner, and Michael Welker capitalizes on this field’s popularity and seeks to give some direction to the current discussions within Political Theology. The goal of this book was specifically to articulate “an understanding of the future tasks and potential of Political Theology in a local and global context.”

For those of unfamiliar with this field, Political Theology seeks to articulate ways in which theological concepts (explicitly or implicitly) serve as a foundation for all political, social, economic and cultural thought. It isn’t simply a discussion of Church and State, neither is it simply concerned with God’s role in politics. When speaking of Political Theology we must understand that we aren’t doing Theology proper (that is why even atheists can do Political Theology). We might consider Political Theology a sort of Feuerbachian “Theology as Anthropology” or at least carrying that tradition into our day. Johan Baptist Metz makes this anthropological connection in his essay when he points out that his own Political Theology has been shaped by Karl Rahner’s “anthropological turn” of the discourse of God. All this to say, in this book we are dealing with a political “theology as anthropology.”

This short book (only 86 dense pages long) consists of six essays, all birthed out of a Political Theology conference at the University of Heidelberg in 2010. Jurgen Moltmann makes the first contribution – he highlights the fact that all theologies are political and gives us a brief tour of several forms of Political Theology. Johan Baptist Metz writes an essay contrasting his own Political Theology with the theology of Carl Schmitt. He advocates for a theology which is even more grounded in current contexts as opposed to a metaphysical timeless Political Theology. Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza adds her typical feminist take to this discussion. She argues that Political Theology needs more feminist analysis. Her husband contributes an essay as well – he argues that politics in a pluralist context needs Political Theology because religiously shaped discourse contributes something that no other sort of tradition can. Klaus Tanner makes his contribution by examining the Political Theology of Pope Benedict XVI. Michael Welker concludes this collection of essays by contrasting the Political Theology of Habermas and Ratzinger. He argues that Political Theology needs to draw more from the social sciences, and that it could take its cue from the philosophy of Habermas.

Overall this book highlights three themes: 1) The future of Political Theology needs to understand the contextual nature of social relations, 2) Political Theology requires a higher degree of interaction with the social sciences, and 3) Political Theology must embrace multicontextual and pluralistic environments (XII-XIV).

Analysis

The two essays that I found most helpful were Motmann’s and Francis Schussler Fiorenza’s essays. Moltmann made a strong case that there is no such thing as a-political theology. He presents the reader with a strong overview of how his thesis plays out in various context (Latin America, places undergoing ecological crises, and other global contexts). He also makes a good point that one cannot have Liberation theology in non-Christian contexts since Liberation and justice comes in the name of Jesus Christ. Francis Schussler Fiorenza’s essay was also very helpful. More than any other essay, this essay explained Carl Schmitt’s Political Theology and provided a helpful contrast with it. He makes the case that much of American political theology has been shaped by Schmitt’s ideas – both liberal and neo-conservatives are full of Schmitt’s ideas. What is needed is a critique of his theology – this critique will involve two deeply Christian concepts, that of Sin and that of Transcendence.

There are plenty of things that I felt like critiquing as I was reading this book, but I am going to restrain myself from focusing too much on any one essay – rather I will explain one issue that I have with Political Theology in its entirety. The one problem that I had with political theology is that it really doesn’t seem to be “Political Theology” it really seems to be “Political Anthropology.” God actually plays a very small role in most of these theologian’s theology (except for Moltmann and Fiorenza’s). As I mentioned in my summary above, Political Theology is a sort of Feuerbachian “Theology as Anthropology.” Metz (it seems to me) would wholeheartedly agree. This is a shame because I had thought that Theology had moved past its Feuerbachian stage. I though that Barth had exposed the foolishness of “Liberal” theology, yet Political Theology (it seems to me) is Feuerbach redivius. Consider the fact that even atheists can do Political Theology – it doesn’t get more Feuerbachian than that!

Do I recommend this book? Yes I do. If you want a taste of what Political Theology is like, and you want a glimpse into it future then this is a great book. Yet to me it seems as though the entire project of Political Theology is built on a foundation of quicksand. Unless Political Theology starts doing a little more “theology” I am probably going to stay away from it unless absolutely necessary.

(Note: I received this book courtesy of NetGalley and WJK in exchange for an objective review.)

The Lego Movie – an Anabaptist (ish) Review

Spoilers ahead….

Everything is awesome! If the song is not stuck in your head after seeing Lego Movie then you probably watched it on mute and in closed captioning. Seriously though, the song plays over and over and over again – until you start believing that everything really is awesome. It’s a really clever trick though, play a song with a very simple message that reinforces the main message of the movie.

Everything is awesome – Everybody is awesome!

It’s a really simple message if you think about it. Everybody, even normal people have the capability to radically affect the world. However the key to actually affecting the world around us is “believing” (as a stupid cat poster once told us) that we really are awesome.

Name it and claim it! I am awesome! I can do awesome things!

I’m not going to pooh-pooh the movie though. I loved it, the humor was sophisticated – the “honey where is my pants” tv show was genius. The jokes about $30 cups of coffee, Lego cars stuck in traffic, popular songs, etc. are brilliant social commentary – kids won’t get it but who cares, this movie isn’t just for kids! And then to top it off (another spoiler alert) Will Ferrell showed up! Yes I loved it!

The movie was also filled with some great messages: creativity as opposed to conformity for the sake of conformity is something to be valued, working together as a team is better than working as an individual, we shouldn’t overlook “normal” people because “normal” people are often at the root of social change. I loved these messages. There is plenty of fodder for sermon illustrations in this movie, there were also plenty of clips that I would love to show in a sermon too!

Of course I had some issues with the movie. Maybe its me being too philosophical, but I noticed a lot of existential themes running through the film. Not that this is a bad thing (necessarily) but children are so easily swayed and indoctrinated that I am not sure I want them to draw from this movie in order to form their worldview.

(Sidenote: It goes without saying, but we need to be careful what we teach our children. We Christians are so quick to jump on objectionable material – sex, cussing, violence – and are willing to accept anything as long as it doesn’t have those three sinful things as a part of it. For instance, I know many Christians object to things like Harry Potter, yet they have no qualm with The Secret Garden because the secret Garden doesn’t contain evil things like witchcraft. Yet the Secret Garden espouses a pantheistic worldview; why don’t Christians ban stuff like that?)

There was another kids movie released recently that was chock full of existentialist messages. That movie was so over the top with existentialism that it was laughable. The Lego movie isn’t that blatantly existentialist, yet its still there. For instance – Vitruvius makes up the prophecy, yet if one chooses to live by the prophecy then the prophecy is true. This is basically the existentialist position on religion, there is no metaphysical backing for religion, yet if one chooses to live as though it were true, then that makes it meaningful and hence true. Then, and this is way more subtle, Emmet has to stare into the abyss before he can make the leap of faith…. Okay Kierkegaard!

Now onto the “Anabaptist” part of this review; I am no Anabaptist, I am reformed, yet I find something strangely attractive about Anabaptist political theology… So let may lay down some Anabaptist foundations before we examine The Lego movie,.

Howard Yoder distinguishes between three different forms of church: 1) activist, 2) conversionist, and 3) confessing. The Activist church’s primary concern is the building of a better society. The Conversionist church’s primary concern is inward change. Its primary concern is the individual soul, it isn’t concerned with social change or social ethics. The Confessing church however rejects the individualism of conversions and the secularism of the activists (as Yoder would say), its concern is primarily to be a faithful witness to Christ. For this reason the confessing church sees itself as an alternative polis. According to Stanley Hauerwas, the confessing church “knows that its most credible form of witness (and the most effective thing it can do for the world) is the actual creation of a living breathing community of faith.

Bare with me! We are getting to the Lego part!

The primary symbol of the confessing church is the cross. Hauerwas says that “the cross is not a sign of the church’s quiet, suffering submission to the powers that be, but rather the church’s revolutionary participation in the victory of Christ over those powers. Anabaptists call this “revolutionary subordination.”

The Anabaptist position of “revolutionary subordination” is the position of taking a similar stance towards the world as Jesus did on the cross. On the cross the powers and authorities used their power for evil, Jesus “revolutionary subordination” is Jesus commitment not to play according to the power games of the powers and principalities. Rather than fight back, or try to convince them of his innocence, Jesus willingly takes on the cross and in turn shows them their weakness and lack of power.

Revolutionary subordination suggests that one need not play according to the rules of the “power game” with the oppressive powers and principalities. It suggests that one ought not “play” according to their rules and their ways, rather one should let them “defeat” us because in our defeat they will be shown impotent.

Now on to the Lego Movie!

Think back to Lord Business’ goal in life; he wants everything to be perfect. He wants perfect towns, perfect workers, perfect models, etc. He wants awesomeness to rule the world! Now think of the Master Builders. How do the Master builders want to defeat Lord Business? They want to build the perfect model, they want the perfect spaceship, they want the perfect plan. They want something that is awesome.

Everybody’s world revolves around perfection/awesomeness – even though they (Lord Business and the Master Builders) are on the opposite team, they are playing the same game.

It’s the game that says “only some things are awesome – and we know what those things are.” Enter Emmet – the guy who doesn’t look so awesome on the outside (or on the inside for that matter). Here is a guy who doesn’t know how to play the perfection/awesomeness game. He is normal, he has nothing to offer. His plans aren’t awesome. The things he builds aren’t awesome. He is as boring and simple as you can get. He is a Lego man who cannot play the “awesome game,” if it were up to everybody else he would be on the sideline watching. Yet in the end, it is Emmet who defeats (of better yet reforms) Lord Business. How does he do that? Emmet refuses to play the awesome game. In a world that says that “some things are awesome” Emmet says “everything is awesome.” Now this is not strictly true, not everything is worthy of awe, yet everything is awesome in the way that Emmet redefines awesome. Emmet defeats the threat by redefining terms and by refusing to play the game that the “powers and principalities” are playing. One might call this an act of revolutionary subordination.

This movie shows us that one does not defeat the threat by playing according to the threat’s rules. One doesn’t need to “play” according to their rules and their ways, rather one should let them “defeat” us. Once they accepted the fact that they weren’t going to build “awesome” (at least by Lord Business and Master Builder’s definition) things, they were capable of disarming the treat that they faced.

All this to say….

The Lego movie is funnier, more complex, more philosophical, and more theological than any animated movie that I have ever seen. Yes there are some messages that I don’t agree with, but this kids movie is so thought provoking, that you cannot help but pass it up. Go watch this movie!