I am still in the early chapters – sorry Darryl – due to some great developments in our Rhode Island church planting effort. A nice problem to have. I thought I’d throw in my two cents. I’m responding (half-consciously) to many previous posts and comments as I do so.
1. As someone steeped in the Redemptive-Historical/Vosian tradition of biblical theology I have tremendous appreciation for a sharp line between this age and the one to come. Although current Reformed Presbyterian political awareness is cautious with regard to eschatology, a survey of pre-WWI RP literature shows that our forebears were not. The National Reform Association sponsored massive several massive conventions, featuring US Senators as keynote speakers, welcoming the coming “Christian century”. The social action of the NRA and the social conscience of the RPCNA were in line with the best of the Northern Social Gospel tradition. The tone of publications like the Christian Statesman was confident to the point of being smug. The Social Gospel’s Victorian postmillenialism was in full swing – and was stopped short (at least in the RPCNA) by the first World War. While eschatology may not be at the forefront of our minds, it certainly was when the RPCNA was at its strongest, numerically and politically.
2. One of the peculiarities of American self-image that Darryl points out carefully is the constantly reiterated connection (in the American Christian – especially Presbyterian – mind) between political liberty and faithful Protestantism. Let me take a stab at the “why” of it (this is risky: having not finished the book, maybe I am anticipating or foolishly disagreeing with Darryl’s own wiser analysis): both stem from a 16th-17th c. British jingoism that identified British legal structures with Britain’s physical, cultural, and religious “island” nature, as opposed to the politically chaotic, benighted, religiously disunified and papacy-haunted Continent. The English Reformation was more about England’s sovereignty than about heartfelt reform of the Church, and the struggles with the Stuarts and later a seemingly unending string of naval wars with France, the Netherlands, and Spain allowed the British to continue conflating their national identity with their Protestantism, and to continue to villify Catholic enemies (real or supposed) as virtual slaves. The American rebellion was highly justifiable (I think) given the rights guaranteed by the historic British charters (Magna Carta, Petition of Right, Bill of Rights). Unlike the French, the Americans viewed themselves as building on and improving the past without necessarily repudiating it. (The wording of the Second Amendment, compared with the parallel clause in the English Bill of Rights, illustrates this beautifully: Parliament demanded protection of the right of Protestants to keep and bear arms!) American religio-political jingoism is British religio-political jingoism.
3. Christianity presents an ideal state. And it gives plenty of information as to how that state is to be run. That state is the coming kingdom, the New Jerusalem that will come down out of heaven. This at first glance removes Christian faith completely from the realm of the political. But only at first glance. William Dennison’s Paul’s Two Age Construction and Apologetics presents apologetics as the task of defending the coming age against the present one – I think correctly. In a sense, all Christian political thought boils down to apologetics. We must recognize that the seculum will never be the Church, and that every attempt to make it so will make it into the imperium (Latin scholars: did I use that term correctly?). We must also recognize that the Church must live a certain way, and must talk a certain way, and that we must serve and die to do those things.
4. Nasteffe beat me to bringing up Tom Wright on Jesus’ lordship vs. Caesar’s. In his reading of Romans in The Use of the Bible Ethically and Politically, Wright notes that not only the term evangelion but also parousia is a political term. The Lord Christ takes away Caesar’s prerogatives by trumping them now, empowering his people, and promising to judge based upon true law at the last day. So what does it mean that the Church is political in nature? It can mean very little, practically. There are societies in which Christians mainly die for their beliefs: they have no say in the running of their government, certainly. But it can also mean very much: rulers genuinely seeking to do justice asking the Church for guidance, if for no other reason than that they understand Jesus to be the High King to whom they will answer.
5. A second riff on the apologetics theme. 1 Peter 3:15 tells Christians to “sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence.” It’s all there. The first “political” act of the Church is to obey Christ as Lord. The second is to explain its obedient faith to outsiders. This is to be done gently and respectfully. Contemporary evangelicals strive imperfectly after the first, twist the second, and ignore Peter’s modifiers altogether.
All for now.