That Restless And Turbulent Spirit

David Fitch is continuing the discussion on the politics and ecclesiology of the Reformed tradition, and I have a few thoughts to add. In his post, he explains his general perspective:

As I see it, when Reformed theology was uprooted from its cultural moorings in the Majesterial Reformation and transported to N. America, it lost what it was “reforming.” It’s reason to be – reforming Catholic Europe- was gone. It had to find an integrity in itself. Sola Scriptura, Sola Fide, and Sola Christus had to stand alone. Sola Scripture no longer stood as a reforming princple reforming the corrupt traditions of Catholic church structure. It had to stand on its own as an adequate understanding of Scripture’s authority and principle of interpretation unto itself.  Sola Fide no longer stood as a reforming principle against the corrupt sacramental systems that fostered abuse and a works righteousness in Roman Catholic Europe. It had to stand on its own as an adequate understanding of God’s saving operations in the world. And Sola Christus could no longer stand on its own as a reforming principle against a monolithic church structure that made all salvation take place through her structures. It had to stand on its own as an adequate understanding of the church. The developments here, so I suggest, eventually led to an individualization of Christian faith, one that is inherently aligned with modernity and certain democratic capitalist culture systems. (Read C. C. Pecknold’s brilliant and concise narrative of how this all took place in ch.5-8 of Christianity and Politics)

Further, in one of his comments, he adds:

Likewise, Kuyper’s sphere-sovereignty is different/but related to the evangelical’s uncritical friendliness towards capitalism and other social structures. To me, this is a church-culture relation that makes sense out of untied Christendom context, but does not have the critical nexus necessarily to do the work necessary when the powers/structures or spheres have become rebellious…

I have a few thoughts about these comments:

(1) Though this may be beyond discussion for Fitch and some others in the continuing discussion, I think we ought to consider whether evangelicalism’s compatibility with modernity and capitalism might not have some benefit. In other words: aren’t there some things about the modern capitalist order that are good? Why is it an axiom that compatibility with this order is intrinsically problematic?

(2) I confess, I find it incredible to suggest that the Reformed tradition has an intrinsic problem when it comes to resisting corrupt powers. For example, this is something that was said about the Presbyterians by a loyalist during the American revolution:

I fix all the blame for these extraordinary proceedings upon the Presbyterians. They have been the chief and principal instruments in all these flaming measures. They always do and ever will act against government from that restless and turbulent anti-monarchial spirit which has always distinguished them everywhere.

Familiarity with other parts of the Reformed world, too, has to at least force some qualification to the view that Reformed theology naturally leads to passivity in the face of corruption: consider the Huguenots, or Karl Barth, or even the Reconstructionists in recent times (who were not many, but were certainly not uncritical sycophants to those in power).

(3) Further, it is hard to imagine how Reformed theology, staying true to its own founding principles, could be quietist in this way. Sola scriptura goes hand in hand with freedom of conscience, which means every Christian has a duty to seek the truth for him or herself. Neither the clergy nor the magistrate have absolute authoritative power over interpretation of the will and word of God. Indeed, one might be able to see parallels between the Reformation era and our own, such that the same principles that motivated resistance against the Papacy might also require Reformed Christians to stand against the corrupt practices of those with power in our day.

(4) Finally, and perhaps returning to (1), I think that the postmodern communitarian Anabaptist approach to discipleship misses something very significant about the human condition when it tries to oppose itself to the “individualism” of the Magisterial Reformation’s theology. That is, we are all indeed individually responsible to God to obey him above all others. This “all others” must include even the Christian community, for even the Christian community contains sin in it. (This is something Calvin’s doctrine of indwelling sin can teach us, that perhaps the Anabaptist doctrine of the gathered church  cannot.) We ultimately cannot give up to others responsibility for our own walk with God. God will not accept that as an excuse for sin on the last day, and we should not seek to use the necessity of Christian community to rule out our own responsibility to seek to know and follow the truth wherever it leads.