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Archive for the ‘Two Kingdoms Theology’ Category

A few striking observations from a favorite anecdote in John G. Paton’s autobiography, below. If I’m not mistaken, this would be referring to a cholera outbreak in 1832 in the U.K.

1. Healthy believers long for the courts of the Lord and don’t let lesser things get in their way. 2. However, it appears that godly Scottish Presbyterians in the early 19th century believed that public health crises could warrant church closures (or at least effectively cause them by population controls). 3. And apparently, the same believed that the state could mandate such closures (or at least effectively, etc.) in the interests of public health.

Not an argument that any of our churches must necessarily close under the present circumstances; just an observation to help put some strong opinions out there in context.

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Smellie, Thomas. “Fenwick Church.” 1905

During the recent COVID-19 crisis, many Christian churches have closed their doors, cancelling regular public worships services, though often utilizing telecommunications to facilitate God’s worship in private home contexts. What principles do confessionally Reformed and Presbyterian elders consider when making their decision? These are the ones that factored in to my mind.

1. Worship is priority number one. God’s honor comes before man’s honor, His being before ours. “Thy love is better than life.” We should sooner join the three Hebrew children and lay down our lives than surrender an inch of God’s worship. The First Table comes before the Second, and if there is an apparent conflict, the general rule is to surrender our own interests.

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Another addition to the ‘Chalmers Audio Library.’ A fascinating defense of religious establishments, arguing for them on the ground that they serve as a great, national Home Mission. In my opinion, he counters some of the standard objections well.

 

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Figures_Moab_Leads_Israel_into_SinThe following passage comes from Rutherford’s Trial and Triumph of Faith (1645), treating the story of Christ and the Syro-Phoenician woman.  In it, he deals with a dimension of sin and repentance that often gets very short shrift in our individualistic age, and sadly even in the Church.  Does this square with the contemporary Two Kingdoms approach?

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THE dispute between Christ and the woman goeth on: Christ bringeth a strong reason, (verse 26,) why he should not heal her daughter; because she, and all her nation, not being in covenant with God, as are the Jews, the church of God, are but dogs, and profane, and unworthy of Christ, which is the bread ordained for the children.

When Christ humbleth, he may put us in remembrance of our nation, and national sins: “Look to the rock whence ye were hewn, and to the hole of the pit whence ye were digged,” (Isa. 51:1). “I alone called Abraham, he was an idolater,” (Hos. 9:10). I found Israel like grapes in the wilderness; they should have been wild grapes rotting in the wilderness, had I not put them in my basket. “Son of man, cause Jerusalem to know her abomination,” (Ezek. 16:2). How? Make them know the stock they came of, ‘And say, Thus saith the Lord unto Jerusalem, thy birth and thy nativity is of the land of Canaan; thy father was an Amorite, and thy mother an Hittite,’ (verse 3). When the Jew was to offer the first fruits to the Lord; “And thou shalt speak and say before the Lord thy God, A Syrian ready to perish was my father, and went down to Egypt to sojourn there,” (Deut. 26:5). Thus, the forgetting what we are by nature, addeth to our guiltiness: “And in all thine abominations, and thy whoredoms, thou hast not remembered the days of thy youth, when thou wast naked and bare, and wast polluted in thy blood,” (Ezek. 16:22). So the Ephesians must be told how unfit they were by nature for Christ, being the very workhouse and shop of the devil, in which he wrought, (Eph. 2:1-3).

National sins have influence in their guilt and contagion on believers: (1.) When they mourn not for them: God’s displeasure should be our sorrow. (2.) When they stand not in the gap to turn away wrath, (Ezek. 22:30). There were godly men that departed from ill, (Isa. 59), but God’s quarrel was, that there was no intercessor, (verse 15). In fasting, believers, though pardoned, may have on them a burden of the sins of three nations, and be involved in that same wrath with them. National repentance is required of every one, no less than personal repentance. Who sorrows for the blood of malignants and rebels?—for their oaths, mocking, scoffing, massing? The sins of the land, idolatry, superstitious days, vain ceremonies, etc., have influence on a believer’s conscience in his approach to God.

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Lincoln_Proclamation_1863While listening to an excellent sermon by Rev. Bill Shishko of the OPC on days of prayer and fasting, I was struck by his final quote of the presidential proclamation of Abraham Lincoln for a national day of humiliation and fasting.  One can read it here.

I am hardly endorsing Abraham Lincoln’s personal theology and practice, much less making commentary on the merits and demerits of each side during the Civil War (or War Between the States, if you prefer).  But I cannot help but ask the modern (contra Melvillian) Two Kingdom advocates (1) whether this was, in the main, a good thing and not inherently a violation of Reformed principles and (2) whether it is ever commendable for a state or its elected officials to call for national days of fasting and humiliation.

I think that any simple Christian will read this and be impressed with how appropriate such a call was and earnestly sigh and cry that God might give us such magistrates again.  And more, for even better and more consistently Christian ones – who explicitly avow Jesus as King of kings and Lord of lords.

At the same time, I would hope that it would give pause to the more thoughtful modern 2K advocates to ask whether their outlook may at least be somewhat misguided.   Are such national fasts, following Westminster and Dort, inherently flawed?  Is this not a fast that the Lord “has chosen” (Isa. 58)?  But sadly, I fear it will make no dent with the more trenchant ones.

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I am a conservative Christian. I also homeschool. I head to the range every month or so. Not only that, but I’m a Calvinist, a psalm-singer, and to boot, someone who believes that the state has an obligation to embrace and support Christianity. So really, I’m not your mainstream, happy-clappy evangelical. For most, I would be just to the right of Attila the Hun. I’m in a subculture of a subculture of a subculture.

And yet, I am increasingly concerned about how reactionary and polarizing folks like me can be. We often tend to be overly suspicious of anyone in government, education, or any institution that we feel encroaches on our freedoms. We can indulge in conspiratorialism, thinking that every government official or educator or doctor has made a self-conscious Faustian bargain with the Devil and is actively plotting our destruction. And then we respond accordingly.

I am concerned about all of this for two reasons. First, ethically, we have a responsibility to “honor all men” and make the Gospel we represent as winsome as possible. Our “light should so shine before men” that they might see our “good works and glorify our Father which is in heaven.” Yes, we must at times offend, but only if it is for “righteousness’ sake.” Yes, we must stand our ground when sacred truth is at stake. But we must do it only when necessary and in a manner that involves no personal offense. Otherwise, we should, “as far as it lies within us, be at peace with all men.”

Second, I have very practical concerns as well. The more we are hyper-suspicious, unreasonable, and just downright cantankerous, the more we court the overreaction of those in positions of power. Tit for tat. “Whoso diggeth a pit shall fall therein: and he that rolleth a stone, it will return upon him.” If we are proud and stubborn as Christians, how much more will the graceless respond in kind? If we want to preserve our freedoms, we should act worthy of them and not bait the enemy. “For what glory is it, if, when ye be buffeted for your faults, ye shall take it patiently?” You’re just reaping what you’ve sown, says Peter.

I think we need to re-tune our theology and ethics here, in order to re-tune our practice. The following points I think are worth bearing in mind.

First, total depravity has been checked – sometimes very significantly – by common grace. To be sure, “there is none righteous, no not one.” And “the carnal mind is enmity against God, and is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be.” But unconverted people can be restrained, sometimes greatly. There is a real sense in which we can speak about ‘good pagans.’ I know some really good pagans! They are decent people. Some of them are more decent than some Christians I know. Consequently, there are some decent liberal Democrats, some decent members of the National Education Association, some decent doctors, lawyers, psychiatrists and social workers. Many of them mean well and want to do good, at least on a human level. We ought to realize this and keep it in mind.

Second, the law of love dictates that we assume the best of people, including non-Christians. Love “beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.” Our ethical responsibility is not suspended the moment we leave the church. Our unconverted neighbors – including government officials, educators, and doctors – are innocent until proven guilty. Would we want them to treat us with suspicion upon no clear, justifiable grounds? Even so, let us do unto them as we would have them do unto us. And all the while, let us not forget simple courtesy. “Be ye courteous.”

Third, two wrongs do not make a right. If someone does us wrong – if they give us a hard time for our homeschooling curriculum or our decisions on immunizations – then let us be very careful not to “repay evil with evil.” Rather, our Master tells us, “Bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you and persecute you.” We can all be tempted to get bitter and retaliate when we are mistreated. But it is not the will of our good and gracious Father, and it will usually only make matters worse.

Fourth, in God’s world, personal liberty must be counter-balanced with social responsibility. We owe it to our society (and yes, to our government!), to educate our children to the best of our abilities. They have a vested interest, as do we, in their academic success. If we turn out illiterates, this is not good for the economy or the tax revenues. It is just plain bad policy to say, let folks do what they will with their children. Now, mind you, I’m hardly advocating statism here. I really don’t want local school officials showing up on my doorstep to scour our textbooks and school records. Yet if they make reasonable requests – or even requirements – let us make sure that they are in fact unreasonable before we just tell them to take a hike.

And my doctor and the rest of society has a vested interest in my health. If I only eat fatty foods and exercise once every two decades, this is bad for me and for others. And if a whole demographic is just like me, then it bodes ill for all. If my mental health deteriorates and I become a risk to myself or others, yes, others have a vested interest in helping me before the unthinkable comes to pass.

Don’t misunderstand. I’m not promoting a lemming-like acceptance of conventional wisdom or the judgments of the establishment.  There’s a healthy place for critique.  Nor am I suggesting we roll over and play dead when someone oversteps their bounds. I’m all for insisting on personal rights, especially when it concerns the well being of my family. We can and may involve others to help protect those rights. But we must at once learn how to be actually in the world and yet not of it, as well as to be “angry and sin not.”

Let’s be careful to avoid the bunker mentality. Let’s remember that we represent God and Christ before a perishing world of lost and blinded sinners. Let’s remember that we were just like them, whistling down the broad path on the way to destruction. And let’s make very sure that if we cross them, we do it for the Lord’s sake and not for our own agendas. And then we can live with quiet conscience in peace or persecution. “And who is he that will harm you, if ye be followers of that which is good? But and if ye suffer for righteousness’ sake, happy are ye: and be not afraid of their terror, neither be troubled; but sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear: having a good conscience; that, whereas they speak evil of you, as of evildoers, they may be ashamed that falsely accuse your good conversation in Christ.”

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Had the following been written by anyone other than Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847), it might be taken as a specimen of pietistic escapism.  But coming from one known for his lifelong advocacy for political reform and his busy, personal involvement in caring for the poor of Industrializing Britain, it is anything but.  It’s not an unhealthy other-worldliness, by any means.  It’s a reality check.  And a very necessary reminder for us in the weeks running up to the election.

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“There is a delusion that attaches to much of moral and much of political speculation. The purpose of both is to ameliorate the condition of humanity, and to rear the permanent and substantial fabric of a better society than that which now encompasses our globe. It is, indeed, a soothing perspective for the eye of the philanthropist to dwell upon, when he looks onward to fancied scenes of bliss and perfection in the ages that are to come —and while he pictures to himself as the fruit of his enlightened labours in the philosophy of public affairs, that there shall then be love in every heart, and plenty in every habitation, it is scarcely to be wondered at, that he should kindle in the thought of all this goodly munificence, as if it bore upon it somewhat of the worth and greatness of immortality. But apart from religion – and how poor is the amount of all that the mere cosmopolite can do for our species!  And even though, without its aid, he should he able to perfect the temporal economy of nations, never can he perpetuate beyond a few flying years, to a single individual of this vast assemblage, any portion of the bliss or the glory that he thinks to have provided for them. It is death which brings down the worth and computation of his high-blown enterprise, that though established over the whole earth, and weathering the lapse of many centuries, can only gild in brighter and more beauteous characters than before, the fantastic day of each ephemeral generation. It is the gospel of Jesus Christ through which life and immortality are brought to light—it is this alone that can furnish the friend of humanity with solid and enduring materials – and never can he stand on a vantage ground where the mockeries of the grave do not reach him, till labouring and devising for the Christianity of his fellows, he helps to extend an interest that shall survive the wreck of every death-bed; and which, instead of being swept into annihilation, will be ushered to everlasting day, by that trumpet, at whose sound, our world, with all the pomp and all the promise of its many institutions, shall utterly pass away” (Collected Works 16:214).

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