Sunday, July 23, 2017

When the Emperor Permits the Desecration of Icons

As many commentators point out, both friendly and hostile, Christians, particularly "conservative" Evangelicals, in the United States have near equal divorce rates to those who are not. As some have pointed out, the real root of the gay marriage problem is in the changing attitude towards divorce, and to the institution of marriage itself. Defanging the legislation was not only grounded in disdain for the permanence of marriage or the growing absolute primacy of romance as the grounds of marriage. But either way, taking the bite out of the marital contract allowed marital dissolution a free-flow, which became a reality as divorce became more and more socially permissive. However, this is not the problem. On an unrelated note, Petr Chelcicky comments on his contemporary situation of confusing the Law of God with man made laws:

Now concerning the second difference between the rule of the law of Christ and the pagan rule, the Master Adversary says[381] that the civil or state law of the pagans is (real) law by virtue of the sinfulness of men and for the purpose of obtaining justice through compulsion, while the law of the holy gospel exists for the (sole) purpose of obtaining spiritual gifts of grace… [ Civil law administers justice through compulsion, while the law of Christ establishes justice through love. ]
[ But while law checks – to a certain degree – injustice within one’s own country, it does nothing when iniquities are committed abroad. ] The straying Christians like to depend on secular power; they even seek it and cherish it since it serves their inclinations… Thus a material-minded people asks to have secular power (over them) because it enables them to rest in peace around fleshpots, under the protection of (state) authority; and if, peradventure, some hardship or threat to life or property should come about, these things will be defended by authority of the king, through war, driving away the disturber, and revenge… [ These Christians who have strayed from the law of Christ and are under the jurisdiction of the civil law are regarded as just and good as long as they live up to the standards of the civil courts and offices. But righteousness by law has nothing in common with righteousness in the eyes of God. ] The truth of Jesus is nothing but foolishness[382] to proud men, an oddity, an offense, a pain, and a shame.
Following Chelcicky's logic, Christians, the little Christs, the people of God, ought to live their lives in accordance with God's law. This has nothing to do with, or contradicts, the fact that Christ fulfills the law, we are always at war with sins that plague us, that fact that Christ's blood shed is the forgiveness of sins and the sure promise of pardon. However, Chelcicky is at war with the problem of "Sunday Christians". And one can see that real problem is that the Kingdom of God is removed from our day to day, public, lives.

As I stated before, the Reformation reformatted the Two Swords doctrine, but did not fundamentally maintain a deep sense of antithesis, one grounded not only in the heart, but also in the material and immaterial structures of our world. Spiritual is understood to be something other than common life, which is then placed under diverse rules and laws that have only tangential reference to Christ. This is the origin of Jesus as Beautiful Soul, which reaches its political theological climax in Niebuhr's claim that while Jesus' ethic is important as an ideal, it's not practical or practiceable in the hard situations of real life, the world of politics and economics.

Chelcicky doesn't refute that in the pagan world, Christ's law will be marked foolishness, and hence while Christians could theoretically hold these civil functions, they'd be hated and scorned. As Chelcicky said elsewhere, indeed a Christian could be a king, but if he was a Christian he'd know only preaching the gospel is the true path to bringing about righteousness, not the coercion of the sword. That is, the king would appear rather unkingly, even though Christ teaches us not to war against flesh and blood, but against powers and principalities. For a king to reflect David is to mistake the kingship of Israel as typological of Christ's reign. Christ Jesus is not a different kind of king than David, rather He is the fulfillment, the filling full, of David's form.

When Christ's kingship is mistaken as having no impingement upon our lives, that He is merely spiritual in the sense that Christ's words have no real bearing on our public lives, we are in grave error. And the facts of divorce are proof of this. We no longer live in accordance with Christ's law as true, looking to Him in faith, but turn to civil law as our boundary. While the temptation to do so is always there, the fact many self-professing Christians can do so with a good conscience is because of doctrine that says America is a Christian country (and thus its laws are holy?) or that all law is merely neutral, lest it govern our worship or spiritual lives, and we need not concern ourselves of it, obedience is enough.

The second sounds innocuous enough, but it becomes license to dissolve our lives, and churches, into the surrounding civil life. While men like Wycliffe and Luther were right to oppose the Pope's temporal claims as a prince, especially his meddling in the affairs of princes, they (especially Luther) resulted in unleashing a kind of anarchy. From his perch in the monastery and university, I do not think Luther understood that the coercive conjoining of Papal and Imperial law was all that kept the thin veneer of Christian virtue over most peoples. He lamented that many had no desire for the things of God, only to be free from all constraint. Very quickly most facets of the Magisterial Reformation hitched their wagons to princely reform movements, and recreated the same alliance between state and church, though perhaps with new power differentials. In both cases, whether under Roman or Reformational governments, the church became a spiritual province, with temporal benefits, that subdued itself fully to the needs of civil power.

What does this have to do with divorce? Because of the legacy of segregating Christ's law from common life means that we hide in the boundaries of civil law. It should keep us in awe that even though Henry VIII was absolute master of England, he was still enraged that William Tyndale, a nobody with no civil power, wrote against him. Why did Henry care? Because he knew Tyndale, standing on Scripture and claims of Christ's church, might cause people to undermine the king's stature. Tyndale was not explicitly being political, but he refused to call evil good because the king demanded it. And Tyndale did not take the sword, he was eventually martyred for his fidelity to Christ the King.

St. Paul tells us marriage is a mystery of Christ and His Church. In this way, marriage is a sacrament, if we are to use such a category, because it forms out of common materials (the ordinary civil function of marriage) an icon of Christ's work, a promise to an otherwise common fact. If Christians are ever to appear demographically different, it will be because we care more for Christ's law than the terror of civil judgement. Many are beginning to wake up to this fact, but I'm afraid it's grounded in present day hostility, not the binding teaching of the Apostles. Even if the Emperor tells us it's permitted to desecrate Christ's icons, we should rather obey God, and not hide under theological skirts, fleeing to the coercive features of the state. May God curse such people with a bad conscience, so that they might repent; and may God bless His churches so we may soak ourselves into the life of Christ.


  1. this reminded me of a post I wrote years ago, just a few years after I finally stopped even intermittently attending Mars Hill.

    I think you had a comment over at Mere Orthodoxy about how the difference between Puritan and Victorian moral instruction regarding the genders was that the former anchored their approach to concrete relationships such as husband, son, brother, father, etc whereas the latter built on a foundation of abstracted masculine and feminine traits. That comment reminded me of how useless I found the CBMW books because Piper and his crew could only come up with the most tautological abstractions for not-defining masculinity and femininity that all seemed to presuppose marriage or some hierarchical relationship.

    The idea broached by hoosier bob over at Mere O, that there are men who can't afford to get married or for whom there are no compelling long-term economic incentives, seems to only be met as though it were a defense of premarital sex, which hoosier bob wasn't advocating. Pointing out that in a contemporary recessionary economy it isn't financially worth the risk and costs for men to marry isn't the same as saying marriage is bad, it's saying that not everyone is fiscally cut out for it yet.

    1. That was a solid piece, thanks for sharing. While what Chelcicky was describing was at the legal level, your thoughts push the critique to a larger social problem. As you put it, many conservative Protestants are in bad faith with their relationship to the world. Reminds me of a goofy scene from Arrested Development, when the Fundie Pastor (Alan Tudyk!)'s Wife starts awkwardly grinding on Jason Bateman, asking him to teach her the ways of the secular.

      It's easy for our theology to become a means of projecting onto God our desire for conformity. As Cranmer said, what the heart loves, the will desires, and the mind justifies. But God has cursed American Evangelicalism, especially the Neo-Calvinist variety, with an inherent goofiness, always coming upon trends 10-20 years after they began. The late 2000s and early 2010s saw a bunch of evangelical sex books come out, and it was like the 70s had just happened, even as pagans were exhausted and beginning to realize that maybe the sexual revolution was hardly the liberation they thought it would be.

      God help us