MLA: Is this really a Covid-19 free essay? Are you finally writing about something else? It is, and I am.
I have been spending some time with David vanDrunen’s new offering Politics after Christendom,
which is a fine distillation and extension of his work on Protestant political theology. The story VanDrunen tells about where political communities gain their intelligibility goes, from what I can tell, something like this:
In the garden, Adam is given a mandate to populate and subdue the earth. In the Noahic covenant, that mandate is reiterated—but in such a way that it is refracted through the realities of sin. That refraction introduces a bifurcation into the structure of the covenants: the combination of the distinctly liturgical dimensions and the “political” responsibilities of Adam’s vocation are from that point on distinguished. The Noahic covenant becomes the basis for common political communities, while the Abrahamic, Mosaic, and New covenants are ordered toward the holy community of the people of God. In that way, the Noahic covenant is foundation for our reflection about political authority: it is the point at which the sword of retribution for spilling blood is authorized and made legitimate. God governs these ‘common’ political communities through his providence, and holds them accountable to the standards of the natural law. As such, the church is not a “model” or an “image” for governments to follow: rather, the church and the state operate in two spheres, and the state’s duty to protect the church is no more particularly ordered to the church than it is to any other religious institution.
There are aspects of this account that I can get on board with, but I continue to be unpersuaded by the weight that VanDrunen places on the Noahic covenant for ordering society—and the way in which he construes ‘natural law’ moral reasoning. Van Drunen makes much of his sympathies with Thomas Aquinas, and perhaps in the formal arrangement of their understanding of the ‘natural law’ and its relationship to the state there is indeed some overlap. But for VanDrunen, nature has a priority that Thomas simply cannot give it. For VanDrunen, “grace presupposes nature, but nature does not presuppose grace.” This means, correspondingly, that natural revelation has priority over special revelation: natural law is foundational to the Gospel. VanDrunen thinks that ‘grace’ is primarily about reconciliation and forgiveness. But Thomas’s understanding of the ‘natural law’ is underwritten by a primacy of grace over nature (if such a distinction can be made). If you have been a member of this here newsletter for a while (repent ye this day, if you are not!), you will remember that for Aquinas, mercy
is the wellspring of creation itself. As I wrote at the time
Thomas suggests that this work of divine justice “always presupposes the work of mercy; and is founded thereon.” If we go back far enough, we discover that nothing is due to creatures: our existence is not a matter of justice, but rather an outflow of the superfluous grace of God. Justice is written into creation insofar as creation presupposes “something in the knowledge of God.” The designer, we should say, had a blueprint. It was produced in a manner that accords “with the divine wisdom and goodness.” But mercy—well, mercy makes the whole thing happen to begin with. It is “preserved in the change from non-existence to existence.”
So much for my pedantic worry, though. If VanDrunen is insufficiently Thomist (despite claiming affinities), that’s not a major offense. But I have other worries about his view as well.
For one, VanDrunen’s distinction between common political communities and holy ones eviscerates the Mosaic covenant as necessary instruction in the nature and content of the natural law. VanDrunen acknowledges that the Mosaic law deals with matters common to all people: but claims it does so in ways that are ordered toward reflecting Israel’s unique holiness. Israel is not meant to be a model for all nations (contra Christopher Wright), as God does not will all societies, political communities, and governments to be holy in the manner in which God calls Israel to be. VanDrunen does not actually mention the 10 Commandments in his discussion of the holiness of the Mosaic covenant—which is, I think, telling as both Thomas and Calvin view the decalogue as a more precise clarification of the contents of the natural law.
Instead, VanDrunen leaves civil governments with an oddly neutered form of political reasoning: growth in the natural law happens, it seems, though reflecting on our decisions and so gaining wisdom—which governments clearly can do. But may governments read Leviticus, or Exodus, or any other text of Scripture (special revelation that it all is) in order to find shortcuts for that wisdom? The answer is, alas, not clear from this particular work: and that seems like a problem. The presence of the people of God is, as I think Calvin argues, a necessary pedagogue which helps the state govern rightly, precisely because the people of God instruct the state on the appropriate contents of the natural law.
One of the pieces of evidence that VanDrunen sets out for his view is the fact that while God holds all the nations accountable for their injustices, He does not through the prophets denounce them for idolatry. Instead, only Israel is critiqued for such a sin. However true that might be, it has the odd effect of bracketing Romans 1 as a discussion of the natural law. VanDrunen notes that the passage indicates that God will hold all people accountable for our idolatrous rebellion: but Paul’s indictment of idolatry is inextricable from his judgment that the communities he is writing about have failed to abide by the norms God has disclosed in and through creation. Before Paul writes out the political theology of Romans 13, he prophetically indicts the very people to whom he will enjoin our obedience. His judgment is not single-minded, of course: those who judge practice the same things (Romans 2:1). One is almost inclined to think that the wandering of the nations from the natural law is an indictment on the holiness of the people of God: their failure to sufficiently model for the people around them the nature of true justice allowed the nations to do what the nations will otherwise do: exchange the creature for the Creator, and so get on with their idolatrous ways.