Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Confusion of Constantine, part 1

I've begun reading Peter Leithart's "Defending Constantine", and that will probably occasion a series of posts out of me. Today I want to launch off on a related tangent and give something like a short redemptive-historical account of political theology in my own understanding.

If you've heard me preach on the theme of 'A Kingdom of Priests', you'll have the genesis for this structure. In 1 Peter, Exodus 19, Genesis 1-3, and Revelation 1 we have the interweaving of two roles, two spheres, that of dominion (kingship) and priesthood (sacral representation). What this means in the Garden is that Adam & Eve bear God's image to rule in his place, and re-present his presence in Eden. The absence of mention of what lies extra-Garden leads me to conclude that Genesis 1-2 contains a kind of proto-mission, that without the Fall unfallen Humanity would have extended God's rule and presence co-terminously with a spread of the Garden until the two covered the earth.

The Fall, obviously, introduces a rupture into that, but the missio Dei that follows bears a strikingly similar pattern, but now shifted in to the key of the OT. Here we see God constitute for himself a nation, starting with Abraham in Gen 12, but culminating in the Passover-Exodus-Sinai movement that truly defines Israel. In Exodus 19:1-6 we again see this dual dominion and priesthood idea, and now Israel plays that role to the world, exhibiting God's presence and exemplifying God's rule.

It's very important at this point to understand that the OT Covenant Community holds two elements that later appear distinct. That is, for Israel there is no real division between the national/political, and the spiritual. To be saved is to be an Israelite. To become a believer is to become an Israelite. The worshipping community is the nation. In the Old Testament the notion of separation of 'church' and 'state' is so nonsensical as to be ridiculous.

The story of Israel is, in many real terms, the story of Israel's failure. The remnant of 'true' Israel is whittled down, until there is one man standing. Jesus embodies the remnant of Israel, *is* Israel, and ultimately fulfils what it means to be King and Priest. In Christ, then, God works to bring his dominion and presence to all creation, and a counter-movement is begun in the gospels that points to the end (in Revelation) when all creation will be under his rule and experience his presence in the Lord Jesus.

Also begun in Jesus is the re-constitution of a new Israel. But at this point something truly novel occurs. The national/political dimension and the spiritual aspect are severed. The church, as this new covenant community, 'translates' several OT categories into a 'spiritual' key. For example, the church is composed of members of all the nations. To enter the church no longer requires the assumption of a singular national/ethnic identity. The church, while in many respects a 'nation', it bears none of the marks of nations - it lacks an earthly territory, it lacks an earthly king, it lacks an earthly military force; and yet it certainly is a kingdom, it has constituents, it has a king. Whereas in the OT community the ultimate act of judgment is the death penalty, in the NT community the ultimate act of judgment is not physical punishment, but spiritual death in the form of excommunication.

And so post-Ascension there exists a new 'political' body in the world that continually confuses. The church as a kind of 'polis', or even 'imperium', continually causes problems. It's primary problem-causing factor is that States tend to absolutise themselves, and allegiance to Christ is trans-national and already an absolute, so that Christians will always be suspect of disloyalty. Indeed, it's true to say that Christians are always potential traitors to earthly empires. At the same time, the very doctrines of the New Testament place Christians in submission to all earthly powers, and they have surrendered the 'weapons of the nations', so that earthly nations *ought* to have nothing to fear from believers. The fear that empires have of Christianity is (almost) always misplaced.

The New Testament does not, I would go so far as to say cannot, imagine a reality where Christians are in political ascendancy. It is too far removed from the 1st century situation. That's one of the reasons Christians disagree so much about post-New-Testament politics. The position I'm outlining here sets up at least a trajectory though, in viewing the Christian church as a real but unique political entity that is radically different to all earthly nations, and by nature in constant tension with those empires.

In the next part I will speak about how the reign of Constantine 'confuses' this reality, why it does so, and how its effects linger to this day.

Monday, February 18, 2013

A mediating position on baptism that almost no-one will agree with

I noted recently over on the Gospel Coalition website/blog they posted 2 answers to the question of what someone who was baptised as an infant, but came to faith as an adult, ought to do. The two answers were entirely predictably, indeed there has been little new in the paedo- vs. credo- baptist argument for a long time.

I want to outline some thoughts on baptism first, which will lead you to understand my mediating position.

Firstly, I take it that baptism is an outward sign of an inward reality. That inward reality is regeneration. I am happy, depending on context, to call it either a sacrament, or an ordinance,  or even just a command of the Lord Jesus. I think that the normal, and perhaps normative, pattern of the New Testament is that believers, and ordinarily only believers, ought to be baptised. The main reason I think this is that the points of continuity *and* discontinuity with the Old Testament practice of circumcision strongly point me in this theological direction. In the OT, circumcision was the physical sign of entry into the covenant community. Entry into that community was by physical descent, generally, except in the case of converts, who became not merely converts to the Jewish faith, but members of the Jewish nation. There was an overlap of national and religious identity. In the NT, physical descent counts for nothing. Entry into the covenant community is by repentance and faith. The NT examples of people entering the new covenant community give us a pattern of people repenting, believing, and being subsequently baptised as the outward sign of that inward reality.

So far, so good, at least for the credo-baptist position. But I suspect that many baptists really have this attitude towards the question of (re-)baptising those baptised as infants - does it count? was it valid? And I think that is asking entirely the wrong question. There is something incredibly legalistic about such a question, because we all ought to know, if the thief on the cross teaches us anything, that baptism itself neither saves, nor is necessary for salvation. It is ordinarily the pattern that those who exhibit the evidences of grace get baptised, but that baptism itself does not constitute the salvific grace.

So on one count, I consider the idea that we need to 'do baptism right' otherwise it 'doesn't count', as to be somewhat misguided. On the second account, those of a baptistic tradition tend to identify baptism as a public individual pronouncement that one has chosen to follow Christ. There is something to that, but more than that I would argue that baptism is not so much something one does, but something that happens to you.

Just as baptism reflects the work of God in election and conversion, which was through no merit of our own,  it represents our dying and living with Christ, a union we did nothing to effect, and so we are immersed in water, we do not immerse ourselves. Baptism happens to us. And so far as that is the case, I think it relatively indifferent then, that in the case of those who were baptised as infants, that the order got 'mixed up' so to speak.

See, where the outward sign preceded the inward reality, but the inward reality now matches the prior outward sign, then the sign 'does its job' - it signifies that this person belongs to the new covenant community through the washing of sins. To re-do that implies something deficient, and yet it seems to me that nothing is deficient. Paedo-baptism is, in this view, abnormal but not defective.

The lost battle against 'same-sex marriage' and what the church should do next

[I am away from my base of operations, hence the lack of other productive blogging right now]

I now consider that, in the West, the public battle against so-called 'same-sex marriage' is all but lost. In this post I am going to explore some of the different fundamental assumptions that have characterised the positions for and against it, why the church has all but lost this, and what I think the way forward is.

I begin by saying that, from the Christian perspective, 'same-sex marriage' is not really marriage at all. The best defence the Christians have put forward is that there is a long-standing, traditional understanding of what marriage is, that has been for the most part trans-cultural, and this accepted definition of marriage ought to be retained. Such a definition looks something like this:

A sexually exclusive, faithful, lifelong, publicly recognised union between a man and a woman.

(If I had some books to hand I would give a slightly better definition and some references). Now, on the 'justice' question, there has never been any discrimination against homosexual persons from entering such an arrangement - that is a homosexual man could enter into a marriage... with a woman. I realise that is not what the LGBT movement means by equality or freedom from discrimination, but in strictly legal terms, equality before the law means that they were equally free, or not, to enter such arrangments as they existed.

The last 60 or so years have seen significant alterations to the widely understood notion of 'marriage'. Particularly, no-fault divorce reflects a shift in which marriage is no longer seen as *necessarily* lifelong. The advent of 'open-marriages' challenges the notion of sexually exclusive, as does the wide acceptance of pre- and extra- marital sex (I do not say 'rise', since I am not sure it has become especially more common, rather than especially more commonly accepted).

A more broad notion of marriage now exists in most people's minds, something like:

A publicly recognised union of affairs between (2) parties.

Whether that union is sexually exclusive, faithful, lifelong, is really considered to be up to the parties involved. Despite attempts by the LGBT movement to suggest otherwise, polyamorists and the like rightly recognise that if 'marriage' can be re-defined by what we will it to be, there is no intrinsic reason the marriage union can not be re-definied as between 2 or more parties, and at the very extreme, we may redefine what sort of 'parties' a marriage union may involve.

There already exists, in many jurisdictions, a legal equivalent to marriage, named something like 'civil union'. Some LGBT advocates suggest that where such arrangements are financially and legally equivalent, that this is not sufficient 'equality', articulate a position that recognises that the campaign to gain 'marriage equality' is really about legitimising same-sex unions morally-speaking in the public mind.

The reason I say the church, in the West at least, has already lost this battle is that we live in a post-Christendom, secularised world, and 'what a word means' really comes down to 'what people mean it to mean'. The majority of people do not understand 'marriage' in the traditional sense, but in a sense far more like my second definition, with an accompanying set of *connotations* drawn from the Christianised-traditions of Euro-centric cultures. The church is unlikely to be able to shift this linguistic, and thus mental, shift.

And yet, in another sense, this does nothing to change what the churches understand by 'marriage'. Except that now the impetus is upon Christian communities in a very new way, to explain and catechise believers into what 'we' understand 'marriage' to be. Particularly for those who grow up outside church communities, to say that we expect people to enter into sexually-exclusive, faithful, lifelong unions between opposite sex partners, will become increasingly strange, and the ability to articulate and to instruct about our peculiar practices will be all the more necessary.

I think churches should get out of the marriage game. In a post-Constantinian world, the problem of officiating a religious wedding, and at the same time acting in the office of the state, is going to get more and more tangled. And I do not doubt for a second that some homosexual rights activists will deliberately provoke lawsuits by seeking to be married in churches and by ministers. Split up what 'weddings' are, leave the state to administer civil unions of whatever kind it pleases, and let ministers officiate essentially non-legally-binding ceremonies at which members of a believing community publically testify to their intention to enter into a union of a very different kind from what our society upholds. For a church that wants to remain faithful to its convictions, and counter-cultural in the sunset of the West, I believe this is the way forward.