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Some longer pieces: Schaeffer, Wright, Harnick


A Christian Manifesto, Francis Schaeffer

Schaeffer writing in 1981 looked at the change in the culture, law, politics that had taken place during the 20th Century  and wrote, “each thing being a part, a symptom, of a much larger problem” (423). The shift took place at the level of worldview, the effects ran through the rest of society.

He lays a great deal of the trouble on the failure of the Christian Church to have a comprehensive view of spirituality, “True spirituality covers all of reality” (424). When non-Christians read that sentence, they quickly think that Schaeffer is calling for a theocracy. He adamantly did not:

First, we must make definite that we are in no way talking about any kind of theocracy. Let me say that with great emphasis….we must continually emphasize the fact that we are not talking about some kind, or any kind of theocracy. 485

The particular battle Schaeffer saw pitted the Enlightenment (and its children up to the present) versus a Christian worldview. It is important to understand Schaeffer means and does not mean.[1]

Schaeffer is not contesting reason, logic or science.  However, those holding a different viewpoint may very mean some slightly different things about such matters.

The Christian worldview understands human beings to be deliberated created persons, made in the image of God. As such, their life has meaning and purpose. Since the universe is the result of God’s action, the universe is necessarily intelligible. Since God is a God of order we should expect and do find a high degree of regularity in the function of the universe. Thus, the universe and human beings are reasonable, subject to logical examination, capable of comprehension (thus, subject to “scientific” inquiry).

Indeed, when one denies the aspects of a Christian worldview, reason, logic and science become intellectually incoherent (see, for example, Poythress, Redeeming Science).  Schaeffer explains the effect:

Since their concept of man is mistaken, their concept of society and of law is a mistake, and they no sufficient base for either for society or law.

They have reduced Man to even less than his natural finiteness by seeing him only as a complex arrangement of molecules, made complex by blind chance. Instead of seeing him as something great who is significant even in his sinning, they see Man in his essence only as an intrinsically competitive animal …. (428)

Michael Ruse said something similar in an essay when asking what a living organism is for:

So what’s a Stegosaur for? We can ask what adaptive function the plates on its back served, as good Darwinian scientists. But the beast itself? It’s not for anything, it just is — in all its decorative, mysterious, plant-munching glory.

http://www.aeonmagazine.com/world-views/does-life-have-a-purpose/ Now, “glory” is an interesting word, due to its relationship to meaning and purpose as described in the Bible. Ruse, being a very smart man, probably intended the allusion.  In any event, Ruse has to say that something is or is not. Which forms an interesting basis for law, politics and conduct.

Schaeffer puts these two worldviews, Enlightenment Humanism and Christianity into the focus of a religious conflict – both are questions about what life means. (Ruse discusses whether humanism is a religion here, http://www.aeonmagazine.com/world-views/michael-ruse-humanism-religion/).

Before we go further, I think that it beyond cavil that one’s understanding of the nature of humanity will necessarily effect one’s view of law and politics.  For example, the many public debates of sexual ethics presuppose arguments about one is and what sexuality is for. If a human being is matter in motion, then physical sensation – I suppose – -is a good enough reason for saying it’s okay. Particularly if the only “good” (it is bizarre to speak of a “good” in a context where meaning is unavailable) is I like it or I don’t.

The Christian argument about sexual ethics rests on a fundamental different platform, that is, there are values and considerations beyond physical sensation and those values are more morally significant than nerve endings and brain chemicals (however pleasant and desirable such brain chemicals may be).

The dominant culture of the West now (Schaeffer was watching the tide sweep more quickly than it had) may be put thus:

We live in a secularized society and in a secularized, sociological law. By sociological law we mean law that has no fixed base but law in which a group of people decides what is sociological good for society in a given a moment (437).

Now, it is fair to say, that those operating within this worldview look at other positions and would say, You’re doing the same thing. Your position is as arbitrary as mine.  The trouble here is that such a position leads only to tyranny. Since there is no “right” position from which to argue, we end up with power as being the ultimate determinant:

The law, and especially the courts, is the vehicle to force this total humanistic way of thinking upon an entire population (442).

This is the strange problem of the indeterminacy of language. If even the words can put to any use, then all that is left is force because violence refuses to be relativized. One is either dead or not.

Schaeffer faults the Christian church for taking on the Enlightenment dichotomy of public and private, which ended in a Platonic retreat of the Christian church into a purely other worldliness (451).

N.T. Wright (who seems to occupy a different political space than Schaeffer) explains the matter thus:

The problem should be clear to anyone who knows the world of the first century—or for that matter any century until the eighteenth, and any country outside so-called Western civilization. It is simply this: the implicit split between ‘religion’ and ‘politics’ is a rank anachronism, and we read it into the NT only if we wish not to hear anything the NT is saying, not only about what we call ‘the state’ but about a great many other things as well. No first-century Jew (and no twentieth-century Arab, or Pole, or Sri Lankan) could imagine that the worship of their god and the organization of human society were matters that related only at a tangent. If we are to hear what the NT has to say on what we call ‘the state’, we must be prepared to put our categories back into the melting-pot and have them stirred around a little. We cannot read a few ‘timeless truths’ about the ‘state’ off the surface of the NT and hope to escape with our world view unscathed. Hence the revision of the title of this article, and the inverted commas around the suspect word, which belongs precisely in the eighteenth century. What would a first-century Jew or Christian have made of the modern notion of ‘state’? Not a lot, I suspect.

N. T. Wright, “The New Testament and the ‘state’,” Themelios: Volume 16, No. 1, October/November 1990 (1990): 11.

As Schaeffer seeks to understand the Christian response, he begins with the proposition that God comes before the State, “God has ordained the state as a delegated authority; it is not autonomous” (468). Since the State has a limited scope, the State can become illegitimate as an authority, “The bottom line is that at a certain point there is simply not only the right, but the duty, to disobey the state” (469).

Relying largely on Samuel Rutherford’s Lex Rex (the law is king), Schaeffer sets out a three tiered response to the state overstepping, 1) defend oneself, likely by protest; 2) flee; 3) “force, if necessary, to defend oneself” (475.  It is the third point that a Christian pacifist would reject):

It follows from Rutherford’s thesis that citizen’s have a moral obligation to resist unjust and tyrannical government. While we must always be subject to the office of the magistrate, we are not to be subject to the man in that office who commands that which is contrary to the Bible (474).

Now the greatest weight must be upon disobedience short of force. Indeed, any Christian would necessarily concede that at some point the government must be rejected when it comes to the matter of sin:

18 So they called them and charged them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. 19 But Peter and John answered them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, 20 for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.” 21 And when they had further threatened them, they let them go, finding no way to punish them, because of the people, for all were praising God for what had happened. Acts 4:18–21 (ESV)

Schaeffer writes, “If there is no final place for civil disobedience, then the government has been made autonomous [from God], and as such, it has been put in the place of the Living God….And that point is exactly where the early Christians performed their acts of civil disobedience even when it cost them their lives” (491).

In the end, Schaeffer commends to Christians the responsibility of interacting on the level of politics and law. The Christian life cannot be wholly abstracted from the “real world”.

N.T. Wright (The New Testament and the State), makes a very similar point about how we must read the NT accounts.  As quoted above, a First Century Jew would have no idea what we are talking about in secluding religion from the rest of life.

Wright explains that the Jews were not looking for a Kingdom of God in some ethereal realm, but rather a God who ruled in time and space:

First-century Jews had a slogan which encapsulated their aspiration for a new order in which Israel would be liberated. Their God, already sovereign of the world de jure, would become so de facto. The rightful King would become King indeed (12).

Wright argues that when Jesus spoke he was not just speaking “spiritual” or “political” but comprehensively. When one looks to Jesus’ life, one cannot simply say that Jesus avoided all politics – he moved in a through a very politically charged environment.

Jesus, I have argued elsewhere, believed two things which gave him an interpretative grid for understanding his own vocation as leading to a violent and untimely death.13 First, he believed himself called to announce to Israel that her present way of life, whose focal point was resistance against Rome and whose greatest symbol was the temple, was heading in exactly the wrong direction. Down that road lay ruin—the wrath of Rome, the wrath of God. Second, he believed himself called to take Israel’s destiny upon himself, to be Israel-in-God’s-plan. What happens as the story reaches its climax, and Jesus sits on the Mount of Olives looking across at the temple, and beyond it to an ugly hill just outside the city wall to the west, is that the two beliefs fuse into one. He will be Israel—by taking Israel’s destiny, her ruin, her destruction, the devastation of the temple, on to himself. He will be the point where the exile reaches its climax, as the pagan authorities execute Israel’s rightful King. Only so can the kingdom come on earth (in socio-political reality) as it is in heaven (in the perfect will and plan of the Father). From this perspective, to say that Jesus’ death itself was a ‘political’ act cannot be to divorce it (against the grain of all first-century Judaism) from its ‘theological’ implications. On the cross politics and religion, as well as love and justice and a host of other abstractions, meet and merge. Only from the perspective of the cross, shattering as it was to Jesus’ followers then as it should be now, can any view of politics, and hence of the ‘state’, claim to be Christian.

N. T. Wright, “The New Testament and the ‘state’,” Themelios: Volume 16, No. 1, October/November 1990 (1990): 13. Thus, when Jesus tells Pilate “my kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36), Jesus means that his kingdom is rooted and grounded in this world – but rather has it authority from elsewhere.

            The solution here is not the abolition of the contrary powers in the world (which manifest themselves in various real life social structures) but in the reconciliation of these powers to God in Jesus Christ. The confrontation with those powers “will inevitably produce trouble for the announcer.”

            Now we must realize, that these powers were defeated

They include the idols by whose worship humans are reinforced in prejudice about race, gender, class. They include the ‘forces’, as we would call them, which operate through the Herods and Pilates of this world, so that sometimes it is impossible to tell whether Paul is actually referring to the human agents of power or the powers that work through human agents, or, more likely, both (1 Cor. 2:8). They thus include the ‘forces’ that put Jesus to death, and that were thereby duped, shown to have overreached themselves, defeated and led away in the divine triumphal procession (Col. 2:14f.).

N. T. Wright, “The New Testament and the ‘state’,” Themelios: Volume 16, No. 1, October/November 1990 (1990): 14. 

            However, the final completion of God’s work is not yet complete. Our position is still betwixt and between.  Therefore, we must live within a civil order which is maintained in part by a government. And while the government has a God-appointed role, the government is not absolute.  “Submission” cannot mean unquestioned obedience.  It does mean confrontation of evil and the proclamation of Christ. It may the “powers” will seek to or even kill us:

Among these ways will be, I think, a full outworking of the implications of Philippians 2:10–11. If it is true that the church is called to announce to the world that Jesus Christ is Lord, then there will be times when the world will find this distinctly uncomfortable. The powers that be will need reminding of their responsibility, more often perhaps as the Western world moves more and more into its post-Christian phase, where, even when churchgoing remains strong, it is mixed with a variety of idolatries too large to be noticed by those who hold them, and where human rulers are more likely to acknowledge the rule of this or that ‘force’ than the rule of the creator. And if the church attempts this task of reminding, of calling the powers to account for their stewardship, it will face the same charges, and perhaps the same fate, as its Lord. It is at that point that decisions have to be made in all earnestness, at that point that idolatry exacts its price. But it is here, I think, that the NT’s picture of the gospel and the world of political life finds one at least of its contemporary echoes.

N. T. Wright, “The New Testament and the ‘state’,” Themelios: Volume 16, No. 1, October/November 1990 (1990): 16.

            Harnick in fascinating commentary on1 Peter (if nothing else, he constantly makes me think), notes that the worldly powers described by Peter are not perfect mirrors of God’s will.  Peter refers to these people with the phrase “the ignorance of foolish people” (1 Peter 2:15).  Harnick picks up on Peter’s reference to the Christian being “free”:

Peter calls us to a way of life and a political practice that operate completely beneath and simultaneously completely beyond their rule.

He goes onto speak of the Church’s revolutionary power:

But the true revolutionary power of the church does not consist in its ability to be an effective power in the world, to bring about changes in history, whether in collusion with or in opposition to existing power. Its revolutionary sociopolitical power lies rather in its union with, imitation of, and testimony to the crucified sovereign who has already invaded the world and wrought the decisive revolution, the reconciliation of the world.

Thus, when we live in the world, we do not need to concern ourselves with the Emperor’s agenda. We are in obedience to the Lord, not to the emperor  — even when in submission to the emperor. “Its meaning is that men have encountered God, and are thereby compelled to leave the judgment to Him.”

            Harnick, following Yoder, sees this is a “revolutionary subordination” – and that Bonhoeffer compromised in the plot to kill Hitler.


[1] An necessary element of Schaeffer’s thinking is that only by positing a creating God and a human soul can any space be made for freedom and democracy. Indeed, democracy presupposes a moral equivalence in value for all human beings such that the vote of A matters as much as the vote of B. It becomes impossible to ground that proposition in world where “What is is right.”