The Power of Venn


The White Horse Inn has introduced its 2009 theme with a broadcast called, “Christ in a Post-Christian Culture.” Insofar as, when you ask me, this is arguably the most important sort of discussion of our time, I am well pleased.

Referencing a conversation he has had with British theologian John Milbank who wants to see a recovery of the Constaninian era, saying only Christians are fit to rule, Mike Horton comments:

“I would love to rule because I think I have some good ideas. We all think that if things were run our way that would be great. And as Christians we would like to think that the way we think and the way we would rule is Christian. And so it’s easy for us to invoke Christianity for what really we could hold and wish could happen if we weren’t Christians at all. It’s such a wonderful thing that I live in a country where all sorts of people have to make arguments in public and that no particular segment of that culture and particular religion gets to dictate what everyone else has to believe and practice in the public sphere.”

Wait, what’s that you say? Christian believers don’t have a monopoly on temporal ideas simply because the eternal Holy Ghost indwells them? I think western religion begs to greatly (greatly!) differ, even as heads nod and mouths smile. The “separation of church and state” sounds real good until those who are mouthing the phrase realize that what Horton is suggesting threatens to undo their enormously inflated sense of power and influence, both institutionally and personally. Then there is all the pesky jazz about having to actually earn your keep like everyone else, inhabit and share a world that includes people with whom you really disagree and face the reality that you could be wrong about something and, even if you aren’t, have to learn to live with losing today and press on tomorrow like a good sport. In other words, grow up. That isn’t easy for a Christian culture suckled on notions of entitlement, deep vanity and superiority, thus having more in common with Augustas Gloop and Veruca Salt than Charlie Bucket.

I wish the Inn well, as the brats they mean to chastize are nasty buggers that usually go down kicking and screaming (where’s a team of squirrels, a bad-nut-o-meter, a garbage chute and an incinerator when you really need them?). In the meantime, the broadcast reminded me of a post from 2007.

Mike Horton writes in God of Promise:

After briefly sketching out the narrative of Cain in his “stay of execution that allows Cain to build a city,” Horton explains that:

…we begin the story with one creation, one covenant, one people, one mandate, one city. Then after the fall, there is a covenant of creation (with its cultural mandate still in effect for all people, with the law of that covenant universally inscribed on the conscience) and a covenant of grace (with its gospel publicly announced to transgressors), a City of Man (secular but even in its rejection of God, upheld by God’s gracious hand for the time being) and a City of God (holy but even in its acceptance by God, sharing in the common curse of a fallen world). Just as the failure to distinguish law covenant from promise covenant leads to manifold confusions in our understanding of salvation, tremendous problems arise when we fail to distinguish adequately between God’s general care for the secular order and his special concern for the redemption of his people.

Religious fundamentalism tends to see the world simply divided up into believers and unbelievers. The former are blessed, loved by God, holy, and doers of the right, while the latter are cursed, hated by God, unholy, and doers of evil. Sometimes this is taken to quite an extreme: believers are good people, and their moral, political, and doctrinal causes are always right, always justified, and can never be questioned. Unless the culture is controlled by their agenda, it is simply godless and unworthy of the believers’ support. This perspective ignores the fact that according to Scripture, all of us—believers and unbelievers alike—are simultaneously under a common curse and common grace.

Religious liberalism tends to see the world simply as one blessed community. Ignoring biblical distinctions between those inside and those outside of the covenant community, this approach cannot take the common curse seriously because it cannot take sin seriously…everything is holy.

…[But] the human race is not divided at the present time between those who are blessed and those who are cursed. That time is coming, of course, but in this present age, believers and unbelievers alike share in the pains of childbirth, the burdens of labor, the temporal effects of their own sins, and the eventual surrender of their decaying bodies to death…there is in this present age a category for that which is neither holy nor unholy but simply common.

I have no idea if your math skills are as bottom-of-the-barrel awful as mine, but in my line of work, the Venn Diagram has been something with which I recently had to grapple. As I soon discovered, it really isn’t all that complicated, even for a supreme dolt like me who didn’t have the fortune of inheriting the mathematical-spatial gene like my brother. As you may or may not know, the classic Venn is two intersecting circles. One circle contains things only proper to one group, the other only proper to another; in the middle, where they converge, is common ground. For example, a directive might present a student with a list of words that are a mix of verbs and nouns. The direction would be to place all nouns in the left hand circle and all the verbs in the right. Then it would ask the student to place in the middle all words that contain the letter “e” or even “all the English words.”

Similarly, I have come to understand what Horton traces out as triadalism to work the same way. In the left circle, we could say exists unbelievers and all the things proper to them eternally speaking is contained therein (e.g. judgment, and all the related properties) and in the right circle the same for believers (e.g. redemption and all the related properties); but in the middle is where we all exist under natural law and its related properties, which takes absolutely no account of our previous status as either blessed or condemned.

In Reformed confessionalism there seems a delicate balance is struck to make sure to radically separate the spheres so as to make no mistake that there are indeed two people that are diametrically opposed to one another. So much so that when He Who is the Head of those who are children of the Light came into the world that it was he who does the bidding of his father the devil put the former upon a tree. At the same time, however, it is careful not to make the same error of Fundamentalism which stops here and orchestrates a model of piety that creates a simplistic world of black and white, us and them, etc. This is the Fundamentalism with which I am familiar. It is a piety that has no category for common ground and tends very heavily to have very simplistic views of just how the world should shake out. In the mini-world of Fundamentalism, the wider world is an easy place to figure out as the good guys and bad guys are easily discerned and their agendas simple to demarcate as being either righteous or evil. Thankfully enough, many people who labor under this paradigm don’t often behave as poorly as their system seems to imply; at times they actually speak and behave more like triadalists since it is, after all, inevitable.

Nevertheless, my confessionalism is ill at ease with this Fundamentalist approach, as I find the world not only a messy and complicated place but one I like to be in even in the midst of its messiness. An obvious implication of Fundamentalism is that there are certain worldly quarters in which a believer just shouldn’t be. While that may be true, I have always found that the litany of “off limits” quarters tends to be too, well, liberal.

But neither does confessional Reformed orthodoxy seem to slip into the collapsing of the spheres one experiences within Liberalism and its correlatives, everything from universalism to notions that every American effort to effect one form of righteousness or another is an interest and work of God. It is ironic how most households of Fundamentalism also flirt heavily with the more Liberal assumptions that one social or moral agenda or another has the divine sanction of God. Thus, anymore one senses a sort of hybrid in broad Evangelicalism in which there are undercurrents of grandpa’s Fundamentalism churning and roiling beneath Liberal-esque notions that the kingdoms must necessarily collapse into one another, causing the big bad world to be swallowed up by the children of the Light via their various and sundry agendas. Some have even called Evangelicals the “new Liberals” as they are often aligned with a social gospel of the Right. Just as much children of Modernity as the descendants of Schleiermacher, the point still seems to be the improvement of the world by the lights of cultural rightists. Nevertheless, the problem with the blue or red fires of men is that neither burns as hot as the white heat of God.

Indeed, what the apparent model of triadalism does in its set of assumptions is to actually maximize that middle sphere so that there is an expanse of territory within which Christians may work liberally with other believers as well as non-Christians to do the work of the Left-Hand kingdom. Contra the liberal litany of “off limits” that Fundamentalism engenders, triadalism constricts the “off limits” and emphasizes, in a manner of speaking, the former part of being “in the world but not of it.” Moreover, this also seems to imply that such work may be done within the experience of relative disagreement, even amongst believers themselves. Nobody need be straddled by any version of political correctness or group-think, that is, if he has the wherewithal to resist either the radical dualism of Fundamentalism or the siren song of kingdom-collapse seen in Liberalism, theonomy or transformationalism.

As providence would have it once again, my oldest daughter came home from school recently needing help on all these new exercises, the blessed Venn Diagrams. Even though this may well have been the last time I will be able to offer her any helpful assistance on her math homework (thank heaven for her mother), I intend on inculcating in her and her sister the religious power of the Venn.

This entry was posted in Church and State, Transformationism, W2K. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Power of Venn

  1. Pingback: Christ in a Post-Christian World « Heidelblog

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