What Hath American Polity To Do with Christian Piety?


Calvin’s convictions on this subject [civil disobedience] were, on the whole, strikingly conservative. In an extended series of discussions toward the close of the Institutes, he hailed the honor and reverence due to magistrates as a consequence of their appointment by God [ICR 4.20.22-29]. Calvin exhorts Christians that they must “with ready minds prove our obedience to them, whether in complying with edicts, or in paying tribute, or in undertaking public offices and burdens, which relate to the common defense, or in executing any other orders.” [ICR 4.20.23]. He goes on to make clear that this applies to bad rulers as well as good: “But if we have respect to the Word of God, it will lead us farther, and make us subject not only to the authority of those princes who honestly and faithfully perform their duty toward us, but all princes, by whatever means they have so become, although there is nothing they less perform than the duty of princes.” [ICR 4.20.25]. “The only thing remaining for you,” Calvin adds shortly thereafter, “will be to receive their commands, and be obedient to their words.” [ICR 4.20.26].

David VanDrunen, Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms (pg. 121)

VanDrunen goers on to point out that Calvin, when elucidating on the topic of civil disobedience and resistance qualifies his words by saying, “I speak only of private men.” VanDrunen then goes on to show how Calvin made some interesting stipulations about the less private and more extraordinary men known as  lesser magistrates, typically the doctrine invoked to justify rebelling against a magistrate who says some people can’t sit at lunch counters or on certain sides of buses. Not only may “lesser magistrates curb tyrants,” but “only magistrates who have already been appointed for such a task.”

So it would seem that, at least according to VanDrunen’s read on Calvin, that the ordinary citizen who acts contrary to his magistrate’s laws (laws that don’t require any personal violation of God’s clear moral law) is acting contrary to true Christian piety. That might not go down very easily for those of us raised to think of certain rebellious actions as more heroic and inspiring than ignoble and shun-worthy. But it could be that there is in fact more dignity in living with certain political and legal imperfections than in fighting against them. Granted, it is very easy for someone who in theory would not likely have to live with said imperfections. But with no intentions of offending anyone who has been personally maligned or injured by them, it could be that the test of a better obedience is to obey a law one finds closer to odious than immoral.

Some suggest that the Christian life may be summed up in one word: obedience. If that is true then though it certainly must include this sort of honest citizenship, it would seem that Mark 12:13-17 is about much more than filing honest and timely tax returns.  After all, would they all have been really so “amazed” when Jesus told them to do something quite so obvious, even easy? Or is it more likely that the amazement stemmed from nary a word about rebelling against an authority who gave no second thought to his own deity and trampling the rights of God’s own?

Mark 12 is about authority and submission. If we’re being honest, these are not themes Americans naturally abide. Our very existence is the result of rebellion. We are nurtured on the virtues of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, complete with warnings to “not tread on me” and bids to bestow liberty or (gulp) death. We have a polity that invites, encourages, even rewards dissent of the private man that Calvin forbids. If the shorthand for the Christian life is indeed obedience, just what sort of bearing do our theological beliefs have on our ideological devotions, if any?

If the hearers of Jesus can gasp at his rendering instruction in light of obvious problems, is it really such a stretch to suggest that, despite popular sentiment to the contrary, American polity is more antithetical than encouraging to Christian piety? It could be that it isn’t quite as safe and happy to be an American Christian as sermons on Memorial Day and platitudes on July 4 might think. It might be that what we presume as a blessing is closer to what it means to struggle against the world, the flesh and the devil.

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21 Responses to What Hath American Polity To Do with Christian Piety?

  1. cath says:


    I just read this comment on another blog (which I don’t know how I came across) and have rushed over here to double-check it with you gentlemen –

    “a constant emphasis on redeeming creation or adding works of justice as necessary measures for gospel witness, even when you sell it as the result of an inside out transformation, inevitably and without exception, reintroduce our works back into the discussion. Simply for the reason that our efforts in the world function on the level of law not grace. … This whole emphasis on cultural redemption necessarily traffics in works righteousness, it’s unavoidable. This is what the whole 2k argument is about and all the eschatological distinctions ultimately boil down to.”

    Is it accurate? I’m hoping so, as it’s the closest I’ve come yet to a eureka moment on this whole 2K business.

  2. Zrim says:

    Cath, if I understand, the question is about the relationship between sola fide and the points 2k-SOTC want to make. It’s an interesting question. To my mind, the claims resident within any form of transformationism or cultural redemption, etc. are a variant of law-gospel confusion and works-righteousness.

    OldLife once made this same point and employed Peter Berger to bring it home. It’s worth repeating here:

    Any cultural or political agenda embellished with such authority is a manifestation of “works righteousness” and ipso facto an act of apostasy. This theological proposition, over and beyond all prudential moral judgments, “hits” in all directions of the ideological spectrum; it “hits” the center as much as the left or the right. “Different gospels” lurk all across the spectrum. No value or institutional system, past or present or future, is to be identified with the gospel. The mission of the church is not to legitimate any status quo or any putative alteration of the status quo. The “okay world” of bourgeois America stands under judgment, in the light of the gospel, as does every other human society. Democracy or capitalism or the particular family arrangements of middle-class culture are not to be identified with the Christian life, and neither is any alternative political, economic, or cultural system. The vocation of the church is to proclaim the gospel, not to defend the American way of life, not to “build socialism,” not even to “build a just society” – because, quite apart from the fact that we don’t really know what this is, all our notions of justice are fallible and finally marred by sin. The “works righteousness” in all these “different gospels” lies precisely in the insinuation that, if only we do this or refrain from doing that, we will be saved, “justified.” But, as Paul tells us, “by works of the law shall no one be justified.” [Berger, “Different Gospels: The Social Sources of Apostasy,” Erasmus Lecture, January 22, 1987]

    David VanDrunen makes this same claim in his latest book entitled “Living in God’s Two Kingdoms”:

    Those who hold a traditional Protestant view of justification consistently should not find a redemptive transformationist perspective attractive. As some of the Reformers grasped, a two-kingdoms doctrine is a proper companion to a Protestant doctrine of justification.

    Keith Mathison isn’t happy about that.

  3. Paul says:

    It is beyond dispute that Calvin allowed for political resistance. He’s functioning within a context that views governments as “legitimate” and “illegitimate.” The former, even if wicked, deserve all submission; the latter does not, and the people may resist that government. Calvin’s just repeating the Reformation ethos of the day, so Vermigli: “Since the magistrates are ordained [by God] for good, if they pervert their function, they forfeit their place. If the magistrate is bad, rapacious, and violent, he is a tyrant. Since God is not the author of evil, tyrants may be overthrown.” One can read the Institutes and see this, or one can read Hall’s book on Calvin in the Public Square and see copious evidence of this. Beza taught this, and thought he was just following his teacher, Calvin, on orderly resistance of the tyrant. Further, Calvin taught that the magistrate had responsibilities that no Westminster 2Kers would be pleased with, so it is odd to invoke him here. Indeed, many “American evangelicals” targeted in this post would actually be comfortable with Calvin’s view of the role of the magistrate. Calvin and his heirs explicitly permitted rebellion against evil governments and tyrants. This is beyond dispute.

  4. Zrim says:

    Paul, agreed that it is beyond dispute that Calvin allowed for political resistance. But the point is that he seems to have had some pretty hefty caveats, at least for moderns. Private men (and women), apart from being commanded to break clear moral codes of God, seem to have no right to disobey.

    And it seems to raise the question of what is tyrannical (and may be resisted by lesser magistrtaes only and only lesser magistrates designated for such a purpose). Is it really tyrannical to call for certain public seating arrangements, or just a legal imperfection?

  5. RubeRad says:

    We have a polity that invites, encourages, even rewards dissent of the private man that Calvin forbids.

    Beyond that, we have a polity that enshrines free speech, peacable demonstration, etc. There is a difference between working the system, and actual disobedience.

    But to the point of the picture. I’m on board with the principle that Christians should obey even bad laws, as far as they do not require us to sin. For instance, if a Christian lives in a dry county, then perhaps his conscience and interpretation of the Lord’s Supper might require him to insist on wine for communion, but he should teetotal at home (even though Ps 104: Wine gladdens the heart of man)

    Does your inclusion of that picture imply that it is (in the same sense) “permissible” to have racial segregation laws? As long as the church is allowed to include Jew and Greek, male and female, slave and free, a black Christian in the 50’s American south is limited to free speech and peacable protest, and that civil disobedience is an unlawful means of attempting to overthrow tyrranny (unless behind the leadership of some “lesser magistrate”)?

  6. "Michael Mann" says:

    Cath –
    “Is it accurate? I’m hoping so, as it’s the closest I’ve come yet to a eureka moment on this whole 2K business.”

    No, I really don’t think it is. Saying that transformationalists have deviated from justification by faith is symmetrical to saying 2K’s are antinomian. They are both caricatures that really don’t move the conversation forward in a constructive way.

  7. Zrim says:

    Rube, I’m a born, bred and buttered Yank, so as foreign as it is to my nurture to say so, I don’t see how racial segregation laws are gross violations of God’s moral law in the civil sphere. I’m certainly glad to not have them, but I also wince at the idea that such laws are immoral, strictly speaking. But I do see racial segregation as a gross violation of Scripture’s teaching on Christian unity.

    But I think you make a good point about there being a difference between working the system and actual disobedience. I think there is much more dignity in enduring legal imperfections and working institutionally to change them than in leapfrogging activistically to disobedience. I know plenty will say here that changes such as the ones under discussion “would never have happened if it weren’t for activistic disobedience, etc.” But I am not quite sold. And the rebut seems to smack of impatience, something I don’t think consistent with a pilgrim theology. I just find political activism of this sort to be the civil version of religious revivalism (institutionalism, patience, endurance, imperfection = bad).

  8. Paul M. says:

    Zrim, but the Americans you speak of appealed to Calvin’s arguments to revolt against the Crown. But, yes, Calvin’s views are at odds with outcasts hiding in the Appalachian moutains and mailing bombs to federal buildings, I grant you that.

  9. Zrim says:

    Paul, what I am trying to suggest is that Calvin’s views are not just at odds with political misfits and extremists but also those at the other end of the disobedient spectrum that enjoy lots of popular love. I’m not sure non-violence covers the problem of disobedience.

  10. RubeRad says:

    But if 2K means “what hath the church to do with…”, then just because revivalism is bad, why does that make any implication about the inherent badness or goodness of analogous “civic revivalism”?

  11. Zrim says:

    MM, I have to admit, that’s a pretty clever and diplomatic drawing of lines. But I’m talking about tendencies and variants. And if it is said that 2k tends toward antinomianism and transformationism tends toward works-righteousness, I’d rather be accused of tending toward that which Paul was accused and not what he condemned.

    Another way of putting it is that while the transformationist has a good confession regarding sola fide, his transformationism is getting in the way of his good confession. Where does 2k hamper sola fide?

  12. cath says:

    Thankyou. Extremely useful. I feel some light dawning.

  13. "Michael Mann" says:

    No, the transformationalists have a different view of good works (sanctification), not a different view of justification. What are biblical good works? How do we apply liberty of conscience in our day? Those kinds of conversations are germane and clarifying.

    “Tendencies and Variants, Tendencies and Variants, they’re just the same as saying so.” But they aren’t, especially when they imply virtual apostasy. The bit about denying justification by faith looks lot more like rhetoric designed to stigmatize rather than a principle designed to illuminate.

  14. Zrim says:

    MM, I think you’re onto something. I think much of the difference between 2k and transformationism turns on notions of sanctification.

    What I’m not so sure about is the idea that tinkering with sanctificiation doesn’t affect justification. After all, both just. and sanct. are by faith alone and are God’s work alone, and if we sneak works into sanct. then I’m not sure how just. isn’t next. But I remain uncomfortable speaking in absolute ways about our transformer friends “denying sola fide.” I’d still rather speak in terms of tendencies or variants. Maybe you think that’s sneaky, but there’s not much I can do about that.

  15. Zrim says:

    Rube, I’m agnostic about the power of politics but I still think it’s liberty to be more of a believer. I’m just pointing out a parallel I see.

  16. MM, is on to something.

    Can tinkering w/ sanct. affect just.? Only if one believes the two overlap. Otherwise, no. Thus, in Reformed circles we can debate all day long about sanctification without any effect on our view of justification.

    Questions about ability to know we are justified are slightly different though. And those inquiries are related to sanctification. Keep these separate: (1) justification, and (2) assurance (that one is justified).

  17. RubeRad says:

    if we sneak works into sanct.

    Who snuck works out of sanctification? How is “more and more die unto sin, and rise unto newness of life” or “in sanctification his Spirit infuseth grace, and enableth to the exercise thereof” not involving works?

  18. Zrim says:

    Rube, I thought I might catch it for that. But I understand sanctification to be, like justification, by grace alone through faith alone. Works are the structure of sanctification but the power is still grace.

    Joseph, I’m of the mind that that sanct is tied to just. If that’s true then tinkering with one necessarily affects the other.

    Even so, I think the idea that 2k and transformationism have different notions about sanct is right.

  19. Lily says:


    Re: What I’m not so sure about is the idea that tinkering with sanctificiation doesn’t affect justification. After all, both just. and sanct. are by faith alone and are God’s work alone, and if we sneak works into sanct. then I’m not sure how just. isn’t next. But I remain uncomfortable speaking in absolute ways about our transformer friends “denying sola fide.” I’d still rather speak in terms of tendencies or variants.

    How about looking at it from a different angle? A high view of anthropology will give you a transfomationalist view of man. Which means a low view of soteriology (who needs salvation if we can transform unredeemed men or even transform ourselves?). Where a realistic view of anthropology will give you a high view of soteriology.

  20. Lily says:


    Re: I’m of the mind that that sanct is tied to just. If that’s true then tinkering with one necessarily affects the other.

    Absolutely. They cannot be separated. If you ever do… well… I can still wield a pretty mean iron skillet (inside joke ya’ll).

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