Brad East has what is perhaps my favorite response to the book so far, not least because it is one of the more critical responses, for which I am thankful.
You can read the whole thing over at Resident Theologian.
I think the questions can really be grouped under three headings: First, the question of tone and audience. Second, the question of optimism. Third, the Augustinian question.
Tone and Audience
The first question Brad has is about the audience for the book. It’s a good one. One of the difficulties for me—and I think this applies to several other folks at Mere O—is that we’ve found our way into intellectual traditions that are not well-represented today.
For example, two of the main presences in my mind as I was working on the book, though I’m not sure I quoted either of them directly, were Martin Bucer and Johannes Althusius. (Both of them were working to formulate visions of a Christian social order in post-reformation Europe.)
Well, Bucer’s South German Reformation failed within his own lifetime. Althusius’s Politica, meanwhile, never had enough time to really work itself out in the actual world of European politics and social order: Within 35 years of publication the Peace of Westphalia was signed and the political structure of Europe for the foreseeable future, a structure different than what I think Althusius would support, was locked in.
So one of the problems this creates is that the tradition I feel the closest affinity with—the broadly reformed magisterial Protestant tradition—mostly doesn’t exist in contemporary evangelicalism.
Indeed, the whole reason the Davenant Institute does exist is because the magisterial tradition has been silenced. And, tellingly, what we have found with Davenant is that our best and most successful work involves conferences and publishing books: so reintroducing that tradition’s ideas to the world and trying to create opportunities for our eclectic audience to meet each other.
That said, Mere O has, in my mind at least, always been pitched at a broader audience than Davenant, although we have overlapping projects. So a large part of our work is manufacturing an audience through trying to persuade people to accept a relatively foreign set of ideas.
There is a very real sense in which my project would be a lot easier if I could just be Catholic—repent and submit, y’all—or just join the Bruderhof or even just be a Baptist and run with the Center for Baptist Renewal people. But, alas, that’s not where I am intellectually. And so the work is tricky both because the audience is uncertain and because the tribe that the work comes out of is still somewhat embryonic.
That, of course, also explains something about tone, I think. If you are hopeful, approachable, and pitch the work at the right level, you can attract a broader audience. One of the things I’ve been pleased about with the book is that I’ve had interviews for it with PCA, SBC, quasi-emergent, and Catholic readers. One aspect of popularizing the magisterial tradition is pitching it at a level where people who don’t belong to the tradition can pick it up and track much of what you’re doing, even if many of the assumptions of the magisterial tradition would at first glance appear deeply weird and foreign to them.
The one thing that surprised me about Brad’s remarks is that he thinks I am optimistic. I am hopeful. But I don’t know if “optimist” is accurate.
I’ve actually had a number of people comment to me about how depressing the first half of the book is. One friend in particular thinks I’m far too hard on evangelicalism, for example, and generally too radical in my critique of our current social order. So it was interesting to me that Brad pegged me for being somewhere between Smith and Joustra/Wilkinson rather than alongside Dreher.
For whatever it is worth, I’ve always felt much closer to Rod’s position. My book really began as an attempt to take the BenOp debate and bring it into conversation with the magisterial tradition while also learning from the radicals and Catholics at certain points.
A friend of mine remarked once that Eastern Orthodoxy seems to tend toward radical anabaptist political theology when it doesn’t control the magistrate, thus explaining Rod’s anabaptist tendencies. I’ve always thought that was probably correct. But when you make the radical move, now you can really lean hard into the Christ-against-culture paradigm, which is where much of Rod’s work happens. Put another way, I think Rod and I are both addressing the same broad problems and even have mostly overlapping proposals. Where we differ is almost entirely a function of our ecclesial traditions, I suspect.
When you belong to the magisterial tradition, it is much harder to lead with the Christ-against-culture paradigm. You go anti-revolutionary, for sure, and that will necessarily create loads of conflict for you when revolution is the lingua franca of the culture. But whereas the radicals can still create a wall between the ecclesial society and civil society, the magisterial tradition doesn’t let you do that.
Indeed, I think there’s probably no tradition more hostile to the Christ-against-culture model than the magisterial Protestant tradition. Why? We generally would place the institutional church within the visible kingdom alongside other human institutions. This makes it very hard to maintain the kind of iron divide between ecclesial community and other communities which are more naturally constructed in both the Roman and radical traditions.
For all those reasons, I don’t think I can be as pessimistic as Rod or even as some of the Catholic radtrads because it is far harder for me to disentangle the Christian community from civil society.
I do think Brad’s point about martyrdom lands solidly and it is something I wish I had drawn into the book more. Brad’s guess that my response to the possibility of martyrdom would be “so be it,” is, of course, correct. But aside from our work on Trump in 2016 I’m not sure we had made that point clearly enough at Mere O until Susannah’s recent “Sealed in Blood.” That essay crystallized many things for me but the book was long since turned in by the time I read it.
Finally, to Augustine. Let’s get the easy answer out of the way first: I’ve read Confessions. I’ve read a number of his sermons. I’ve read On Christian Doctrine, though it was many years ago. I’ve read about 1/3 of City of God. But I’ve not made it through the whole thing. So one answer to the question is “I’m still not sure what I think of Augustinianism as a political tradition.”
The other answer: I’ve always been happiest with Bavinck’s approach to grace and nature, which is that grace restores nature. This is different than a view that sees grace perfecting nature, which implies an incompleteness in nature, or overriding nature somehow, as if nature is a thing that must be escaped or transcended.
This is where my handling of the relationship between pietism and transformationalism comes from and it is something Keller picked up on his foreword. I don’t see pietism and transformationalism as being at odds with one another. They are, rather, merely two aspects of the work of grace restoring nature. Pietism calls us to the restoration of our individual natures as human beings, enabled by divine grace and the means God makes available to his people. Transformationalism calls us to the restoration of our social orders as Christians, transformed by the Gospel and with eyes opened to the integrity of creation, go out into society as servant leaders and work for the good of neighbor. These two movements, then, should not be seen as rivals in my view. This paper on Bavinck’s conception of grace and nature has been significant for me on these matters. I think you can also see the conflict from the other side of things if you read Pater Edmund’s response to me on the Protestant doctrine of vocation in which he defends the hierarchical structure that Bavinck repudiates.
So while I would of course acknowledge the doctrine of sin, the bentness of the human heart, the way that sin disorders our desire, and so on, I would tend to see more continuity than discontinuity between creation and consummation. (Al Wolters is another influence for me on these matters, though if you’ve read the book you are already aware of my indebtedness to him.) That being said, there are many areas where I want to do more reading and thinking. I’d like to make my way through Barth’s Dogmatics in Outline soon, which I suspect will push on me very hard on this issue. I also need to finally finish City of God. So there’s every possibility I could change my mind on some of these things.
That being said, it is simply the case that probably the three strongest presences in my mind most days are Lewis, Tolkien, and Berry, all three of whom I see as having a broadly identical project of upholding the goodness of the created world and the knowability (in a specific sense) of the natural order.
An Appendix on All This
Something that came up a few times this summer at the Davenant Institute Convivium is the slowness of intellectual work. One of the difficulties with these conversations is that there is a large gap between the way historical moments look to us retroactively and the way we live them today.
500 years after the fact “the Reformation” is something we approach as a discrete thing defined by several key ideas that all belong together. But that is not how the moment was experienced by the people living it. The ideas were something a group of friends worked toward over time and this effort took many, many years.
Calvin expands the Institutes to, I think, almost double their original length between the first edition in 1536 and the final in 1559. Bucer’s thought develops dramatically between 1524, when he begins to publish, and his death in 1551 which came shortly after the publication of his final work, De Regno Christi.
One of the challenges, then, in intellectual work is that our work is received by our readers in a seemingly complete and at least self-contained format: It begins on page one and ends when the book ends. And most of the time the people we’re reading either live far from us or are dead, which makes the possibility of conversation remote or impossible.
But, of course, the actual process of intellectual work is a never-ending conversation with friends and with authors long gone, all done in hopes of being able to say something true about God and to help oneself and others to love him more. But because the primary medium through which intellectual work finally expresses itself in tangible form is a book, I think the process of it all can get lost a bit. Indeed, there’s a sense in which I think every book, every paper, every column, every review will feel to the author—if he or she is honest—like a failure. But that’s OK. It’s a normal part of the work. The point is to keep going in it.
This is not to say we shouldn’t review bad books harshly. Ideas ought to be taken seriously and bad ideas should be condemned. But I think there’s a piece of the intellectual process that gets lost when everything is mediated through these discrete pieces of writing that are received at a distance from communities that strive toward those ideals and from the individual writers expressing them. This, incidentally, is one of the things I most love about visiting the Bruderhof. Belonging to an integrated community contextualizes so much of this work. And historically that was more the norm—think about the role of friendship in many of the great intellectual movements of church history. That it is not the norm today is regrettable and it hurts our work as thinkers who wish to serve the church and, ultimately, to serve God.