Dr. David VanDrunen from Westminster Seminary California joins Mark and Rex to discuss his recent book, Politics after Christendom.
Welcome to Jessup think I’m your host Mark Moore, and your co host, Rex Gurney. And Rex we have on the show today, Dr. David VanDrunen. He’s the Robert B strumble, Associate Professor of systematic theology and Christian ethics at Westminster Seminary in Southern California. And he’s on the show to talk to us today about his new book, politics after Christendom.
And I think we will all find this a fascinating conversation. He has a lot of really interesting things to say.
Yeah, so we hope you enjoy the show. Well, Dr. VanDrunen and it really is a pleasure to have you on the episode. I’m so excited to talk about this topic. I think it’s so important, especially maybe for this year, being an election year. And just understanding politics and Christian life, understanding our role in as the church in politics. And and we’re here to kind of talk about your new book, politics after Christendom that was put out by Zondervan academic. So we want to give a shout out to zahner unacademic for connecting us, and for sending us a copy to be able to dive into. And even with that title, it really caught my eye. And one of the reasons why I reached out to you is that idea of politics, after Christendom and so some people may have a little bit of question of what what do you mean by Christendom? So can we start maybe there by by defining Christendom, as we kind of move into what what it looks like to have to for politics after that?
Yeah, sure. That’s a I think that is a good place to start. Because when when you hear the word, Christendom, people don’t always use it in the same way. So when I use that, in the book, I’m referring to this, you might say this long experience or experiment, primarily in European countries that lasted really from the very early Middle Ages, until really, a within the last few centuries, in which it was generally regarded that these companies societies were regarded as holistically integrated Christian communities. So just for some historical perspective, of course, when, when the gospel was first proclaimed, after after Christ’s death and resurrection, in the Roman Empire, the the early Christian church was this tiny minority. They faced a lot of opposition and persecution from the authorities. The Roman Empire was officially pagan, you might say they had their gods that they worshipped. And it was not comfortable for those who didn’t want to worship those gods. And yet, after a few centuries, you might say, the tide began to turn, the Roman emperors who were who began to profess the name of Christ, and the Roman Empire became officially Christian. And it wasn’t as though church and state became indistinguishable or something. There were still distinctions between church and state, and families and universities and trade associations since but at the same time, it was understood that all of these were united by a common Christian profession. And, and as part of that, the understanding was is that the civil authorities would be supporting in favoring the one true church as that was understood, and that they would punish heresies and blasphemies. And those who were of other religions, or who had believed in versions of Christianity that didn’t fit the prevailing model, there really wasn’t a place for them in these societies, or else they could exist with pretty extreme hardships. And that was really the kind of the kind of mindset that that prevailed for really well over 1000 years. And it was really only until what we would call the the modern era, that opinions and practices began to change. And so you know, now we find ourselves in communities that used to be considered part of Christendom in which it’s no longer understood that these are Christian holistically, Christian societies, right? It’s no longer assumed that bit you know, everyone’s a Christian, it’s no longer assume that there’s going to be one church that will be accepted as the church in a particular society. And now we consider it in a sense, it’s it’s optional. It’s up to everyone’s personal decision. To what you believe how you worship or even if you will worship? Yeah, so really what what my book is trying to explore is, you know, how do we as Christians reckon with this post Christendom kind of situation. And I really think that a lot of the things that we struggle with as Christians in our own society are, they’re really a result of trying to reckon with the pluralism that we find surrounding us. And we’re, in a sense, we’re still trying to figure out what do we do in a society in which we no longer are calling the shots the way we we as Christians used to and maybe think that we ought to
write I’m gonna jump in, actually, since we’re on the title of your book. And and it’s not just Christendom that some of our listeners might need a little bit of education on but your definition of politics or the political seems to be much broader than what is in folks minds when they first look at that. Look at that word, too. Could you elaborate a little bit on that?
Yeah, I’d be happy to I think that’s, that’s, that’s a helpful thing to explore as well. Yeah, I, you know, certainly my, my book is about politics as we understand them to some degree. But I I’m using the term in what would be an older kind of classical sense of politics, you know, we get the word from the Greek word Paulus, which means city. And the that that idea is that there’s this sort of this public space, this kind of common space that other people in a particular community share, of course, we have our individual families and our smaller associations that are not open to all people. But there’s also this city in which various individuals, various families come together. And they have certain common projects that they, they work on together. And so I’m taking politics in this older sense that it’s, it’s the life of the city, which we might translate as the larger this larger community, larger society in which we have not only our political life in the sense of governmental life, but also our legal life, our economic life, our shared projects in science, and art, and sports and these various things that we don’t just do in our individual families, but we we view as larger human projects. And so it is important for my book that this is not just a book about government, it’s not just a book about the next election, or, you know, what’s going on in Sacramento where you guys are or in Washington, DC. I’ve been my book is about those things. I mean, that is an important element of my job. But I do think it’s, it’s actually really important to say that our we have this life in society in the city that is not just reduced to our what we ordinarily think of as a political, governmental,
just for the institutions of society sort of interface. And I guess what, UCL I don’t know, third spaces. I’ve heard that or the public square. Yeah, right. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, that those are also helpful terms.
Yeah. And you have been driven kind of, in the in the book, in the first chapter, you kind of lay out four characteristics of a political institution that I think were really helpful to maybe help us shape our approach to politics. You mind if we kind of explore those those kind of four key characteristics that you give?
Yeah, I was, you know, obviously, when you’re writing a book, you want to begin in a in a healthful way. That’s foundation for the rest of the study. And I thought you did. You did? Well, thank you. I appreciate that. You know, I wanted to Well, I was I was trying to reckon with this what what I think is quite obviously true, is that I think there’s a temptation that probably almost all Christians have who think about politics is that there are there’s a temptation to take part of the truth, part of the theological truth about what political community is about or what government is about, and the kind of absolute ties that in a way that you kind of lose other important aspects of the truth. And so it occurred to me that it might be helpful to to lay out several characteristics of our political communities, our governments that in a sense, in order to get a proper, biblical theological perspective, you need to hold all of these things together and not to choose one over against the other. So the first term that That I used is that our political communities and their governments are legitimate. And what I mean by that is that there is a God ordained quality to these that we actually see in Scripture that even though if we human beings who set up our governments, we establish legal frameworks and constitutions, at the same time, they’re as, as Romans 13, among other places, does that God himself has instituted civil government so that when we human, establish governments and live together in our in our cities, that this is actually something that God wills and God approves. Now might the second characteristic, then is sort of the counterbalance to that were remote that governments are also provisional. So there could be a temptation if, you know, once we acknowledge that governments and our political communities are legitimate, that we we give them too important a role that we act as if these are that, that their legitimate authority is actually, you know, we’re expecting too much from them. And so I think it’s also very important biblically to say that God has established our political communities and their governments for limited purposes on to accomplish important things, but not to accomplish the most important things, and that our governments are, in particular, especially a response to our sinful condition, and the need for protection, the need for justice, to be able to remedy the effects of sin in this world, to some degree without bringing, without bringing the new creation, which government is not capable of doing.
Right. And that seems to be a really, I think, a helpful balance point of making that point, that, that political institutions are legitimate, that they are God ordained. And we see that in Scripture. Because Because sometimes I think in in maybe our current climate, there can be that voice, right that that tries to legitimize government. And so it’s balancing that, but then yeah, and I like how you would then understand that with the idea that they are provisional, though, they’re not meant to do everything. And they’re not meant to, to do the highest calling. And so I felt like that was just a really good initial approach with with those two, or two more actually. Yeah, two more categories. Those who kind of like, Oh, those are helpful, because they balance each other. And it seems like the last to balance each other as well.
Yeah, that was a point to just sort of set the the first two, in some sort of, kind of proper tension with each other. And then yeah, these last two as well, yeah. So the third category is common. And that is, by that I mean, that God has instituted our political communities and our governments for the entire human race, they’re not just for the benefit of some subcategory of humanity. It’s not just for, for us as Christians, it’s not just for people of a certain ethnic background, or it’s what basically, I think, as we look at scripture, we find that God has ordained these communities and these governments to serve all people, and to do justice for all people. And that’s obviously not something that you can take for granted in the history of the human race, where there’s always this temptation to think that, you know, the benefits of government, the benefits of political community are for us or our kind of people, but not for other kinds of people. So that was that that’s a very important theme throughout the book. And then I try to balance that off with my fourth category, which is the idea that government is accountable, our political committees are accountable. And the reason why I wanted to emphasize that as well, is I think, if you, you know, once you make the case that governments are our political communities are common for all people, there’s a temptation to think that well, I guess we can’t really talk about moral issues that if we’re going to say that our political communities are for Christians, and for Muslims, and for Hindus, and for atheists, then well, I guess anything, anything goes, it’s just kind of morally neutral space. So I think it’s important to say, Well, no, we really can’t go that way, even though it might be tempting that scripture also makes really clear that our political communities are accountable before God and that God actually will judge our political communities. I mean, he you know, there’s, there’s a mysterious Providence at work in this world Even now, and we know Certainly on the last day that God will hold our communities accountable for doing the work that he has given them to do. So here again, I think there’s, there’s a kind of, sort of creative tension that Christian political theology needs to wrestle with, to really affirm that, you know, we need to involve all people in our political life, and at the same time, not give up the kind of the kind of genuine moral discourse that needs to happen if we are actually going to pursue justice in this world.
I think that that tension is what I loved, I think most about the book as is highlighting those two elements, because I feel like in the conversation of politics in the church, it is so one sided, often, and it is just kind of, like you said, they absolut ties certain aspects, and, and to be able to hold, and that doesn’t just seem to gel with kind of common experience in real experience that we do have two things going on. And that government is in place for all people, you know, and, and, and it all it is also accountable to a higher moral standard. And I think it feels like do you feel that the characteristic of common is kind of a foundational characteristic for you moving forward in the book?
I do. And in part, that’s why I thought the title politics after Christina was as was what was appropriate because there’s a real sense in which emphasizing the idea of common really gets to the heart of the of the Christendom idea. I mean, there’s a real sense in which that long experiment of Christendom was a fundamental rejection of this idea of commonality. Right? I mean, this idea that our, our, our political communities are for Christians, it is a Christian who ought to hold the reins of power is Christians who want to have special protection, maybe will allow, you know, perhaps Jewish communities, but if so, they have, you know, under very limited conditions, and if they don’t behave themselves, we might, you know, not treat them very well. So, I mean, I, it’s, you know, it, I need to be careful, because, of course, history is complicated. It’s not as Christian doesn’t work the same in every place every time. And so, a lot of Christian theologians who did have certain ideas of toleration and so that, that that was present, but I think at the same time, in my judgment, the, the long experiment of Christendom did have some fundamental failures on to this basic notion of commonality.
Yeah, I’ve been kind of getting into kind of the history of England, and especially the time of when the Vikings and the Danes were coming over. And you kind of see that clearly where there’s this very strong Christian identity with with the kingdom of Wessex or the kingdom of Mercia, and, and the Danes were pagans. And so there was this separation and to try to think, a government or a king that was going to be king over all of them, and allow them to be unique. Yeah, just wasn’t, wasn’t even in that kind of worldview at the time, and had to be either Christian or pagan. And, and then you move into the modern era. And in America, maybe, especially, and you kind of highlight that in the book that America kind of really grabbed hold of that idea of building a, a political institution that was for everyone, not just one political one religious belief.
Right. Yeah. And I think it’s, it’s, I think it may be hard for us who are American to us, sort of rockin with the fact of the, of how, of how distinctive the American experiment is, in comparison with the vast majority of human societies THROUGH THROUGH THROUGH history, that it wasn’t just Christendom, that had the idea that, you know, if we’re going to have an orderly peaceful, justice, it we need to, we need to be unified on the most important things, we need to be unified theologically, we need to be unified philosophically. And it was I think you are getting at this point and for for so many people for most of history, it just assumed that if we don’t agree about those things, then it’s going to lead to anarchy, Civil War, we’re not going to be able to have a kind of a peaceful, productive society. And so the idea that Well, we’re actually going to found a country that is to sing Never get a degree giving up that idea. It doesn’t say that we don’t agree on anything. Of course, there has to be some degree of unity in a society in order to be able to live and work together. But the idea that we could have fundamental theological disagreements and maybe still possibly live peacefully with each other, and work with each other trade with each other, that’s not something that had that you can take for granted in human history. And I think, you know, we as Americans are kind of used to that idea. And yet at the same time, I think, today more than ever, we are feeling we have this sense that this is this is not as easy practically, as we might think it is. Theoretically, and it is certainly the case that that the more differences you have, and the deeper the differences there are, the more difficult it becomes to try to live with each other. And so I do think that, you know, part of what my book is trying to wrestle with is, is this question, are we as Christians in this present, social, cultural, political environment in which we find ourselves is our goal to try to recover Christendom and Is that really what we’re working for, to try to eliminate this kind of pluralism that we see or is our goal not to try to recapture that, but to try to figure out godly, just productive ways to live within the pluralistic societies that we that we have, and to sort of, you know, if not to love in every respect, at least to embrace that identity of being sojourners and and exiles in this world in which we, we actually expect that the world might hate us, and that things might not always go the way we want them to. And I make the argument that actually, it’s that second scenario that we actually think we’re called to be not sort of pining for the last Christendom, but actually to be trying to figure out how we can live peacefully and productively as best we can, in the kind of pluralistic societies that we find ourselves.
So that’s my journey, you would expect this from, I guess, a history professor. But if indeed we’re sort of post Christendom right now, and trying to figure out how to navigate that as Christians, culturally and in whatever polis we find ourselves in right now. Are there any resources from I guess, the time before Christendom that might be helpful for us? You know, Christendom didn’t always exist. And if we’re on the other side of it, of course, there was a time before it where there were Christians for 300 years or so. Right. And And is there anything from that period? Whatever you want to call it, that might not be a resource?
That might be his follow up book politics? Before Christendom? I can just give me a second book. Yeah, well, I don’t know. I think I think ones enough here. Yeah.
Yeah, that’s a good question. And, you know, to sort of comment on that, on your comment, Mark. That I mean, part of my argument is that, you know, politics after Christian actually is not this totally unique thing that that that that really, my my kind of smart alec, answer to. The question is, well, the New Testament is a pre Christendom resource that is that actually, and so it’s kind of a smart aleck answer, but it’s actually kind of a serious answer to because I do think that I mean, I think any straightforward reading of the New Testament, it prepares Christians for living in a world in which they’re not calling the shots. It’s, it’s, it’s addressing Christians, as soldiers as exiles in this world, it tells Christians you will be persecuted if you want to live a godly life, right? And tells us that our citizenship is in heaven, that we are awaiting a city there, we don’t have a lasting city here. So I really do think that the New Testament itself is a pre Christendom document, that, that really, that prepares us wonderfully for a post Christendom world. Now, I also think that in in the early church after the New Testament era itself, there are also other helpful resources. I mean, one I just might might mention is Augustine’s great work the City of God, I was actually thinking about that right. Yeah. I mean, so, Agustin is living at the time where you know, since things are things are turning So, right, has been converted. So I mean, they’re, you know, the idea that there is now a Christian Emperor has just come on the scene and say
delcious is actually kind of made the whole thing official by the time he’s writing the City of God. Yeah.
Yeah. But but it’s still a very new idea, you might say, and it’s, you know, it kind of figure I didn’t know, there’s obviously the, the Roman Empire is weakening. And there’s really there’s a lot there’s a very interesting political situation. But I mean, there’s so much in that great work. And, but but one of the ways that a Gustin tries to, to portray Christian life in this world as one in which Christians are pilgrims, on this journey towards the heavenly city. And so it’s, it’s, I mean, Gustin does set out a kind of a positive, I would say, a kind of a qualified positive view of life in this world. He’s not really he’s overly enthusiastic or optimistic about about about life in this world, but he has a place for Christians living in this world participating in this world. At the same time, there is this, this real sense that, you know, don’t don’t stay too much upon the affairs of this life, don’t expect that you’re going to triumph in this life, don’t expect that you’re going to be on top of the heap. In this world. This is a world in which we’re called to suffer. And I think a gosens does set forth a pretty helpful paradigm for saying, look, yeah, there’s, there are all sorts of ways in which we can live in common with our unbelieving neighbors, there are a lot of things we can share. Christians don’t have to make up their own language. Christians don’t have to make up their own their own style of dress. You know, I mean, we can, that’s probably good.
That’s probably good. We don’t make
it probably is. But, you know, I guess it was very helpful in saying, you know, we cannot compromise on our allegiance and our worship of the one true God. So he’s wrestling with these ideas that I’m trying to wrestle with in my book is how do we maintain a proper commonality in the ordinary affairs of this world alongside this, this this 100% devotion and allegiance to the one true God? So I think that’s one really, really great resource.
As a qualified admirer of a Gustin I just wished the City of God was about 800 pages shorter than it actually is, at least for my students.
A long work well, I mean, I think, yeah, I totally agree. I mean, I this sort of thing that I tell my students, and I mean, I, I, I teach at a seminary. So these are theological students. So I tell them, you really need to read through the City of God, at least once in your life, you really haven’t completed your theological education until you haven’t done that. But it’s not really realistic for all Christians to do that, but I think especially if, if any of your listeners would like to dive in just a little bit, and they don’t have the fortitude and patience to work through the whole thing. Book 19, I think gets at a lot of these issues that that we’ve just been talking about. So that might be a helpful place for them to, to take a to get a nice little sample of what’s there.
I have a confession to make, as long as we’re talking about a Gustin, that’s an inside joke there. But I took it as a point of pride when I was in seminary to, you know, be one of the few students that actually read everything that was assigned. But I have to say that with gusto and City of God, after about 100 pages, I basically flipped through it and said, done, I’ve read the City of God, five minutes after 100 pages. I wish I had been more diligent now that I really do a thorough work. How about that?
We’ll say, yeah, we can say that. You also try to make a connection with the Hebrew Bible as well. And in the covenants, specifically with the noahic covenant. And it seems you connect the Noah covenant with that concept of commonality. Can you explain a little bit more that the connection of the noahic covenant with kind of what shapes our political point of view maybe, and specifically, that idea of commonality. Sure,
yeah, that that certainly is an important theme throughout the book. Yeah, I, I’m, I’m, I’m a reformed theologian. And so for those of us who are working in in that tradition, we’d like to talk about the biblical covenants that just an important feeling for us. But I hope it’s something for those who are from other traditions can can appreciate this because, I mean, you just opened the Bible and it’s you can’t deny that you find these covenants and that they obviously play an important role. So, you know, these, these, these, these covenants are relationships that God enters with the human race and perhaps even beyond it, the human race in, in, in in some instances, and what you know, one of the Important things about covenants is that, you know, here we find God committing himself to, to deal with his created partners in a certain way. So you know, we know the terms in which God will will deal with us. And that’s, that’s really a very helpful, wonderful thing. And so when we find these biblical covenants, it’s it’s important for us to ask, okay, I mean, am I am I as a Christian now participating in the this covenant that is that is described, and if so, that’s going to help me understand my relationship to God and the responsibilities that I have in this world. And so the Noah covenant just to be clear, that’s, that’s referring to that covenant that God makes with Noah and the larger created order, after the Great Flood as a tribe at the end of Genesis eight and beginning of Genesis nine. And one of the things that’s fascinating about that covenant is that it is truly universal. God makes that with Noah, and with all his descendants after him, the covenant also made with every living creature, and so that that includes the the animal world as well. And it also concerns the broader created order, God makes promises about not sending another flood upon the earth. He says that day and night, summer and winter seed time and harvest, they are not going to cease for as long as this world indoor so there’s this, this this universality to this covenant. So that’s a long prelude to kind of getting to the real answer to your question. So as God makes this comment with the entire human race, which is different from say, the covenant with Abraham are the covenant at Sinai later, which is made with a, you know, a particular people. This no way a covenant is is universal. And one of the things that does is it establishes, maybe not for the first time, but we see this institution of of justice, he sheds the blood of man, by man will his blood be shed there, there’s this idea that God Commission’s the human race to do justice. And I think this is really important for several reasons. One is because God promises that this covenant is going to endure for as long as this present world indoors, that means that we are still under the new covenant. As far as preserving this present world. These are still the terms by which God is interacting with the world as a whole. And and secondly, you might say that, because this covenant is made with the entirety of human society, indicates at least this is my argument that the institutions of justice, this idea of having people who bear the sword, in defense of the well being of the human race, that that was actually instituted for the entire human race. And so this gets back to this idea of commonality that we were talking about earlier, that this is the doing of justice, even by coercive mean, is not something that’s just for part of the human race. It’s not just for those who claim to be Christians or those who claim to be able to some superior ethnic or racial group. I mean, this is actually for the entire human race. And so it seems to me that that’s, that’s a really important foundation for thinking about political community. And part of what I do in the book is try to try to show how that, that that foundational conviction actually explains a lot of what we find later in Scripture, as it talks about political communities and the institution of government.
We just want to thank you, Dr. VanDrunen, for joining us on the podcast has been so helpful. And I really think I wanted to put this book in front of our listeners, because I think it’s, it helpfully shapes the conversation. And it kind of, I just want to thank you for how you take it out of the polarized kind of place politics are in America right now. And you bring us back to maybe a more traditional language and more traditional use of the language. So we can understand what is our role in politics today? What is our role as the church what is our role as Christians, and to realize that there is so much more than then power to be had, and that we are called to something much higher than that. And as a church, we’re called to something much more than Christendom. And so thank you for that. Thank you for thanks for the show. It’s been great. Well,
it’s been my pleasure, and I certainly appreciate your kind words and you’re interested in my book
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