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Volume 19, Issue 1: Thema

Cruciform Politics

Douglas Wilson

We have arrived at a busy intersection, and we need a way to categorize all the cars that have arrived here. We have a tendency to keep different kinds of cars in the showroom, collected together with other cars of the same make and model. But out on the road, life is not so simple, different makes, different colors, different years, all sitting at the same intersection, honking at each other.

The way we keep the cars in the different showrooms is by means of theological terminology. We establish different "subjects" and then we take great care to keep them from getting jumbled up together. And so it is that we have come to think soteriology, eschatology, and ecclesiology are all talking about something different. But they are all talking about the same thing—the salvation of mankind. We think that postmodernism, politics, and postmillennialism are different "subjects." But rightly understood, scripturally understood, they are all addressing the same basic questions. They do it badly or well, but life, despite our best efforts at keeping it fragmented, systematic, and tidy, remains integrated and organic anyway. Fragmented separation is what we would like to accomplish, but all we really succeed in getting as a result of trying to think this way is a rampant confusion about the permanent integration that God built into the world.
Jesus was crucified in a public way, and His death necessarily has public ramifications. There is no way to be fully faithful to the message of His death and resurrection in private. Genuine private faith in this public event cannot, in the very nature of the case, remain private. But if the public execution of Christ and His public resurrection from the dead are publicly proclaimed by faithful minsters, then this has direct implications for every aspect of human existence.
For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified . . . Howbeit we speak wisdom among them that are perfect: yet not the wisdom of this world, nor of the princes of this world, that come to nought: But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, even the hidden wisdom, which God ordained before the world unto our glory: Which none of the princes of this world knew: for had they known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory . . . (1 Cor. 2:1-10).
In this text, many glorious things are stated, and a number of other (surpassingly glorious) things are hinted. When St. Paul came to the Corinthians, he did not come as a showboating preacherman. He resolved to know nothing among them except Christ and Him crucified (v. 1). But this does not mean what individualistic moderns assume it to mean. We assume it means that he limited his message to a few bare doctrinal fundamentals, and for the remainder he left the kingdoms of men to govern themselves according to their own customs. In short, this confusion places "Christ and Him crucified" over here, and all the other subjects are over there. But this is almost directly opposite of the point the apostle Paul is making here.
St. Paul says that he was among them in a real state of inadequacy, as men would measure it (v. 3). He recalled his sermons as being the same way (v. 4), i.e, messages that would be considered no great shakes if measured by man's wisdom. But if they were evaluated according to God's power, that would be a different matter. The apostle did not want them to have faith in the wrong thing—in pretty boy preachers instead of God's power (v. 5). We do speak wisdom, he says, but it is not the wisdom of this world's princes, who are coming to nothing (v. 6). We do have wisdom, but it is not your kind of wisdom. We speak a hidden wisdom, now revealed (on the cross, remember), which God ordained before the world for our glory (v. 7). If the princes of this world had known what was actually occurring in the trial and execution of Jesus, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory (v. 8). In doing this, they arranged for a spectacular blessing for those who love God (v. 9). And what this consists of is revealed to us by the Spirit of God (v. 10).
So what does the phrase "nothing but Christ and Him crucified" actually mean? In these pages you have been warned (many times) about the dangers of radical individualism. That danger can be clearly seen in a common interpretation of verse 2, "not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ and him crucified." Does this mean that all we are supposed to talk about is the fourth page of a six-page tract, the page that has a picture of a cross going across a chasm between God and man?
If this truth is only about getting individual souls into heaven after they die, then application of this truth will create private clubs (that may be called churches) where people will think about this saving datum, to the saving of their private individual souls, by and by. I grew up in a church which believed it was the responsibility of the church to preach a gospel message every Sunday, alongside a "Just as I Am" invitation offered every Sunday. And why? Because of this assumption about the gospel. Preaching Christ and Him crucified was taken in a truncated way, limiting it to the salvation of invisible souls after they depart from this world. Since it was limited, preaching Christ and Him crucified meant preaching the "essential" gospel message, the message that would convert someone's heart if that someone would only believe it.
But note how St. Paul approaches this. This message is a message that topples the princes of this world and every thing that previously had been under their jurisdiction—meaning arts, politics, economics, exploration, scientific investigation, cooking, playing hacky-sack, and anything else that men might do. Rightly understood, preaching Christ and Him crucified is as broad as the world. Our desire is to bring every thought captive, bringing it into submission to Christ (2 Cor. 10:1-4).
Peter Leithart identifies a common problem we have with this kind of totalism: "Unfortunately, many Christians mentally adjust the astonishing claims of the New Testament and in so doing weaken it beyond recognition. Paul's words, it is thought, must apply to `spiritual' realities or to `salvation history,' but not to the actual history of humanity" (Deep Comedy, p. 26). In short, we slip away from what the New Testament actually says by spiritualizing or internalizing it.
But Christ and Him crucified is postmillenialism. When Christ is lifted up on the cross, He will draw all men to Himself. This is why Christ and Him crucified is theonomic postmodernism—when the nations are discipled in accordance with His Word and are taught to obey all that He required, this means the necessary exclusion of secular democracy (which is the political expression of modernity). This is why Christ and Him crucified is the establishment of a new political science, fit for the new heavens and new earth. Christ is the Lord of the new polis that has been planted right in the middle of the old polis. God did this so that the new way of being human in Christ would start to grow up in the midst of the old way of being human, and would gradually transform all the nations of men. The New Jerusalem is the Christian Church, and the leaves of our trees are for the healing of the nations.
Many contemporary doctrinal confusions are the result of not seeing the public nature of Christ's death and resurrection. Christians sometimes lament the naked public square, and, although we know what they mean by this lament, there is a real sense in which it is impossible. The public square is not naked; it is red—Christ was crucified there, and the blood stains mark the place where it happened. No amount of constitutional lawyering can get rid of those stains. In addition to His public death, He also rose from the dead in public. He was put to death by the authorities. His grave had a guard posted over it by the authorities. So who was the very first to know that Christ rose from the dead, just as He had promised He would? The guards, or, as it indicates in the Greek, the cops, the fuzz, the man. And what did the cops do? What was the second group to know that Jesus had been declared with power to be the Son of God by His resurrection from the dead" (Rom. 1:4)? The cops went and told the politicians, the authorities. As St. Paul reminded another politico, years later, "these things were not done in a corner" (Acts 26:26). Because Jesus was crucified in public, and because He rose from the dead in public, it follows from this that everything belongs to Him. All the nations are His inheritance; the ends of the earth are His possession.
C. S. Lewis once commented, I think in The Screwtape Letters, that moderns are accustomed to having a dozen incompatible ideas bouncing around in their heads. Make it two dozen, and we are talking about your average Christian. But Jesus Christ is the arche that ties everything together. He is the One who holds everything together , and this should include the way we think about the world He holds together.
This being the case, we should recognize that there are two different ways to get this whole enterprise wrong. The first is to deny what the Bible teaches about the public authority of Jesus Christ over all things. But Jesus said that all authority in heaven and on earth was given to Him. We should therefore go and disciple the nations. The reason given for the preaching of the gospel is this all-encompassing authority of Christ. Without that all-encompassing authority (over all things in heaven and on earth, including places where the First Amendment is misapplied), we have no business preaching. We must not just go; we must therefore go. So denying Christ's authority over all things should not be an option for any Christian.
The second mistake is more subtle. This way of getting it wrong is to affirm the total lordship of Christ over all things, and use this as an imprimatur for whatever crazy ideas we might want to advance, so long as they are tagged with Christ's name. To take an extreme example, suppose we are talking about dermatology. The first error, mentioned above, denies that Christ is the Lord of dermatology, and subjects the study of skin to "autonomous" dictates of science, reason, and peer-reviewed journals. Christ is not Lord of us, for we are the tribe of the white lab coats. The second error says that no, Christ is the Lord of dermatology, and that we think bat guano mixed with a mustard paste would make an ideal "biblical worldview" poltice for that acne problem of yours.
This problem can be stated in another way. The Western world can be divided into two broad categories—public secularists and public Christians. Given how confused everything has gotten, we frequently find private Christians who are public secularists. They do not want the authority of Jesus Christ to be recognized in the public square. This has been rationalized in a number of different ways, but in its various forms it is very common. Public Christians can be described as Constantinians. But even though Constantinians agree that the lordship of Jesus Christ extends over all things, including the public square, the devil, as they say, is in the details. In the name of Jesus, do we opt for biblical and sane public policy, or do we go for the bat guano public policy?
Over the last four decades, there has been a major resurgence of Constantinian thinking. But it has come in two forms—left and right, to use the popular terms of description. Because Jesus is Lord . . . should we forgive Third World debt as N.T. Wright has argued? Because Jesus is Lord . . . should we reject common arguments in favor of gun control as Jim Jordan has argued? Does the lordship of Jesus "ratify" the soft socialism prevalent in the UK? Or does the lordship of Jesus "ratify" the conservatism of American evangelicalism? A Constantinian settlement in the United States would look quite different than the same settlement in Europe. In the meantime, waiting in the wings, just to concentrate our thinking a bit, is the Islamic threat, wanting to subject the former nations of the West to Sharia law.
When the Church recovers her prophetic voice, she surely needs to do better than to simply reflect the platitudes and bromides of the currently received wisdom. The lordship of Jesus surely involves far more than a simple reflection of our society's values back at that society.
On a number of occasions, I have been dismayed to see how quickly Christians who have been encouraged to "get involved" in the public process find themselves thinking that a "biblical worldview" about politics is "just what a bunch of my new acquaintances were thinking already." This means that these involved Christians are just a thermometer, taking the temperature of their surroundings. We need to be a thermostat, affecting the temperature of our surroundings. If we are to reject the emptiness of the secular public square, and we resolve to do what we do in the name of Jesus Christ, then we must be able to draw a direct connection between what we are urging, and what God reveals to us in His Word. And right at the center of what God reveals to us in His Word we find the cross of Christ. We preach Christ and Him crucified. But what does it mean for our politics to be cruciform?
In the history of the Church, three basic theories of the atonement have developed. They have frequently been articulated as though they were in opposition to each other, but this is not necessary at all. They all have a scriptural basis, and we have to learn how to see them all together. If we do this, instead of arranging them in opposition to each other, we will start to see something of what St. Paul is addressing here. But when we take one view in isolation from the others, we start to drift toward a rejection of the very thing the apostle Paul is describing.
First is the view systematically outlined by Anselm—this is the view that has been emphasized in the Protestant Reformed world. This is the idea that Christ died for us as a "penal substitute." We are familiar with the language of the substitionary atonement, and it is right and proper that we are. It is very common in the New Testament. For example, "For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit" (1 Pet. 3:18). But in using this idea of "substitution" we have to be very careful. Christ is not our substitute in the way that one basketball player is substituted in for another. In that case, the substitute goes in, and the other man comes out. Substitution in this sense is the substitution of covenant representation. When we elect a congressman, we are electing a substitute . . . not to replace us, but to represent us. On the cross, Christ did not replace us; He represented us. This is why St. Paul could say, "I have been crucified with Christ. . . ." Christ did not die so that we might live. Rather, He died so that we might die; He lives so that we might live.
Then we have the view of the atonement represented by Abelard—this is the vew that Christ died in order to set an example for us to follow. The idea is that by sacrificing Himself in this way He provides a pattern of moral influence. We see immediately that this is pitifully inadequate in isolation, but it is in the Bible. "For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps" (1 Pet. 2:21). An important amplification of this is seen in the work of Rene Girard, where he points out that Christ's death on the cross provided a revelatory example of how much God hates official scapegoating violence, and how the example of Christ's death has toppled (forever) the mythological tendency to airbrush out all the warts of sanctioned, institutional violence.
A common view in the early church was that of Christus Victor. In this view, the death of Jesus is seen as the Lord triumphing over the devil and his angels. This too is biblical, but again, not in isolation. "And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses; Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross; And having spoiled principalities and powers, he made a shew of them openly, triumphing over them in it" (Col. 2:13-15).
Notice that when we see these all together as parts of a whole, we can see that Christ is exercising all His offices—prophet (Abelardian), priest (Anselmian), and king (Christus Victor). Now the problem with Reformed Protestants is not that they follow the Anselmian pattern. Recent attempts by some theologians to describe penal substitution as "divine child abuse" are not really worthy of a response. The problem is that when the Anselmian view is detached from the others, it is very easy to take the atonement as a matter of "how to get people into heaven when they die." And the question of how to do that does not need to be related at all to the questions that arise with regard to the public square. But when we see the death of Christ (Christ and Him crucified) as being accurately described by all three of these views together, we cannot keep it out of the public square.
The cross and resurrection of Christ are the foundation of a new humanity, and we are in the process of figuring out how to relate the new humanity in Christ to the old princes.
Jesus was not murdered in private by thugs, only to come back from the dead in secret, with a select band of initiates being told to whisper the news to another handful: "Pssst! Pass it on." No, He was executed publicly by the authorities, and He rose from the dead in such a way as to declare His absolute authority over all the kingdoms of men, and over everything that they contain. We have to learn how to see the cross in these terms, which is what St. Paul is actually insisting on in our text.
When we preach Christ and Him crucified, we are preaching the hope and glory of the world. What God has prepared for us (who love Him) here, on this earth, has not begun to enter the heart of man. What is God preparing to pour out over this whole planet? What is He planning to give to us? What is His saving intent for this world? He is going to inundate our sorry and sinful world with the "deep things of God." When the earth is finally as full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea, those seas will be infinitely deep. In thinking about the greatness of the Great Commission, we do not have to worry about overdoing it.
In the meantime, a cruciform politics (still under construction) will manifest certain distinct features. First, it will testify faithfully to the authority of Jesus Christ over all things in heaven and on earth. Christ is Lord, and Caesar is not.
Second, it will do so sacrificially. The men with soft clothing dwell in palaces with all the other politicians. What did you go out to the desert to see? A man who spoke the Word of God to the king and did not need to work through a lobbying agency. The way up—even in a Constantinian settlement—is still down. The one who would exercise great authority must be the servant of all. Climbing the greasy pole of ambition is not how Daniel or Joseph got to their positions of influence.
Third, a true cruciform politics will be iconoclastic—it will always challenge the idols. The idols of the age are always decked out in respectable clothing, and people who attack them are always dismissed (initially) as crazed nutjobs and disturbers of the peace. In our day, one of the central idols is the the swollen state. In other words, the political aparatus over which Jesus will be Lord needs to be about 100 times smaller than it currently is. In my view, this is a key reason why the "left-wing" Constantinians are not representing a thorough-going cruciform politics, but rather just a baptized politics. But the Great Commission says that we are to disciple the nations, baptizing them, and then teaching them obedience to everything that Jesus commanded. Cruciform politics is certainly baptized, but it is baptized into His death. And when anyone or anything is baptized into His death, the result is newness of life.
Fourth, a cruciform politics will understand the difference between trivial things and the weightier matters of the law. Issues like abortion and homosexual marriage are far more important than are issues like minimum wage laws. But the lordship of Christ does apply to minimum wage laws. It is just that we might not want to start there—especially if we think they are a good idea. Reformations should start with getting the beam out of the eye, not speck-pecking with sawdusty fingers.
And last, a cruciform politics is going to be clear-headed on the subject of violence. It will not be pacifistic, but it will fully acknowledge the idolatrous fascination that officially sanctioned violence always brings, and it will peer through the thick smoke to the day when they will not hurt or destroy in all His holy mountain.

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