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Archive Nota Bene Steven Wedgeworth

Littlejohn on Neo-Anabaptist Political Theory

Friend and associate Brad Littlejohn has been writing a lengthy review of Doug Jones’s Dismissing Jesus over the lat two weeks. He has proceeded in installments, and he tells us that he still has a long way to go. We intend to give a summary review of the whole project when it is completed, but for now we can highlight two key theological observations from Mr. Littlejohn’s recent two posts.

In part 4, Mr. Littlejohn  investigates “the way of renunciation.” This section deals with Mr. Jones’s defense of a radical rejection of political and cultural engagement. Mr. Littlejohn points out, however, that it also runs the risk of rejecting creation, revealing a Manichean tendency to the project:

Here’s why it seems to me important to hold onto the pluriformity of evil: although the Good is prior to, and constitutive of, all particular goods, the same cannot be said of evil.  That would be Manichaeanism.  What do I mean?  Well, there is one supreme and eternal Good, which is God, and it is in him that all virtues and all creaturely beings find their concrete goodness.  But this is not so of evil.  The particular vices exist only as corruptions of particular virtues; they do not have their own being.  If they did, then they too would have to find their root in a single source, a supreme and eternal Evil—in other words, an equal and opposite principle to God himself.  This is Manichaeanism.  Far from being just another abstruse “ism,” a heresy that we have to oppose at some theoretical level, but hardly seems of practical consequence, Manichaeanism is very bad news.  It means that much of the created order, whether the physical order or the human social order, is not simply off-course and in need of correction and redemption; rather, it is fundamentally, irretrievably corrupt.  It cannot be redeemed, only avoided.  We are doomed to an eternal cosmic struggle against this inexpungible evil.  Of course, a Christianized Manichaeanism may insist that in the end, Christ somehow triumphs over Mammon, but his victory involves not redemption, but destruction of the parts of the world tainted by Mammon.

…Perhaps this is all just a strong metaphor, but without practical consequences.  I thought so at first, but the more I looked, the more I realized how this move does start to yield the tell-tale practical symptoms of Manichaeanism.  It means that Jones accepts at face value Mammon-Satan’s claim to the dominion of the world:

“Satan owned them all [all the kingdoms throughout history]—‘All this authority I will give You, and their glory; for this has been delivered to me, and I give it to whomever I wish’ (Luke 4:6).  In a very important sense, they are all Tyre, all Satanic.  All Satanic?  We instinctively resist such a conclusion, especially those of us who identify with some of these nations.  Certainly our nation has to be benevolent and well-meaning at heart.  Some of these kingdoms even seemed to grow out of Christian roots.  Christ wouldn’t call all nations or empires Satanic, would he?  Surely, ‘Christian nations do plenty of good” ([Dismissing Jesus] 40-41).

But crucially, Christ does not call these nations and empires Satanic; he never grants Satan’s claim.  To be sure, nations and empires can become Satanic, as we see in Rev. 13, which Jones of course quotes.  But to grant them Satanic as such is to cede too much of the created order—human social order itself—over to the evil one.  True, the Apostle John says (though Jones never quotes this passage), “the whole world lies in the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19), but the Book of Job reminds us that Satan is on a leash.  Inasmuch as the hearts of men have turned toward evil, Satan reigns there, but inasmuch as creation remains fundamentally good, Satan can never claim full control over any part of the world.  If this is true before the death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ, how much more is it true now afterward, when “he has led captivity captive,” when “he reigns until God has put everything under his feet”!

…Jones… appears to consider all the kingdoms of this world to be intrinsically bestial, all political rule to be a manifestation of Mammon, and hence denies that Jesus ever redeems them for his own possession.

In the part 5, Mr. Littlejohn points out an even more radical feature of Mr. Jones’s new theology, its apparent rejection of the traditional Protestant understanding of the atonement. First a quote from Jones, and then Mr. Littlejohn’s commentary:

“We’re not called to lay back and let Jesus set up his kingdom from heaven. . . . When someone hands you a kingdom you have a responsibility to bring it to its goal.  Christ’s kingdom is the good news of refuge and deliverance.  It is the solution to the problem of evil and injustice in the world.  That’s not the Trinity’s job.  That’s the church’s job.  He handed over to the church the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18). . . . We’re called to do all the things he did when he was on earth—deliver, renounce, share, love, perceive, and commune.  Like Christ, the church is to feed on evil and absorb it. . . . We are to become sin so that more may have life.  That is the way of the cross.”

One can see what Jones is trying to do here; certainly we’re not supposed to simply lay back passively while Jesus redeems the world; through his resurrection and ascension, he makes us his co-workers as he brings his kingdom to fruition.  But there’s also something deeply troubling about this way of speaking.  It’s not the Trinity’s job to solve evil and injustice in the world?  Really?  If there is anything that only God can do, surely it is to vanquish evil.  This is completely out of our power.  We’re called to “do all the things Christ did”?  But we cannot make atonement for sin.  We cannot reconcile sinners to God.  There’s a lot of things that Jesus did that we can imitate, but there’s clearly others that only he could do, because only God can do them.  How do we hold these things together, then?  Well, it seems to me that we have to make a clear distinction between the different offices of Christ, the different works of redemption.  The reconciliation that Christ accomplished on the cross was uniquely his, and there is nothing to add to it.  His rising from the dead, too, was once-for-all and definitive, establishing the foundation of his kingdom on earth.  But now that he is ascended and reigning, we are invited to reign along with him, making this kingdom more and more manifest in the world, inviting more people into its fellowship.   We cannot establish the kingdom, but we have been given the privilege of helping advance it.  Jones, it seems to me, needlessly blurs these points.  To be sure, he will answer that the blurring is intentional; in fact, he specifically rejects the kind of atonement theology I have described here, so as to establish more continuity between Christ’s work of deliverance and our works of deliverance (see ch. 12).  It becomes obvious that the blurring we have seen here is no mere slip of the tongue or lack of clarity, but part of the paradigm shift Jones is trying to call us to.  But why?  It is not clear to me why we need a model in which we help to atone for the world’s sins, in order to reject armchair discipleship and summon believers to energetic, self-sacrificial imitation of Christ.  Luther’s account of why and how it is that we live for others remains, for me, the most compelling, inspiring, and motivating that I have encountered.  Indeed, it is hard to see how Jones’s proposed alternative, which wants to abandon the standard Protestant articulation of justification by faith altogether (see chs. 7 and 11; obviously there will be more on this later on), will not undermine “the way of deliverance”: instead of our works of love and service proceeding from fullness, they will proceed from a sense of lack; instead of proceeding from gratitude, they will proceed from guilt; instead of proceeding from confidence, they will proceed from anxiety.  In each case, the latter won’t get you nearly as far as the former.

We look forward to the continuance and conclusion of this series, but it seems that in these two posts Mr. Littlejohn has highlighted some of the most foundational issues of concern. It is also worth noting that Mr. Littlejohn was himself a student of Mr. Jones and had been at earlier times more sympathetic to Mr. Jones’s project. It is our hope that Mr. Littlejohn can successful retrieve the more helpful aspects of this project– the concern for charity, mercy ministry, and cross-centered Christianity– while also helping us to avoid the, apparently heretical, theological framework in which those aspects are currently entangled.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.