Political Theology (Part 1): What’s In a Question?

by John Ellis

Preface: Dear reader, thank you for clicking on this article. I’m assuming that there is a good chance that this is not the first article of mine that you have read. You may even know me personally. However, if this article is your introduction to me and my writing, no worries, this preface still stands. Again, thank you, but I must caution you. You may find this article some combination of odd, incomprehensible, disjointed, filled with the twin fallacies of circular reasoning and begging the question, framed with a false pretense of being intellectual, and self-indulgent. If so, however many of those you check off on your reader Bingo card, you are correct. With this article, I wasn’t so much trying out a new literary tack as me simply thinking out loud (on paper); it’s a poor example of a modified version of the Socratic method with myself, emphasis on the descriptor poor. I’m not sure if there is a discernible thesis statement, much less any discernible arguments. And, yes, circular reasoning and begging the question abounds; in conversation with myself, it’s only natural to assume agreed upon definitions and arguments, especially at the presuppositional level. Conservative, orthodox Christians will likely see fewer fallacies than non-Christians. I also didn’t cite my sources. Nevertheless, even with all its literary flaws, the exercise proved immensely valuable for me. Maybe it will hold some value for you, too. If not, that’s fine. And if you’re new to this blog, please don’t allow the hot mess below to dissuade you from clicking on any of the other articles that I have written. I promise, as of now, that this article is a literary outlier among my output. Now, with the disclaimer portion of the article out of the way, you may proceed under caution and at your own discretion. Emergency exits are located on the right side of the page in the form of links to other articles published on this blog if you find yourself overcome with feeling of annoyance or confusion at any time while reading what I have written below.

Introduction

Over the last several months, I have puzzled over Politics after Christendom: Political Theology In a Fractured World, the latest book from professor Dr. David VanDrunen. There is much I appreciate about the book, having read it multiple times. But I can’t shake the dissensions that well up in me while reading it. Make no mistake, as one of today’s preeminent proponents of the Two Kingdom theory of political theology, Dr. VanDrunen’s arguments are formidable and challenging to someone seeking to discern the role Christians are to play in civil government. I want to agree with him and be able to slap the descriptor “Two Kingdom guy” in my Twitter bio. Likewise, and on the other side of the political theology coin, the arguments made by leading Kuyperians (including their namesake, the esteemed Abraham Kuyper) are formidable and challenging. And like my ongoing interactions with Politics after Christendom, I continue to read, listen, and argue with Kuyper and his plethora of disciples. Again, I want to agree (how “cool” would it look to have “Kuyperian” proudly displayed in my Twitter handle?) but I can’t shake my growing belief that Kuyperians, like their Two Kingdom counterparts, make serious missteps in not only some of their presuppositions but their very methodology.

At the onset, I want to provide a word of caution for any readers who may feel fairly settled in their political theology, no matter where on Tim Keller’s taxonomy (page 231 of Center Church) they find themselves. If that’s you, no doubt, you will find this article and any subsequent follow up articles, of which there should be more than a few – whether subsequent articles are written solely in my head or in my ongoing conversations with my good friend Michael remains to be seen – quite frustrating, if not maddening. You will be tempted to conclude that I am already somewhere on the spectrum of what Keller labels “Counterculturalist”. I am not; I may be at the door, but I have yet to step through (and, in the issue of full disclosure, reading Emile by Rousseau in light of my past readings of J. Edwards The Freedom of the Will, among a broader study, has opened a whole world of questions about things I believed I had otherwise settled in my mind). In fact, and here’s where the frustration of those who are settled in their political theology will likely reside, I’m asking questions. I’m not making arguments (well, I may be making a methodological argument). To be sure, I will assert some things; I will assume some things. All in all, though, I am thinking out loud. And you may be tempted to reach out to me in an attempt to answer my questions. To that, I offer a qualified “please don’t”.

Finding myself in rare agreement with Kant, I am beginning to believe that musings and intellectual wanderings of this nature are best done on paper and alone. If you meet me on my “walk”, please don’t presume that I’m interested in discussing political theology with you, and it’s not because I believe the chances of choking to death on a bug are too high. At the risk of alienating myself even further, in my experience it is often those who are the quickest to “instruct” me who are also the ones who are the least likely to have read deeply (or at all) the primary sources that are informing my questions (and primary sources are not VanDrunen, Keller, or even Kuyper, by the way). I find those conversations patronizing, frustrating, and ultimately a waste of my time.

This doesn’t mean that I’m not interested in conversations. It just may not be with you.[1]

So, and now that I’ve succeeded in driving away most readers, I begin:[2]

Who Are We?

This morning, while contemplating the natural law theories of Grotius and Locke, my mind went to something Dr. VanDrunen wrote in his introduction: The belief that natural law theories are, at their root, at least, Divinely ordained. Maybe. But, then again, maybe not. How are we defining natural law? Whatever our definition, it’s not in a vacuum. For example, as I read over VanDrunen’s introductory argument, I couldn’t help but wonder if he’s failing to account for the evolution of natural law theory from Grotius to Locke, specifically how consent is defined politically in Locke’s natural law theory. As Joseph Carrig asserts in his introduction to Locke’s The Second Treatise of Government, “This theory is grounded on the principles of individual liberty and popular consent.” Theories that are the foundation for our contemporary notion of popular sovereignty. For me, and seeing the natural progression from Grotius, I believe that neither Locke’s perspective on individual liberty nor popular consent are biblically warranted. Or, at the least, I want to explore and examine the concepts.

Intending to write about that, I began gathering sources, formulating dialectic entry points, and trying to figure out how to work a morning run around the hours of thinking and writing that lay before me. It didn’t take long, though, before I was struck with another question: Am I making a methodological mistake?

One of the gravest errors – “gravest” because it set in motion many of their subsequent errors – the philosophes of the Enlightenment and their immediate predecessors began with epistemology and not metaphysics (ontology). In fact, many of them openly scorned metaphysics. While this is often laid solely at the mind’s feet of Descartes, this methodological error owes a great debt to the likes of Lucretius and Seneca. The late-Renaissance’s fetishizing of Roman thinkers came with long-lasting consequences. Regardless of who’s most to blame, we all swim in the polluted social imaginary waters streaming from the intellectual reservoir of the Enlightenment. Whether we realize it or not, epistemology reigns supreme over metaphysics in our worldview, meaning our ethics are most often individualistically directed. This is one area where I appreciate Kuyper. The first of his Stone Lectures firmly stands on the foundation of metaphysics. However, and readers of Kuyper will likely recognize that my initial question in the heading above mirrors Kuyper’s “three fundamental relations of all human life”, I do believe that Kuyper is fairly quickly overtaken by epistemic concerns that warp his metaphysics. In a similar vein, Two Kingdom political theology, as represented by VanDrunen, has an epistemological starting point, albeit one that is admirably coated in metaphysics. As much as we’re influenced and shaped by our social imaginary, Christian thought cannot escape ontological concerns, thankfully and mercifully. However, beginning with “a few basic ideas” that explicate what we know about civil government and how we know it, Politics After Christendom can’t escape the heritage of epistemological privileging we inherited from the Enlightenment.

I typed those previous sentences with much fear and trepidation. I am fully aware of the high risk that before I get to the “Soli Deo Gloria” that is my usual coda, I may be guilty of privileging epistemology over metaphysics in ways that Kuyper and VanDrunen avoid. This is, after all, a difficult needle to thread, especially when the fingers holding the needle and thread are accustomed to clinging to epistemology as a worldview security blanket. I will do my best, though, to lay aside my questions about the role of popular consent in a biblically informed political theology and explore the beginning question: Who are we?

At the onset, as Socrates would no doubt point out, there are at least two related presuppositions in my question (a subject question): 1. The subject, who is also the object. 2. The object, who is also the subject.

I, of course, am included in the subject, and I presume that I exist. And this is where Descartes jumped the shark, and where epistemology’s sirens sing.[3] However, I shall resist, steer clear of my oven and its self-satisfying sirens, and recognize that since my question is a subject question and not an object question, the question “who are we?” of the subject in the question “who are we?” may avoid that trap but is redundant. More importantly, it reveals the existence of a third presupposition, and that of communal.

An interesting presupposition, but, again, an epistemological trap that will be easy to fall into if I peer too deeply (or at all, I think). Instead, and avoiding asking “Are we communal?”, an object question, I think a better path might lie in reframing the initial question to “Are we we?”, a subject question. Note that I’m desperately attempting to ward off questions of “how” and “what” and remain within an ontological framework. For example, “how are we communal?” or “what causes me to believe in the ‘we’?” are both epistemic. With that noted, I’m beginning to dislike “Are we we?”, and I’m not sure why. Maybe this will help …

I make note of this next point as a guard rail for my thought, and to work out a suspicion I have suddenly developed regarding my reframed question. The answer to the reframed question may fall under Kant’s analytic a priori. A tautology that provides no further information that’s not already included in the terms. Or it may fall under his “Copernican Revolution” – the synthetic a priori. Does “we being we” provide further information that can’t be known empirically? However, and serving as the guard rail I was counting on, the Bible smiles and says that if I must borrow from Kant’s category of judgments, it would be the synthetic a posteriori (Matthew 7:16; James 2:14-26; Galatians 5:22-25). Pushing me away from the ditch of Kantian epistemology, those verses also shine a light on my suspicion that the question presupposes independence, even though framed communally. The subject and the object are identical, containing a presumption of autonomy.  

If it’s a synthetic a priori, it’s autonomous because it presupposes the ability to answer it – which is epistemological autonomy. If it’s an analytic a priori, it’s autonomous because it reduces the tautology into an ontological ground zero – we are we. But we are not we because we are not self-existent.

I’m not sure if I just violated my methodological parameters, though. It would be easy to follow Bavinck down the trail he laid out at the beginning of chapter one in Christian Worldview. “The fact is certain that of ourselves and without coercion, we presume a world that exists outside us, that we seek to make it our mental property by way of perception and thinking, and that acting thusly, we also suppose that we should obtain a certain trustworthy knowledge of it.”

But that’s an epistemological starting line, and, as Bavinck cautioned in his introduction, “Autonomous thinking finds no satisfactory answer … – it oscillates between materialism and spiritualism, between atomism and dynamism, between nomism and antinomianism.” To be sure, he adds, “Christianity preserves the harmony [between them] and reveals to us a wisdom that reconciles the human being with God and, through this, with itself, with the world, and with life.”

While I appreciate how Bavinck, with all his prodigious intellectual might, pushes his readers to epistemic submission and humility, I believe that his starting point unwittingly charts a path into the ditch of autonomy. Even with baked in ontological presuppositions, a journey dominated by epistemology is bound to end in rebellion, at worst. At best, we end in a muddled compromise of ever-shifting ethics and doomed attempts to force biblical squares into contra-biblical holes, especially regarding political theology, as evidenced, I believe, by both VanDrunen and Kuyper, and the thought-systems they represent.

Bidding adieu to Bavinck, I look for another path.[4]

Is the presupposition of community justified? Is denying my (our) self-existence justified? Tackling both questions head on may be that better path.

Regarding the first question, a syllogism that jumps to mind is: A. Experiences happen in community. B. I have experiences. C. Ergo, I am communal.

Immediately, though, I can’t help but wonder if I’m making an unjustified claim in premise A. Or unjustified assumptions. Importantly, does that lack of justification call into question the validity of the major term? The middle term is distributed correctly, I believe. But, as stated, the predicate term in premise A may be unjustified. I think I can leave that tricky wicket for others, if they so desire to work it out, and construct a similar yet sounder syllogism.

Syllogism #2: A. Experiences imply community. B. I have experiences. C. Ergo, I am communal. I exist in community. We are communal. Not, we desire community, that’s an epistemological trail. We are community, which is a metaphysical claim.

Again, the middle term “experiences” is distributed correctly. And, unlike the first syllogism, I believe that the predicate “imply community” of premise A is justified. Leaning on Aristotle’s theory of abstraction, the implicit moves into the explicit. By that, I mean that stating that “experiences imply community” avoids the undefended absolute of “experiences happen in community” while retaining the logical rigidity needed to justify the terms move into the conclusion.

Therefore, I believe that I have adequately answered question one and can confidently claim that the presupposition of community was justified. Now on to self-existence (or lack thereof).

I do not need to attempt to construct a syllogism to defend my lack of self-existence. It’s a logical necessity. While not crafting a valid syllogism, I will work through a syllogistic-styled defense of that claim, though.

According to Aristotle, Parmenides argued the dictum that nothing comes from nothing. Now, the atomists/Epicureans argued that Parmenides’ dictum disproves that God or gods can create ex nihilo. That, of course, conflates categories of necessary and contingent, but that’s a rabbit hole that’s better left avoided considering my objective. Contingent beings/matter, by definition, are part of a causal chain. Necessary beings are not. But contingent beings exist, meaning they come from something. They cannot come from nothing. Contingent beings cannot be self-existent.

This brings me to the important combination of the two questions into a single syllogism: A. We are communal. B. We are not self-existent. C. Community is not self-existent. If A is B, then B is A. Didn’t really need a syllogism for that.

But what does that mean?

It means that we are not our own. Our lack of self-existence implies subordination. A question remains, though, as to the terms of that subordination as applicable to our being, especially as our being existing within community – being community – as well as to the community at large.

Doesn’t this mean, though, that my original question was the wrong one? “Who are we?” carries import that pales to the import of “Whose are we?”, a question that will ultimately speak to the terms of our subordination and lead me into the purview of political theology’s ethics.

So, whose are we?

That question, I believe, is the only appropriate metaphysical starting point in the development of a political theology. To be sure, others, like Kuyper, begin there. However, unlike others, including Kuyper, my intent is to move forward in a way that continues to privilege metaphysics over epistemology. Moving forward, taking the next step, my exploration of the question “whose are we?” may appear simplistic and easily answered at first blush. And therein lies the temptation: The urge to lay aside the tediousness of metaphysics for self-indulgent plunges into the pleasures of epistemology and ethics far sooner than is dialectically warranted. Also, as my mind probes ahead, I close Part 1 with the suspicion that the answer, subsequent questions, and their answers are not as simplistic as they may appear. I shall see.

Soli Deo Gloria  


[1] I should clarify. I don’t have a list of authors that one must have read before “qualifying” to have a conversation with me. I have had many profitable, thought-provoking, and challenging conversations with people who don’t generally read philosophy. It’s those who aren’t really interested in having a conversation – who don’t understand that they may be as profitably served to listen to me as I to them – are the ones I’m not willing to be patronized by and treated as their wind-up toy monkey. And, yes, those people have rarely read the books that have helped shape my thoughts. They may have read about the books but not the actual books.

[2] I make no claims to originality, nor do I deny that whatever thoughts spill out of my brain and into this article have been influenced and shaped by others. In fact, I won’t be surprised if I unintentionally plagiarize at some point; I will do my best to acknowledge my debt, though, and give credit where credit is due, but, again, I am not citing my sources and am not taking the time to trace out all the philosophical and theological lineages of my thoughts and subsequent conclusions.

[3] Descartes asked the object question “Do I exist?” which is a question of epistemology, as are most (if not all) object questions.

[4] For the record, you should read Bavinck’s book. Please don’t mistake my thinking out loud for a wholesale rejection of Christian Worldview.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s