Image: Fortress cover

Within the pages of the Bible law adjusts or Israel adjusts its laws, and there is not a one-to-one correspondence between Israel’s law (say about war) and the vision of Jesus and the apostles. The history of the church’s relation to the state and how law worked itself in various societies in which Christians lived shows similar adjustments.

David Opderbeck examines these adjustments in his new book, Law and Christian Theology: Classic Questions and Contemporary Perspectives.

Question for the day: How are we to distinguish adequately between Israel’s law for Israel and that same law, as fulfilled in Jesus and Spirit, for our transnational church?

First, Opderbeck – remember he’s a professor of law and has a PhD in theology – states some tension points we have today with some of what is in the Bible:

Some of the specific laws in Leviticus and Deuteronomy read naively at face value, seem strange and harsh to modern ears. The narratives of the conquest of Canaan in the Old Testament are difficult to understand in light of what we might think about natural law, justice, and international law today. The New Testament’s critique ofthe Roman Empire seems to counsel withdrawal from the world, including from any sanguine assessment of the positive law, except for Paul’sotherwise strange and perhaps subtly subversive admonition to respect the ruling authorities in Romans 13. These complications counsel us toexercise caution about using any specific biblical text as a proof text forpositive law today- Nevertheless, the broad narrative arc of the canon of Scripture suggests that “law” is central to the missio Dei.

Opderbeck clarifies an important relationship for all Bible readers: how does Israel relate to the church?

Yes, many readers would agree with all of this or at least most of it. So, what about law? Opderbeck clarifies an important relationship for all Bible readers: how does Israel relate to the church? The same, different, or what?

This revised and reworked eschatological vision in the New Testament does not necessarily imply supercessionism—a replacement of Israel by the church—but it does suggest that the church’s role in the present, unlike the Old Testament’s vision for Israel, is not immanent political rule. Positive law, therefore, does not define the church’s mission. The church exists within political communities and therefore will interact with, and be concerned with, the positive law, but the church’s mission is not to bring about God’s kingdom in or through any historical nation. Indeed, in the eschatological. consummation of history, the nations and kings, without any apparent priority or preference, will be brought into the new Jerusalem. The question of how the church should live under and relate to the positive law became more and more difficult as decades, centuries, and millennia passed without the parousia of Jesus anticipated in the New Testament.

Nationalism is not kingdom vision.

His point is major, even if it is not some kind of absolute border. The church is transnational and therefore is not to identity itself with a given nation. The church is transnational and therefore is not to identity itself with a given nation. Nationalism is not kingdom vision. This leads David to another vital perspective:

These ideas [from some mission literature] about inculturation, prophetic dialogue, and the univeisal social scope of the missio Dei are the lifeblood of any theology of mission. They suggest, I think correctly, that the church should not prioritize its institutional “rights” within a society, as though the church were yet one more self-interested party fighting for scarce resources, striving to perpetuate itself in great social Darwinian struggle. At the same time, if the church does speak prophetically within a society, if it is engaged from within as a cultivator of the society’s resources, if it advocates for the oppressed, if it embodies the spirituality of both the outsider and the insider, it will take on at least some characteristics of a citizen of that society and necessarily will engage in conversations about its relationship to the society’s law and governance. For this reason the relationship between “church and state” is historically deep and important.

Church and state, he states, is post Peace of Westphalia and a stepchild of the Reformation, and as we comprehend separation of church and state we have to think of what was accomplished by the Puritans as much as anything else, a vision that took on various new phases through the colonies with Baptists and Quakers and then the modern Enlightenment. Which is not to say there was some contest prior to the 17th Century. (I’d include the Anabaptists here, too.)

Opderbeck covers the history of church-state relations, with an eye on law. A big theme developed early: there are two powers. This can be taken back to Jesus (Render unto Caesar...) but he shows that it emerges in the early church. This has become the dominant category that cuts through many issues, and the modern “separation of church and state” is part of that conversation.

One of his concerns is defining Constantinianism and he thinks it has not been understood with nuance, and I think he’s talking here about Yoder or Hauerwas. It would have been helpful to get one of their definitions on the table. Opderbeck wants nuance in that, while church and state are wedded in a nation (one religion, one emperor/political leader), he wants to emphasize the relation of the two powers (some with more religion, others with more state). This was an informative section for me, but Constantinianism as I understand is more the wedding of the two than the relation of the two powers.

Overall, he develops in this lucid section (good section on Lactantius and on Augustine) with five themes: First, natural law as something designed by God and that is known more or less to all, and Augustine makes a major contribution here; second, positive law and its limits: is it the same as natural law and how such law is formed? Third, what is a civil society (which really goes through some convulsions after the Reformation, as made clear in R.L. Wilken’s recent book)? Fourth, the two powers issue and how the state and the church, temporal and spiritual, relate to one another. At times in the church the spiritual has thought it had ultimate authority while the rough and tumble of it all has more often led to the temporal. Fifth is eschatological: how is history shaped and where is it headed?

This was a good section, but I do think a more nuanced view of the Anabaptists could help. In particular, Balthasar Hubmaier’s stuff can help and telling the story of the nutjobs in Anabaptist history is like telling the story of Servetus with Calvin. OK, it needs to be there but there’s plenty more to discuss. In the end, though, the Anabaptists are not going to be of much use on “law,” which is David’s focus. They can nuance the church-state relation.

For me, this was a very good chp as Opderbeck rightly contextualizes “law” in the church-state relation. I’m looking forward to the next chp.

It is perhaps worth noting that my bookmark in this book is a Henry VIII bookmark.