15 February 2017

Lutheran Sacralism: Veith on Economics

GE Veith is a retired professor, formerly associated with Virginia's Patrick Henry College. A conservative Lutheran he has long been associated with Evangelical and Dominionist projects from World Magazine to Wheaton, the Heritage Foundation and Patrick Henry. His writings primarily focus on the Christian relationship to arts and culture. The link is to a talk on economics given by Veith at the 2016 Just and Sinner Conference.
I respond due to the fact that he's a popular teacher and the message he presents is one that resonates with contemporary Evangelicalism. As he represents a posture and theology contrary to what is taught in the New Testament, it needs to be challenged. I hope my brief comments will at the very least introduce a different set of categories and concepts for readers to interact with and consider whether Veith is representing the Christianity of the Apostles or something quite different.

Veith offers a host of interesting categories but none of them happen to be derived from Scripture. He speaks of 'estates', 'vocation', and even the all too common 'stewardship' and yet even when these terms can be found in a concordance, a cursory glance will demonstrate they are not being used in the text of Scripture in the same way they are being used to communicate the Lutheran paradigm.
It can be stated without equivocation or even hesitation that the way Veith speaks about the Church's relationship to culture is nowhere reflected in the New Testament. It's simply not how Christ or the Apostles speak nor are the categories even remotely congruous. In fact Veith represents a school of thought and a general way of thinking that is actually quite contrary to what the New Testament teaches.
What we're given are a series of academic thought-exercises, worked out systems and models that seem coherent but neither match Scripture nor real world experience. The Fall is paid lip service as a reality though it is never taken seriously into account. Instead were given a somewhat patronising and certainly pedestrian picture of the glories of Reformation produced Middle Class life akin to what we find in a Richard Scarry children's book. Everyone has their happy little jobs and place in society and this all demonstrates a wonderful harmony and (we're told) this is the means by which God is building His Kingdom.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
It needs to be stated plainly that Luther and the Magisterial Reformers were wrong when it comes to culture. They were still mired in the Sacralist model of Christendom that arose in the decades after Constantine extended not only tolerance but favour toward Christianity and it became the normalised (and syncretised) expression of Roman culture. In this model the Kingdom is defined in Non-Redemptive terms, it's something other than the special salvific and sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit.
The Scripture certainly employs and endorses the use of means. God uses various outward temporal forms and orders for the purpose of sustaining this present evil age. The Church is given special means that are Word-activated as it were and thus only apprehensible by those who have been granted the Spirit-transforming gift of faith. These means are not available to those who are unbelievers and this antithesis is something completely lost to Veith and those like him. They will at times pay lip service to a notion of antithesis but it's very clear they don't actually grasp the concept, nor believe it and their rejection of it is certainly reflected in their thought and the watered down way they would apply it.
Christ mediates the means, something Veith seems to acknowledge but he then applies this mediation in general or extra-covenantal terms, to the society, nation and culture. There is no suggestion of this in Scripture. God Himself ordains the means. To label various facets of common life and society as somehow God-ordained (other than in general Providential terms) is without Scriptural warrant and as a speculative exercise is de facto is a rejection of Sola Scriptura. While this extra-Scripturalism is common enough within Lutheran thought it must be pointed out and indeed lamented that many Reformed and Evangelicals who pay lip service to the idea of Scripture Alone follow the same pattern.
Romans 13 is one of only very few examples of God explicitly using human means or institutions, that is the state, to create the conditions that benefit even believers on this earth. But if it is to be rightly understood as part of the Common Grace order, then it is certainly something less than holy. Veith and other Dominionists seem to believe Common Grace is the springboard or tool to transform the Common into the Holy. Rather the Common is a temporary arrangement, during this period of Divine longsuffering and will be eliminated at the Eschaton with the rest of man's works and in the hereafter it will never more come to mind. Such a temporal regime is certainly not the province of the Holy Spirit. It is not a fruit or product of the Gospel. Were it so, it would survive into the Age to Come. There are those particularly in the Dutch Reformed tradition that have embraced this rather egregious notion.
Why are these orderly conditions necessary? Clearly it is for the spread of the Gospel. The passage nowhere suggests the state is holy. As we've pointed out countless times the ministerial aspect of the state is clearly reflective of the same analogy found in the Old Testament with respect to Achaemenid Persia under Cyrus, Assyria (the rod of God), or even Babylon, the seat of evil. Neronic Rome despite its thoroughly Babylonian-style wickedness still served a purpose. Even a state with Nero was actually better than no state at all. This is quite disconcerting to those who have embraced the error of Libertarianism but it is nevertheless true. And in general terms, in terms of principle, even a Neronic state will for the most part leave the good alone and go after those who breed chaos and evil. States clearly are dynamic and are ever moving toward a rank bestial quality wherein they demand worship and complete obedience. While this is deplorable it is not the Christian's task to take up the vengeance-sword. Rather we trust in providence that the other powers that come to be will once more bring stability and order. The beast has many crowned heads. They vie for power and devour one another and thus it will always be until our Lord returns.
Our task is not to take dominion but to bear witness. We do not seek to wield power (even incrementally) but rather we bear witness in eschewing it. We quench the vitality of the worldly powers by despising all they have to offer. We suffer and are willing to die. Bearing the cross, we despise the sword... and the approval of those who bear it. We live as strangers and aliens even amid their evil worldly order. The notion that we are somehow to appropriate the system of this fallen age or that it in some sense represents God's Kingdom is alien to the whole of Scripture.
Paul contrasts the Christian's motivation and conduct with that of the state. Nowhere is it for a moment suggested that we are to serve it, aid it, or embrace some kind of notion of citizenship. On the contrary we are largely divested from the Babylon-projects of culture and instead live as pilgrims laying up our treasures in heaven.
No doubt Abraham perhaps our most poignant model in this regard was a bad citizen, a poor steward in terms of the cultural setting in which he lived. He should have been labouring to transform Canaan!
Veith and those of like mind have erected what can only be described as a massive edifice built atop a very shaky and dubious interpretation of Romans 13. This titanic structure is hanging onto and dependent on one very shaky hook. Even a casual read of the New Testament will belie their claims and expose their model for what it really is, a house of cards, a paper castle. It's a philosophical exercise generated by people motivated by unbiblical concerns. By asking the wrong questions they go looking for answers that are not there and if one follows this Veith lecture closely, one thing is abundantly clear... Scripture is not part of the paradigm. He doesn't quote it because he has nothing to quote.
Veith's Kingdom is built by unbelievers working in tandem with the Church. The 'called out' Ecclesia instead becomes 'called in' as the world and indeed even the very culture of the Bestial powers is incorporated and appropriated. The lost Beast-worshippers become co-labourers with the Church in building God's Kingdom. Once again this is the very imagery we're presented with in Revelation 17 and elsewhere.
At about the 20 minute mark one cannot but be startled by his statement that equates the work of the pastor with that of the farmer. Just as the pastor conveys the Word the farmer conveys food. It's all the same holy service, i.e. acts of worship.
Culture building and common labours which contribute to civilisation are equated with the ministry of the Holy Spirit.
This not only contradicts the teaching of Scripture with regard to this world, which is passing away, will be burned in fire, and will not be remembered or come to mind but whether he means to or not his teaching denigrates the ministry of Spirit. It is quite literally a teaching that must be labeled as sacrilege. While the farmer does good, necessary and even honourable work, it is part of a system or order that will perish. The growing of food is ordinary. One need not be a Christian to do it. Does Veith not realise he has denigrated the Word and treated it and the Covenant as common... as the chaff that is blown away or the scraps fed to swine?
For the Christian husbandman who lives by the plow his real calling is not to be a farmer. That is incidental. His calling is to be a Christian and it his life-testimony, his witness by word and deed that builds the Kingdom. The pastor (so-called) is able by God's grace and by the recognition of the Church to exercise this holy work on a larger scale. He is granted authority but with it a greater burden and responsibility. He is not an aristocrat, a spiritual lord or clergyman. He is shepherd who leads by example and labours in humility as one who is slave to Christ and a servant to the flock. The Lutheran concern to legitimise the regular or common man was valid vis-à-vis the Roman sacerdotal system but the Magisterial model in baptising culture goes too far the other way and equally destroys the teaching of Scripture.
The Magisterial Reformation's championing and celebration of common life as opposed to the holy order/sacerdotalist notions found within Romanism present a false dichotomy. Sacralist Rome incidentally is far more complex and able to accommodate both the anti-worldly ascetic practice of monasticism along with the virtual baptising of statecraft and war in its flawed and even wicked notions of chivalry and crusade. Rome has never fully reconciled the contradictory tendencies and impulses within its tent and thus has a far more broad and dynamic tradition when it comes to these questions. The Protestant attack on the Roman position is often guilty of caricature.
Nevertheless both systems are false and represent deviations from what the New Testament teaches.
When commenting on the US system Veith demonstrates a somewhat lame understanding of what it is, how it works and interestingly never questions whether or not it's Biblically legitimate or reflects its values. If this is worldview thinking, then it's less than impressive. One is left with the notion that what is really going on is an exercise in cultural affirmation and vindication. It's a victory lap regarding the many so-called glories of Western Civilisation minus any sort of deep let alone sanctified reflection as to what it is or what it means.
Participation in the culture is indeed valid. We have to live in the world and we're told by Paul that it's impossible to escape it, including its wickedness. Permission and a degree of necessity are a lot different than a notion of cultural endeavours being 'service' which defines them as Kingdom tasks or acts of worship. In fact the very passages that exhort us to do all to the glory of God may indeed call us to restraint, denial and cultural non-participation. Discernment demands a questioning of whether or not what we do harms others or leads people to stumble. The Veith-Dominionist model cannot accommodate these categories. Culture cannot be abandoned, it is the Kingdom awaiting transformation.
Again there is no concept of the Christian calling to be pilgrims. The Scriptures only utilise the terms calling and vocation when referencing our life-absorbing task and duty to be Christians. Veith takes it as how to think of our various spheres of life in Christian terms. That's actually an inversion. We are to think of ourselves in terms of being Christians and that should therefore shape and define all we do... and perhaps what we don't do. The exclusionary aspect which I'm citing is directly tied to our pilgrim status, suffering, persecution and the ultimately the reality that this world is not our home. The New Heavens and Earth that await us only appear when Christ comes in fiery judgment. The notion that this world will be transformed or that our cultural endeavours are part of the Age to Come is not taught in the Scripture. The glory of the nations is not referring to cultural attainments.
Veith does get one thing right. Weber's analysis of the Protestant Work Ethic is flawed. Veith uses the occasion to attack Calvinism and yet I've never known the Reformed to build their very similar concept of vocation on the idea of confirming predestination. Their arguments are actually quite similar to Veith although in some quarters a greater emphasis is placed on dominion. The heart of the Vocation-doctrine is Sacralism, the confusion of culture with the Kingdom of God or to put it another way the sanctification of culture. The Magisterial Reformation had no intention of breaking with the Christendom model. It hoped to reform it and modify it but the basic assumptions that had reigned in Catholicism were retained and if anything enhanced and amplified.
Veith takes a wrong turn again when it comes to Adam Smith. He falls into the all too common Evangelical error of trying to equate The Invisible Hand with God's Providence. That's not at all what Smith meant. He viewed it more in terms of a mechanism or law of nature, something that functioned in a Deistic fashion that operated automatically without reference to Providence or Divine Intervention.
At 29:00 Veith tries to re-cast the market and what motivates it in terms of man serving man. This reflects the common Pelagian view which all Sacralist-Constantinians fall into. Their positive view of culture leads them to embrace academic models that cast motivations in terms of a general harmonious system. The truth is the world is dog-eat-dog. For the most part people are not serving one another. Their so-called service and consideration for the fellow man is rooted as Smith said in self-interest. Smith is right in a bestial fallen sort of way. That's how the world works but that doesn't make it right and Christians should certainly not ratify let alone sanctify this way of approaching the world. Instead we acknowledge this is how the world is and we conscientiously reject it and live a very different sort of life. As pilgrims we do not flourish in Babylon. We live our lives, work honestly with our hands, eat our daily bread and bear witness by word and deed.

Veith has misread the New Testament on a massive scale is but one of many teachers that satisfies the itching ears of those who think godliness is gain, a means to security, respectability and ultimately power. His world-affirming understanding of Christianity is patently unbiblical and must be categorically rejected.