Does Christianity, particularly reformed theology, imply a kind of conservative social hierarchy or radical liberal democracy?

24 Jul

A subject of much interest to me.  Reformed folks like to credit Reformational theology with playing a major role in the rationale behind and formation of liberal democracy.  But how far?  Does it promote the great leveling revolutions (Rousseau thought it might) or is it more conservative than that (Burke thought it was).

Good exchange here on the subject:

Reformed Christian ethics has taken a social egalitarian turn. Recently, a few Reformed bloggers have criticized Christians for failing to support the “radical and inclusive social ethics” of the New Testament. Matthew Tuininga, in a couple interesting and well-written posts on the Presbyterian role in racial segregation (see here andhere),[1] has condemned the southern Presbyterians for their “communitarian” social ethics and spiritualized,”neo-platonic” understanding of the Gospel. For them, “the spiritual kingdom of God does not take concrete social expression.” He writes,

I would submit that the real problem with the way in which southern Presbyterians used the doctrine of the spirituality of the church was not the insistence that the Church should only proclaim what God’s Word teaches. The real problem was the interpretation of the concept of ‘spirituality’ through the lens of an underrealized eschatology. By stressing that the Gospel does not affect social structures of nation, race, gender and class southern Presbyterians were bound to have a bias towards the status quo, and they were bound to turn to the Old Testament as an alternative source for guidance about the nature of a godly society. They did not have trouble admitting that the Old Testament did not say anything specifically about race because that was not the point. The point was that the Old Testament clearly justified an exclusive kind of politics, a politics that highlighted division over unity and judgment over grace.

Now, I do not dispute that the southern Presbyterians sinned in failing to see or act against the injustice of the South’s racial segregation, but I want to point out, however, that Southern Presbyterians were following a racialized (and unjust) version of the standard Christian (catholic) position on social hierarchy. The ideas that the Gospel does not significantly affect social structures of nation, gender, and class and that social hierarchy isnatural are standard positions in the Christian tradition. Major figures in the Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Calvinist traditions are in agreement on this.

It is important to recognize that Tuininga’s argument does not merely condemn the racialized hierarchical system of the South, but also, and primarily, the idea of social hierarchy in general. In this, he joins Michael Walzer and Nichols Wolterstorff, who both argue not only that Calvinism was politically radical from the beginning and always has been, but also that it, given its theological principles, ought to be radical. Wolterstorff insists that Calvinism was and is a “world-formative” religion. [2]

This post provides evidence from major figures in the Christian tradition that social hierarchy (though not its racialized form) is a standard position in the Christian tradition. To be clear, I am not defending racial segregation or anything of that sort. I am simply pointing out that Tuininga’s rejection of social hierarchy and a “spiritualized” Gospel is a rejection of a standard position in the Christian tradition.

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