The Spirituality of the Church. What is the Church’s social duty?

16 Jul

D. G. Hart and John R. Muether

Extracted from Ordained Servant vol. 7, no. 3 (July 1998), pp. 64-66.

What is the Christian’s duty to society? Such a broad question suggests many different answers and conjures up images as diverse as the Good Samaritan, who loved his neighbor despite ethnic and religious differences, and the American Presbyterian John Witherspoon, who was the only minister to sign the Declaration of Independence. Typically, Reformed answers to this question are easily distinguished from those of other Christian traditions. For instance, Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., a theologian in the Christian Reformed Church, has argued that the Calvinist perspective on society has generally been regarded as “conversionist” or “trans-formationist” or “world-formative,” as opposed to the Lutheran or Anabaptist traditions that have harbored isolationist impulses. Plantinga’s assessment reiterates the classic statement of H. Richard Niebuhr on the relation of Christ and culture. Unlike Luther who made sharp distinctions between the temporal and spiritual, or body and soul, Calvin, according to Niebuhr, had a more “dynamic” notion of the Christian’s responsibilities in the world. Niebuhr also detected differences between Lutheran and Calvinistic understandings of the state. While Luther sharply distinguished the kingdom of grace from the kingdom of the world, Calvin argued that the state not only restrained evil but also promoted human welfare to such an extent that magistrates helped to establish the kingdom of God. As popular and as well-accepted as this interpretation of the Reformed tradition is, it fails to make sense of those Presbyterians who adopted a more restrained idea of the Christian’s responsibility in political and social affairs. Unlike some Reformed theologians who have posited a basic harmony between church and state in the execution of God’s sovereignty, American Presbyterianism has also nurtured an understanding of society that stresses fundamental differences between the aims and task of the church and the purpose of the state. Sometimes called the doctrine of the Spirituality of the Church and attributed to the southern Presbyterian tradition, this conviction also informed the views of Charles Hodge who adhered to this doctrine at a pivotal point in the history of the United States.

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