04 October 2015

Creatio ex nihilo: a temporal or supratemporal act?

“In the beginning God created the heaven and earth.
Genesis 1:1

I believe in God the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth . . . .
Apostles' Creed

On this basic confession virtually all Christians agree. Where we disagree is over when and how God created. In the 17th century Archbishop James Ussher of Ireland famously asserted with confidence, based on the genealogies in the Old Testament, that God's initial act of creation occurred on the evening of 22 October 4004 BC, that is, slightly more than 6,000 years ago. While young-earth creationists may not necessarily accept this precise time, they nevertheless date God's initial creative act back only thousands or tens of thousands of years. Moreover, according to the modern rabbinic Jewish calendar, this year is 5776, which effectively dates the beginning of creation to 3761 BC. The Septuagint chronologies similarly date creation to 5509 BC.

Obvious difficulties abound with all of these chronologies. To begin with, we know that the light of the most distant stars visible on earth has been travelling for some 13 billion years prior to reaching us. This would appear to give us a readily discernible date for the beginning of the cosmos as we know it, often referred to as the Big Bang. Furthermore, the last of the dinosaurs died off some 65 million years ago, and the first hominid species appeared several million years ago, far too early for assigning such a late date to that initial act of creation.

Recognizing these realities has brought into being old-earth creationists who believe that that initial act of creation must be pushed back much, much further into the past. Perhaps the Big Bang marks the initial act of creation, when the universe initially exploded and began expanding outwards, as it continues to do today. Those Christians arguing for an old earth have considerable empirical support on their side, including the geological record, the length of time light takes to travel from one part of the universe to another, carbon-14 dating, and fossil and genetic evidence for the evolution of species across long stretches of time.

Which of these is correct? I strongly suspect that both are equally wrong in locating God's initial act of creation within or even at the beginning of the temporal succession of events. Could the Bible's “in the beginning” be atemporal or supratemporal? After all, if time is the creature of God, then he would have had to call time into existence as part of his initial creative act. But if we try to pinpoint a time when time was created, we are inadvertently proposing that time is not a creature at all, pre-existing or perhaps co-existing with God. This would effectively ascribe divinity to time, much as the ancient Greeks worshipped old Chronos (Χρόνος) himself. That, of course, would make God a subordinate being and less than fully God. No faithful small-o orthodox Christian could accept this possibility.

What then is the alternative? Admittedly, I am not a theologian and have no aspiration to become one. Thus what I propose here I do with due caution and modesty, and will not stake my reputation on it. I am, of course, open to correction. But could it be that that initial act of creation cannot be located at all along the temporal continuum of past, present and future? The Big Bang is not a satisfactory candidate, because the theory behind it still presupposes that matter pre-existed the Big Bang, which goes against the biblical notion of creatio ex nihilo, creation out of nothing. The Big Bang better fits into Plato's cosmology as set forth in the Timaeus than into a biblical worldview. Thus it cannot be the initial point of creation. It is often objected that six-day creationists assume that God brought everything into being a few thousand years ago and gave it the appearance of age by planting fossils and exposing the earth to starlight appearing to be billions of years old. They would thus seem to make God into a grand deceiver, tricking people into believing that the cosmos is older than it really is.

Yet what if God brought everything into being at once while giving it, not just the appearance of age, but a real history capable of being detected by his image-bearing human creatures? We may not be able to locate the temporal beginnings of matter and energy, but they nevertheless have their origins in the God who is outside history while nevertheless choosing to act within it, particularly in the person of Jesus Christ. Thus the moment before God created is a transcendental before, not to be located in the remote past but outside time itself within the nihil, or nothingness, of everything that is not God. This transcendental before is inaccessible to the human mind and experience; therefore it cannot properly be the object of theoretical thought any more than darkness can be visible to a blind eye or silence audible to the deaf.

Although a two-dimensional diagram may not be the best way to portray visually God's creative activity, the following may serve to illuminate my proposal:

If my proposal is correct, then the argument between young-earth creationists and those holding to an old earth may rest on a false dichotomy. If God's initial creative activity cannot be located along the temporal succession of events, then it may be time (!) at last to lay this verbal conflict to rest and to come up with a fresh way to articulate an ancient truth.

14 September 2015

Revelation 20 and the thousand years

Although I have an ongoing interest in biblical eschatology (see, e.g., my recent review of Richard Middleton's excellent A New Heaven and a New Earth), I have written next to nothing on the biblical millennium briefly mentioned in the 20th chapter of Revelation.  It may be time to weigh in, however tentatively, on this vexing issue. Here is the relevant passage:

Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain. And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be released for a little while.

Then I saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom the authority to judge was committed. Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and those who had not worshipped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended. This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years (verses 1-6).

Because this is the only place in the entire Bible where this mysterious "thousand years" is mentioned, most biblical commentators over the past two millennia have seen fit not to attach too much significance to it. Taken somewhat literally, it would appear to indicate that, following certain cataclysmic events described in the previous chapters, the saints of the Lord will be raised from the dead and reign with Christ for one-thousand years, after which Satan will again foment rebellion and finally suffer permanent defeat. The end of chapter 19 would seem to imply that Christ will have returned to establish his kingdom before these events, but, curiously, he has not yet scored a definitive victory over sin and death.

Interpretation of these passages has generally divided Christians into three camps: premillennialists, postmillennialists and amillennialists. Premillennialists generally believe that the events encountered in these chapters are to be understood chronologically, despite the inevitable difficulties in the attempt to do so. Postmillennialists generally anticipate that, sometime within the current historical age, the kingdom of God will advance to such a degree that we might anticipate a very long period of peace and prosperity owing to widespread obedience to his will. Then Christ will return to bring his kingdom to its ultimate consummation. Amillennialists generally interpret these passages figuratively, assuming that the thousand years stands for the present age of the church. None of these successfully answers all the questions raised by these perplexing passages.


It seems to me that premillennialism, whether in its historic or dispensationalist form, improperly applies too literal a hermeneutic to a book whose language is obviously highly colourful and metaphorical. Every attempt to impose a schedule of events on the Revelation has met with seemingly intractable difficulties. For example, how many resurrections of the dead are to take place in the last days? Revelation 20 implies an initial resurrection of the righteous (20:4-6) and a final battle in which the unrighteous are destroyed (20:7-10). In other words, they die but are quickly brought to life again for the last judgement (20:11-13), but then are destroyed once again shortly thereafter (20:14-15). All of this apparently follows events recounted in the previous chapter, in which we read of the Great Marriage Supper of the Lamb, an event presupposing that the resurrection of the righteous has already occurred. We also see reference to a battle and to the ultimate destruction of the wicked (19:19-21). It should be evident to even the casual reader that, just as the gospel writers freely reordered the events in Jesus' earthly ministry for their own purposes, so also did the author of the Revelation describe his visions with little thought to chronological consistency. Indeed it seems likely that God gave him these visions without intending them to be in chronological order.

Moreover, Hebrew literature is filled with stories told twice but from different vantage points. The two stories of creation recounted in Genesis 1 and 2 are generally thought to reflect different authors, one describing God as Elohim and the other YHWH (rendered LORD in most English translations). But it is just as likely that a single author could have told both stories in succession to present a fuller account of God's creative work from two different angles. Moreover it is well known that the Psalms employ a certain parallelism, repeating a thought twice in two different ways. For example:

For behold, the kings assembled;
    they came on together.
As soon as they saw it, they were astounded;
    they were in panic; they took to flight (Psalm 48:4-5).

Even the casual reader will notice that the italicized phrases restate the thought of the unitalicized phrases, thereby creating a sense of fulness of expression lacking in a single statement to the same effect. Could it be that the Revelation employs a similar literary technique? If so, then attempting to read it chronologically is a potentially serious error. Premillennialism, by reading the apocalyptic passages too literally, may not do full justice to scripture in its literary and historical context.

Nevertheless, premillennialism has the advantage of interpreting the coming kingdom as a concrete and tangible reality, at least for a time.


A few years ago I read Loraine Boettner's 1957 book, The Millennium, in which the author argues for Christ returning after the thousand years. While there is much in Boettner's argument that is compelling, it is difficult to escape the impression that for him Christian hope is in danger of becoming mere optimism. For example:

The redemption of the world is a long, slow process, extending through the centuries, yet surely approaching an appointed goal. We live in the day of advancing victory, although there are many apparent set-backs. As seen from the human viewpoint it often looks as though the forces of evil are about to gain the upper hand. Periods of spiritual advance and prosperity alternate with periods of spiritual decline and depression. But as one age succeeds another there is progress. Looking back across the nearly two thousand years that have passed since the coming of Christ we can see that there has indeed been marvelous progress. This Process ultimately shall be completed, and before Christ comes again we shall see a Christianized world. This does not mean that all sin ever will be eradicated. There always will be some tares among the wheat until the time of harvest – and the harvest, the Lord tells us, is the end of the world. Even the righteous fall, sometimes grievously, into temptation and sin. But it does mean that Christian principles of life and conduct are to become the accepted standards in public and private life. . . . Skeptics sometimes point to present day evils and tell us that we are living in a post-Christian age. But, no, there has never yet been a truly Christian age, nor has so much as one nation ever been consistently Christian. The age in which we are living is still pre-Christian.

One would not wish to deny that progress has occurred in a number of fields. But Boettner's description of progress at times appears to conflate the Cultural Mandate of Genesis 1:26-28 with the redemptive trajectory of history, as seen in the following passage:

A revolution has occurred in transportation, communications, home furnishings, etc., within our own lifetime. Our modes of travel and transportation have changed more within the last 150 years than in the preceding 2,000. George Washington, using the horse-drawn stagecoach which was the best means available in his day, traveled in much the same manner as did the ancient Persians and Egyptians. The automobile, hard-surface highways, electrical power for lighting and other household uses, the airplane, radio, television, etc., are all comparatively new. And now the new sciences of atomic and solar energy with the prospect for extremely cheap power, and the whole new field of electronics, in which we have as yet hardly more than scratched the surface, give great promise for the future. A leading industrialist recently said: "America is about to enter a new golden age of prosperity which will hinge upon the harnessing of the atom, and the advent of the electronic age." One new discovery follows another, and we see more and more clearly the tremendous potentials that are available for good, potentials that through all these many centuries have remained largely unused.

These developments are all well and good, of course. But they are the ripe fruit of man's implementing the Cultural Mandate, and, due to sin, they are often misdirected. Atomic energy can power our cities or it can destroy them, as it did Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Technical progress does not necessarily amount to or flow out of the advance of the gospel and a general obedience to God's will. In fact, technological development has often tempted human beings to imagine that they are sovereign and can get along without God. Is it mere coincidence that the most technically advanced countries of western Europe and North America are the most secularized?

At the same time, the hope characterizing postmillennialism is definitely alluring. This article seems to lend some credence to this hope: Is the World Getting Better? The accompanying map illustrates the phenomenal growth of evangelical Christianity throughout most of the world, with huge implications for the future global expansion of the gospel:

If we in North America find it difficult to be hopeful, it may be due to our lagging behind the remainder of the world, as indicated in the map above. But this appears to be a purely local phenomenon.


Nevertheless, the growth of the gospel, even when it has appeared impressive, has not infrequently suffered setbacks. The largely christian lands of the eastern Roman Empire were eventually overrun by muslim armies in the 7th century. The majority christian populations were gradually replaced by muslim majorities by the 14th and 15th centuries. And in the first quarter of the 21st century, the few christian communities in what we now know as the Middle East and North Africa are close to extinction. The animated map below illustrates these advances and reverses over the course of 2,000 years:

Here is where I believe we do well to follow St. Augustine, who understood better than many that throughout history the city of God and the city of this world are living out the implications of their own loves and that this process will continue until the return of Christ. This means we will see both genuine progress towards the coming kingdom and movement away from that kingdom, and these will occur at the same time and perhaps even in the same places. Thus while we have witnessed a huge expansion of the gospel outside of the west, we have also witnessed such human-engendered tragedies as the Rwanda genocide and, in the past century, the two world wars and the rise of destructive political illusions violently eliminating more than one-hundred million people. From one angle the world appears to be getting worse, while from another there has been undoubted progress.

Am I an amillennialist then? Perhaps, but I am not particularly happy with the typical amillennial conclusion that the thousand years refers to the present reign of the souls of the righteous in heaven with God. That seems an excessive "spiritualization" of God's kingdom, which thus takes on something of an ethereal form. For all the difficulties in the alternative positions, "premils" and "postmils" at least have the virtue of  understanding God's kingdom in concrete creational terms.

The best path may be to maintain a certain benign agnosticism concerning the meaning of the thousand years in Revelation 20, recognizing that, so many centuries after it was written, we lack the resources to give it a definitive interpretation. Nevertheless, this in no way alters our faith that, in God's good time, Jesus will return to bring his kingdom to fruition. This is our ultimate hope, and however he decides to accomplish it we can safely leave to his sovereign will.

12 September 2015

Authority, Citizenship, and Public Justice

North Americans famously esteem freedom but are ambivalent about authority. Authority strikes many of us as too constricting and insufficiently supportive of our desires and aspirations. Yet I believe that authority is key to understanding our humanity and the meaning of our creation in God’s image. This has profound implications for our status as citizens within a democratic political framework.

Consider the case of a hypothetical undergraduate at a typical North American university. It is Monday morning. Michael, a third-year student, has washed up, dressed himself, and headed out the door. He walks to the cafeteria a quarter of a mile away for breakfast. He joins two friends from his 9 o’clock class at the table, and afterwards they walk together to the building next door where the class will begin shortly. They arrive five minutes early but are unable to find seats because some of the chairs were removed the previous evening by the drama club.

Their professor, Dr. Stepanic, asks the three students to bring in more chairs from outside. After class he will phone maintenance to see that the university’s policy concerning the removal of furniture is reiterated and enforced. Class begins. Dr. Stepanic reads a short passage from Shakespeare’s King Lear and begins lecturing on the literary theories of a well-known British scholar. A young woman in the second row raises her hand and asks a question on the assigned reading. Dr. Stepanic asks whether anyone else in the class might be able to address the question. An animated discussion ensues. Near the end of the hour, he tells the students that the class will not be meeting on Wednesday because he will be away at a conference. In the meantime, they are to keep up with the readings, on which he will give a short quiz when they next meet on Friday.

When does Michael first encounter authority? I pose this question to my students, and they generally respond that he does so when entering Dr. Stepanic’s class, because he is now obviously under the instructor’s authority. When I push them further and take them through each sentence of this account in turn, they begin to notice things they had missed. “It is Monday morning.” Who says? Well, the short answer is “everyone.” From the very outset, Michael’s life is organized around the days of the week, whose names and number were set – authoritatively – long before he came onto the scene. The fact that he is a third-year student means that he has accepted the authority of the university’s academic calendar which sets the terms for progressing from one year to the next.

The fact that Michael washes, dresses, and heads out to breakfast indicates that he implicitly accepts the authoritative character of a particular routine that governs even the most mundane elements of life. Typically, when my students begin to pull apart the strands of Michael’s day, pinpointing manifestations of authority, the hour comes to an end before we make it much past that first sentence. It turns out that authority appears at every juncture. It is unavoidable.

The lesson, of course, is not that Michael is a mere slave lacking the ability to order his own life and is subject to the whims of others. He is nothing of the sort. He is fully responsible for his actions, even as he habitually defers to authority at every turn. Moreover, Michael himself is an authoritative agent, possessing all of the authority that God has granted his human image-bearers. This is set forth in the first chapter of Genesis:
And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food” (Gen. 1:28-30).
Often referred to as the Cultural Mandate, this text indicates God’s grace in granting an authoritative office to his human creatures, one which is under his ultimate sovereignty but also entails considerable leeway with respect to how human beings live their lives as individuals and in community. To be human is to be an office-holder in God’s creation. This has two implications for understanding how we live politically.

First, as Richard Middleton has pointed out, the biblical understanding of the image of God stands in marked contrast to the beliefs of ancient Israel’s Near Eastern neighbors, who believed that only the ruler was the image of the gods. This reinforced a hierarchical political order in which subjects were permanently subordinate to the ruler in every respect and in every walk of life. By contrast, we might say that the Old Testament radically democratized the image of God to include all human beings and not only their royal overlords. The image of God is a grant of responsibility to all persons – male and female, rich and poor, prince and peasant – as stewards of the earth. This biblical understanding may not explicitly support democracy, but historically it has facilitated a worldview in which human beings assume co-responsibility for the direction of their political communities rather than leaving this to their superiors.

Second, this authority is further dispersed into a variety of authoritative offices related to the diversity of activities in which we are engaged and to the many communities of which we are part. In the body politic, we might tend to assume that presidents, prime ministers, members of congress, court judges, and civil servants are the ones who bear authoritative offices. Yet this is a partial truth at best. The citizen is a political office-holder and bears genuine authority within that context. Of course, it is not the same authority as that of the president, yet it is authority in the full sense of that word. Citizenship does not exhaust who we are as image of God, but it is a significant office all the same, especially in a democratic political system.

Let us return to Michael once more. Michael possesses more than one authoritative office. He is son to his parents and brother to his siblings. He is a member of the Phi Beta Kappa Society. He is a representative of his class in student government. He is a member of a church congregation. And, of course, he is a citizen of the United States. Although he is only one person in more than 300 million, as he comes of age, he increasingly recognizes that he needs to discharge the duties that come with citizenship. He is now able to vote. To be able to vote intelligently, he needs, among other things, to understand the nuts and bolts of government, to read the Constitution and to comprehend its role in the system as a whole, to keep informed on the public issues of the day and, last but not least, to nurture an appreciation for the importance of public justice and to work against injustice along with his fellow citizens when he becomes aware of it.

So, no, it is not only kings and princes who bear political office. As those created in God’s image, we too bear political authority. If this is so, then far from being ambivalent about authority, we should thank God for it and hold it in high regard, as we live lives of service to God and to our neighbors.

David T. Koyzis is the author of We Answer to Another: Authority, Office, and the Image of God. He teaches politics at Redeemer University College. A slightly different version of this was published at Capital Commentary.

19 August 2015

Interview by Yago Martins

Yesterday I was interviewed by Yago Martins, a director at the Academia de Formação em Missões Urbanas in Fortaleza, Brazil, and a student at Sibima (Seminário e Instituto Bíblico Maranata), on the subject of political ideologies in the Brazilian context. The interview is posted here: Entrevista exclusiva com David Koyzis sobre ideologia política e o cenário brasileiro. Here is the interview in English:

Martins: Among Christians in Brazil the most popular view is that Christians do not need to think about or be involved in politics. Some religious groups even think that it is a sin to be a politician. Can we be politicized (or politicians) and still be Christians?

Koyzis: Many Christians in North America think the same thing, but during my lifetime their numbers have decreased. And that is a very good thing. This reflects the biblical understanding that those who are granted political authority have a high calling to govern according to God's laws, especially those laws mandating the doing of justice. For example, Deuteronomy 17:18-20 says:

When [the ruler] has taken the throne of his kingdom, he shall have a copy of this law written for him in the presence of the levitical priests. It shall remain with him and he shall read in it all the days of his life, so that he may learn to fear the Lord his God, diligently observing all the words of this law and these statutes, neither exalting himself above other members of the community nor turning aside from the commandment, either to the right or to the left, so that he and his descendants may reign long over his kingdom in Israel.

Furthermore, if you read John Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion, you will see that the very last section of the book treats the civil magistrate, of which he speaks in unusually glowing terms: “Its function among men is no less than that of bread, water, sun, and air; indeed, its place of honour is far more excellent.” Politics is an important part of life, and our walk with God extends to the whole of life, including politics.

What is a political ideology and how does it differ from a simple political vision?

Everyone is animated by a vision of life, or what might be called a worldview (cosmovisão), which governs the ways they live out their callings before God. Even pragmatists, who claim to reject visions altogether, are living out a vision that privileges results over principles. We cannot avoid these visions, even if we fail to recognize them or admit their influence on us.

An ideology, as I see it, is a particular vision that fastens on to one element in life and improperly raises it to a position of preeminence above the rest. As such, an ideology is inescapably idolatrous. St. Augustine said that virtue is the right ordering of things loved. Those who are in Christ love God above everything he has created. But an ideology takes something good out of God's creation, e.g., individual liberty, national solidarity or popular participation, and effectively makes a god out of it. This leads to a distorted vision that is fundamentally out of touch with the realities of God's world. Such a vision may endure for a while, but eventually people lose their faith in it and seek something better. One hopes they will find the true God who is already seeking them, but they are just as likely to pin their hopes on another ideological vision. In other words, people tend to move from one idol to another.

As a young man I visited what was then called Czechoslovakia while the communists were still in charge. I quickly discovered that virtually no one believed in the official ideology anymore. So when the end came in 1989, I was not all that surprised. As soon as the Soviet Union relaxed its grip on the country, the people went their own way. But with what have they replaced the old idols? New ones, sad to say. That is good enough reason to pray for wisdom to see and love the truth, not only for Czechs but also for Brazilians.

In your book, you propose a supra-ideological perspective on politics. But is that really possible? Might not your critics say that you're proposing a christian ideology, but an ideology just like the others?

Yes, they could easily say this. It is certainly true that Christians have followed these distorted ideological visions, despite their faith. Animated by an idolatrous nationalism, for example, the Afrikaners in South Africa established the destructive apartheid policy between 1948 and 1994. And they did so for what they thought were good christian reasons. But, as the Bible says (Matthew 7:20), by your fruits you will know them. Apartheid led to obvious injustices against nonwhite South Africans and effectively destabilized the entire society.

There has never been a society which has followed a biblical way in its entirety. But I believe that there are at least two Christian traditions that have articulated an understanding of what I have labelled societal pluriformity, which, at least in principle, avoids the distortions of ideological thinking and practice. These are the social teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, as set forth by Popes Leo XIII, Pius XI and John Paul II, and the notion of sovereignty in its own sphere as articulated by the great Dutch statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper. The advantage of these approaches is that they recognize that the state is the state, the church is the church, the family is the family, and so forth. In other words, they recognize that the various communities cannot be reduced to the wills of individuals or to arms of the state or nation. They accept the legitimate diversity of God's creation, including his human creatures, and work with it rather than against it. 

Our politicians in Brazil are almost all Marxists in some sense, even if they don't explicitly appeal to Karl Marx's ideas. Our public and private universities, even our schools, are dominated by Marxists and adherents of the Frankfurt School. How can Christians behave in this political context?

It is not easy to have influence in a hostile political environment. Ideally, it would be good for Christians to organize for political purposes. A christian political party? It's been tried in some countries, such as the Netherlands. But in a country like Brazil, I think the best approach for now is probably to build a culture animated by the biblical story of creation, fall and redemption in Jesus Christ. This would entail establishing and nurturing institutions to carry the story, to explore the implications of the story for the whole of life, and to see it handed down to the younger generation. This means that both education and evangelism must be top priorities for the christian community.

In response to marxist hegemony, a lot of groups have popularized the thinking of the Chicago and Austrian schools of economics, with men like Milton Friedman, Adam Smith, Ludwig von Mises and F. A. von Hayek. Is this a good thing for Brazil? Can Christians embrace this political view as a christian approach?

The virtue of the Chicago/Austrian school is that it understands in some fashion the limits of politics. There are many things that the state simply cannot do, and if it tries to do so, it risks doing harm. On the other hand, the Chicago/Austrian school is not very good at understanding the normative character of the state as a political community of citizens and government under the divine mandate to do public justice. Like Marxists, libertarian economists tend to be anti-political and assume that economics drives politics. But the reality is more complicated than that. Here in Canada, for example, we have the recurring issue of Québec separatism, which does not fit comfortably into either a marxist or Chicago/Austrian framework. The separation of Québec from the rest of Canada does not make much economic sense, yet it is a political reality in that people in the province genuinely believe in it.

Moreover, the Chicago/Austrian approach is really a variant of the larger liberal ideology, which privileges the individual and his wants above all else. Consistent liberals wish to expand individual freedoms at the expense of the communities of which these individuals are part. They try as much as possible to reduce communities to mere voluntary collections of individuals. And these collections are to be governed by John Stuart Mill's famous harm principle: “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”

This sounds good at first, but in the real world no society has ever operated on this principle. A society such as Brazil's or Canada's consists of multiple communities of all kinds, each of which has its own identity and standards for membership. There is a wonderful article by Douglas Farrow called “The Audacity of the State,” which shows how this libertarian principle, far from producing liberty, actually empowers the omni-competent state. This is something I address in my second book, We Answer to Another (which is only in English thus far). So, no, over the long term the Chicago/Austrian school is definitely not the solution. It simply tries to turn back the clock on the development of liberalism, but it does not break with the underlying assumptions of the larger liberal project.

It may be possible to make common cause with Chicago/Austrian libertarians on some issues, such as parental choice in education, but it would be most unwise to adopt their approach wholeheartedly. In the long term it will backfire on us.

In the end, do Christians need to abandon the identification with any political ideology to propose a true christian view of politics? In your book, you note that some conservatives have rejected ideologies. Should we then maybe propose a christian conservatism and be supra-ideological on this?

Here again we need to be cautious. Conservatism is too vague a label and can mean a variety of different things depending on context. If it simply means to stick with institutions and customs that have served us well over the course of history, then there is obviously much to be said for it. But traditions are multiple and contradict each other. We necessarily have to decide which traditions to maintain and which to modify or even abandon. And this means further that we need principles to enable us to choose wisely. This is what I try to articulate in my Political Visions and Illusions, especially in the final chapters.

We have a lot of protests taking place in many cities against our president, Dilma Rousseff. Her approval rate is now below 8%, the worst since the end of the military dictatorship. A lot of people are calling for her impeachment. Someone has called this a “Brazilian Spring,” which is, of course, a reference to the Arab Spring. What message can you bring to Brazilian Christians who are living through this moment in our history?

It is remarkable that Ms Rousseff has become so tremendously unpopular so soon after winning last autumn's presidential election. If this is indeed a “Brazilian Spring,” we can only hope and pray that it will not lead to the instability that has plagued so many Middle Eastern countries in the wake of the Arab Spring. As for a message to my Brazilian brothers and sisters, I suppose the place to begin is with the book of Daniel:

Blessed be the name of God forever and ever,
to whom belong wisdom and might.
He changes times and seasons;
he removes kings and sets up kings;
he gives wisdom to the wise
and knowledge to those who have understanding (2:20-21).

Moreover, a refrain repeated throughout Daniel tells us that, despite the troubles we see around us, God is still in charge: “His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and his dominion endures from generation to generation” (4:3, cf., 4:34, 6:26). This doesn't mean we don't have to work for justice in our political communities; we definitely must do so. But we do so as those whose ultimate hope is not in our fallible political leaders or even in our own purported wisdom, but in the God who has redeemed us in Jesus Christ.

15 August 2015

By what authority? The limits of Niebuhr's transformational Christianity

Apart from the Bible, I am reasonably certain that I have read H. Richard Niebuhr's Christ and Culture more times than any other single book. I read it first as an undergraduate and have kept coming back to it over the decades, as it lays out with great clarity the principal approaches that the various Christian traditions take to culture. Niebuhr's five types rang true to me and helped me as I was developing my own understanding of the role the Christian community has historically played in the shaping of culture. The categories are familiar to many of us, but for those who do not know them, they are worth repeating:
  • The adherents of “Christ against culture” view the Christian community as a permanent counterculture characterized by a set of principles at variance with the larger culture. Tertullian and Leo Tolstoy are the typical proponents of this view, as are, to update Niebuhr, Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder, Stanley Hauerwas and those who see themselves as articulating and living a prophetic witness from outside the secular polis.
  • The “Christ of culture” position identifies the cause of Christ with everything that is good in the larger culture, as judged by that same culture. Niebuhr's examples include Peter Abelard, modern liberal protestantism, gnosticism (in its extreme form), and the German protestant theologians Albrecht Ritschl and Friedrich Schleiermacher.
  • “Christ above culture” describes the synthetic approach of scholastic philosophy and theology. Proponents are neither for nor against the larger culture; they freely accept the philosophical paradigms of, say, Aristotle or the stoics, affirming that the latter can take us only so far in their use of unaided reason. Divine revelation is required to lead us the rest of the way—to truths that lie beyond what unaided human reason can grasp. Clement of Alexandria and Thomas Aquinas are the typical exemplars of this position.
  • The champions (if they can be called such) of “Christ and culture in paradox” approach the issue dualistically, holding in tension the demands of the Gospel and the imperatives of the larger culture. Christians are members of two kingdoms and owe loyalty to both. Certainly fidelity to the Gospel is paramount, but as sinful human beings we are still subject to the earthly powers that be, whose commands may nevertheless stand in considerable tension with the Gospel. According to Niebuhr, the Apostle Paul (though obviously not the Paul of the New Perspective), Marcion, Luther and Kierkegaard fit most comfortably into this category.
  • Finally, there is “Christ the transformer of culture,” whose followers aim at nothing less than the conversion of the world. For all their diversity, Niebuhr groups the author of John's Gospel, Augustine, Calvin, Wesley, Edwards and the English Christian Socialist F. D. Maurice in this category.
As a young man I found all this tremendously exciting. Niebuhr had come up with what seemed to me to be an enduring typology that served to aid us in understanding why, say, one group of Christians were conscientious objectors while another willingly fought in the military when called upon to do so, why Christians in one tradition might eschew public life while those in another might take it up with enthusiasm.

It didn't take me long to place myself in the transformational camp. Yes, of course, Christ would have us transform the culture in his name and for his glory. It took me much longer to see the potential drawbacks in Niebuhr's approach.

First, it turns out that nearly everyone ends up identifying with “Christ transforming culture,” no matter which tradition is their own. And why not? Who wants to be accused of being satisfied with the way things are when the world is so obviously off kilter in many ways? No one would willingly admit to parking their ultimate commitments to the side while participating in the workplace or public life. The lure of a holistic life is too strong for most of us. We want to live lives of integrity and consistency, if only for the sake of our own consciences.

Second, Niebuhr is unclear about the authority for his vaunted transformational Christianity. He is not necessarily claiming it to be more biblical than the alternatives because he quite openly divides the biblical witness among them. As Niebuhr sees it, Paul's epistles support the paradoxical position, while certain passages in the Gospels, e.g., “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's” (Matthew 22:21), are more characteristic of the “Christ above culture” position. Similarly, First John might be said to manifest an attitude of “Christ against culture.” But if the biblical witness is really as divided as Niebuhr believes it to be, on what grounds does he choose the transformational position? Since he makes no claim to having received a private revelation, we are left to wonder whether this transformation is little more than a personal preference on his part.

Third, if the moral basis for transformation is really this thin, it is not particularly clear why anyone would sign on to the project. Every ideological vision has transformative aspirations, whether its followers claim the liberal, socialist, nationalist, or conservative label. Yet in a democratic polity proponents must content themselves to accept means and procedures taking seriously the objections of opponents. This means that it is unlikely that all of our aspirations will ever be entirely fulfilled or even if, through some miracle, most are, they may be subject to reversal at some point in the future. Why? Because political debate is never ending. Coalitions shift, public opinion changes, and plans often fall afoul of unexpected contingencies.

Fourth, if we are unclear as to the authority for our transformative efforts, we run the risk of being transformed ourselves by the very culture we hope to change. In which case, there will be little difference between “Christ transforming culture” and “Christ of culture.” Critics of the notorious Jesus Seminar have observed that the “historical Jesus” its member-scholars claim to have uncovered bears an uncanny resemblance to themselves, namely, western and educated, with liberal democratic sentiments. If such a Christ were to transform our culture, would we be able to tell the difference? Not if he does no more than to parrot the conventional wisdom of a late modern worldview, a distinct possibility if we remain unclear as to the ultimate authority for our knowledge of Christ. Niebuhr himself recognized that the “Christ who speaks to me without authorities and witnesses is not an actual Christ; he is no Jesus Christ of history” (pp. 245–246).

Fifth and finally, although the hope of transformation is a heady one attractive to idealists and would-be social reformers, I myself have more recently been praying, not so much that we will be able to change the world for Christ, but that things will not get any worse than they are now. The many political illusions that have swept across the global landscape over the past two centuries have accomplished their own transformations, beginning with the French Revolution and leading up to the more recent sexual revolution. It is easy to lose heart in such a context, as evidenced in recent discussion amongst orthodox Christians of the “Benedict option” of communal withdrawal and regrouping.

This is perhaps where we need most to return to Augustine, whom Niebuhr placed in his transformational category. It may not be obvious that the Bishop of Hippo can be so easily claimed for this position, even if his own writings did contribute hugely to the creation of a new civilization in the wake of Rome's collapse. Nevertheless, he did recognize with particular clarity that the coexistence during the present age of the civitas Dei and the civitas terrena means that we cannot expect either city to score a definitive triumph prior to the return of Christ. This may be vexing to those of us impatient to see God's kingdom advance more quickly, but we may have to content ourselves with the biblical promise that, however strong the forces of evil may seem at the moment, they will not ultimately defeat his kingdom. Our own efforts may thus not amount to full transformation along Niebuhrian lines, but they will not be in vain either in so far as they keep alive a flicker of light in otherwise dark times—a light which, we are assured, will not be extinguished.

David T. Koyzis is the author of We Answer to Another: Authority, Office, and the Image of God and of Political Visions and Illusions.

11 August 2015

Liberalism and the church: how mere spirituality leaves the ego in charge

A century ago the Protestant churches in North America were divided between those who sought to defend the confessional integrity of their churches and those who believed that some form of compromise with the modern worldview was inevitable and desirable. The latter became known as liberal Protestants, and they would earn notoriety for denying cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith, such as the virgin birth, the divinity of Christ, and his resurrection from the dead. Typically they lauded the morality of the Gospels while denying anything that might conflict with a scientific approach to the world.

Yet liberalism in religion covers more than just the denial of the miraculous. A liberal Christian may be willing to affirm that Jesus literally walked on the water (Matt. 14:22–33) or rose from the dead, yet he still retains the right as an individual to accept only that which supports his own experience of faith. J. Gresham Machen, who was forced to combat liberalism within his own Presbyterian Church in the 1920s and 1930s, well understood the nature of this individualism and its impact on the larger Christian community. While liberals in his denomination claimed to accept the authority of Christ, it was a Christ remade in the image of the cultural prejudices of the day. According to Machen, “The real authority, for liberalism, can only be ‘the Christian consciousness’ or ‘Christian experience’ . . . truth can only be that which ‘helps’ the individual man.”

Of course, experience varies from one individual to the next, which is the principal difficulty with this approach. There can be no common faith professed by a community of Christians, each of whom retains for himself or herself the sovereign right to decide what he or she can manage to affirm within the larger deposit of the faith. From this comes the caricature of the eccentric and barely-believing cleric who crosses his fingers behind his back while reciting the Nicene Creed, confessing a shell of the faith while effectively denying its substance.

Is there a connection between this religious liberalism and political liberalism? There is indeed, and we see it already in the writings of the seventeenth-century English political philosopher John Locke. In his Second Treatise on Civil Government, Locke famously asserts that political authority is rooted in a social contract among individuals, who establish a civil magistrate to protect their life, liberty and property. If this civil magistrate fails to live up to the terms of this contract, the people may take up arms against him in what Locke euphemistically calls an “appeal to heaven.”

Locke did not limit this social contract to the state but applied it to the institutional church as well. In his Letter Concerning Toleration, Locke puts forth his own definition of the Church: “A church, then, I take to be a voluntary society of men, joining themselves together of their own accord in order to the public worshipping of God in such manner as they judge acceptable to Him, and effectual to the salvation of their souls.” While there are undoubtedly many Christians, especially those in the free-church tradition, who would implicitly agree with Locke's definition, the mainstream of the Christian tradition has viewed the Church as the covenant community of those who are called to belong to Jesus Christ, who is its savior and head.

Moreover, the gathered church, as distinct from the body of Christ which is more encompassing, has been generally recognized to be an authoritative institution with the power to bind and loose on earth (Matt. 16:19, 18:18). As such it is more than the aggregate of its members but is a divinely-ordained vessel bearing the Gospel to the world and especially to those who are in Christ.

Tellingly, the voluntaristic ecclesiology of liberalism is by no means limited to liberal Protestant denominations here in North America. Even evangelical churches claiming faithfulness to the Bible implicitly communicate to their members that their own expressed needs are sovereign and strive to meet them above all else. Drawing on a consumer model, such congregations will hold multiple and different styles of worship services each Sunday to appeal to the varying liturgical tastes of adherents. If this entails toning down confessional distinctives and mounting concert-style litur-tainment, so be it.

It is common these days to hear people claim to be spiritual but not religious. Mere spirituality leaves the ego in charge, and successful churches try their best to appeal to this ego. On the other hand, religion implies a certain binding (Latin: religare) of the person to a particular path of obedience not set by the person herself. Just as the state is called by God to an irrevocable task of doing public justice, so also is the institutional church called by God to proclaim the Gospel in its fullness, administer the sacraments and to ensure that its members are living up to their calling before the face of God, who has redeemed them in Jesus Christ.

David T. Koyzis is the author of the award-winning Political Visions and Illusions and We Answer to Another: Authority, Office, and the Image of God. He teaches politics at Redeemer University College. A slightly different version of this was published in Christian Courier.

06 August 2015

‘You're not really pro-life because . . .' On the supposed hypocrisy of the pro-life movement

Readers following facebook and other social media will likely have run across this quotation by Sister Joan Chittister posted repeatedly in the wake of the release of the notorious Planned Parenthood videos:
I do not believe that just because you’re opposed to abortion, that that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed. And why would I think that you don’t? Because you don’t want any tax money to go there. That’s not pro-life. That’s pro-birth. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is.
In recent days this sentiment has been echoed by many who apparently prefer to remain aloof from the controversy while implicitly appealing to the late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin's Seamless Garment, which attempted to create a consistent ethic placing abortion within a larger web of concerns, including capital punishment, warfare and poverty.

Bernardin's approach is one that I found deeply compelling three decades ago, and I thought it showed promise of breaking through the impasse between the two sides in the abortion debate. But this was not to be. In fact, since Bernardin's death in 1996, his consistent life ethic has been (ab)used more often to deprecate pro-lifers than to expand their apparently narrow horizons. Indeed, Sister Joan's remarks seem to be cited disproportionately by pro-choicers and opponents of the Republican Party.

But let's put aside for the moment the partisan purposes behind these citations and examine the inner logic of the statement itself. Is it true that one cannot be pro-life if one is not equally concerned for every item on the increasingly extensive laundry list with which detractors come up?

Consider this hypothetical case: While visiting the city pool one summer day, a young man manages to save a child from drowning after she accidentally falls into the deep end. The young man is commended for his brave deed by virtually everyone, except for a single contrarian who publicly challenges his heroic status. Where was his concern for the depth of water in the pool beforehand? Why wasn't he concerned that the child be taught to swim before being allowed to go to the pool? Where was he when the possibly incompetent lifeguards were being hired? If he had no previous concern for these factors, then his ostensibly heroic deed was really nothing of the sort. Why? Because he is addressing only symptoms when he should have been attempting to rectify the underlying causes of the near mishap. Thus his heroism is fatally compromised, and he is little more than a hypocrite.

Sound familiar? Let us return then to the pro-life movement. For the moment we can put aside the fact that many pro-lifers are deeply involved in establishing and maintaining crisis pregnancy centres and other services to assist mothers and their children through difficult circumstances. We might even grant, if only for the sake of argument, the pro-choicers' point that pro-lifers are not sufficiently attending to other legitimate issues, including those that might prompt a mother to end her pregnancy. Nevertheless, if we recognize the propriety of a division of labour in which people with limited energy and resources try to do some good while other people seek other goods, then those working to avert and perhaps eventually end abortion are still serving the cause of life and of justice. We might legitimately question their strategies, their methods and their timing, but in most cases the charge of hypocrisy simply will not stand up.

David T. Koyzis is the author of Political Visions and Illusions and We Answer to Another: Authority, Office, and the Image of God.

Cross posted at First Thoughts.

04 August 2015

In God's good time: awaiting the coming kingdom

The future's not ours to see, Que sera sera . . .
Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, 1956

J. Richard Middleton, A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015.

Christians have a complex relationship with the future. On the one hand, we recognize that the future is in God's hands. But on the other, we cannot see clearly what it holds for us. The historical-critical enterprise in modern biblical studies has taught us that the Old Testament prophets were not so much looking into the future as warning God's people of his judgement if they continued to abuse the poor, if they failed to let the land rest every seventh year and if they generally declined to obey his law. In other words, they were speaking truth to power, as the old expression has it, rather than predicting the future in the fashion of psychics or clairvoyants.

Nevertheless, if we take seriously the narrative structure of scripture, and if we recognize that the Bible tells a single story of redemption, then we cannot avoid the reality that this story must have an ending at some point in the future. This narrative is sometimes outlined in terms of three acts: creation, fall and redemption. Or sometimes four: creation, fall, redemption and consummation. The Bible does address the future, even as it discourages speculation on specifics (e.g., Matthew 24:36, Mark 13:32, Acts 1:6-7, 1 Thessalonians 5:1-2). We are promised that Jesus Christ will one day return to complete his inauguration of God's kingdom.

Within the discipline of theology, eschatology is the doctrine of the last things as taught by scripture. Writing in this subfield can be hazardous, because it tends to bring to the fore notions with a thin biblical basis. But Richard Middleton's new book is a welcome exception to this tendency. Indeed I would go so far as to say that it is one of the best books on the subject to appear in decades. What does Middleton do here and what is his unique contribution?

Middleton attempts to demonstrate from the biblical record that the true hope of salvation for the Christian is not a disembodied soul survival in heaven after death but the resurrection of the fully-embodied person at the return of Christ to rule over a renewed earth. Redemption in Christ, moreover, covers not just individual human beings but the whole created order, which, as Paul tells us, is groaning in anticipation of the final consummation (Romans 8:22). Middleton grapples with the relevant biblical texts as he works through his argument, and he does so in a way that is persuasive and honouring to scripture's status as God's word. In so doing, he comes up with some conclusions that many will find surprising. For example, the ancient Hebrews appear to have had no firm doctrine of the afterlife, as indicated in several Old Testament passages (e.g, Psalms 6:5, 30:9, 115:17, Isaiah 38:18). Apart from vague references to Sheol as the abode of the dead, Middleton tells us, “one thing is clear: there is no access to God after death” (p. 133).

Furthermore, he concludes that, while the Bible speaks of heaven as God's dwelling place, there is little evidence for the popular notion, often expressed from the pulpit during funerals, that the souls of the righteous join him there after death (pp. 211-237). Here is Middleton:

Having studied the relevant texts, I am surprised at how little evidence there actually is for an interim state in the New Testament, certainly less than I had expected. In the end, however, it does not matter. Authentic Christian hope does not depend on an intermediate state; nor do Christians need the Platonic notion of an immortal soul in order to guarantee personal continuity between present earthly existence and future resurrection life (p. 236).

But, some will protest, doesn't the apostle Paul express the desire to be absent from the body and present with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8)? He does, but it is clear from the first verses of this chapter that Paul is in fact speaking of the final resurrected body in the redeemed earth. Does this mean there is no interim or intermediate state between death and resurrection? Possibly, but once again it may not finally matter much. Even F. F. Bruce suggested that “in the consciousness of the departed believer there is no interval between dissolution and investiture, however long an interval might be measured by the calendar of earth-bound human history” (p. 236). In other words, it could be that, after I die to this life, the next thing I will be aware of is my resurrection at the last day, never having missed the believers I left behind because, by God's grace, they too will be present on that day. That is a comforting thought.

I myself am open to the possibility of an intermediate state, largely because I am reluctant to break with what appears to be the historic consensus of the church on the matter. At the same time, it is true that the ecumenical creeds profess a belief in “the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting,” and not explicitly in the immortality of the soul. Furthermore, it is also true that belief in resurrection requires considerably more effort than does mere immortality. After all, the ancient Greeks whom Paul encountered in Athens had no difficulty with the latter concept, as they would have known it from Plato's writings, but they scoffed at the resurrection (Acts 17:32). Indeed our confidence is not just that we will survive death in disembodied form but that God himself will miraculously intervene to bring us back to life perhaps aeons after our bodies have dissolved into the earth. And that, to be blunt, is simply hard to accept. Yet this is what God has promised us in his word.

This is such a marvellous book that I am reluctant to point to weaknesses, but they do come towards the very end. In his final chapter, “The Challenge of the Kingdom,” Middleton warns of the dangers of combining two types of dualisms, namely, that between sacred and secular, and that between “us” and “them.” Unfortunately, because he discusses this rather too quickly and superficially, the relationship between the two dualisms may not be obvious to the reader. Furthermore, Middleton makes a derogatory, and to my mind wholly unnecessary, comment on the Tea Party movement in the United States (pp. 279-280), charging that its followers “are basically upset at the perceived loss of their own privilege; they are not angered by the injustice shown to others, especially not others who are different from them.” I am no fan of the Tea Party, whose understanding of the task of the state is severely deficient and which errs in assuming one can combat a decadent late liberalism by recovering an earlier form of the liberal project. Nevertheless, adherents are not wrong to point to the dangers of an overweening state, something which has taken on idolatrous proportions in so much of the world. Middleton similarly dismisses the so-called culture wars: “We need to extricate ourselves from these wars, which are predicated on an oppositional dualism of 'us versus them' (or 'in-group versus out-group'), since this dualism is antithetical to the gospel of the kingdom” (p. 280). Once again the connections are far from obvious in this statement. Another, and almost certainly fairer, view of the matter can be found in J. D. Flynn's “The One and Only Culture War.”

Nevertheless, despite these deficiencies, Middleton is correct to point to the link between eschatology and ethics. If we think we are on our way out of the earth to live eternally in an ethereal heavenly realm, that will have definite implications for how we treat the earth in the present. If it is ultimately to be destroyed and is destined to be discarded like an empty milk carton, then we can apparently abuse it with impunity, because, after all, God is preparing another place for us elsewhere. This, however, is not consistent with the biblical witness. “The earth is the LORD's and the fulness thereof, the world and all who dwell therein” (Psalm 24:1). Furthermore, “God so loved the world” (John 3:16) and intends to save his good creation from the power of sin and death. Our salvation has not yet arrived, but we await it patiently, confident that God's purposes will be worked out “on earth as it is in heaven.” For that we can rightly thank God.

03 April 2015

Magna Carta at 800

It doesn’t read like a constitutional document. It contains odd provisions like, “All fish-weirs [fish traps] shall henceforth be entirely removed from the Thames and the Medway and throughout all England except along the sea-coasts.” It wasn’t formulated by a meeting of political leaders intending to establish constitutional government but was drafted in the wake of battle. Nevertheless, Magna Carta, whose eight-hundredth anniversary we observe this year, has come to be considered a seminal document in the constitutional history of the English-speaking peoples, including Americans.

Read the entire article here.

18 March 2015

On Not Accepting the Tyranny of the Possible: Twenty-five Years Post-Communism

 Although I lived my first thirty-five years during the Cold War, I had only one unforgettable opportunity to visit a communist country while communism was still in some fashion a going concern. In November 1976 I travelled with a student group to Prague in what was then still communist-ruled Czechoslovakia. November happened to be Soviet-Czechoslovak Friendship Month, in commemoration of the 1917 Revolution, and the weather during our visit was cold and overcast. Prague I found to be a stunningly beautiful city, a fourteenth-century jewel largely untouched by the world wars but blighted by the Stalinist architecture that had risen at its periphery in the years since 1948.

We spent only two weeks there, but that was enough for me to get a feel for the city and for the people living under what was obviously an unwanted régime. The Prague Spring was not even a decade in the past, and the Warsaw Pact invasion that ended this brief experiment in “socialism with a human face” had occurred only eight years earlier. Our group was granted unprecedented access to places that would not have been on the normal tourist itinerary. We visited two factories, a state-controlled farm, the Foreign Ministry, the Terezin (Theresienstadt) concentration camp, and the site of Lidice, a village obliterated by the Nazi occupation forces in retaliation for the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, Reichsprotektor of Bohemia and Moravia. There are many stories worth telling about this visit, including a potentially embarrassing question posed by one of our group to a kindly Foreign Ministry official. But one episode in particular stands out for me.

I was in the Old Town Square trying to figure out a way to get into a rather large church that appeared to be surrounded on all sides by smaller buildings. (I can no longer trust my memory so many decades later, but I think it may have been the Church of Our Lady Before Týn.) At this point a man came up to me and started talking to me in German, a language still familiar to many older people who had grown up under the Habsburg dual monarchy. We quickly switched to English, and he offered to buy any foreign currency I might have for twice the official exchange rate, something that was technically illegal but to which the authorities appeared to turn a blind eye.

I inquired as to how I might get into that church, and he was kind enough to take me inside. While there he began to talk politics, which surprised and unnerved me. At the time police and military personnel were ubiquitous, contributing to the feel of an occupied city. Yet this man seemed to have no fear of their presence. He told me quite openly that one day they would kick out Leonid Brezhnev and the Russians, and bring back Alexander Dubček, demoted architect of the Prague Spring. The man made no effort to whisper, and his voice echoed inside the sanctuary. Other people were milling about, but they paid no attention to him.

I glanced about nervously, expecting at any moment that we might be accosted by the police. But nothing happened. Nothing at all. That's when it hit me: no one actually believed the official ideology anymore. People were keeping their heads down, going through the motions of living day-to-day under an ostensibly liberating ideology, yet anticipating the day when the régime would end.

Just under two years later Karol Józef Wojtyła became Pope John Paul II, and soon thereafter the independent Solidarity trade union burst onto the scene in Poland, beginning the process of communism's slow unraveling. Thirteen years after my visit, the Velvet Revolution would bring down the communist government in Prague, thus contributing to the end of what had appeared to be a permanent division of Europe.

Last evening I was at Tyndale University College in Toronto for a Convivium-sponsored conversation between Fr. Raymond de Souza and George Weigel, the Pope's biographer. Among other things, Weigel told us that John Paul II refused to accept “the tyranny of the possible.” He never accepted as permanent the Berlin Wall and the ideological division of Europe, which did indeed end a quarter of a century ago. I cannot claim any special prescience in advance of these events, but my youthful experience in Prague had prepared me for the likelihood that, when the Soviet Union relaxed its grip on its East European clients, they would rid themselves of their rulers sooner rather than later.

The collapse of communism offered the global Christian community a brief respite from the adversities engendered by an atheistic political illusion with global pretensions. Now we face new challenges, including Islamist terrorism and a radical secularism impatient with our refusal to accede to the new cultural norms claiming to liberate the autonomous individual from traditional moral constraints. Yet, as Weigel reminded us last evening, John Paul II firmly believed that we need fear only thoughtlessness and lack of courage. Just as Czechs and Slovaks maintained patience in the face of tyranny for four decades, we ourselves have reason to expect that current trends, however disheartening in the short term, will not endure forever. We can affirm with the prophet Daniel that God's “kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and his dominion is from generation to generation” (4:3).

David T. Koyzis is the author of Political Visions and Illusions and We Answer to Another: Authority, Office, and the Image of God. He teaches politics at Redeemer University College in Canada. This is cross-posted at First Thoughts.


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can be contacted at: dkoyzis@redeemer.ca