The Spirituality of the Church

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.

Though he is rarely cited as an exponent of the teaching, in 1861 Hodge articulated a view of the church’s spiritual purpose and means that, though shorter, rivaled anything James Henley Thornwell or Robert Lewis Dabney could have written. Hodge was writing in response to the Spring Resolutions adopted by the General Assembly of the Old School Presbyterian Church that not only split the denomination along regional lines but also declared that the Presbyterian Church had an obligation to "promote and perpetuate" the integrity of the United States and the federal government. Hodge, however, denied that the church had any duty to take sides in the emerging struggle between the North and South. He wrote, "the state has no authority in matters purely spiritual and that the church [has] no authority in matters purely secular or civil." To be sure, in some cases their spheres of responsibility overlapped. Still, "the two institutions are distinct, and their respective duties are different." To substantiate this point Hodge went on to quote from the Confession of Faith, chapter thirty-one, which states that synods and councils must handle only ecclesiastical, as opposed to civil, matters. He then added an explanation that showed his understanding of the point germane to the doctrine of the Spirituality of the Church, namely, the extent and nature of church power. "The church can only exercise her power in enforcing the word of God, in approving what it commands, and condemning what it forbids," Hodge wrote. "A man, in the exercise of his liberty as to things indifferent, may be justly amenable to the laws of the land; and he may incur great guilt in the sight of God, but he cannot be brought under the censure of the church."

Hodge’s political sympathies were clearly with the Union. In 1865 he would weep at the news of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. Still, he recognized that in the political questions surrounding the war between the North and the South — that is, whether the federal government or the states were ultimately sovereign — the church had no warrant from Scripture to take sides or to compel her members to do so. Christians must be obedient to the government and the church had a duty to teach and encourage such obedience. But the Bible did not settle the matter of the states versus the federal government. "The question," Hodge wrote, "is, whether the allegiance of our citizens is primarily to the State or to the Union? However clear our own convictions of the correctness of this decision may be, or however deeply we may be impressed with its importance, yet it is not a question which this Assembly has a right to decide." To take sides in this matter, Hodge concluded, was tantamount to singing the "Star Spangled Banner" at the Lord’s Supper.

Four years later Hodge would continue to assert the Spirituality of the Church, even though the political issue that had provoked the war between North and South had been settled at Appomattox. He asserted that the power of the courts of the church was precisely circumscribed by the Bible. They derived "all their authority" from Scripture and could "rightly claim nothing but what is therein granted." This meant that as church courts they had "nothing to do with matters of commerce, agriculture, or the fine arts, nor with the affairs of the state." Their proper sphere was the "conduct of public worship" and the "administration of God’s house." But with secular affairs they had "nothing to do."

The distinction between secular affairs and church matters might strike some Presbyterians as a departure from the Reformed world-and-life view that regards all aspects of life as having religious significance. Yet, the doctrine of Spirituality of the Church, as understood and articulated by Hodge is nothing more than a restatement of what Reformed theologians and churchmen have confessed about the nature and ministry of the visible church. Though this doctrine could look like a Presbyterian brief for the separation of church and state, it also meant that the church is a spiritual institution with a spiritual task and spiritual means for executing that task. Here it is significant to remember what John Calvin wrote about the lordship and kingdom of Christ. The Geneva reformer was no stranger to the kind of dichotomy between churchly and secular concerns implied by the Spirituality of the Church. For instance, in the Institutes at the beginning of his discussion of the state, Calvin clearly distinguishes between the civil and ecclesiastical spheres. The civil realm is concerned with "merely civil or external justice" while the church "rules over the soul or the inner man, and concerns itself with eternal life." Calvin goes on to say it is a "Judaic folly" not to recognize that "the spiritual kingdom of Christ and civil government are things far removed from one another." A similar understanding of the Spirituality of the Church appears in Calvin’s description of Christ’s office as king, which he writes is strictly "spiritual in nature" (Institutes, II.xv.3). Calvin adds that Christ’s kingdom is "not earthly or carnal and hence subject to corruption, but spiritual" and because of that "lifts us up even to eternal life"(II.xv.4).

Proponents of the Reformed world-and-life view may be dubious of such statements in part because of the widely accepted notion, running from Max Weber to H. Richard Niebuhr, of the Reformed tradition’s this worldly spirituality and transformationist vision of culture. But a closer reading of Calvinist piety, such as that found in that portion of the Institutes, repackaged as the Golden Booklet of the Christian Life, suggests that Reformed spirituality can sound just as other-worldly as that of any fundamentalist. In other words, the Presbyterians who articulated the Spirituality of the Church may not have been betrayers of the Reformed tradition if they saw a fairly sizeable gap between things civil and ecclesiastical or between matters temporal and eternal. Nevertheless, showing some precedent for the doctrine of the Spirituality of the Church does not automatically make the teaching attractive. For example, it is still associated with the southern Presbyterian Church’s defense of slavery and more generally with Christian abdication of social responsibility. Yet, the other side of nineteenth-century Presbyterianism, New School Presbyterians who opposed the Spirituality of the Church in favor of the church’s activism, do not in hindsight look much better in their application of Christianity to social involvement. Their reliance upon Christian teaching about the magistrate to support the Union and to baptize the agenda of the Republican Party suffers just as much from self-interest and partisan politics as did the southern Presbyterian defense of slavery. So even though we should concede that the Spirituality of the Church has been a doctrine subject to abuse, so has the notion of an activist Reformed-world-and-life view. We might even go so far as to argue that narrowing the arena of Christ’s kingdom to the church was much healthier than using Christ’s name to endorse specific political measures. In other words, it is much more fitting (because biblical) to identify the cause of Christ with keys of the kingdom (preaching and discipline) than with the platform of the Republican Party.

Thus, for the same reason that some look to the Lutheran notion of two kingdoms as a way to escape civil religion, so the Reformed doctrine of the Spirituality of the Church provides relief from all efforts to politicize the faith, from placing American flags at the front of the church to singing the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" during the Sunday service closest to Independence Day. Presbyterians and Reformed do not have to go to Lutheran sources to justify a restrained and transcendent understanding of the nature and work of the visible church. The Spirituality of the Church is the Reformed way of keeping religion and politics separate and of letting the church be the church. As the Lutheran sociologist, Peter Berger, has written, neither the left’s nor the right’s political agenda "belongs in the pulpit, in the liturgy, or in any statements that claim to have the authority of the Gospel. Any cultural or political agenda is a manifestation of ‘works-righteousness’ and ipso facto an act of apostasy." Presbyterians should not have needed a Lutheran to tell them that. To the extent that their forefathers in the faith taught and expounded the Spirituality of the Church, they already knew it.

D. G. Hart and John Muether are coauthors of Fighting the Good Fight, A Brief History of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Both are ruling elders in the OPC—Mr. Hart at Calvary OPC, Glenside, PA and Mr. Muether in Lake Sherwood OPC in Orlando, FL.