Between the Councils of Nicea and Chalcedon there were 126 years—years that were fraught with contentious debate within the church over essential Christian doctrines. We tend to forget that now as those debates have become so remote that we don’t fully appreciate how they played out in that long century between those two pivotal councils.
I was thinking about that the other day as I thought about the ongoing debate about the church’s place (and the place of individual Christians and Christian families) in the post-Christendom west. We are now 131 years out from the release of Rerum Novarum and 124 years out from Kuyper’s Stone Lectures at Princeton.
If you propose Leo XIII and Kuyper as the respective fathers of Catholic and Calvinist social criticism in the post-Christendom era, which seems reasonable enough to me, then we are still pretty early in that debate, historically speaking. And when you factor in exactly how disastrous the 20th century was—two world wars, the holocaust, Stalin’s gulags, Mao’s cultural revolution, plus many lesser known genocides—you have to think that such events would affect our ability to conduct this ongoing and important debate within the church, likely slowing our ability to discuss these issues well. There are also other outside influences that have likely stunted this debate: the institutional fragmentation of the western church, the technological revolution brought about by digital technology, etc.
In particular, I think there’s a tendency amongst many right now to say that it simply isn’t possible to have a society that is a) officially Christian but not sectarian in the way of the integralists or theonomists, and b) able to invoke Christianity as the basis for preserving many classical liberal rights. (This despite the fact that some emerging Christian nations in sub-Saharan Africa seem to be attempting precisely this.)
It seems to me that the dominant positions right now in western Christian debate over these matters are either a sectarian solution that is, frankly, a fantasy or some form of political atheism that seeks a neutral public square either to preserve the post-war liberal order or adopt the new progressive social regime, all while keeping the church as a muted, quiet participant in society, but one with little role to play in politics proper.
I think that’s a false choice. And a large part of why I’m not inclined to give up on what you might call a modified liberal Christendom is precisely because I think debates within the church take time, implementing the widely accepted conclusions of those debates takes more time, and ultimately we are always battling against the unhappy effects of sin, which further inhibits our efforts to believe true things and do good things. But none of those factors, to me, are sufficient grounds for abandoning the goal of a non-sectarian Christendom.