An accidental blog

"If God is sovereign, then his lordship must extend over all of life, and it cannot be restricted to the walls of the church or within the Christian orbit." Abraham Kuyper Common Grace 1.1.

Sunday, 28 May 2017

Roy Clouser on Genesis, creation and natural theology

Roy Clouser recently gave a series of talks in the Washington DC area. It's well worth taking the time to watch these:





Saturday, 13 May 2017

An interview with Philip Shadd

Philip Shadd is the author of the recently published Understanding Legitimacy, reviewed here. He is a Research Associate at the CPRSE  at the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto.

Who or what are your main influences?

I think there've been two main influences in my work, including this book. The first is my Christian faith and church upbringing. The questions that interest me most are those that intersect with religious concerns. The second is my secular academic training. My undergraduate and graduate degrees were completed at public, secular universities, and in philosophy departments that were similarly secular. I cut my teeth not on Christian philosophy, but mainstream, non-religious philosophy. Both influences are clearly reflected in the book.


How did the book come about?

It came about in two phases. The first was the writing of my doctoral thesis. When determining my thesis topic, I knew I wanted to critique the political theory of John Rawls (1921-2002) - the leading Anglophone political theorist of the 20th century - from a religious perspective. In successive iterations of my thesis proposal, my supervisor encouraged me to increasingly focus on the religious dimension of the project, as in his view it was the project's religious dimension that was most unique. Hence my book's unabashed appeal to political theology. The second phase was a significant set of revisions that narrowed the work's focus from Reformed political thought more broadly to specifically neo-Calvinist thought. I was greatly helped in this shift by my affiliation as a Research Associate at the Institute for Christian Studies (ICS, Toronto, Canada), a bastion of neo-Calvinism in North American.

Why is the issue of legitimacy so important? (Or at least important enough to write a book on it!)

While the book is largely critical of Rawls' conception of legitimacy, here I agree with him: legitimacy is important because of the pluralism which marks contemporary liberal democracies. This pluralism raises an existential question for many citizens, especially those whose beliefs lie outside the mainstream: Why ought I respect a government that doesn't endorse my worldview? Similarly, what laws can such a government legitimately implement, and on what grounds? In short, the issue of legitimacy is basically this: what makes a government legitimate - that is, justified in enforcing laws and deserving of the respect and support of citizens - even if it's imperfect?

Why did you choose John Rawls as a discussion partner?

It's hard to overstate the influence of Rawls to contemporary Anglo-American philosophy. Among the other things, he set the terms of the contemporary philosophical debate over legitimacy with his book Political Liberalism. You can't really talk philosophically about legitimacy without talking about Rawls. Additionally, though, Rawls made a special effort to address the concerns of religionists. I don't think you can say he was sympathetic to religion, but he at least appreciated the fact that religious beliefs would present a special obstacle for many in accepting his explanation of legitimacy. Whether or not he sufficiently and cogently addresses religious concerns, though, is another question.

What can Christians learn from his approach?

Many things, but perhaps more than anything, I believe Rawls gives Christians reason to pause when tempted to pass any legislation on religious grounds. Does he categorically show that governments should be religiously neutral? No. Even if he thinks he does, I don't think he does, and as neo-Calvinists would be quick to point out, a religiously neutral government is an illusion. But Rawls issues a powerful call - one that will resonate with sentiments of procedural fairness and equal liberty shared by secular and religious persons alike - to justify laws in ways that are as impartial as possible, even if full impartiality is both impossible and undesirable.

How did you come across the neo-Calvinist approach?

Unwittingly, gradually, and relatively late. Before I was aware of neo-Calvinism or its close ties with the Christian Reformed church, I became involved in Bible studies run by Christian Reformed campus chaplaincies which, at the time, I simply attended as Bible studies. In my doctoral studies, I became acquainted with the work of Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920), a theorist and Christian who helped give voice to my twin concerns of politics and faith. It wasn't really until my affiliation with ICS, though, that I became fully immersed in the neo-Calvinist tradition of social thought, of which Kuyper is a founding figure.   

What do you see as the strength of the neo-Calvinist position?

In terms of its content, one of the most striking features of neo-Calvinism is its ability to reconcile two convictions that might seem in tension with one another: principled church-state separation and uncompromising Christian commitment. In large part it accomplishes this by its well-known doctrine of sphere sovereignty. This idea is basically that, by divine design, society is broken into several spheres of activity, each of which is sovereign within its own sphere. Among these distinct spheres are church and state. 
Aside from its content, neo-Calvinism is impressive for its intellectual pedigree. Unlike some evangelical Christian traditions which lack a strong intellectual component, neo-Calvinism has been, and continues to be at places such as ICS, rigorously and academically developed as a system of thought.  

What about its weaknesses?

The concept of sphere sovereignty is a profound and fecund insight. Two related challenges it faces, though, are how to square it with the now widespread expectation of governments that provide a wide array of social services and how to affirm sphere sovereignty while avoiding libertarianism. Many contemporary neo-Calvinists, it seems to me, share the sentiments that modern governments should offer such services and should go far beyond the minimal state of libertarianism. This doesn't necessarily call for a rejection of sphere sovereignty, but for a nuanced, sophisticated and reformulated version of it. Another major challenge for neo-Calvinism is how to articulate its insights in a way that is accessible and persuasive to secular persons. Why think that society is designed to have distinct spheres if you reject the very notion of a designer? This doesn't necessarily represent a weakness, but at least a challenge.  

In the book you often stress Kuyper’s point that political power is only necessary ‘by reason of sin’. If there had been no sin would there still be the need for politics and government? Or to put it another way is politics creational?

As I note in the book, whether politics would be needed in the absence of sin is actually a point of disagreement amongst neo-Calvinists. Kuyper is the founder of neo-Calvinism, and, for his part, thought government superfluous without sin. But contemporary neo-Calvinists, such as Jonathan Chaplin, seem to better appreciate that governments promote the public good in many ways that don't involve punishing wrongdoing and aren't predicated upon the presence of sin - Chaplin gives the example of regulating currency. I don't think these two viewpoints necessarily represent a disagreement as much as simply different points of emphasis. For while I take it that states do, and ought to, play many coordinating roles that aren't necessitated by sin, in the world as it is - postlapsarian as it is - national security and dealing with crime are certainly among the most important, if not the single most important, responsibility of governments. 

Closely related to the previous question: Will there be politics on the new earth?

Yes, I certainly believe there will be, though in the absence of sin politics will look different than it does now. One reason for thinking this is the various coordinating roles played by governments even where no sin is involved. Another reason is Scripture. Passages such as Revelation 5:10, where it is said that the redeemed will "reign" on the earth, suggest our activities on the new earth will include politics. Although one must hold one's interpretation of such passages with an open hand, I do think they're suggestive.

Are there any other projects in the pipeline?

My current research focuses on the issue of institutional conscientious objection. It is occasioned by the 2015 Supreme Court of Canada ruling that doctors should be allowed to provide medical assistance in dying. While the ruling leaves open the possibility of objecting doctors having a right of refusal, a more controversial question raised is this: Can institutions, and not just individual doctors, claim conscientious objector status? Would-be claimants might include Catholic and Mennonite hospitals. One of the distinctive attributes of neo-Calvinism, which flows out of the idea of sphere sovereignty, is its emphasis on institutions and not just individuals. Hence, even if not obvious, my previous research informs and inspires my current research.    

What do you do for fun?

I'm blessed with a fantastic and beautiful wife, Jessica, the love of my life. We have three wonderful little children, all under 5. In addition to spending time with my wife and kids, I enjoy our church and am a fan of pretty much all things sport.



Saturday, 6 May 2017

A new heaven and new earth - Richard Middleton at Trinity College, Bristol

J. Richard Middleton at Trinity College 4 May 2017.
 

The lecture covered the full gamut of scripture from Genesis to Revelation; from creation to eschaton. The tour was organised by ThinkingFaith Network.

Below are a few selections from my copious notes taken at the time (they obviously don’t fully represent all that Richard said and at times may have inadvertently misrepresented him).

Starting with creation and looking at Proverbs 3, 24 and Job 38 he showed that the cosmos, the creation was seen as a building. Heaven is also part of creation. Although the sky/ heaven was seen as transcendent and as a symbol of God’s place it is also part of the created cosmos. This view is contrary to much of modern theology that sees heaven as uncreated. God indwells the cosmos. 

Earth is part of the human realm (Ps 115:16). The entire creation is called to worship. In Genesis we have a macrocosmic tabernacle. All of creation is made to worship God. We have a far too anthropocentric view of worship. Stars, mountains, …  are created to worship God. How do they do that? By being mountains, by being stars … How are humans to worship? By being humans! 

Part of being human is to transform our environment. This is idea captured in what is called the cultural mandate. The creation was described as very good - but not perfect! Contra Augustine creation was not instantaneous, but rather a process: a shaping of the wild waste into cosmic dwelling. There was an expectation that humans actualize the God-given potential. This is our Royal task, our sacred calling. 

This idea turns on its head the Ancient Near Eastern idea of kings and humanity. The cosmos was seen as a building but the king as God’s representative was the builder.


This worldview is subverted by the scriptures:



There is not an elite that is the image or representative of God but the entire human race are all created in the image of God. The Bible radically democratises/ universalises the image of God. Israel is the only known nation without a king (unit 11th century)! All of the nation is to be a royal priesthood, to bring mediation, blessing to all. 

Humanity is God’s prism – creation is refracted into cultural activities. However, sin blocked that developmental task. God’s presence has not filled the earth yet. But he has not given up on his creation: there is cosmic redemption. The scope of salvation in the New Testament is comprehensive. Five key biblical texts give ample evidence of this – the table is a summary:



Salvation in the New Testament is seen as restorative, comprehensive and holistic. 
The ‘world’ in John 3:16 is meant to be seen in the most comprehensive sense possible. 

1 Cor 15 – ‘so that God may be all in all’.
In Revelation 21 we have the removal of the curse, a reversal of Genesis 3:17 in Revelation 22 the throne is shifted to earth.  
This renewal of all things changes everything. All of life! 


“God doesn’t make junk; and God doesn’t junk what he makes.”



Much of the lecture was drawn from material in two of Richard's recent books:

 
The Liberating Image. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2005
A New Heaven and a New Earth. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014 - see my review here



Saturday, 22 April 2017

Review of The Evangelical Age of Ingenuity in Industrial Britain by Stubenrauch

The Evangelical Age of Ingenuity in Industrial Britain
Joseph Stubenrauch
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016
ISBN: 9780198783374
Hbk, 304pp, £65.00

Publisher’s website here


British evangelicalism is now a flourishing area of research - thanks largely to David Bebbington’s seminal work and efforts. Bebbington’s quadrilateral has dominated the research area. Stubenrach’s work is an important addition - it covers in more detail areas that have previously been covered by large brushes strokes. Bebbington identified the influence of Romanticism and the Enlightenment on evangelicalism. Stubenrauch develops this idea identifying areas in which Romanticism had an impact of Evangelicalism and vice versa:

‘ … Evangelicals must be understood as contributing to the development of Romanticism, rather than being influenced by it in the decades after its heyday’ (98).

Not only that but Stubenrauch shows the almost symbiotic relationship between evangelicalism and modernity. In particular, he focuses on the work of the Religious Tract Society (RTS).

In his introduction he expands Bebbington’s quadrilateral into a pentagon with the addition of the workings of the Holy Spirit as an additional vertex; sadly, this aspect is not developed in the rest of the book.  But what he does do in keeping with the five point theme is look at the roles of urbanisation, mass production, literacy, mobility, and consumerism. He poses the fascinating question: was evangelicalism a component part of modernity? His aim is to examine the role of evangelicals in the industrial age and he does this through the five areas mentioned.

In chapter 1 he develops another five points: agency, instrumentality, interdenominalisation, postmillennial optimism, and sentimentalism. All of which shaped Evangelicalism from the period of the French Revolution to the Great Exhibition in 1851. The sentimentalism is an influence of Romanticism. This can be seen in the work of Revd Legh Richmond (1772–1827)  and in particular in his tract The Dairyman’s Daughter. [1] The 52-page book told the story of the religious experience of Elizabeth Wallbridge on the Isle of Wight. The book was published by the Religious Tract Society (RTS) as tract No 9 in 1825, which was later part of a book called Annals of the Poor. This and similar material is the focus of Chapter 2. Richmond’s work led to Christian tourism around the Isle of Wight and the visiting of gravestones as a devotional activity. This rise in Christian sentimentality was in part attributed to the rejection of Calvinism (89). The RTS and others were able to capitalise on this sentimentalism by producing numerous souvenirs, miniature books, tracts, guidebooks, travellers accounts, jigsaw and stereoscopic photographs. As Stubenrauch puts it:

‘Evangelical sentimentalism did not just have affinities with consumerism; its desires spurred the creation of actual products that furthered this religious mode’ (93).

Chapter 3, Hawking the Gospel’, looks in more detail at the role of the RTS and Stubenrauch makes good use of, as yet underutilised, primary sources as such as RTS executive committee minutes. Although spreading the gospel was primary the RTS weren’t unaware of the economic aspects. Stubenrauch notes:

‘Religious commitment and the logic of “means” overlapped with commercial strategy …’ (115).

Design, paper quality, price were all considered in their production of tracts and they saw the distribution of tracts by the hawkers who made a small profit from them, as a means of social betterment. The RTS in a way were commercial entrepreneurs.

Urbanisation and social mobility have been seen as some of the causes of secularisation, but here, in Chapter 4, Stubenrauch shows that the RTS embraced them both as a means of distributing their tracts. 

Chapter 5, ‘Faithful Monitors’ examines the numerous religious decorations produced, these included biblical texts on pottery, wall maps, and wall hangings. Clergy it seemed became the ‘home decoration gurus’ of their time! 

The final chapter looks at Evangelical responses to the Great Exhibition. What is surprising is the almost exclusive endorsement of it. It was seen not as worship of the idol of progress, but as an anticipation of the day when the earth would be full of the knowledge of the Lord, and as a means of spreading the gospel. This shows how evangelicals of their time adopted a pragmatic instrumental means approach to the gospel. The Evangelical Magazine even accused those who described it as a Babel as being ‘chargeable with the grossest calumny’ (239). The Revd J.A. Emerton even compared it to the New Jerusalem! 

The strengths of the book are that it draws upon important primary sources and it shows the relationship of evangelicalism with Romanticism and modernity. An approach that seems to be one of accommodation.



[1] The Dairyman's Daughter can be read here http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/19615

Contents
Introduction: The Evangelical Revolution
1: Wise in Their Generation : Evangelical Ingenuity and Enterprise
2: Leaves of Edification : Material Means and Evangelical Sentimentalism in Practice
3: Hawking the Gospel: Evangelical Means in the Marketplace
4: Sprung up like the gas lights : Urbanization, Trade Networks, and Mobility
5: Faithful Monitors: Religion on the Walls
6: The Crystal Jerusalem: Evangelical Methodology and the Great Exhibition
Conclusion
Bibliography






Saturday, 15 April 2017

An interview with John Van Sloten

John Van Sloten's new book Every Job a Parable will be published in June. My review is here. I caught up with him and he kindly agreed to answer a few questions about the book.






Could you say a little about yourself, where you are from and where you are coming from and what you do?

I am a 55 year old Canadian who grew up near Toronto, studied architecture, became a land developer, had a spiritual awakening at 29, had a son with Down syndrome, went to seminary, planted a church in Calgary, was given a big new idea, (which was really a big old idea), and who has, ever since, been passionately unpacking that idea via my preaching, teaching and writing.


Which thinkers or resources have you found most helpful in your Christian walk?

15 years ago I sat in a Fuller Theological Seminary boardroom and spoke with Dr. Richard Mouw and Dr. Neal Plantinga about the idea of engaging general revelation as text; whether one even could do that and about how authoritative God’s word via creation really was. I’ve read everything these two have written and have been deeply formed by the worldview they espouse. Sitting in behind them (historically) were theologians John Calvin, Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck. I continue to be shaped by these reformed thinkers (and others who have been shaped by them). Comment Magazine and Books and Culture have also been big influences over the years.


How did the book Every Job a Parable come about? What was the catalyst for it?

As I was finishing up my first book, The Day Metallica Came to Church; Searching for the Everywhere God in Everything (Square Inch, 2010), my publisher Mark Rice planted the seed; suggesting I write a different kind of book on the topic of work, one that builds on the big view of revelation I’d been leaning into. At that same time the concept of jobs being parables was starting to break through in my preaching. While researching a sermon I planned to preach on a newly ‘discovered’ stress reducing mechanism in the brain, I noticed the passions and aptitudes of the neuroscientist I was interviewing; how she uniquely imaged God’s empirical mind. It felt like I could see a bit of God through her. 

Then, one Easter, I was contemplating the nature of resurrection and trying to imagine what it might have been like for the Father to raise his Son. This brought to mind the life resuscitating work of emergency department physicians. I then interviewed four ER doctors and asked them what it was like to bring someone back to life. Through their responses saw God’s urgent heart to save. This vocational awareness continued to grow for years. It dawned on me that our image bearing is very much borne out through the work we do. We are made in the image of a working God. God speaks our working lives. Our jobs are parables, spoken in, through and for Jesus.


In recent years a number of books on a Christian approach to work and vocation have been published, which is an encouraging trend. How does your book differ from others? 

I’d say the revelatory angle would be the big difference; that our jobs really are parables within which and through which God is speaking. They are vocational stories that we’re a part of; that we’re protagonists in. The parable of a person’s job has meaning because God is speaking it. And because God is speaking it, God can be known through it, in moments of flow, satisfaction, achievement, pushing though, or enduring. I think God made work to be a means by which we can experience him. In the book of Genesis God gave us a cultural mandate to fill the earth. Part of that filling included the tending of a garden… as Dr. Rich Mouw would say, somebody started raking. And that work was good. Even now, post-fall, work is good. And I firmly believe that we’ll have a lot of good work to do on the new heaven-on-earth when that time comes. And we’ll then know God through our work perfectly. The premise of Every Job a Parable is that our present day experiences of work can offer a foretaste of that one-day perfectly working world.


In the book, you mention icons - particularly the work of Andrei Rublev. Some Christians may be a little suspicious of icons. Could you say something about how you understand the use of icons and how they can provide insight?

Icons, for me, are things through which God speaks; like how God speaks through the bible, the lilies of the field, the nature of a supernova, or the corrective words of a parent. In a very real sense I believe that all that is can be iconic; can be something through which we see, hear or sense something of the nature of God. If the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins was right in asserting that “Christ plays in ten thousand places”, then I think it is reasonable to assume that Christ speaks ten thousand languages. Jesus speaks particle physics, impressionist brush stroke, shrewd management methods, good agricultural practice, knee surgeon and WalMart greeter. I know this is a bit mystical for some, but think about what Calvin said, that “All truth is inspired by the Holy Spirit”, and what Kuyper affirmed, that “The whole creation is nothing but the visible curtain behind which radiates the exalted working of [God’s] divine thinking.” (italics mine), and what Bavinck wrote, that “Revelation, while having its centre in the Person of Jesus Christ, in its periphery extends to the uttermost ends of creation. It does not stand isolated in nature and history, does not resemble an island in the ocean, nor a drop of oil upon water. With the whole of nature, with the whole of history, with the whole of humanity, with the family and society, with science and art it is intimately connected. The world itself rests on revelation; revelation is the presupposition, the foundation, the secret of all that exists in all its forms. The deeper science pushes its investigations, the more clearly it will discover that revelation underlies all created being. In every moment of time beats the pulse of eternity; every point in space is filled with the omnipresence of God; the finite is supported by the infinite, all becoming is rooted in being.” If these three had it right, then surely everything has iconic potential. I believe that those parts of the church that have specialized in icons have a lot to teach us reformed theological types. How can we hold such a high view of creation, revelation, and the Holy Spirit and not believe that God speaks in iconic ways through the things he’s made? Until I read Fr. Gabriel Bunge’s book on Rublev’s Holy Trinity, I had no idea how icons worked. In my book I took some of the concepts he outlined in relation to a painting and applied them to creation.

Could you say something about the term lectio vocatio which is one you use in the book. 

It’s kind of a play on the more common term lectio divina (a Benedictine practice of scriptural reading that aims to enhance communion with God). At the end of each chapter of EJAP are questions, exercises or stories that are designed to help the reader better orient themselves to God’s on the job presence. God is already there - in the stories of the bible and at everybody’s work. What might it look like to pay more attention, to have a better theology of God’s vocational presence, to listen for God’s work words like you listen for God’s scriptural words?  

You didn’t mention anything about undertakers or the unemployed in your book. How do those speak of God?

Ha! My editor at Navpress, David Zimmerman, made a similar observation in relation to those with disabilities. He asked me, “What about a person with Down syndrome?” (not knowing I had a 25 year old son with DS!). Big omission on my part! So I added a story about my son Edward to the book. And while unemployment is not dealt with in the book (nor is retirement) I did preach on the topic last year. And as for an undertaker… I haven't gotten to that vocation yet. Which is why I’m hoping this book will inspire ten thousand preachers to take up the exegesis of ten thousand jobs, so that the whole counsel of God’s vocational revelation can be proclaimed.

Are there any other projects in the pipeline?

Yes. I’m currently building a preaching course for Ambrose Seminary here in Calgary - ‘Preaching Science, Film, Sport, Music, Work, Art and Nature as Text’ - which will probably run next year (Spring 2018). I’m also working on a second Templeton Foundation grant - looking at the intersection of a scientist as parable and their field of study as icon. I’ve started a third book on the human body as text. To date I’ve preached sermons on the kidney, knee, neurons, hearing, epigenetics, wound healing, biological interdependence and more. You can view these sermons here. All of the vocation-based sermons that led to the writing of EJAP can also be watched here.  


What do you do for fun?
I love macro photography (seeing unseen worlds), recreating Rembrandt etchings (currently working on Christ at Emmaus), and going on long walkabouts and getting lost.


Friday, 14 April 2017

Every Job a Parable by John Van Sloten

Every Job a Parable
What Walmart Greeters, Nurses & Astronauts Tell Us About God
John Van Sloten
ISBN 978-1-63146-548-2
Nav Press
Pbk, £12.13, 208pp

Publisher's website here







John Calvin stressed that the everyday activity of Christians has religious significance. The first and third verse of George Herbert’s poem ‘The Elixir’ expresses this insight:

Teach me, my God and King,
 In all things thee to see;
 And what I do in anything
 To do it as for thee.
A servant with this clause
 Makes drudgery divine;
 Who sweeps a room, as for thy laws,
 Makes that and the action fine.

We spend ten times more hours at work than we do at church. And yet most of the sermons in church are about church and church activities. However, not at John Van Sloten’s church. This book arose out of a sermon series he did looking at different vocations and what they can tell us about God. Van Sloten is a church pastor, before that he has worked as a real estate developer. In this book, he draws upon his own experience in the workplace as well as conducting extensive research into other people’s jobs, by visiting them in their workplace.

Van Sloten provides a succinct summary of this book: it is about ‘understanding how Jesus is speaking directly to you (via your personal experience of work) and how he is speaking through you (to the broader world)’. What he wants to do is to ‘kindle a new kind of vocational imagination’. To this end, he develops a lectio vocatio - a seeing of God in and through our work. And the end of each chapter is a short series of exercise that will help to shape this.

He sees jobs as parables and draws biblical insights from a wide range of careers. What is God saying to you and others through your job? This is an important question and one that this book sets about to answer. He also explores how we can be icons of grace in our work. Here he applies some insights of Rublev's work 'Holy Trinity' and applies them to the workplace.

Obviously not all jobs or careers are covered, for example no mention of undertakers or the unemployed, but there is an extremely wide range covered - almost fifty of them ranging from accountant to Walmart worker.

For many a job is a way of earning money and not much more; ministry is something done in church at the weekend. And for others church is where there is ‘a tacit obligation to turn up, sit up, pay up and shut up’. This book will help with a paradigm shift, it shows that God is concerned with our daily job and, not only that, is able to speak in an through it.

As someone commented to Van Sloten: ‘I think I see what you are doing. I’ve spent my entire life connecting the Jesus of the New Testament to the Jesus of the Old Testament. You are connecting the Jesus of the New Testament to the resurrected Jesus today.’ This is exactly what this book does. It endorses jobs as ministry. Van Sloten shows that God speaks through our careers.

It is an important book. It provides a model for pastors in relating church to work, and for labourers in whatever field to show that God is working in and through our labours.



Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., has provided me with a complimentary copy of this book.
The book will be released in June.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Understanding Legitimacy by Philip Shadd

Understanding Legitimacy
Political Theory and Neo-Calvinist Social Thought
Philip D. Shadd
Lanham, MD: Lexington Books
ISBN: 9781498518963
Hbk, £54.95, pp viii+207

Publisher's website 

This book addresses an important but the often ignored question of the legitimacy of political power. Shadd examines it from a philosophical perspective. By legitimacy, he means, in part, what constitutes the use of political power legitimate even if it is imperfectly implemented?
One approach to legitimacy is justificatory liberalism as epitomised by the work of John Rawls. Justificatory liberalism grounds legitimacy in a version of popular sovereignty. In essence, justificatory liberalism holds that coercive power is legitimate if it is based on reasons that all reasonable people can accept.

Shadd critiques justificatory liberalism and develops a fresh perspective utilising the fruitful approach of neo-Calvinism. He proposes that political theorists ‘mine neo-Calvinist through for conceptual insights’ (4). He sees the neo-Calvinist approach as a ‘reservoir of conceptual insights and resources from which political theorists can, and should, draw’. I agree - but I’m not sure that in the current highly polarised political climate such views would be welcomed. It certainly provides a more biblical approach than the almost consensus of justificatory liberalism.

Shadd’s key question that he seeks to answer is 'what is the right framework for thinking about political legitimacy?' (76). He finds justificatory liberalism wanting and looks towards the rich resources of neo-Calvinism. He expertly shows the flaws in justificatory liberalism and that it leads to unacceptable consequences. He aims to provide a better philosophical framework from which to understand the conditions that provide for political legitimacy (77, 181).

He provides a helpful general overview of the neo-Calvinist perspective in nine tenets. These provide a useful outline for a neo-Calvinist political framework. The nine tenets are as follows.

Tenet 1 all people are equal, naturally free, and ultimately accountable only to God.
Tenet 2 All are commissioned to sociocultural development, renewal, and transformation
Tenet 3 There is something unnatural about coercive political power. It is only necessary "by reason of sin."
Tenet 4 Sociological renewal ought be pursued along the lines of divine creation order
Tenet 5 The normative creation principles for culture and society are accessible to all (not only believers).
Tenet 6 Society is composed of different spheres, and each ought be free within its respective domain.
Tenet 7 The state ought be superset from the church (and other religious institutions).
Tenet 8 The purpose of the state is public justice.
Tenet 9 All reality is ultimately ordered by God and all human authority ultimately delegated by God.

From these tenets he begins to develop a neo-Calvinist approach to legitimacy and shows that such an approach provides a better understanding of political legitimacy than the one offered by justificatory liberalism. The state is to uphold laws that protect the basic dignity and interests of all, to prevent basic wrongs, but also to enable basic human flourishing and to represent a normative standard.

This book works on many levels. It provides a brilliant critique of justificatory liberalism, exposing its many flaws, and it illustrates the rich resources of the neo-Calvinist perspective for politics. It provides a great example of how to debate with political theories from a Christian perspective. I hope it will be widely read and not just by neo-Calvinists.